Living with a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
Webmaster’s note: I wrote this for the June, 2009 issue of “Parrots” magazine. It’s a shorter, slightly modified version of a longer article I posted on this site. I’ve had Mitri for two years now and he’s still doing great!
Living with a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
The Big Decision: To adopt or not to adopt.
My husband, Quentin, and I have been fostering or bird sitting parrots for a few years, and last year the director of a local animal rescue asked if we could foster a seventeen-year-old male Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. We jumped at the chance to foster this bird, who would be the second Lesser Sulphur we have fostered, the other being another male named Fergus. Fergus was adopted by a great home after a few months with us.
Fergus was anything but shy, while Mitri, as we named our new foster bird, appeared very anxious and disheveled upon arrival at our place. He mainly just clung to the back of his cage to avoid human contact. He was likely stressed from being moved from his old place, to the rescue director’s place, to the veterinarian’s office, and then to my place. However, he recovered from this shock quickly, and within two days he was requesting head scratches from me, and a good shower left his tatty-looking feathers clean, bright and soft. His outgoing, showy personality manifested itself within a week as he started following my husband around the house, dancing and bopping to music, and chewing and playing with his toys with gusto. Older cockatoos sometimes take a long time to adjust to a new home, so I was very happy with Mitri’s fast progress.
I started clicker training Mitri and found that he is a very fast and eager learner. I taught him to repeat a few sounds and raise his foot on cue, and I target trained him. Target training an animal involves teaching him to touch a target stick — such as the end of a spoon — when it is presented to him. Mitri receives sunflower seeds as training rewards, but I do end each training session by giving him a good head scratch.
Of course, the thought of adopting Mitri occurred to Quentin and me. However, this was a decision we did not want to make lightly. This is because taking on a cockatoo is a huge commitment, as a cockatoo like Mitri can live as long as a human can. And, as all the cockatoos we have had staying with us have demonstrated, they are also incredibly high-maintenance animals to keep. Mitri needs to be let out of his cage for at least a few hours daily, while he can be supervised. I also have to frequently replenish his supply of chew toys. However, in the end, since we had a good idea of what cockatoo ownership is like, and since we had been handling Mitri just fine — and rather enjoy his company — we decided to adopt him.
Mitri is a fascinating character, and I am sure that many readers with cockatoos will have seen some of the interesting behaviours he displays in some of their birds. Like many cockatoos, Mitri loves having his head scratched, and he will even allow strangers to scratch his head for him. However, if no one is 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 many cockatoos will do this. Some will even use large, shed feathers as back scratchers. I find that behaviour so interesting because, as far as I know, the only cockatoos that use tools in the wild are male Black Palm Cockatoos. They will hold sticks in their feet and drum on nest holes to court females.
I have also seen a captive male Umbrella Cockatoo hold a stick and drum it on a perch and I’ve seen Moluccan Cockatoos drum their feet on perches, but not with sticks. However, nothing I’ve read on the behaviour of wild 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 and they can be difficult to observe in the wild.
I wonder if Mitri has a tendency to hold sticks and other objects 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 he could scratch his back and head doing that. Most cockatoos seem to enjoy receiving a good head or back scratch, and they can be very clever, so it makes sense that many of them would eventually figure out how to scratch those areas themselves by using sticks. I suspect that Mitri’s ability to scratch his own head and back with a tool prevents him from demanding that I scratch his head for him all day.
Cockatoo Voices and Talking Ability
Mitri isn’t a terribly talented talker, but he can give off an enthusiastic “Hi!” and I trained him to do a wolf whistle if I ask him if he thinks Ripley the Red-lored Amazon is pretty. He also sometimes says, “Love you,” in a whisper if he really wants attention and isn’t receiving it. However, Mitri also has an incredibly loud screech. Even 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. Plenty of telemarketers probably have thought that I have very loud, out-of-control children due to Mitri’s loud vocalizations. Mitri also likes to scream if someone goes in the bathroom. Since everyone who goes in the bathroom does soon come out, I suppose Mitri figures that his screaming makes people come out of there.
Cockatoos can have many different reasons for vocalizing. Many cockatoos will yell 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.
However, wild cockatoos do not shriek all day, and neither should a pet cockatoo. Many are quiet during the late morning and afternoon, while they rest. Mitri is noisy at times, but only when he has a reason to be. He’s quiet during the daytime while he chews his toys or relaxes. However, he becomes very active in the evening when he’s let out of his cage.
Keeping a Cockatoo Busy
Cockatoos are very busy birds and I have to provide Mitri with plenty of interesting things to chew and manipulate. He can make a huge mess with his chew toys, but he needs them to keep occupied. He also needs to be out of his cage as much as possible. A cockatoo with nothing to chew and inadequate space to exercise 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 pet stores, but he really seems to enjoy the things I get him at craft stores. These include plain wicker baskets, clothespins with no metal, Popsicle sticks, and wooden beads. He uses the Popsicle sticks and clothespins as back scratchers or he holds them in his feet and chews them 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 Mitri’s “foot toys,” but if he chooses, he can chew on the baskets themselves. He also gets natural branches from outside to chew on, and he enjoys playing fetch with whole hazelnuts.
Mitri does an odd thing with the big wooden beads I give him. He will either hold one in his foot and “comb” his crest with it, or he will roll one down his back and then catch it in his beak. I’ve also seen him put a bead or nut 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. I have no idea what function this behaviour serves.
Mitri also loves to shred paper, so I often give him rolls of receipt paper or old phone books to tear up. He will also shred the newspaper on the bottom of his cage and kick out the mess, so I have to clean the bottom of his cage and the area surrounding it daily. Mitri often “digs” when he’s outside his cage by chewing items on the ground (or on the ground itself) and then kicking one foot back vigorously. A tray of dirt with a few goodies hidden in it can be a lot of fun for a cockatoo who likes to dig. Obviously, such an item is best offered outside or where clean up will be easy!
Many cockatoos also 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 was very afraid of it initially. That’s the way it goes with parrots: you can buy them a $50 toy and they might ignore it or be scared of it! However, I hung the boing next to Mitri’s cage so he could learn that it’s not dangerous. After I while, he got used to it and I was able to put it in his cage.
Despite having lots of toys, Mitri will often go for walks around the house to find other fun items 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 a few back packs. It only takes him a minute or two to chew up things he shouldn’t. Cockatoo owners must be patient with their birds’ chewing abilities.
Aside from being destructive, Mitri is also quite messy. Like all cockatoos, he has special feathers called “powder down” feathers, which are fine down feathers that gradually break apart to produce a fine white powder. This powder can wind 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. And, aside from getting dust everywhere, Mitri’s also very good at spreading crumbs, bits of fruit, wood shards, and shredded paper all around the living room. I’ve found that a heavy-duty shop vacuum is very useful for owners of cockatoos.
While Mitri makes a big mess, he likes to keep himself clean; as though he knows he is gorgeous and wants to stay that way. 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 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.
Cockatoos are infamous escape artists and Mitri is no exception. Quentin and I took him on an outing in the car recently and put him in a small travel cage in the back seat. Mitri was initially very chatty but he went quiet at one point. I turned to look at him at a stop light and he had opened the carrier and let himself out. Quentin put him back in and Mitri immediately popped the door back open. Quentin had to hold the door shut for the rest of the ride. What amazed me is that the carrier wasn’t particularly easy to open and he had to manipulate two different latches to let himself out.
Mitri has also started to take his cage apart. He has managed to
take several nuts off of the screws holding it together and he has even removed a few screws. The nuts were screwed on tightly, so Mitri must have an incredibly strong beak. Quentin rearranged the cage so that most of the nuts are on the outside and out of Mitri’s beak range. I did give Mitri some large stainless steel screws with nuts on them as toys, and he does like to take the nuts off of them. In general, he seems to enjoy manipulating different items with his feet and beak and is amazingly dexterous for an animal with no hands.
Handling Cockatoos and Avoiding Aggression
Mature male Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoos have a reputation for being unpredictable biters. Many also become bonded to one person, who they may guard with ferocity. However, Mitri is not terribly aggressive, but Quentin and I always watch his body language while interacting with him. This is important to do with all parrots, but is especially so with cockatoos, who can deliver very deep, painful bites. I have been bitten by Mitri, but in both cases I wasn’t handling him as carefully as I should have. I treat all bites as learning experiences on how a particular bird does not like to be handled! Mitri adores my husband, but I make sure to interact with him frequently so he remains friendly to both of us. I do a lot of training exercises with him when he’s in the mood and teach him using positive reinforcement methods. He really enjoys learning new things and enjoys the attention and special treats he gets when I train him.
Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Personalities
Mitri is not a large cockatoo and is about 33 cm tall, which makes him a touch bigger than the average Goffin’s Cockatoo. Greater Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, their close relatives, are bigger at about 50 cm tall. However, despite their small size, Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoos are not necessarily easier pets than their “Greater” counterparts. If anything, they are a bit more highly-strung. Mitri is very active and demanding but also has quite a bit of patience and will spend a lot of time destroying one toy or removing a nut from a bolt. He also has an incredibly strong beak and can deliver deep bites and can destroy wooden items very quickly. He can be mischievous too, and once got hold of a felt pen and scribbled a bit under his wing with it before I took it away. Even after several showers, he still has a touch of purple on a couple of his feathers.
Mitri has been an interesting and pleasant addition to the household, and Quentin and I are very happy that we adopted him. Of course, the privilege of living with such a clever, beautiful and charismatic creature does come with a price. Cockatoos take a lot of work to keep happy and they are not compatible with households where there are no people home most of the time and they are not suitable pets for noise-sensitive people. I think they are best suited for calm, patient people who like a challenge, won’t get upset over being bitten and enjoy interacting with their birds.
Sidebar: Facts about Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoos
Scientific Name: Cacatua sulphurea
Subspecies: C. s. sulphurea, C. s. parvula, C. s. citrinocristata, C. s. abbotti.
Other Common Names: Yellow-crested Cockatoo, Citron-crested Cockatoo (for C. s. citrinocristata), Timor Cockatoo (for cockatoos from the island of Timor)
Range: Indonesia, on Sulawesi and its surrounding islands, the Lesser Sunda Islands, Nusa Penida, and Masalembu, in the Java Sea. There are also introduced populations in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Ecology: Eats seeds, nuts, fruits, and flowers. Will eat cultivated plants. Occurs in forest edges, forests, farmlands, and semi-arid areas below 1200 m. Generally occurs in pairs or small flocks, although larger groups will congregate in areas with a high density of food. They are very noisy and conspicuous birds.
Threats: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo as critically endangered. Deforestation and illegal capture for the pet trade are the two primary threats to its survival.