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.


What Needs to Be Said

What needs to be said is that no matter how hard we try to provide the right environment when hand raising parrots, we can never provide every essential thing chicks need to grow into well-adapted and well-adjusted psittacines.

Star with one of her parents

I hand-raised cockatoos in the distant past and I now advocate for letting parrot parents do the job. I realize my advocacy is like telling a screaming parrot to be quiet, as this is usually ignored and the screaming continues. 

However, I will press on to champion for the right of captive parrots to raise their own offspring. Watching Star, a fourteen-week-old Bare-eyed Cockatoo, flourish under her parents’ care underlines for me how important it is for young parrots to be educated by their parents.

Let’s look at some contrasts I’m finding between parent-raised and hand-raised cockatoos using fledgling Star and my own hand-raised birds as examples.

Foraging

Before cleaning the cockatoos’ aviaries the other day, I put up various browse for Star and her parents and the hand-raised cockatoos to forage upon.  I was amazed at the length of foraging activity Star and her parents displayed. The full two hours I cleaned, they were actively engaged, ferreting through the offerings finding leaves, seed heads, or berries that suited their fancies.

Star forages on garden-grown millet spray.

In the “hand raised” aviary there was initial interest in the browse, but that ended quickly as the interest was instead focused on me by landing on my shoulder or by watching what I was doing from a perch. The only bird who kept at the job of foraging in the hand-raised flock was Ritzie, who was parent- raised.

This diligent foraging activity of the family certainly shouldn’t be unexpected or surprising; after all, we are all primed by our evolution to forage for food. Even though parrots and people are endowed with an inherent drive to search for food, we must learn to how to successfully do so. Having models to learn from is the easiest and most efficient way to develop and master foraging skills. In Star’s case, her teachers are her parents.

Star forages on rose hips with her parents.

And it’s just not parrots who learn from their parents, as the following example shows. Dr. Courchesne, a veterinarian, who teaches biology at Northern Essex Community College explains:

Late August is high time for harassment [of people by gulls],” she said, “because the young have fledged and their adult parents take them to foraging spots, which include beaches and boardwalks, to find food and to teach them the ropes. The gulls, like the humans, bring their whole families. They’re being so pushy for food because they’re such committed parents,” she said.[i]

While people at the boardwalk have learned to forage for their food from snack bars (and are, no doubt, teaching their kids to do the same), gulls have learned how to forage on the food people carry away from the snack bars. Thankfully, Bebe and Flash are not teaching Star to swoop down and steal a sandwich from me, but they are certainly teaching her which foods are tasty and where to find them in the aviary.

Most hand-raised fledglings are at a disadvantage when it comes to foraging. They typically do not have an adult conspecific or even a parrot of another species to model foraging behavior; or, if they do, the adult parrot may not have learned all the fine skills of foraging or developed the motivation to search for food other than from a food bowl.

I found many common refrains on foraging and the companion parrot with a quick online search that reflected the following: Be persistent! Pet birds often require repeated encouragement until foraging becomes a way of life. In fact, many hand-raised bird will give up relatively easily when they cannot find food right away.

I personally have experienced the above statement with my own hand- raised birds. I was lax at enriching the fledglings’ environment with browse or toys many years ago and, as a result, those adult birds illustrate a lack of foraging interest today. Some of the flyers don’t bother to seek foraging opportunities even when out free flying.

The free flyers forage in the garden.

That said, the cockatoos are intelligent and inquisitive animals and over the years some have learned foraging behavior from interacting with foraging toys or from finding sunflowers and millet grown in the garden. Here, though, it must be said that they take a lot of their cues from watching the parent-raised flyers raid the garden.

Socialization

When one thinks of a socialized companion parrot, usually what comes to mind is a parrot who is nice to people; that is, she is a friendly, malleable bird who is not fearful of us or our environment. The parrot has been taught to behave in a manner that is acceptable in our human community and way of life. On the whole, hand-raising a parrot does accomplish those goals, if done with skill and compassion.

Socialization, the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society, does take place with the parent-raised parrot of course. However, it is a socialization of another sort, in that the parents are teaching their young to behave in ways that are acceptable to parrot society.

Unfortunately, many hand-raised parrots miss out on this opportunity. The effect of this missed education sometimes manifests in a parrot who is afraid of other psittacines, or shows no interest in parrots, or may not have a clue as to how to behave successfully with others.

In Learning and Behavior, Paul Chance states: “…organisms are especially likely to learn a particular kind of behavior at one point in their lives, these stages for optimum learning are referred to as critical periods.[ii] With that in mind, my goal, with her parents’ help, is to teach Star to be successful in both human and parrot society at this critical period in her development.

As always, it is engrossing watching Bebe and Flash teach young Star how to be a proper cockatoo. And they don’t always use positive reinforcement methods when teaching Star about correct cockatoo etiquette. For example, Bebe will quickly give Star a strong bop with her beak if Star muscles in on food Bebe doesn’t want to share.

Star forages alongside her neighbors.

Star is further taught about cockatoo conduct by the cockatoos who live in the next door aviary. Even though they do not physically interact with Star, no doubt she is learning much about cockatoo socialization from observing the behaviors the others exhibit. For instance, she has become quite comfortable munching beak to beak (separated by the aviary wire, of course) with her neighbors as they all take advantage of a picnic of browse that is offered them in the same locale.

On first look this may seem inconsequential, but indeed learning to be near other non-familial cockatoos provides important lessons. Not only is she learning that other cockatoos can exist together amiably, she may pick up a new tip or two by watching how they forage.

At this juncture in Star’s life she is learning how to behave in cockatoo society, but not yet in human society. At Star’s age, a hand-raised cockatoo would be far advanced in knowing how to succeed with people. My goal is to teach Star how to succeed in my community and, with the help of her parents, in her community. This education will give Star effective skills for navigating both worlds.

She’s already on her way by learning that people can offer her good things. She watches as her parents get goodies on their training perches from me as well as from people they do not know.

Star looks on as her parents accept treats from visitors.

I interact with her parents daily. She sees the calm behavior her parents exhibit when I’m with them and that is a valuable visual lesson for her. I’m excited by the progress she is making as she is getting physically closer to me each time I am in the aviary.

Star eats on the training perch quite near to Chris, following her parents’ example.

Star’s learning and behavior development and comparing that progression with the behaviors of my hand-raised cockatoos is a fascinating, stimulating, and humbling journey that I invite you, the reader, to continue to join me on as I discuss more observations and dichotomies in my next blog.

[i] James Gorman, In Defense of Gulls, New York Times, 8/24/2019.

[ii] Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior (Wadsworth, 2003) pg. 434.

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.