Living With Companion Cockatoos: Broadening the Human Perspective
|by Sam Foster|
This article, published in Issue #53 of the Companion Parrot Quarterly, may not be reprinted in part or in full without the express written consent of the author.
Our initial entry into
the world of aviculture proves many of us to be ashamedly unprepared for
the lifelong responsibility we have accepted by opening our homes, and our
hearts, to an avian companion. Cockatoos are certainly among the most
intriguing and charismatic parrots; yet, the limitations of current data
concerning their behaviors and inherent personalities often prove our
knowledge and abilities deficient. A question that represents one of the
primary challenges facing aviculture today is-how many of you feel that
you were armed with the necessary knowledge and emotional fortitude to
live harmoniously with these creatures, prior to a Cockatoo entering your
Just what is the "mystique" that attracts us to those creatures we call Cockatoos? More importantly, why are the relationship challenges between Cockatoos and their caregivers often more than people are prepared, or willing, to accept?
Living with any parrot can be entertaining and rewarding. It can also be frustrating and disappointing. While many people now appreciate that all parrots are not alike, many still do not realize that all Cockatoo species are unique. While we categorize Cockatoos as being intelligent and "social" creatures, some are more inclined to exert their independence, others demonstrate an intense emotional dependency, and certain high-energy species give new meaning to the term "perpetual motion".
Looking at some of the commonly kept Cockatoo species, the personality of an Umbrella Cockatoo is not exactly like a Little Corella; there are distinct differences in the inherent personality of the Rose-breasted Cockatoo and the Moluccan; a Goffin's is not the mirror image of an Eleonora; the Lesser Sulphur-crested contrasts with the Major Mitchell's Cockatoo. Thus, the search for the "right" Cockatoo begins with extensive research into various species, their natural instincts, general personalities, typical behavior and physical requirements.
Those involved in parrot keeping quickly become acquainted with words and phrases such as "labor intensive", "high maintenance", "expensive" and "if only I had known…". Cockatoos can extend each of those terms to the very limit. Their physical, emotional and intellectual needs require more time and personal energy than many people can, or want to, provide. Yet, for the individual who is dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of natural avian behaviors and who remains dedicated to persevering through troublesome, sometimes emotionally draining situations, the joy and rewards of this unique relationship are unsurpassed.
It seems ironic that some of the qualities we humans consider to be a "problem" are those that best suit a Cockatoo's life in the wild. You often hear the "experts" say that they actually work to change human behavior, not avian behavior. While many of the conflicts experienced between people and their companion parrots are a direct result of our inappropriate actions, I also feel the complete formula is more complex.
For example, after assessing a particular situation, it would be simple for me to say to you as a client, "If you consistently do X, you're Cockatoo will do Y." If you, the client, then make the decision to implement some or all of the changes I have suggested, and if those changes prove to positively impact the relationship, you might view the exercise as a "success". However, if I only offer advice or suggestions for a positive resolution, I have failed you. More importantly, I have irrevocably failed the bird by breaching what I profess to be a primary personal and professional objective--helping to improve the quality of life for captive and companion Cockatoos.
In the spirit of Susan Chernak McElroy's words, let us attempt to expand upon the aforementioned method of changing only the human behavior. I would like to consider a formula for living in harmony with captive Cockatoos, indeed all parrots, in this sequence:
Taking an initial step toward achieving those goals, let us first consider a prevalent human viewpoint. Many of us grew up with a family pet. In some homes pets are regarded as an integral part of the family unit--beloved and respected friends chosen to fill that role within the household. Others consider a pet as an acquisition--a disposable, easily replaceable possession having no intrinsic value. Pets are sometimes purchased for status or to be part of a "collection" of certain animal species. A traditional definition of the word pet is "a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility". Perhaps varying this terminology would expand our outlook and more appropriately express the rapport to which we aspire with companion parrots.
Changing an established mind-set is not always simple, even when the individual is receptive to a modified viewpoint. However, it is possible to successfully broaden the human perspective by revealing a genuine desire for increased understanding and a readiness to amend the attitudes of a lifetime, and then accepting the challenge to positively implement that insight within the human/avian relationship.
We spend a great deal of time contemplating and interpreting the thoughts, actions and motivations of our companion parrots. We question the reasons for their behaviors as we witness their undisputed abilities to communicate, interact and problem-solve; we hypothesize as to their ability to reason or formulate strategies, and consider their potential to dream; we are intrigued by the level of their comprehension and the depth of their emotions; we observe their capacity to experience fear, compassion and devotion; we are filled with respect by their willingness to protect and defend "territories"; and are astounded by their capacity to survive sometimes horrific, even inhumane conditions.
As homo sapiens we must acknowledge intelligence in all animals--intelligence developed over thousands, in some cases millions of years to ensure the survival and role of each species within the planet's evolutionary progression. While we strive to discover the intellectual capacity of various parrot species, our foundation for comparing, identifying and labeling their aptitude is typically human intelligence. In order to describe their actions or reactions, we often categorize a particular avian species as being "more" or "less" intelligent than another, and frequently draw distinctions between their behavior, brainpower and temperament, and our own.
An article written earlier this year by Jay Lindsay of The Associated Press intrigued me. He discusses recently published results concerning a 4-year study performed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which may have long-lasting implications on the human perception of animal intelligence. The purpose of this particular research is to unlock the mysteries of the subconscious human mind. Yet, for those of us who are intrigued with avian intelligence these findings could open the door to consider viewpoints heretofore considered only speculative.
Researchers at MIT's Center for Learning and Memory have been conducting studies to measure the brain activity of rats during various tasks. The analysis of these results provides not only evidence that animals dream, but the comparison of brain patterns during waking and dreaming also show (to the researchers) that the rats are actually dreaming about the day's activities. Human dreams are thought to be complex, outlets for the subconscious mind to replay events that have occurred during waking hours (although our conscious mind is often unable to interpret the "meaning" of those dreams).
According to Lindsay, "Some scientists believe that humans solve problems during sleep by synthesizing related experiences in a single dream, then learning from what the experiences have in common."
Based upon these
studies, the dream pattern for rats serve that same purpose, while also
assisting them with the ability to learn and memorize. However, even if
the rats were not actually dreaming (the link between the rats' brain
patterns and actual dreaming can't be proved according to Robert Stickgold,
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School), the brain
wave patterns do seem to confirm that the rats were replaying the day's
events in their minds, thus emphasizing the importance of sleep to memory.
Creating a lifestyle
How do we know if our avian companions are "happy"? This question tugs at the heartstrings of many conscientious caregivers. What constitutes an appropriate environment where physical fitness and safety are maximized and the parrot's personality has the opportunity to blossom? How do we combine all of these ingredients within a domestic setting to formulate the ultimate Cockatoo lifestyle?
It is crucial for the long-term emotional and physical health of our Cockatoos that their "home within our home" is spacious, allowing them to run, climb, play and even "hide". Our goal is to provide an enclosure (cage) that will be viewed as a safe haven, an atmosphere providing comfort, interest and exhilaration-not an environment that promotes inactivity, fear or frustration.
Previous standard advice, "a cage just needs to be large enough for a bird to spread its wings" is completely outdated. With only a few exceptions, which might include a debilitating injury or severe phobia, fully grown birds should be provided with the largest area possible in which to live, since most parrots spend a minimum of 15 to 20 hours a day inside their cages. Cockatoos are ill prepared anatomically or psychologically to be sedentary, with only limited outlets for exercise, visual diversity, intellectual stimulation and new experiences.
When outfitting an enclosure for a Cockatoo, we should approach it as a challenge for both ourselves and for our companions. Efforts to facilitate a life of ease and security for our avian friends may in certain cases lead to us to inadvertently create an unsuitable lifestyle, encouraging both physical and mental lethargy. The task at hand is to create a healthy balance supplying continuing motivation for the avian mind and body within the confines of the home atmosphere.
Perches of various sizes, shapes and textures, including ropes and swings, can be placed at different levels to increase lateral movement and aerobic activity; toys should include a ready supply of safe, colorful and stimulating items such as puzzles to solve, items to assemble and dismantle, knots to untie, objects to throw and clang and materials to satisfy their destructive and shredding urges. Other important environmental factors include play areas, swings and climbing trees outside of the cage; new and diverse situations such as traveling or enjoying supervised and protected outdoor activities; opportunities for regular bathing; good natural or quality artificial lighting throughout the day for maximum feather condition and overall health, and to positively impact behavior; a continuous supply of re-circulating clean air; the opportunity for dark, quiet and uninterrupted rest at night; and one of the most critical components of the "environment", food abundance and diversity with the opportunity to exert natural foraging instincts.
As aviculturists, we are just learning how much diet influences behavior, as well as physical health and longevity. Not only is chronic malnutrition a major cause of death in companion parrots, some birds who exhibit extreme aggression or agitation, persistent screaming, plucking or even fear-related behaviors may show improvement when dietary changes and alternative feeding patterns are consistently implemented.
When a parrot's
health is "complete", physically and psychologically, we have a
bird with whom we are more likely to share a mutually happy, hopefully
long-term relationship. It is our responsibility as their substitute
family to stimulate our Cockatoos intellectually, physically and
emotionally, promoting their self-confidence and helping them feel secure
and comfortable in a variety of circumstances and settings. Let us
consider that by broadening our human perspective and joining all of these
elements, we are simulating a more complete and natural
lifestyle--continuously offering diversity and positive learning
experiences throughout the bird's life, increasing the likelihood that our
companion will live "happily" in our unnatural environment.
The success of
forming a positive bond increases, but is not guaranteed, when we offer
our Cockatoos a rewarding, interactive and stimulating environment along
with a relationship based upon trust and mutual respect. A number of the
problems seen in human/avian relationships may be attributed to our
eagerness to "think" for our parrots and give them what we are
convinced they want or need, rather than viewing the situation from the
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any means, without permission from the author.