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Sam Foster
Avian Consultant
Specializing in Cockatoo Care and Behavior


COCKATOO AGGRESSION

by Sam Foster

This article is reprinted from The Pet Bird Report, with permission from the author.

It appears that a trend is developing in aviculture, which I find both frightening and disheartening. As the popularity of cockatoos continues to increase, these birds are being bred in increasingly greater numbers each year, particularly the Moluccan, the Umbrella, the Goffin’s, and some of the Sulphur-crested species. At the same time, the number of mature cockatoos offered for sale daily in newspapers throughout the country is staggering.

Avian rescue and adoption centers, permanent sanctuaries, zoos and wildlife parks, humane societies and individual foster homes are beginning to overflow with these once-treasured companions. I believe that, in reality, this problem will not only continue, it will worsen. One of the largest segments of this population of "problem" birds consists of sexually mature or maturing males.
The number of cockatoo owners who call to ask me if I know of someone who will take their aggressive or unmanageable male continually surprises me. They wonder whether he should be put into a breeding program. Perhaps putting him on drug therapy will help control the behavior. They want to know if he can be neutered. In the more extreme cases, owners sometimes even consider euthanasia. More people are expressing their desire to add a female cockatoo to their companion parrot flock. However, what is to happen to those young males who have been tried and found guilty of undesirable behavior before having the opportunity to prove that they truly can provide a rewarding, entertaining, and harmonious long-term relationship?


What will the lasting result be if we continue weeding out or eliminating these "unacceptable" birds whose only mistake was to be born into a captive environment where their natural instincts and behaviors are often misunderstood? Will we end up with a gene pool of ‘acceptable’ personality traits for breeding that we know will produce offspring of the same, with no natural and instinctive influences? I don’t think so. Or might the number of males of some species become so depleted that we no longer have a group of healthy non-related birds from which to choose for breeding? This has already become a concern for several avian species held in captivity.

Would it not be a wiser and more responsible choice for us to make every effort possible to help them adjust positively to this life-style that we have imposed upon them, and stop blaming these "mean" or aggressive birds for not adequately fitting into the human mold?

OBSERVATIONS :

I feel that aggression is not, in itself, a natural avian behavior. But rather, that the aggression often described by companion parrot owners and breeders is more likely the result of instincts such as the need to prove dominance, fear and territoriality which have become confused in the bird’s mind.
The impetus to display certain behaviors can be very strong in some species, at varying ages. The most obvious of these is the urge to choose a mate and reproduce. Another instinct often manifested is the need to achieve and maintain a certain position within the flock, regardless of whether "the flock" consists of birds or humans. Let me emphasize at this point that not all cockatoos, particularly males, will make apparent or assertive attempts to become the flock leader. I have stated my opinion a number of times that many of the birds who exhibit that particular type of behavior in captivity are the same birds who would be genetically predisposed to fight for the role of flock leader in the wild.


Further, I do not mean to imply that it is only those birds who would be in contention for the role of flock leader that will show aggression toward flock members, a mate or a human caregiver. On the contrary, we know that there are many variables that can lead to this type of behavior.
While basic instincts do not need to be taught, young birds in their native habitats do indeed learn from observing their parents and other adult birds in the flock, and many natural behaviors are consistently and positively reinforced. Young birds in the wild have older, adult avian role models who teach them how to correctly and effectively use certain behaviors to achieve a desired goal. However, our captive-bred birds typically lack this type of natural training.

As they mature, both male and female cockatoos in the wild learn successful methods of protection and defense. They learn how to interact with other flock members on a social level as well as in a family unit or mini-flock, how to care for young, build nests, choose and attract a mate, and much more. In a breeding or pet situation, when natural instinctive feelings occur and there is no role model nor any memory of one to guide the behavior, birds may become confused. In this scenario, reactions may become totally instinctual, or a combination of instinctive and negative learned behavior, which can lead to conflict with either the human or a mate.

Another observation ... it is true that aggressive behavior can be learned by birds. When working with a cockatoo who is feeling confused or frustrated by internal instinctive or hormonal influences, or who is attempting to become dominant, one of the most common errors is to use forceful body language or vocalizations in an attempt to correct the bird or regain control. A valuable lesson I have learned over the years is that with many of these birds, aggression is met with aggression. Our actions may be perceived as a direct threat, and so in the mind of the bird, we (the humans) are initiating a confrontation and must be challenged. Typically, the more aggressive we become, the more aggressive these dominant birds become. Some cockatoos may have a very different reaction to human aggression, leading to other problems. Therefore it is critical to observe and understand a bird’s behavior and not make an automatic assumption that his aggression is totally the result of a struggle for dominance, instead of from fear or the need to protect himself or a member of his human flock.

LEARNED AGGRESSION:

Relative to the concept of learned aggression, I find it interesting that I have neither seen, nor read research of, mate aggression in breeding pairs that was thought to be learned by one bird from another bird in an adjoining aviary. For example, Long-billed Corella’s are thought by many to be one of the most difficult of all cockatoos to breed. There are indeed documented instances of mate aggression with this species, often severe. We had one proven pair where the male was extremely dominant and would periodically corner the female in the nest box, or chase her around the flight for long periods of time. Very often there were beak battles and on a few occasions, some bloodshed. None of the other cockatoos housed in aviaries in that same area showed similar behavior, even though from certain parts of each flight, pairs could see other pairs. This same behavior was true of one of our male galerita galerita’s, yet breeding pairs surrounding them never exhibited mate aggression in any manner.

Although breeding situations or environments may be similar, the personality and genetic makeup of individual birds are major contributors toward their actions and reactions to various circumstances. Interestingly, mate aggression appears to be somewhat less likely in wild caught and domestically bred parent-raised birds, yet it certainly does happen.

SPECIES & GENETICS :

In comparing data on cockatoo species and individual birds in breeding situations who exhibit this aggressive characteristic, the variables can be numerous. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of documented information on the origin of these birds, past breeding success or failure, and behavior patterns. Some species in which the males seem to be more prone to aggressive behavior toward the female are the Long-billed Corella, Umbrella, Greater Sulphur-crested and Moluccan. Those who are thought to be among the least aggressive with mates (again, from personal observation and research) include Rose-breasted’s and several of the Black Cockatoos.


This is not a blanket statement, and I hesitate to identify those cockatoos who may, in various settings, show aggressive behavior for fear some people might assume that I am saying all males of certain species will behave in this manner. That is certainly not the case. I feel it is critical to a greater understanding of these traits and behaviors in breeding pairs that breeders keep accurate written records of specific birds, paying close attention to their daily activities, and recording that information in writing or on video over an extended period of time.

On a positive note, there are breeders, some with long-term closed aviaries, who have already begun these efforts to carefully observe and document the behavior of their pairs. These same breeders are making sure that pairs are indeed compatible, are providing spacious breeding environments that are visually stimulating and interesting to the birds, and that offer unlimited opportunities for physical activity and the release of energy and frustration. That latter is particularly important for the males.

I have no doubt that genetics can potentially influence the personality and behavior of our birds. Yet, the assumption that genetics will always have a specific influence or outcome can be refuted. How often have we seen a clutch of baby parrots who have the same parents, and who have been raised in exactly the same manner, (*) and been amazed when those birds, after successful fledging and weaning, show very distinct and differing personalities?

This reminds me of a recent conversation with a woman concerning her male Greater Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. This is a beautiful healthy bird who has consistently exhibited a very dominant personality since about nine months of age. He is in a very positive and nurturing environment with knowledgeable and experienced bird owners, yet the dominant personality and continual "testing" have never subsided. On the other hand, his male sibling lives with friends just a few miles away, and his behavior is completely different. He has never shown any signs of dominance or aggression, is very relaxed and calm, enjoys lots of personal interaction, and is overall much less demanding.

If we believe that the parent birds did indeed pass on certain genetic information governing certain personality traits, perhaps we could conclude that both siblings did not receive the same gene for dominance. I feel that, although particular birds may indeed be genetically predisposed to certain behaviors, there is no way to definitively determine whether or not this trait will actually surface.
Someone asked me recently if medical studies had been done to identify similar genes in dominant birds, linking the tendency toward aggressive behavior. One of the major challenges I see in conducting a meticulous scientific study on this particular subject, is that it would require documented case studies, as well as genetic identification, beginning with hundreds of unrelated same species birds (for example: Umbrella Cockatoos) in a controlled environment.

With pairs who successfully mate and produce chicks, each chick would have to be monitored continually through weaning and fledging, and of course there are many variables that can come into place during this time (hand-feeding, parent raising, environmental factors, fledging, weaning, health, etc.). In the interests of this type of research, these young birds would then need to remain in that same type of physical environment, following the same routines and diets as the parent birds, until such time as they could be placed with a mate for breeding or into a pet situation. Then the cycle would begin again. An extensive data base would have to be set up to track and document the long term behavior of pairs, as well as the dominant or aggressive behavior of pet birds. This type of project, outlined very briefly here, would not only require a phenomenal financial and emotional commitment, but would need to remain ongoing for more than the lifetime of the average person in order to obtain reliable data.

Whenever we try to study either behavioral or genetic influences, there are often many unknowns. These include the history of the individual bird, including diet and physical health, as well as how the bird was raised. Further, can we accurately determine if this was a wild-caught or domestically bred bird? Has it previously been in a pet situation? Has it ever been tried or proven as a breeding bird? What is the typical pattern of behavior for this individual bird? Even basic questions, such as the age of the bird, or whether it has been surgically or DNA sexed, can be difficult to determine. Our efforts to try and find common threads for comparison meet with an incredible challenge.

EFFECTS OF EARLY DEVELOPMENT

There are several stages during the physical and emotional growth of cockatoos, indeed throughout their lives, when these complex animals are highly impressionable. However, the two periods that I feel are extremely critical, and potentially have the most impact on the long-term behavior and development of these birds, are weaning and sexual maturation.

In the wild, not all parents raise their babies in the same manner. Nor for that matter do they rear each chick in a clutch exactly the same way. Just as in human infants, there are those babies who are more confident, who are naturally bigger and stronger, and there are those who require more nurturing. Cockatoos have varying clutch sizes of between one to four chicks, although some will occasionally lay five or six eggs. When feeding and raising these babies, the parents are extremely busy from dawn to dusk, foraging and protecting their young. While it may seem that the babies in the nest are only concerned about their empty crops, during this entire process they are learning everything they will need to know in order to successfully care for their own young when the time comes.

Watching the fledging and weaning process of cockatoos in their natural habitat teaches us a great deal about the love, tenderness and concern these parents show for their young. Even in the wild, there are birds who, for whatever reason, are not yet ready to wean, even though the majority of other juveniles in the flock appear to be totally food independent. So how do the parents deal with this situation? They don’t abandon the baby and leave it to its own devices, try to chase it away or get rid of it so they can go back to nest, or completely ignore it as if thinking, "Hey, you’re old enough to be on your own so leave us alone!" Those devoted parents will continue to feed their persistently begging young until such time as it, not the parents, determines it is ready to break that dependency.

Whether this lengthy weaning process is the result of a physical or emotional need, or both, we have no way to accurately document. What we do know, is that the end result is an independent bird who is then prepared to continue the learning process for becoming a well-adjusted and self-confident adult cockatoo.

These facts bring some questions to mind. What effect does the lack of this firsthand knowledge, passed in the nest from parent birds to their young, have on our domestically bred hand-raised pets? What about these former pets whom are placed into breeding programs? Could this possibly be one of the contributing factors in the difficulties breeders sometimes experience when trying to successfully match pairs of mature hand-raised cockatoos? Is this perhaps one of the reasons some former hand-raised pets do not make good parents, at times killing the babies or refusing to feed them?

STRUGGLE FOR DOMINANCE:

In the wild, when cockatoos begin to reach sexual maturity, they do not automatically behave in the same manner. This is a period when the strong instinct to find a mate and breed also brings about another natural behavior, which is to leave the family unit to seek out a partner. I know of many cockatoos that have changed their human bond during sexual maturity, including our own male Umbrella. This does not mean that companion birds, even extremely dominant and assertive ones, cannot be taught and encouraged to continue in a positive relationship with that original ‘chosen’ person, who in many cases may be the primary caregiver. However, it does require a great deal of patience, understanding and commitment from everyone involved.

Also, when approaching sexual maturity, some male cockatoos are much more headstrong than others are. This may be due to something else that may instinctively happen during this same time. This headstrong behavior may be the result of a challenge by the young, strong, dominant male for the position of flock "leader". As mentioned earlier, I feel, after comparing and documenting the behaviors of male cockatoos in captivity and in the wild, that many of the birds referred to as super males are those who would be genetically predisposed to take on the role of flock leader in the wild. In captivity, the males who show this tendency are often physically very large birds, who also project a great deal of intelligence and may present quite a challenge for their owners between the ages of three to six years. It occurs to me that the very qualities we often consider to be a "problem" are those that best suit that leadership role in the wild. For many people, dealing with this type of bird in captivity can be frustrating and, at times, frightening.

These particular males may become extremely territorial; in a multi-person household such a bird might sometimes feel he has to protect and defend his perceived mate against all intruders, even if that "intruder" might be the person with whom he had previously shared a very close bond. In the wild, such males would use body posturing, intimidation and vocalizations to claim their territory, nesting site, or mate, with perhaps an occasional beak battle. However, the freedom they have in the wild to take flight, along with the vastness of their natural habitat, prevent these squabbles from becoming major altercations. In a domestic setting however, the same instincts might result in the bird attempting to literally chase a human intruder from the territory ... and it is not amusing to be chased down the hall of your own home with a sharp beak inches away from your heels.
To anyone who may currently be experiencing dominant (or what some people refer to as "unpredictably" aggressive) behavior in your pet cockatoo, I’d like to pose a question for you to consider. Is what you are experiencing now at home with this bird really so difficult to understand? Or is it more unexpected, or disappointing, or unacceptable?

One of the most arduous tasks in dealing effectively with our birds is that of making ourselves stop, stand back, and look objectively at all the possible contributing factors in such a situation, including our own behavior. We humans often trigger certain behaviors in our parrots through environment, emotional and intellectual stimulus, and our own actions/reactions.

Ironically, it can be so easy to offer support to other bird owners going through these problems, while in our own lives this objectivity can be far more challenging. Yet then, and only then, are we truly able to move forward with a plan that will enhance the bird’s quality of life and our long-term relationship in the process.

BUILDING BLOCKS:

So, just how should we react in order to achieve and maintain our own position as flock leader? This is an extremely important issue, and although it may appear to be quite complex, the basic philosophy is a simple one. Again, not all aggressive behaviors in pet birds are related to sexual maturity or the struggle for dominance. Beginning the work to achieve our own position is not only easier when the bird is very young, but the long term effects of these lessons, when they are taught and reinforced from an early age with gentle guidance, are more successful and usually more consistent. I am not saying that cockatoos that are hand-raised in this manner will never have any problems. Nor is it my intention to infer that all birds that do not have these benefits, or have had multiple owners, will.

These simple steps are the building blocks to establish or maintain a positive connection with your companion cockatoo. While it is important to appear confident and gently assertive, we must at the same time, work diligently to gain our bird’s trust and respect, along with developing his/her own independence and self-confidence. That trust, coupled with confidence and respect, are the keys that can overcome almost any obstacle. We sometimes confuse "assertive" with "aggressive", and "independence" with "neglect". When that mistake is made, the relationship can suffer dramatic changes, usually for the worse.

Obviously we cannot let dominant pet cockatoos rule the domestic roost. We need to be authoritative and persistent with our verbal commands, and any attempts on their part to intimidate us must be handled quickly, positively, and confidently. At the same time there should be no perception on the part of our birds that these reactions from us are a "drama reward". Neither should they perceive any of our actions as a possible threat or danger.


When living with a dominant or aggressive cockatoo, we need to be continually alert to their actions and reactions. The real long-term key is to learn the patterns of behavior typical for our individual birds and be aware of when these more high-spirited episodes, or periods of "testing", are likely to occur. As soon as we sense that this is the case, whether through their behavior or body language, the best thing to do is to change our own behavior or the environment and respond immediately in order to regain control of the situation, hopefully preventing a confrontation. A more typical reaction for bird owners is a very loud and perhaps hostile "NO!" along with a disapproving stare. However, this "NO" and sustained direct eye contact may merely act to further the aggression in a dominant male cockatoo when interpreted (by the bird) as an act of antagonism.

When faced with this behavior, people sometimes think, "Oh, they’ll calm down in a minute." Perhaps they will. Often however, if a cockatoo continues in some type of energy perpetuating activity he will not calm down, but instead grow even more contentious, eventually becoming almost out of control, making it difficult for us to successfully handle the situation.

Their game in this struggle for dominance is intimidation. That is how it works in a wild flock. We must convince them that we have absolutely no fear, even when we do, and that they will not be allowed to usurp our position in this domestic flock. Some birds learn this much more quickly than others. Male Umbrella’s can certainly be among the most stubborn about accepting this lesson, and often continue to test repeatedly.


On a positive note, in most cases where a dominant male cockatoo is battling for the leadership role in a domestic environment, the initial period of challenge is the most intense. I have seen this in many cases as well as having experienced it personally. We must be aware that the manner in which we handle their first instinctive challenge will have a strong impact on our permanent relationship.
When the bird is behaving calmly or playing happily, praise him, talk to him sweetly and gently, or give him treats or cuddles. Even if he is sitting almost asleep, we can speak quietly telling him what a perfect angel he is and how smart, how pretty, and how clever. In five minutes he may be a holy terror again, but we must be persistent in following the pattern.


How do we respond when a bird is being overly aggressive inside his cage? This is another example where it is vital for us to know the individual personality of the bird. If you feel this is a territorial or dominant posture, it is often best not to attempt to get the bird out while he is behaving in an agitated or aggressive manner. I can almost assure that you will be bitten, although it may not be intentional. Learning when and how to avoid a potential confrontation is necessary if we are to work through this period of challenge successfully.

When this behavior is being exhibited inside the cage, I suggest not automatically leaving the room, even though you may be feeling agitated or frustrated. This isn’t always easy, and we need to maintain complete calm, internally and externally. If you must leave in order to keep your emotions in check, come back after a few minutes and just go about cleaning, feeding or other activities in a routine manner. Avoid continued direct eye contact with the bird and keep your body posture and facial expressions relaxed and confident. Talk softly, to yourself if you like, or whistle, but basically you are ignoring his threats without being ‘chased away’, which would allow him to feel that he succeeded in making you flee his territory. You might sit in a chair and read aloud (earplugs may be necessary) and just wait until he has calmed down.

One of the most effective things I have tried over a period of time is to approach the cage, again with no direct eye contact, leaning over slightly as if looking inside the cage and just talking softly in general. I just stand very calmly, as if I don’t see the bird, even though he may be running back and forth, ramming the side of the cage or screaming. Sometimes I might kneel down beside the cage. If a foot comes through the bars I will very carefully reach out, being sure that my hand is not close enough to the cage for him to bite, and gently grasp the foot, rubbing a toe between my fingers, talking or singing softly. If the bird pulls away, fine. If he tries to bite, I simply ignore the gesture. After a few minutes, I leave the room as if everything had been perfectly normal. We should try whenever possible to leave these interactions on a positive note, without anxiety. That doesn’t mean we’ve won the war, only that one more explosive conflict has been avoided.

When we appear calm and unthreatening, with no voice or body aggression, we are addressing the "trust" issue. By not running away, we are addressing the "dominance" issue. If we work diligently to use both of these tactics to our advantage, it is then just a matter of time before extremely aggressive behavior will begin to diminish and/or vanish. Patience is truly a virtue when working with these birds.

Remember that some birds are "morning" birds and some are "evening" birds. There are a few wonderful pets who don’t care what time it is, who never seem to be cranky, and are always happy to come out of the cage for a cuddle. Learning their preferences and how they relate to a bird’s behavior and interactions with us can eliminate a great deal of stress, for both parties.

Even if we feel guilty because our birds have been in the cage all day while we were away, it is important to watch for warnings and be aware of when those instances of extreme aggression are more likely to occur. One of the most valuable lessons we can learn concerning these birds is not to attempt to fight their natural instincts. We may be able to successfully modify behaviors resulting from these instincts, but not the instincts themselves.

For example, during the nearly 11 month period when our male Umbrella was going through sexual maturity and exhibiting extremely dominant behavior, I knew that if I tried to get him out of the cage for play or cuddle time after about 5:00 p.m., I was in for trouble. Even now, over a year later, he is much calmer in the mornings and early afternoons.

If I attempt to force the issue, I am fully aware that there is the possibility that I might be bitten, or at the very least, that he may not be comfortable, which could therefore increase the possibility of aggression, leading to a potential confrontation. If he is tired and cranky, he does not know how else to tell me that he would rather be in his "home," playing or resting. Even my husband, who is now Umba’s adored one, cannot have him out for more than a few minutes in the evening without complete chaos erupting, particularly during those periodic times of hormonal escalation.

In other words, this atmosphere is extremely trying and stressful for all involved. We tried to change and overcome this "problem," and finally learned to accept and respect it as part of Umba’s natural behavior. We found a way to compromise.

Let me add a word of encouragement to those of you who feel, or have felt, that there is no hope for your current relationship with an extremely dominant male cockatoo. There was a time, not so very long ago, when I myself wondered if I would ever be able to preen Umba’s crest, tickle under his wings, play peek-a-boo under the covers, place him back in his cage successfully, or breathe in that wonderful powdery cockatoo fragrance without fearing that he might lunge at me, or worse.

This year, during February and March, he once again exhibited vigorous nesting behavior and made numerous attempts to usurp my position in the flock. I also have no doubt that this will happen in years to come. Yet, for the majority of time there could be no other companion cockatoo, male or female, who is more fun, more entertaining, more loving, or gentler than Umba-do. What a tragedy it would have been, for me, if I had given up, which would have been the easier thing to do.

CLOSING:

Wild cockatoos are very precise in knowing their individual roles, whether within a large flock or a family unit. Genetic and instinctive influences, combined with learned behavior from the parents and other flock members, tell them how to react when that role is challenged or changed. In captivity, teaching those lessons becomes our responsibility. When birds are sure and confident of their roles they will accept them, even if they perceive those to be a change from their previous roles, and even though periodic testing for position may still occur. Our responsibility lies in helping them to adjust so that they are comfortable and happy with the new role and do not view us, the environment, or other birds in the domestic flock as a constant threat to their sense of security or stature.

We must all be willing to accept that our relationship with a companion parrot will probably change. When this change may happen, or to what degree, we cannot predict. However, this should not be thought of as a negative, nor should we automatically feel as if we have failed in some way when and if it does. None of us as human beings remain the same in our actions, thought processes or personal interactions. Neither do these still-wild animals in a domestic environment. We all need to try and put that in perspective and allow ourselves to adapt and change with them, for the betterment of both parties. No guilt, no remorse, no resentment or harbored hurt feelings for what once was. We must focus on what is, and what can be.


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