Wild Wild Rose - Part 1
|by Sam Foster|
This article is reprinted from The Grey Play Rountable with permission from the author.
|Perhaps no other bird is
more widely recognized as a symbol of the Australian continent than the
Rose-breasted Cockatoo, or Galah. This unmatched combination of avian
beauty, intelligence, and gracefulness combined with their captivating
spirit enchants and intrigues those who, like myself, are inexplicably
drawn to the creatures we call cockatoos.
The complexities of various cockatoos offer a tremendous challenge to those humans who accept the roles of caregiver, teacher and flock member. In a domestic setting there is an even more formidable task...that of realizing and appreciating the unique behavioral traits of each species. With long documented studies of cockatoos and other parrot species in the wild severely limited, much of our understanding is based upon theory rather than fact.
Fortunately with the Rose-breasted, we have fieldwork from several leading ornithologists and aviculturists including Ian Rowley who have provided comprehensive and valuable data concerning natural habitats, breeding, flock structure, diet and behavior. There are a number of activities and behaviors that are distinctive to this genera known as Eolophus roseicapillus...the galah.
Jane Hallander and I have spent many months considering some interesting similarities between galahs and African grey parrots, particularly Congo's. Ironically, the basic personalities of these species contrast significantly. The galah, which has a slang interpretation of 'fool' or clown, well defines the conduct of these exuberant little balls of fire. They are raucous, precocious, jaunty and often seemingly inexhaustible. African greys would appear to be much more refined and dignified in comparison. Yet, there are some significant correlations to their actions and reactions in captivity. Perhaps their lifestyle in the wild is the common thread.
One of the most fascinating aspects of natural Rose-breasted behavior is the early socialization process. Galahs are raised unlike any other cockatoos. As soon as the young have mastered the art of flight, they are taken to a creche tree, where all fledged Rose-breasteds within the flock are taken by their parents. Here, they are watched during the day and night by "nannies", who might be adults without mates or older adolescents. Parents may still have babies in the nest, and remain to care for those birds, bringing them one at a time to the creche as they fledge. Mom and dad make the daily journey to the nursery tree and continue feeding their own young for a short period of time, able to identify the calls of their offspring from among the dozens of other begging juveniles. Typically by three months of age, all contact with the parent birds has been severed.
These young galahs therefore form bonds with others of their own age, learning by watching the behavior of adult birds in the primary flock, and from those who serve as their nannies. If we think about the mind-set of these particular birds, they are forced in nature to become independent and much more self reliant at an early age than other cockatoos in the wild who remain within a family unit for many months, and in some cases, years. While Rose-breasted Cockatoos do indeed have a very strong social structure, they do not form that close family dependent bond.
If we correlate the creche system and resulting social structure to how rose-breasted's are raised in captivity, the majority of breeders and pet bird owners would raise a galah in exactly the same manner that they would a moluccan, umbrella, or any other cockatoo, and expect their behavior to be similar.
My feeling is that the methods often used to raise Rose-breasted babies, combined with the limited knowledge of some caregivers concerning their uniqueness, may lead to behavioral disorders that are otherwise "unexplainable". Overcoming severe problems such as persistent feather destruction, mutilation and phobic behavior is extremely difficult and often requires more patience, time and emotional energy than we are able, or prepared, to give. Yet, all the work, dedication and love possible do not always result in positive benefits. Sadly, these birds are the ones who pay the price...with a compromised quality of life.
I have stated in articles and at seminars that I personally find the incidence of phobic behavior in Rose-breasted Cockatoos very distressing, considering the limited numbers of domestically bred companion galahs in captivity in the U.S. compared to many other cockatoo species. Unfortunately, there are some people who might misinterpret this to mean that 'all' galahs are more prone to phobic behavior than other cockatoos.....that is not what I am saying.
For example, when I look at the total number of a certain cockatoo species (using galahs as the example here) for which I have documented information, and then compare specific areas of concern such as phobic behavior, feather destruction, aggression, etc., and calculate the percentage for one of those 'problems' to the total number of birds in my data base for that one species alone, I have seen a higher percentage ratio of phobic behavior in rose-breasted's than any other cockatoo species. (NOTE: This is based solely upon my findings thus far, and is not meant to be used as scientific or definitive data.) I have worked personally and professionally with hundreds and hundreds of cockatoos, both in pet and breeding situations and I doubt that there is any one species of those kept in captivity that has absolutely no incidence of phobic behavior. There are numerous potential causes of true phobic behavior, and in some instances the primary reason may never be identified.
I think it is imperative that we do not attempt to assume that either all or none of a particular species will exhibit a particular trait. That could potentially be misleading, and even damaging to the human/parrot relationship. Birds, like so many other animals, have individual genetic influences and personality traits, as well as general species specific behavior. Some cockatoos are typically more independent, some are more "needy", some are more playful, etc.
Just as with African greys, there is no medical evidence that galahs, or any other cockatoos for that matter, are by nature psychotic or neurotic as I have heard some people presume. The very fact that the Rose-breasted has not only survived, but thrived, in a land where man has significantly altered their habitat, natural food and water sources and nesting sites, is testimony to their adaptability and intelligence. If there are traits in some individual birds that we consider to be unstable, is it not conceivable that this is most likely the result of human influence?
Let's look more closely at their natural lifestyle.
During breeding season, galahs may nest in sites very close to other galahs, unlike many other cockatoos who seek out the safety and solitude of a more protected and distant location. So, during the entire process of breeding and raising the young, Rose-breasteds are often exposed to other members of the flock participating in the same activities, combined of course with the shared creche. If this instinctive behavior carries over into our captive-bred birds, which we believe it does, this is one possible explanation for the easygoing acceptance that is often observed between galahs when they are put into an aviary or flock setting. Perhaps they do not share the fear of intrusion from others of the same species which can result in some cockatoos becoming aggressive and protective of a particular site and surrounding territory. If we think carefully how large flocks of galahs intermingle in the wild, it almost appears as if these graceful acrobats move in complete unison, as one entity. Even on the ground there does not appear to be a rule about space, as with some other species. They often literally walk wing to wing, stepping on each others feet, crawling over each other almost like ants, a mannerism also observed with African greys who sometimes look like an inextricable grey mass when feeding on the ground.
This type of social interaction seems to conflict somewhat with the interpretation that the domestic Rose-breasted is more independent than other cockatoos...that they are not as "cuddly". While those statements may be true, and many galahs would much prefer a nice scratch on the head than being held against your chest for a long period of time, humans who enjoy the companionship of these creatures can attest to their absolute delight in lots of playful interaction, emotional stimulation, and being a part of daily household activities.
This is not to say that they are less devoted to flock members and mates than other cockatoos. Like many parrot species, adult galahs often form monogamous relationships and there are documented instances which prove the affection and attachment of a bonded pair. For example, allopreening is a favored activity among pairs during periods of rest and prior to roosting.
I remember watching a film showing wild galahs in southern Australia feeding on grain which had been spilled along a country highway by trucks transporting the grain to holding silo's. As cars approached, the flock would rise to the sky, landing again once the automobile had passed. On occasion, serious injury or death would result when a member of the flock did not react quickly enough. It was very poignant to see a galah remaining close to its dead mate on the roadside, sometimes pushing the body with it's own beak or foot in an obvious effort to encourage the lifeless body to take flight.
In the wild, galahs spend a great deal of time on the ground foraging and grazing on surface seeds, or raking their beaks in the dirt to uncover a tasty morsel. The ground is also an arena for play and these little pink bundles of energy can be seen rolling over on their backs, playing tug of war with a small stick, or suddenly jumping straight up in the air several inches for no apparent reason, which is normally accompanied by a stacatto 'eeh eeh'. Rose-breasted Cockatoos are regularly seen displaying their sheer delight just to be alive by hanging upside down on telephone wires or small brances, often spinning around and around in circles with wings outstretched and screeching to the world.
Rose-breasteds are also little sticky beaks (one of my favorite Aussie expressions for being nosy and into everything). The are often not content to sit on the arm of your chair or in your lap being held and stroked. I'm convinced that they feel it is their mission to uncover all the mysteries of life...What's this? How does this come apart? Can I turn this over? Can I push this across the floor? What's under here? etc.etc.etc.
I do find it interesting that in Australia we had 5 breeding pairs of Rose-breasted Cockatoos, all wild-caught birds. Two of our pet galahs were wild caught and another was hand-raised, by my husband and myself. None of these wild-caught birds, nor any of the galah babies we raised, exhibited any type of extreme negative behavior. I feel strongly that allowing our captive-bred babies (some were parent-raised) to socialize with older juveniles and adult galahs was a major factor in this positive outcome...not the only factor, but an important one in my opinion.
Using another species example, I received an e-mail several months ago from an Australian breeder who had adopted a young phobic bare-eyed corella. I was extremely surprised, having made the assumption (incorrectly) that because this was a bare-eyed in Australia, it was a wild caught bird. I immediately asked for more information, and discovered that this was a domestically bred, hand-raised bird. Although I was still very interested in the data, I was not as surprised by the behavior.
I do not claim that there is not, never has been, or will never be, a wild-caught galah or other cockatoo who exhibits some type of extreme behavior, a phobia, or mutilates either feathers or flesh. However, my personal feeling based upon experience, information gathering, consultations with other aviculturists and with veterinarians is that a wild caught phobic bird is the exception, not the rule.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the unforgettable opportunity to personally witness the behavior of some of these species in the wild, and to learn from those observations. My hope is to continue to learn and share that information with those who are interested. I don't profess to have all the answers...I wish I did. In order to fully appreciate the differences between wild caught and domestically bred, hand-raised (even parent- raised) birds, there are numerous factors to bear in mind. However, when we carefully reflect on the wild chain of events that occur in a parrots natural habitat, it becomes evident that no matter how hard we try to duplicate that process, it will never be the same.
We may teach them the art of foraging for food, encourage their natural curiosity, offer them opportunities to experience physical exercise and visual stimulation, provide fresh air and natural sunlight, an expansive cage and limitless play gyms and natural climbing trees. In some instances we might even allow them to fly within a controlled environment. Yet nothing we teach can begin to compensate for the valuable and fundamental lessons birds learn from their parents and other avian role models about 'being a bird'.
When I witness a galah in a pet or breeding situation and attempt to parallel the behavior and quality of life to their predecessors in Australia, in my heart I must acknowledge that there is nothing like a wild, wild rose.
(Wild Wild Rose, Part 2 will address providing a 'natural' home environment, and Part 3 will discuss "Expectations vs. Realizations")
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