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Sam Foster
Avian Consultant
Specializing in Cockatoo Care and Behavior

Cockatoo Vocalizations Part 1: The Call of the Wild

by Sam Foster

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

Communication is perhaps the most integral component of any relationship between living creatures. The majority of animal species focus primarily on interchange that is audible, or perceptible by the ear. Humans, for example, instinctively use verbal capabilities from birth to express emotional and physical needs such as hunger, fear, pain, happiness, sorrow and confusion. At some point each of us has experienced the frustration of not being able to accurately relate certain thoughts or feelings to others. We also know how it feels when an individual does not acknowledge our spoken request or comment. What may initially begin as, "Could one of you please answer the phone for me?", might well end up as, "Somebody answer that!" after the third or fourth attempt to gain the attention of another person. Vocalization in cockatoos, indeed many birds, plays a dramatic role in their everyday lives as well. Without this ability to effectively convey their emotions and transmit critical information to family and flock members, their survival would be threatened. As with humans, this valuable form of communication begins with life itself, which is validated when we hear those first helpless chirps echoing from within a nest box.

Natural Vocalizations

Throughout the growing and maturing process, these intelligent and perceptive creatures learn how to use various vocalizations by listening, and by observing their parents, siblings and other flock members. Instinctive calls are refined and personalized as young birds develop and experiment with the most effective methods of relating a particular message or feeling. Other more spontaneous vocalizations also erupt regularly, such as the screams which are a tribute to the sheer joy of living. In the wild, most cockatoos engage in what I will refer to as "contact calling" during a good part of the day. While the flock, which may consist of a large group, a 'mini' flock or a family unit, is flying and foraging, they are also communicating with each other to keep in close contact and recount pertinent information such as where they are going, if an abundant food source is spotted, the location of mates and other family members, if danger is approaching, etc. Even while resting there are often "calls" as if just to reaffirm that all is well. Young fledged cockatoos sitting in the roosting tree call out to their parents who are flying above and the parents respond, able to identify the individual cries of their offspring. Within the unique crèche system of the Rose-breasted Cockatoo, adult birds will make the daily journey from their nesting site, where they may still be raising young, to feed those juveniles who have recently fledged, listening for distinctive identifying calls from among the many young galahs in the nursery tree. Another natural vocalization is the sentinel warning emitted from those birds who stand guard and alert the flock to danger...a critical role in the wild. Companion parrots who exhibit certain traits which indicate they might assume the position of a sentinel bird in their natural habitat, are often categorized by human caregivers as extremely alert, intuitive, and vocal. Whatever the "call of the wild", other flock members recognize and acknowledge various voiced signals. Avian species have been using this form of inter-communication successfully for millions of years. In a domestic environment, these creatures must find it very frustrating when the human flock does not respond to those natural vocalizations.

Domestic Environments

Two of the questions I ask in my research, and from clients before doing a consultation are: "What qualities or personality traits were you looking for in a pet cockatoo?" and "Have you been pleased, disappointed, or surprised by your bird's behavior or personality?" I find it very interesting that a high percentage of people include comments about "noise level" in their response. I often hear statements such as the following: "As much as I love this bird, if I had known how noisy he/she was going to be, I probably would not have purchased a cockatoo" and "If I can't find a way to keep this bird quiet, my family is going to insist I find it another home." There are valuable lessons to be learned not only from cockatoo behavior in the wild, but from the shared experiences of others who keep them as pets. How would most of us define a "quiet" cockatoo? Would it be a bird who vocalizes only during normal roosting times? Does it describe the cockatoo who talks in human language? What about the bird whose screaming only becomes earsplitting during exuberant play? Individual birds are as unique within the avian world as we are in the human arena. Attempting to categorize a particular cockatoo or species as being more or less "noisy" than another is doing them a great disservice. It is also unfair to compare the volume, harshness, or frequency of various cockatoo vocalizations with other commonly kept pet bird species such as African greys, amazons, and macaws. Is there a way to determine or define how a cockatoo will vocally respond to various stimuli? Let us focus on the premise that there are both natural and learned vocalizations. By learned, I am not only referring to the innate ability of many of these creatures to use human words or sounds as a part of the communication process. When and how we consistently interact with our birds has a profound effect on all aspects of their behavior. We sometimes unconsciously set the stage and actually teach negative patterns of conduct from the first day a new feathered friend enters our home. Persistent calling or screaming is a prime example. In reality some humans are more "vocal" than others. There are those who are naturally soft-spoken and enjoy peace and quiet. Others are more comfortable with disquiet, and may delight in a constant hubbub of conversation, music or entertainment. Families with young children often have both a continuing cacophony and a consistently high level of energy circulating through the home environment. Our captive birds need time to adapt to a new environment with its accompanying new noise levels, or to changes in the noise levels of an established environment. It therefore becomes our responsibility to be forward thinkers for the benefit of our feathered friends, and for our long-term relationship. Some cockatoos seem to blossom in an atmosphere of activity and sound, even when it does not always focus on them directly. These birds might frequently vocalize and join in the merriment, yet be content to play independently and fairly quietly at other times. A different bird in this same active environment might feel extremely uneasy, nervous, or even frightened, perhaps repeatedly calling for reassurance or to express anxiety. Conversely, when placed in a situation where there is little or no audible stimulus, the first bird, who enjoys a lively and active climate, may react in much this same manner. Fortunately, parrots are extremely intelligent and capable of adapting to change over a period of time. This may take a great deal of patience and guidance from the caregiver to accomplish successfully, but it can be done when we recognize the specific emotional and psychological needs of the individual bird.

Understanding the Individual Bird

In the effort to achieve a clearer understanding of our own "flock", it can be very helpful to document both avian and human vocalizations from the beginning of the relationship. I began doing this at the urging of my husband who said to me one day, "Do you have any idea how much you talk to our birds?" My first reaction was to say, "Of course!" However, as I thought more about his question and how my personal perception of the answer might have a dramatic influence on their behavior and vocalizations, I realized that I truly could not give him an accurate reply. So I began to closely monitor the various daily vocalizations of our flock of five, including numerous contact calls, talking, singing, laughing, whistling and screaming. I also document both my own verbal and physical reactions (body language and facial expressions), as well as the time I spend just talking to them throughout the day about how pretty they are, how smart, how sweet, what I'm going to fix for their breakfast or dinner, who I was just talking to on the phone, what we're going to do this weekend, and important issues concerning life and the plight of the world. In other words, when communicating with them I speak aloud whatever I'm thinking, whether I'm in the birdroom or "calling" from another room.

Learn the Pattern of Behavior

A journal, or diary, is perhaps the single most effective learning tool for any of us who share our lives with companion parrots. I would encourage everyone to consider making this a part of your daily routine, whether or not you are currently experiencing any difficulties with your birds. To document and analyze vocalization patterns, use a notebook and record the screaming or calling behavior of your bird(s) each day, along with notes about the daily routine and pertinent environmental factors. Set up a tape recorder to monitor the time you are away from home. It can also be very enlightening to record while we are interacting with our birds...our response to persistent calling or screaming is not always as we perceive. In your daily journal, include information such as: What time of day do vocalizations typically occur? Are they more prevalent in morning or evening, at mealtime or snack time, when you come home from work, etc.? Once it starts, is it continual? If so, does he stop when you are in sight, or does it increase when you are in the room? Are there other behaviors occurring at the same time, such as repeated pacing back and forth or climbing frantically around the cage, or other obvious signs of distress? How do you and/or other family members respond? Can you identify which, if any, of your reactions works best to calm the bird? It will also be helpful to include notes concerning: What has the bird eaten today? How much sleep is he getting? Was he physically and mentally active today, and have the opportunity for exercise to expend calories? Does your bird seem anxious, more aggressive, or quieter than usual? Have there been any changes in the home or in the bird's environment, new or different people in the house, or a change in the caregiver's work schedule? If your cockatoo companion is sexually mature, do you notice any obvious hormonal behavior? Then ask yourself, "How was my mood today?", "Was there anything unusual happening outside of the house, or a significant weather change?" To more accurately understand the behavior and sense of well-being and security of your bird, stand back and take a close unbiased look at the immediate and surrounding environment. Try to analyze it from the parrot's perspective. Does it appear safe and comforting (not only the cage, but the room and surrounding areas)? Is there a feeling of openness around the cage to allow the bird to have his own "territory"? Is there an abundance of challenging and intellectually stimulating toys to occupy the mind, as well as the beak? (In cockatoos this may be things such as puzzles to solve, hidden treats to retrieve, items that can be dismantled or put together, knots to unknot, safe bells to throw and clang, as well as items to satisfy the "search and destroy" urges for those endless chewers). Does the cage allow ample room and opportunity for running, climbing, playing and even "hiding"? Are play gyms and climbing trees complex and interesting? This is the type of information I personally like to record, attempting to be as consistent and precise as possible in the notations. Over a period of time these observations can help us more clearly understand the behavior of an individual bird, and allow us to accurately and correctly remember events past. By spending 10-15 minutes a day writing these things down, it is possible to look back after weeks or months to study the patterns and understand how our reactions and responses may be effecting our bird's behavior, either positively or negatively. Even if your bird is like Mary Poppins, and "practically perfect in every way", keeping a journal or diary documenting not only vocalizations, but general behavior, diet and health is a valuable tool for each of us. It can help us more quickly identify when something might be wrong, and is a critical information resource in unforeseen circumstances when we may no longer be able to care for our feathered companions.

Identifying the Call

Are there guidelines to help us positively distinguish whether our cockatoos are "calling" to us for confirmation that we are close by and that all is well, or for another reason? Although each bird may react differently to a given situation, here are several common scenarios in a domestic setting...Calling when we leave the room or are out of sight...Screaming or calling when they see someone they do not know, or something unusual or unsettling through a window or door...Screaming when there are loud noises or excited activity either in the house or outside...Screaming as a person approaches the cage...Exuberant vocalizations while playing...Rambunctious calls at dusk or bedtime...and of course...Screaming for no "obvious" reason. Indeed there are a variety of circumstances that may either instigate or encourage sporadic short-term or persistent screaming. Our dedication to the understanding and appreciation of natural avian behaviors and flock interactions can reward us with the ability to help prevent some of these problems, and to successfully work through troublesome periods. I recently heard the reading of a passage which to me represents a primary challenge facing the world of aviculture. The narrative was describing our human compulsion to discover new horizons, frequently overcoming insurmountable obstacles in the effort to identify and enter an "unfound door". Perhaps one day our continuing endeavors to enrich the human/avian relationship will begin to reveal more of those "unfound" doors.

(*In Cockatoo Vocalizations: Part 2 we will discuss contact calls, the process of introducing a new contact call, nocturnal cries, the roles of diet, routine, environment, exercise and visual stimulation on vocalization patterns, and methods to both prevent and resolve persistent screaming.)

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