Living with a Cockatoo
Living with a Cockatoo
-Author’s note: I was going to write a short bit on my new cockatoo, but it turned into this essay about living with cockatoos in general. What I intended to do is outline what living with a cockatoo can be like, to help people considering adopting one make an informed decision. I also put a list of resources at the end for more information on the topics I bring up here. I encourage all people considering one of these birds to think carefully about their decision and learn all they can about cockatoos before adopting one.
The Big Decision: To adopt or not to adopt.
My husband, Quentin, and I have been fostering or bird-sitting various cockatoos for a few years, and our current foster bird is a stunning, seventeen-year-old male Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo named Mitri. He was surrendered to a local rescue when his owner became unable to care for him. He’s actually the second Lesser Sulphur we’ve fostered, the other being another male named Fergus. Fergus was adopted by a great home after a few months with us.
Anyway, we’ve had Mitri for about seven months and he seems to be doing great here. He adores my husband and gets along great with me as well. I’ve been doing some clicker training with him and he’s now learning fast! He repeats a few words, is target trained, and he goes back onto or in his cage on cue. He also does a wolf whistle if I ask if he thinks Ripley (our Amazon) is pretty. He gets sunflower seeds as reinforcers, but I have to end each training session by giving him a good head scratch. He asks for those by bowing his head towards me.
Of course, the thought of adopting him occurred to us. However, this was a decision we didn’t want to make lightly. A cockatoo like Mitri can live as long as a human can, making it probable that he’d still be around when we retire. Cockatoos are also incredibly high-maintenance pets. Mitri, for instance, needs to be let out of his cage for at least a few hours daily, while he can be supervised. I also have to constantly replenish his supply of chew toys. And he’s very, very messy. However, since we’d had a few cockatoos living with us and since we’d been handling Mitri just fine (and rather enjoy his company), we decided to adopt him.
Mitri is a fascinating character. He’s quite affectionate and enjoys having his head scratched, though he is sometimes nervous with strangers. However, if no one’s around to scratch his head for him, he’ll take a Popsicle stick or he’ll bite a piece off of a wooden perch or wicker basket and scratch his head and back with that:
From talking to other cockatoo owners, I’ve learned that a lot of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos will do this. I wonder if this behaviour stems from a part of their courtship display. For instance, watch what the male Black Palm Cockatoo does to court females:
I have actually seen a male Umbrella Cockatoo hold a stick and drum it on a perch like that. I’ve also seen Moluccans drum their feet on perches, but not with sticks. Nothing I’ve read on the behaviour of Indonesian white cockatoos indicates that they do any drumming with sticks as a part of their courtship display. On the other hand, wild Indonesian cockatoos really haven’t been well studied at all. If anyone reading this has seen wild cockatoos other than palms use drum sticks, I would be very interested in hearing about it!
Back to Mitri’s display, I wonder if he has an innate tendency to hold sticks and just figured out on his own that he can use them to scratch his back and wings. He could have, one day, reached behind his head while holding a stick and realized that it felt good to do that. Most cockatoos seem to enjoy receiving a good head or back scratch, so it makes sense that many of them would eventually figure out how to scratch those areas themselves.
Keeping a Cockatoo Busy
I have to provide Mitri with lots of interesting things to chew. He can make a huge mess with his chew toys, but he needs them to keep busy. A cockatoo with nothing to do can become a very noisy, unhappy bird. Many cockatoos with inadequate stimulation become feather pluckers or they start to scream excessively.
I do buy Mitri toys from the pet store, but he really seems to enjoy the stuff I get him at the craft store. These include plain wicker baskets, clothespins (with no metal), Popsicle sticks, and big wooden beads. The clothespins and Popsicle sticks get used as back scratchers, or they get chewed up. I’ve noticed that a lot of cockatoos love to chew on items they can hold in their feet. The wicker baskets hold all of his “foot toys,” but if he chooses, he can chuck out the foot toys and chew on the basket itself. He also gets natural branches from outside.
He does an odd thing with the wooden beads. He’ll either hold them in his feet and “comb” his crest with them, or he will roll them down his back and then catch them in his beak. I’ve also seen him put a bead on the back of his neck, hunch his shoulders to keep it there and preen himself in this odd posture. I’ve seen other cockatoos do that as well, either with wooden beads or nuts. Below is a video of Fergus, a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo I fostered, doing this:
Mitri loves to shred paper as well, and he has a toy that can hold a roll of adding machine tape. He will also shred the newspaper on the bottom of his cage and kick out the mess. Actually, he displays a “digging” behaviour quite often by chewing at items on the ground (or on the ground itself) and then kicking one foot back vigorously. A lot of African Grey Parrots do this as well, and ones in outdoor aviaries will often dig little holes in the dirt, especially in corners.
Many cockatoos love swings and similar toys. Some will hold on to a swing and flap their wings to make it move. So, I got Mitri a large “boing” (bouncy, coiled rope) for him to bounce and play on, but he’s wary of it for now. That’s the way it goes with parrots: you can buy them a $50 toy and they might ignore it! However, I have hung the boing next to Mitri’s cage so he can learn that it’s not dangerous.
Despite having lots of toys, Mitri will often go on little walkabouts to find other interesting things to destroy. He’s chewed on a few shoes, has torn up part of the cover on the couch (luckily, it’s replaceable) and has bitten apart the zippers on a few jackets. He leaves lots of white dust everywhere as well. Cockatoos have special feathers called “power down” feathers. These are fine down feathers that gradually break apart to produce a fine white power that coats the bird’s feathers. The dust also winds up on areas around the cockatoo and it’s very noticeable on black furniture in particular. The down feathers themselves get shed during molts and can stick to rugs and curtains.
If I hadn’t made it clear by now, cockatoos really aren’t the best pets for very neat people who aren’t willing to put in extra time cleaning up after their pets. Cockatoos are great at spreading around wood splinters, dust, seed shells, crumbs, bits of fruit, bits of paper, and poop all around their living area. To deal, I place a big rubber mat under Mitri’s area, which makes it easier to clean, but his mess often spreads beyond that. Shop vacuums are ultra-useful items for cockatoo owners.
While Mitri makes a big mess, he likes to keep his own self quite clean. To help him out, I give him a shower about twice weekly. Some cockatoos like to go right in the shower in the bathroom, but that’s too scary for Mitri. So, I spray him with a bottle of water. He loves it! He spreads his wings, flaps, and even hangs upside down in his cage. Cockatoos that do not get showers can wind up with very dry skin and are often somewhat grimy looking. When giving a cockatoo a shower, it’s important not to spray the bird right in the face. Rather, aim the spray just above his head, so it falls over him in a fine mist.
Cockatoo Voices and Talking Ability
A couple of my parrots are outgoing enough that they can be taken to classrooms and out shopping (as long as the shops do not sell food). The most common question I get about them is, “Do they talk?” Most people lose interest when I answer with a “no.” None of my parrots are talented talkers. Now Mitri (who I have not taken out in public) can say a few words, but he’s not a prolific talker. Some individual cockatoos can talk quite well, some can say only a few words, some spout lots of incomprehensible gibberish, and some cannot talk at all. In general, cockatoos should not be purchased by those looking for a talking parrot. Actually, I generally advise anyone wanting a parrot only because they talk to not get one. Believe me, the novelty of having an animal that can talk will wear off. One must love parrots for what they are to be able to keep one as a companion for the long run. Most people who get parrots “only” for their talking ability eventually find they are not willing to provide optimal care for the parrot for the next fifty (or more!) years once they are used to the fact that the parrot talks.
At any rate, few cockatoos speak as well as the average African Grey, but they have very powerful voices and most use them frequently. How often will depend on a lot of factors, but cockatoos are the loudest of all parrots, with macaws, Aratinga and Patagonian conures, and Amazons coming next. Their ultra-powerful voices are among the many reasons that cockatoos often get rehomed. They are generally not suitable pets for apartments.
Well-adjusted cockatoos can be quite screechy at times – often at the worst times, such as when one is on the telephone or trying to concentrate on something. Many vocalize while excited, while trying to “call” to their people, or while alarmed. Wild cockatoos have a loud, shrill “contact call” they use to communicate with their mate or young, and they also shriek when danger is spotted. Wild cockatoos are noisiest during their morning foraging expedition, as I noticed while watching free-living cockatoos in Sydney, Australia, at the botanical gardens. The Greater Sulphur-crested Cockatoos were simple to find there in the morning because they were so noisy calling to each other! They do not shriek all day though, and neither should a pet cockatoo. Most are quiet during the late morning and afternoon, while they rest.
However, cockatoos kept permanently apart from their human family can become extremely noisy, as can ones that have few toys. Other times, the reasons for excessive screaming may be a bit more complicated. Dealing with a cockatoo that has become excessively noisy requires plenty of patience and even a bit of detective work to figure out just what is causing the screaming. Most books implore parrot owners to always ignore a birds’ screaming, but this can be difficult with a persistently noisy bird. Teaching the bird to get attention using a quieter call can help, but this, again, requires some patience.
Mitri has a few different calls, all of which are very loud. There’s his usual contact call, a drawn out, raspy AAAaaaaakkkk!! He can let out a very sharp, high pitched Eeek! He’s loud too – he can be heard from outside on the sidewalk if he really gets going. His calls become more frequent if he’s alone but knows there are people in the house, so he has play areas upstairs and downstairs so he can be where the people are. Most hand-fed cockatoos are like this and it makes sense. Cockatoos are very social flock animals, and just don’t tolerate being caged alone too much.
Mitri is happy as long as my husband or I are in view and he’ll happily chew or preen while in the same room as us. Sometimes he’ll crawl up my husband’s leg and insist on sitting with him while he works on the computer. Needless to say, cockatoos are not suitable companions for people who aren’t home much. I’d say that a cockatoo needs around three-four hours out daily, with more on weekends. Even that is not enough for some cockatoos. Moluccan and Umbrella Cockatoos are generally the most demanding of the cockatoo species. Lesser Sulphurs like Mitri are usually a bit less “clingy” than the Moluccans and Umbrellas. However, all cockatoos, regardless of size, are demanding animals to keep.
Aggression and Biting
Making a generalization about cockatoo personalities is very difficult because so much of a parrot’s behaviour is shaped by its life experiences and how it has been trained. There is a huge amount of variation in cockatoo personalities. The most docile and the most aggressive parrots I have ever met have been cockatoos. Generally, female Umbrella Cockatoos tend to be the most tame and trustworthy of the cockatoos, with male Lesser Sulphurs, Umbrellas, and Moluccans tending to be the most likely to bite “unpredictably.” I put that last word in quotes, because birds do not bite for no reason, but it may not seem that way to the person who was bitten! But, as usual, there are exceptions. A lovely, sweet female Umbrella Cockatoo I fostered for a time was very affectionate to most people, but if she formed a strong bond with a person, she would guard that person and bite all others. On the flip side, I’ve met some very friendly male cockatoos.
Overall, though, most cockatoo owners get bitten badly at some point and cockatoo bites can be very deep and painful. Occasionally, they require stitches to close. No one who’s going to get upset over being bitten should consider a parrot as a pet, and especially not a cockatoo. Because even very affectionate cockatoos may bite, I’ve heard more than one person describe a cockatoo as having a “Jekyll/Hyde” personality. This is because some cockatoos can be very cuddly and affectionate one minute and may bite the next. Other cockatoos adore one or a few people and attempt to bite all others. However, it’s important to understand that they don’t do this just to be mean or difficult. The reasons cockatoos may bite are many and complicated.
Sometimes, bites can simply be accidents, as was the case when Mitri bit onto my husband’s thumb after slipping off of his arm. This particular bite probably severed a few nerves, as Quentin could not feel his thumb for quite some time afterwards. I was badly bitten by Mitri when I messed up trying to wrap him in a towel, something he normally likes.
Cockatoos may also bite out of fear, particularly if they’ve been mistreated by people. Sadly, a lot of cockatoos wind up being neglected. I’d say they are the large parrot type most likely to be mistreated, although large parrots in general are difficult pets and rarely get the care they need. Too many people who buy cockatoos later find that the bird is noisy and difficult to handle and may yell at, strike at, or throw things at the unfortunate, confused bird. Other people will bang on the bird’s cage and yell at him out of frustration, or will banish the bird to a garage or back room, a sad fate for such beautiful, social creatures. Frankly, I’d say that confining a cockatoo to a small cage for its life is a form of cruelty. Additionally, cockatoo chicks that were under-socialized as youngsters may also be fearful of people and may bite if they feel there’s no other way to get a scary person to leave them alone. And, some well-treated, normally friendly cockatoos may become nervous and a bit bitey in new situations due to fear.
Then there’s the phenomenon of the cockatoo who starts off as a sweet, cuddly fledgling and becomes a great deal more difficult to handle as he ages. This is because as cockatoos hit sexual maturity, their bodies start pumping out higher levels of sex hormones. This makes them want to guard a nest hole, and seek out and guard a mate. Cockatoos don’t hit maturity for a few years, but since a one-year-old cockatoo looks almost the same as a seven-year-old cockatoo to most people, few cockatoo owners expect such changes as their bird ages.
So, upon hitting maturity, some cockatoos display the behaviour wherein they bond to one person and attempt to drive off all others. This can be a huge problem, but the cockatoos don’t do this to be a pain: it’s simply a product of their instincts. It’s in their nature to form an exclusive bond with another bird, or in the case of a human-imprinted bird, a human. A lot of captive-bred cockatoos are imprinted on people, since most cockatoo breeders take chicks away from their parents at ten days old (some even incubate the eggs) and hand raise them. This works well to get the babies used to humans and it generally produces extremely tame, affectionate chicks. However, the baby parrot may completely imprint on people. Baby birds learn what species they are and what species they should seek as a mate from interacting with their parents. This is why hand-fed parrots often court humans by regurgitating to them or performing courtship displays to them. Once a person is chosen as a mate, the cockatoo may attempt to drive away other people, just as a wild cockatoo would drive other suitors away from its mate during breeding season. However, birds left with their parents for several weeks (as opposed to 0-10 days) or those raised with other cockatoo siblings around are less likely to do this. Such birds are less likely to see people as potential mates.
It’s hard to predict if a cockatoo will become such a “one-person bird” because not all end up this way. Having all family members interact with the bird regularly can help prevent this behaviour. “One-person” birds can also be trained to interact with other people using operant conditioning. I’ve trained a cockatoo that initially attacked me quite brutally to go in and out of his cage on cue and become easier to handle. This requires lots of patience, and it helped that I had taken a few courses on training exotic animals.
The very aggressive cockatoo I retrained was the previously mentioned Fergus. He was hand-raised and had been passed through at least seven homes due to his very serious aggression problem. I agreed to foster him for a parrot rescue he was surrendered to. One of the first things he did was chase and attack me and give me several deep, painful bites to my hands and arms. The only reason he didn’t get my face was because I blocked it with my hands. He did, however, become quite smitten with my husband and tried to preen his arm on initial contact. So, I started doing lots of clicker training exercises with Fergus while he was in his cage and couldn’t attack me. This worked very well and he became calmer and I decided to let him out again. He quit attacking me but I still had to be careful while working with him. So, while cockatoos may have tendencies to behave in particular ways, they can be quite behaviorally flexible and can learn new things quite quickly.
I feel I should note that Fergus showed no signs of being mistreated – he was just a frustrated, mature male cockatoo. His hormones “told” him to find a mate and breed but he couldn’t in the situation he was in. As he taught me, such birds can be worked with and trained, but, as I’d like to emphasize again, it’s not easy and it requires patience. But, there is hope for people who have very aggressive cockatoos!
Perhaps some are wondering why such a bird could not just be sent to a breeder. Personally, I would not send such a bird to a breeder, even if I wasn’t fostering him for a rescue (which won’t send birds to breeders). First, I don’t think there’s a need to breed more cockatoos, since they’re the most common large parrot surrendered to rescues. At the present time, I think there are more cockatoos out there than there are good homes for them. Secondly, human-imprinted male cockatoos often end up killing any female cockatoos they may be paired with. Lesser Sulphur-crested and Philippine Red-vented Cockatoos in particular are notorious for that. I think Fergus would be very likely to kill any female he would be put with.
Why do some male cockatoos kill their mates? Some parrot species can “re-imprint” on their own species after being housed with them for some time, but that is hard for some cockatoos. Human-imprinted cockatoos may not initially recognize a conspecific as a mate. Additionally, a male who is ready to breed that is paired with a female who isn’t may become frustrated and kill her. And, to be honest, the way some of commercial parrot breeders house their birds leaves something to be desired. Now, some breeders do strive to take exemplary care of their birds, but sometimes, breeder birds are kept in bare, wire cages with a perch or two, a nest box, a water dish (or bottle) and a food bowl. Is it hard to see how an active, intelligent animal could behave abnormally in that situation?
What about the cockatoos who suddenly bite, seemingly without warning, while they are being stroked or petted? This, again, is more likely to happen with human-imprinted cockatoos. This is because stroking the bird in places other than the head and neck – and particularly under the wing and tail – can trigger sexual behaviours in cockatoos. Females may start to crouch and “shudder,” which are sexual behaviours, and males may even try to hump the person’s hand. At this point, a male cockatoo may bite out of frustration. His instincts “tell” him to mate but of course he cannot.
This does not mean that one can never pet their cockatoo. I always give Mitri head scratches, and some cockatoos can be petted all over and present no problems. However, if the bird seems to perceive the touch as sexual (and starts clucking, or shuddering), them petting him or her on areas beyond the head and neck are best avoided. Fergus had this problem, because when he would be petted under his wings, he would go into the typical cockatoo mating position over the person’s hand. So, I would only scratch him on the head to avoid giving mixed signals and provoking bites.
This may seem at odds with the common advice that cockatoos should receive a great deal of attention. How can one pay attention to a cockatoo without cuddling or stroking him? In the case of cockatoos that appear to be in breeding mode, I recommend doing fun training exercises with the animal as a means of giving him attention. A lot of cockatoos love learning new tricks just so long as the trainer uses lots of positive reinforcement and keeps the sessions light and upbeat. Mitri loves his training sessions and is a very enthusiastic learner. I also reward him with head scratches after a session, and of course, I talk to him a lot, and give him plenty of chew toys to keep him occupied.
The Most Difficult Problem
In a way, I’ve been lucky with Mitri – he’s a fully feathered, beautiful bird. However, many cockatoo owners eventually hit a rather difficult problem with their birds: feather plucking. Among all parrots, cockatoos are the most likely to barber, over preen or pull out their feathers. Some individuals even self-mutilate, tearing gaping holes in their chests. There are few bird-related sights more heart breaking to a bird lover than a Moluccan Cockatoo who has, literally, torn itself apart.
Many people assume that a cockatoo who plucks must be unloved or badly neglected. The truth is that while neglect makes it far more likely that a cockatoo will feather pluck, some birds that are loved by their owners do it as well. So, when deciding whether or not to adopt a cockatoo, consider if you could love a bird that has destroyed its plumage.
Just how common is feather plucking? I have found no formal, published reports on this, but one internet-based survey that had a few hundred replies found that 53% of cockatoos over the age of five have plucked their feathers at some point. No other population of captive animals displays such a high incidence of what is a sign of stress. Laboratory monkeys who are housed alone and used in invasive experiments come close. Ultimately, captivity is very hard on many cockatoos, and it takes a great deal of work just to keep them content.
What causes feather plucking? There are a whole host of physical problems that can cause it: infections, injuries, tumors, nutritional deficiencies, heavy metal poisoning, and so on. Most parrot-care books advise owners to take their birds to a veterinarian once it starts plucking. This is sensible advice.
However, most feather plucking in parrots has no obvious physical cause. Here’s where things can get frustrating. A few studies have linked feather plucking in parrots to a dull environment and a lack of environmental enrichment. Providing a parrot with a stimulating environment that contains many items to chew on, foraging opportunities, and room to exercise can often help feather pluckers. An enriched environment also decreases the chance of stereotypies showing up. Stereotypical behaviour includes behaviours that are repeated numerous times and have no obvious function. A zoo animal that paces along the same route repeatedly in its enclosure is displaying a stereotypy.
The other little-known fact about self-injurious and stereotypical behaviour is that it is far more common in birds and mammals that have been taken from their mothers and reared in isolation. This trend has been found in everything from primates (including humans) to chickens. Now, there is little a parrot owner can do about his parrot’s “chickhood,” but being placed in an enriched environment does sometimes reverse abnormal behaviours in animals that have experienced maternal deprivation.
Finally, despite their best efforts to prevent it, some cockatoo owners still end up with a bird who plucks. This can be very hard to deal with because plucking is not caused by one specific factor, and conditions that make one bird pluck may not bother another bird. Even if the conditions that triggered the plucking behavior in a certain bird are reversed, the bird may still pluck (or barber) its feathers out of habit. All I can say to owners of such birds is to keep on providing the bird with the best environment possible, take steps to ensure that its health is good and make sure that nothing in the environment is causing it stress and anxiety.
By now, I hope my main point has come across: cockatoos are complex creatures and are challenging to keep in captivity for the long term. So why do I do it? I actually never intended to get a cockatoo until I moved to an acreage, and I simply wanted to stick with the South American species while fostering or birdy-sitting cockatoos. But, Mitri found his way to me, he needed a home, and he’s a fascinating animal. I consider the privilege of living with him worth the expense and effort. I enjoy the challenge of keeping him busy and teaching him new things.
I researched parrots for a few years before even fostering a cockatoo, and I recommend all people considering such an animal do the same. Because there are so many unwanted cockatoos out there, I also encourage anyone who wants one (and has the time and resources to care for one properly) to adopt an unwanted cockatoo. It’s also a good idea to contact people who’ve owned cockatoos for several years to learn from them. Joining a parrot club can be a good way to do this.
That’s all I have to say, so here are some more resources that go into more detail on some of the topics I touched on above.
Training and Behaviour
Melinda Johnson 2004. Getting Started: Clicker Training for Birds. Sunshine Books, Inc., Waltham, MA.
-I highly recommend this book for anyone interesting in training birds. It provides background on all the scientific principles behind animal training, and gives solid instructions on how to train birds. It also addresses how clicker training can help a parrot owner deal with problem behaviours in their parrot.
-an article from this site on how to clicker train parrots and how I used clicker training to help a very aggressive cockatoo.
-an article from this site on the importance of environmental enrichment for pet parrots.
-An article by Barbara Heidenreich on dealing with a parrot that screams excessively. Actually, her blog in general is a useful resource for parrot owners.
-A quarterly magazine for parrot owners that contains a lot of information on behaviour and training.
 “Mate Trauma.” In: Manual of Parrot Behavior, Luescher, Andrew (ed). Wiley-Blackwell
 Lumeij J. T., and Hommers, C. J. 2008. Foraging Enrichment as a treatment for pterotillomania. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 111: 85-94.
Meehan, C. C., Garner, J. P., and Mench, J. A. 2004. Environmental enrichment and development of cage stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica) Developmental Psychology 44: 209-218.
Meehan, C. L., Millam, J. R., and Mench, J. A. 2003. Foraging opportunity and increased physical complexity both prevent and reduce psychogenic feather picking by young Amazon parrots. Applied Animal Behavior Science 80: 71-85.
 Latham, N. R., and Mason, G. J. 2008. Maternal Deprivation and the development of stereotypic behaviour. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 110, 84-108.