The Education of Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Like an eager elementary student, Star leans forward on the perch next to her mom waiting to touch the target stick that will earn her a treat. Star, a six-month-old Bare-eyed Cockatoo, is learning how to acquire treats from me by touching a target. She is a quick and enthusiastic learner.

Star is parent-raised. She lives with her mom and dad, Bebe and Flash, in a spacious outdoor aviary. My goal for Star is to have her become a trained free flying cockatoo like her parents. She is well on her way by utilizing every bit of the 40 ft. x 20 ft. confines of her aviary as she develops her flight skills and strength.

Time Line of Development

Let’s exam her progression from a youngster barely able to hold and crack a sunflower seed to the more masterful cockatoo that she is today. Before explaining the teaching goals I have offered Star, here’s a timeline of her development and accomplishments thus far:

  • Star hatched on May 26, 2019.
  • 8 weeks of age: Star fledges, leaving the nest box for the first time.
  • 9 weeks of age: Is becoming more comfortable with me near her aviary.
  • 10 weeks of age: Holds and eats an Avicake; flight and foraging skills are improving.
  • 11 weeks of age: Is becoming more comfortable with me in the aviary.
  • 12 weeks of age: Still is fed by her parents, but eats more often on her own; flight skills are progressing to an adult level.
  • 13 weeks of age: Comes down to the training perch on her own when I’m absent and eats from the attached bowl.
  • 14 weeks of age: Comes to training perch and watches as I hand feed treats to Bebe on the perch.
  • 21 weeks of age: Not eating from my hand yet, but eats willingly from a handheld bowl.
  • 22 weeks of age: Takes treats and an almond from my hand; whimpers endearingly while waiting for the treat.
  • 23 weeks of age: Targets and takes a treat!
  • 24 weeks of age: Eats mostly on her own while occasionally begging and receiving food from her parents.

From the timeline, notice that the more Star becomes self-sufficient with her feeding ability, the more engaged she becomes with me on the training perch. She still shows caution and is anxious if I move too fast or do something out of the ordinary, but she recovers quickly. This little one is on her way to learning what people are all about.

Star’s Progress

The family after a bath

A typical school day for Star consists of watching what her teachers – her parents – do.  From them, she learns where to forage and what foods to eat. She practices her preening skills on each of them and learns cockatoo etiquette, as well as proper Bare-eyed vocalizations. Crucially, she learns how to be a successful and well-adjusted Bare-eyed Cockatoo.

At six months of age, Star exhibits significant mental and physical confidence. For example, when I put up new foraging enrichment, she immediately tries to puzzle out how to get the goodies. She either figures out solutions on her own or watches closely as Bebe or Flash tackle the problem. Learning from observing her parents is immensely helpful for Star, as it is for youngsters of all species. She is absorbing skills and behaviors from them that help her become a normal and mentally- balanced cockatoo.

The following is a striking example of acquiring a skill through observation. I made foraging wood blocks with holes drilled in them to hold hidden almond pieces. I strung the blocks together and hung them from a perch in the family’s aviary. The blocks could be accessed either by climbing down the string or sitting on the perch and pulling the string up.

Star flew to the foraging toy the minute I hung it. I watched as she climbed down the string of blocks and struggled while it twirled around as she was trying to get the almond from the wood. She quickly let go and flew off.

Next, Flash came over to the blocks and nonchalantly pulled the string up with his beak and foot as he sat on the perch. He could now hold the block of wood and quickly tear into it for the almond. The entire time Star watched him intently.

What I observed next solidified for me the importance of parental influence. After Flash left the string of blocks, Star started to pull it up, just as Flash had. Of course, she wasn’t as physically coordinated with this new skill, but she was successful nonetheless.

People Socialization

Over the last weeks, Star has made steady progress becoming more people-friendly or at least tolerant and I attribute her advancing people skills once again to her parents. Both cockatoos were parent-raised and socialized to people here at Cockatoo Downs. They’ve had extensive positive training encounters with a variety of people who visit here or come to our training workshops. All their training has been with positive reinforcement.

Not raised to be ‘snuggly’ cockatoos, Bebe and Flash exhibit natural Bare-eyed Cockatoo behaviors while maintaining a positive connection with people. They’ve learned that interacting with folks will bring them good things to eat and they rarely pass up a training session opportunity.

Soon after Star fledged, I invited people to come and engage with her parents in short training sessions of targeting. From afar, Star observed Flash and Bebe’s training sessions, which set good examples for Star to emulate in the future.

Star’s Training

It’s impossible to rush Star’s training as she will respond simply by flying away. Flighted birds make us better trainers because we learn quickly that taking micro steps toward our training goals is essential. If we push or ask for too much, our student will fly off with an “I’m-outta-here” retort.

The goal of Star targeting and taking a treat from my hand was accomplished in stages. First, she learned to eat from attached feed bowls on the training perches with her parents. This enabled her to understand that the training perch was a source of good things.

Step One: Star learns to come down and eat from bowls on the training perches.

Next she learned to stay on the perch while I was feeding her parents. She watched closely as her mom and dad took treats from my hand. When I offered my open hand chock full of sunflower seeds and pines nuts to Star, she responded with a big fat “No way!” and off she flew. It took several sessions for her to become desensitized to the scary hand.

Step Two: Star learns to stay on perch while I feed her parents from my hand.

I accomplished it by taking a step backwards and offering her a “safer” option which was to eat from a handheld bowl. That did the trick as she became comfortable with seeing my hand near her, but didn’t have to deal with the frightening (eek!) possibility of touching it.

Step Three: Star learns to eat from a bowl I hold in my hand.
Step Four: Star learns to take treats from my hands.

Soon Star was eating from my hand. She progressed rapidly to taking a treat calmly from my fingers to—ta da!—touching a target.

Step Five: Star learns to target!

Slow Going?

One could argue that, at six months of age, a hand raised cockatoo would be weaned, be super people -friendly, stepping up on the hand, learning recall, and other behaviors we expect in our companion parrots. I would counter that with, at what cost to the young parrot and her parents? Please read my previous blog post that compares hand-rearing vs. parent rearing and the impact of each on their offspring.

It makes me sad to think of the critically important education hand-raised parrots miss growing up without their parents. So much of what gives Star her success in life so far has been taught to her by Bebe and Flash. It’s because of hand raising’s short- and long- range detrimental effects on both parents and chicks that I have chosen to parent raise Star.

So what if it takes longer to socialize and train her? We have all the time in the world. It’s the journey I’m taking with Star and her parents and what I’m learning from them that makes this so worthwhile.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.


From Rags to Riches: One Cockatoo’s Story

About 20 years ago, I took a series of parrot care classes from Jamie McLeod in Summerland, California at her store the Parrot Menagerie. I drove two hours one way on Saturdays to attend and it was well worth it. I learned a lot.

One day in the middle of a class, Jamie said something I have never forgotten: “Parrots are what you make of them.” This statement offers in a distilled version all you really need to know about living with parrots. And to illustrate, I want to tell you about Georgie Pink.

First Phone Call

Wendy called to talk to me one day when I was working as a veterinary technician for Oak Hills Veterinary Clinic in Salem, Oregon. We had never met and she was not a current client at the clinic, but someone had told her about me.

Wendy was seeking advice. She had never had a parrot before and she wanted to adopt a Moluccan Cockatoo. I spent the next 30 minutes explaining why that was a terrible idea. I do not consider Moluccan Cockatoos appropriate for first-time parrot owners and believe that keeping them successfully in your typical home is a difficult task at best. The number of cockatoos without feathers is testimony to that.

Second Phone Call

Wendy was undaunted. Two weeks later, I heard from her again. She had found a Moluccan Cockatoo that she wanted to adopt. He was a male, about two years old. He had been raised in a bird store, then adopted to a private owner, who then took him to a second bird store for boarding and never returned for him. He had spent a year at the second store before Wendy and her husband, Lee, came upon him.Wendy and Lee

After inwardly calming my own emotions, I explained why adopting this particular bird was a really terrible idea. Male Moluccan Cockatoos can be more challenging than females (in my experience) and this bird obviously had not had the ideal beginning, since he had so far spent his entire young life in bird stores.

On her end, Wendy was researching cockatoos and visiting with many species at the store. She listened to recordings of Moluccans screaming, talked to people who had experience with them, and realized that I was right – the odds of long term success were not good.

However, her thoughts always returned to this one bird. In her words, “I would see him again and realize I would do whatever it took to launch him successfully in life for the long haul.” Wendy understood that her best chances of success would be to have some professional guidance for this.

Game On

About two weeks later, she called again to say that she had adopted the male Moluccan from the store and wanted my help in creating a suitable home for him. While harboring some significant doubts, I agreed to help. Game on.Georgie with Toy

I gave her a shopping list designed to create a suitable physical environment for him – a King’s 506 cage, an Atom, an outdoor aviary from Corner’s Limited, and lots of suitable toys. A big bird like that needs a big life. As she remembers it, “I was on the internet with my credit card until 3:00 am, making as much happen as I could before bringing him home.” This amounted to several thousands of dollars in investment, about which Wendy didn’t blink an eye. Within a week, she had them all. I was impressed. This clearly was a woman who knows how to commit.Gerogie in Pink Hat

Wendy named him Georgie Pink.

When I asked her years later why she adopted him despite all of my advice, she had this to say: “Because I am crazy? Because I want to be deaf? Mostly because he was abandoned and I wanted to be the one to love him.” (You should know that this is a woman who once found a litter of field mice in a household drawer and hand-fed them until they could be released into the nearby pasture.)

Creating Appropriate Challenges

Once we had the physical environment in place, I made several suggestions aimed at creating an appropriate psychological and emotional environment for him. He would need learning opportunities, challenges, and a broad variety of life experiences.

We began with teaching him simple behaviors like targeting, then gradually created more difficult tasks for him. Wendy had never trained a parrot before, but she dove into the experience eagerly. At this point, Georgie knows 19 tricks which he practices regularly. Wendy says that he is only limited by her own imagination, in terms of thinking of things to teach him. He loves his training and learns quickly. He recently mastered a “rooster call” in one evening. Gerogie Pink with Hat (2)

Georgie also has an inexplicable fondness for hats and models them eagerly. Wendy is happy to oblige. (She also throws him annual birthday parties.)

Creating His Social Experience

We talked at length about the importance of an appropriate social environment. Wendy closely followed my relationship advice, preventing the formation of a pair bond by not encouraging too much close time physically. To this day, Georgie interacts cooperatively and happily with Lee and many other people.

I frequently read on social media that “cockatoos need cuddling.” The opposite is true. Such activities appear to trigger increased production of reproductive hormones, which can lead to feather damaging behavior, aggression and increased noise. It’s a recipe for disaster in most cases.

Instead of focusing on physical affection, Wendy established and has maintained trust through consistency, respect, and the use of positive reinforcement. As a result, Georgie Pink is a good psittacine citizen with no behavior issues.

A Diversity of Experience

She took to heart the advice that parrots need diversity in their lives. Creating an interesting life experience for Georgie was the next challenge. This has taken a variety of forms over the past 14 or so years that she has had him.

Robin and Aviary
Robin with the Cockatoos

During the lovely Oregon summers, Georgie spends most of his time outdoors in the three aviaries on the property. There he has lots to chew, a large variety of perch types, and the ability to forage for growing vegetables.

Along the way, Wendy adopted a second Moluccan and an Umbrella cockatoo. She has a close friend named Robin, who is equally as kind and savvy about animals. Robin adopted a Moluccan of her own several years ago. The presence of other birds has helped to augment Georgie’s quality of life. Conspecifics are important to companion parrots.

Wendy did meet with some significant challenges. Georgie hated to bathe. However, keeping her eye on the goals to which we had agreed, she continued to work to teach him to enjoy this. Wendy gradually exposed him to different types of bathing experiences, using positive reinforcement. And, just look at him now!

 

Wendy and Robin have established a cooperative rotation for the birds. Wendy’s birds have “sleep-overs” at Robin’s house and Robin’s bird comes to visit at Wendy’s. This exchange involves traveling in the car, different enrichment, and a slightly different schedule. This variety of experience serves to increase quality of life and keep things interesting for all the birds.Gerogie at Nursing Home (1)

Georgie also enjoys visiting nursing homes with Robin. He engages happily with the residents there, always gentle and enthusiastic about making them laugh. In Wendy’s words, “He is a happy, boisterous, loving, funny boy.”

This is a cute, heart-warming, happy story. It also offers us some serious things to think about.

Cockatoos are over-represented in rescue organizations and sanctuaries. Many will tell you that large cockatoos should no longer be bred in captivity. Over 50% of my clientele are folks who have problems with their cockatoos.

Are cockatoos the problem? No. We are the problem. We are the problem because we don’t acknowledge the depth of life experience that they have evolved to need. They are not much different than we. They need space, the experience of the outdoors, the chance to go places and learn new things, and a healthy diet in order to be their best.

Moreover, this is true for all parrots. Our tendency has been to vastly underestimate the scope of life that each needs, while at the same time engaging in over-protective practices, often narrowing their life experience to sitting on a shoulder for hours a day.

I often hear owners talk about their desire not to “stress” their birds. There is stress and there is STRESS. We should never intentionally scare our birds. However, bringing them just slightly out of their comfort zone to teach them to accept new experiences through the application of positive reinforcement training is a life gift to them.

We have much to learn from Wendy. This incredibly caring woman set many things aside for Georgie Pink so that he could have the best quality of life possible. Her dedication to her parrots is unparalleled in my experience, surpassing my own. Many thanks to her for allowing me to share her story.

Independent Georgie Pink wishes all of you in the United States a Happy Independence day!

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Please note: Jamie McLeod is also the founder of the Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary where she continues her extraordinary work with parrots and other birds. If you are able, please send her a small donation.

New Beginnings

Dear Readers: For the next several months, this blog will be published every week. I am bringing to you an experience you can find no where else. Every other week, my friend Chris Shank will be sharing the extraordinary story of current events at her aviary, Cockatoo Downs, as a guest blogger. On the off weeks, I will be bringing you my own thoughts, as I have been for over a year now. The following is from Chris:

I was down by the creek, clearing some brush with my free flight companion, Tyke, a Bare-eyed Cockatoo. Ritzie, another Bare-eyed, was off on one of his many flight adventures. Tyke and I were among the trees so, when I heard Ritzie give repetitive contact calls from afar, I figured he didn’t know where we were.

I had him in my sights, though, and yelled out our recall cue. Immediately, he made a beeline towards the direction of my call. I watched as he swerved through the trees and made a soft landing on the creek bridge where Tyke and I were working. I marveled at his skills and willingness to respond to my call. You see, Ritzie is a parent-raised free flying cockatoo, unlike Tyke who was hand-raised.

Controversy: Hand-raising vs. Parent-Reared?

Current prevailing “wisdom” recommends that companion parrots destined for free flight must be hand-raised, thereby making it easier to create a stronger bond with their caretakers. This human-parrot bond, so the theory goes, is the foundation for achieving success at flying a parrot outdoors. Countering that theory, parent-raised Ritzie and his brother, Flash, have achieved masterful free flight skills and positive human-cockatoo relationships through positive reinforcement training alone. From that training a trusting partnership has developed between us.

These siblings were raised by their cockatoo parents through fledging. When Ritzie and Flash left the nest, they learned from their parents (who were also competent and confident outdoor flyers) what free flying was all about. While their parents taught them flight skills, I taught them people skills such as recalling to my hand, stepping up when cued, stationing on a perch, and touching a target stick.

We accomplished all of that and more. Now, nine years later, the brothers are consummate flyers and eager participants in training sessions, not only with me, but with people who come here to participate in our many training workshops. This proves to me that parrots need not be hand raised to become willing partners, learners and skilled free flyers.

In Honor of Asta

There’s a free flight project in the making at Cockatoo Downs and it’s all because of Asta, my Bare-eyed Cockatoo. You can see her in the masthead of this blog and in the photo below. She was a super free flyer along with being a best friend to me and her pal, Rebbie, a Philippine Cockatoo. I lost her due to cancer in April 2019.

Pam and I thought the best way to honor her memory and her incredible self was to add more magnificent Bare-eyes (is there any other kind?) to the flock. I’m sure she would approve. So here’s to you, Asta! Wish us luck.

The Project

Flash has paired up with another trained Bare-eyed Cockatoo free flyer, Bebe. Both birds were parent-reared. They are very bonded and are sure to make good parents. I will be journaling the progress of this cockatoo couple from their nest box preparations to brooding, to raising their chicks, to watching them fledge, and onwards through training and flying outside. I’ll be sharing this sure-to-be fascinating  journey with you as it progresses.

The Aviary

Bebe and Flash live in a spacious 20 ft. x 40 ft. outdoor aviary. The aviary is planted in grass and has a variety of plants growing seasonally, on which the birds regularly forage. The aviary is connected to the bird barn. A window in the barn wall allows the cockatoos to enter and exit their indoor barn cage (which is 10 ft. by 10 ft.) where their food and water are kept.

The Nestbox

The nest box is made of plywood and was erected on April 18. It’s anchored securely on the barn wall at the back of the aviary. The access hole was purposely kept small to allow the birds to enlarge the hole themselves. In the box, I placed medium-sized chunks of wood for them to chew up, rearrange, or simply toss out the hole. All of this remodeling gets them into breeding mode and facilitates a team effort. Both birds worked on the access hole either together or separately; and, after three days they were able to enter the box.

Brooding

I have purposely chosen not to look in the nest box at any time so as not to disturb the couple. After about a week after entering the box, I saw signs that eggs had been laid. Now, there was always one bird in the box while the other was outside. I also observed another clue. When Bebe emerged from the box and came to the front of the aviary for a treat, I noticed there was a small bare brood patch in the middle of her chest. Flash had one also. If my calculations are correct, eggs should be hatching the week of May 20.

Training

At Cockatoo Downs we practice positive reinforcement and force-free training. I have worked with Bebe and Flash throughout their lives. Training is not on a schedule, but I do try to work with them a couple of times a week either in their aviary or while they are out flying. In their aviary, I have perches set up where they have learned to station, target, and recall to me. They have also readily worked for Pam and people who come to our training events.

Because Bebe and Flash are willing and enthusiastic participants in their training, they will be excellent role models for their youngsters. The newly fledged little ones should find nothing bizarre about this strange looking creature (me) working with their parents. My hope is that they will participate as well.

Going Forward

I am grateful to Pam for allowing me to share the adventures of our new free flight family. If the stars align the way they should, there will be chicks to write about in the next episode. I can hardly wait to hear the soft peep, peep, peeping coming from the nest box. Stay tuned!

Disclaimer: I do not recommend nor promote that companion parrots be flown outside without the owner having a solid knowledge of training and behavior and also being assisted in person by an expert parrot trainer with extensive experience in free flight.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots began with a wild little budgie named Tampiki. Chris’ natural talents at training created over time a trusting relationship with what she calls that “tiny puff of turquoise feathers.” Years later, Chris graduated from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California. Her internship was done at Busch Gardens where she became part of the parrot show. She next worked as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara. From there, she continued her work with dolphins in Hasslock, Germany. Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.