Cockatoos and African Greys: Are they Really So Different?
Part 1 of 2
|by Sam Foster and Jane Hallander|
This article is reprinted from The Pet Bird Report, with permission from the author.
|How many times have you heard these words....African greys are
feather pickers; Cockatoos demand your constant attention and if they dont get it,
they will scream all day, or start plucking; If you want a bird that talks, you have to
get a grey, but watch out, they're one person birds; Dont buy a Major
Mitchells or a Rose- breasted...theyre all neurotic; My grey used to like me,
but now he's bonded to my husband and hates me; My Umbrella used to be a love sponge,
thats why I bought it. But now hes become aggressive and bites me whenever I
try to pick him up; Greys aren't as cuddly as cockatoos; Cockatoos arent as smart as
It sounds as if these are aliens from two different planets, rather than separate classes of the parrot family. However, what if many of the urban myths about cockatoos and greys are just those -- urban myths? Maybe these parrots who share 'shades of grey' as their primary coloration have much more in common than we think. Let's take a look at some common misconceptions about cockatoos and greys and the possible reasons behind these misconceptions.
Feather Plucking: Yes, there is no question that many greys and cockatoos chew or pluck their feathers. However, rather than considering them highly neurotic animals, who cannot stand any change in their lives, perhaps they are instead, highly social and intelligent birds. We know that both African greys and Cockatoos appear to have a fairly long maturation and learning period, during which their parents provide continuing lessons in flock social rules and survival skills. What makes the statement that greys and cockatoos are neurotic and that's why they pluck highly suspect, is that you seldom see this in wild-caught birds.
Of course, there are exceptions, however the average imported grey or cockatoo, who has no health problems, has already withstood incredible trauma from the capturing process alone. Now it's in a cage, with people who may or may not understand its social needs -- and yet, there are relatively few who pluck their feathers or become phobic. Why is this? And why do we see few cases of feather plucking among South American and some other Australasian parrot species?
One of the most common misconceptions is that all cockatoo personalities are the same. In reality, cockatoos inhabit a wide variety of territories differing not only in geographic location, but also in climate, from rainforest to coastal plains to semi-arid, almost desert conditions. Each of these natural environments presents its own daily challenges and struggles for survival, including food availability and water supply, predators, nesting sites, and safe havens for camouflage and roosting. Also, even though it is certainly true that cockatoos are extremely social creatures and have a strong flock instinct, not all of them fly in massive flocks as is often witnessed with Greater Sulphur-cresteds, Rose-breasteds and Corellas.
There are some who are seldom seen, even out of breeding season, in groups of more than a dozen and others who stay primarily in pairs. Could it not therefore be logical to theorize that the impact of hundreds of thousands of years spent by cockatoos in these assorted environments would have a profound impact on their instinctive behavior, even in a captive environment?
An example of this was our flock of pet cockatoos in Australia, which consisted of two Greater Sulphur-cresteds, one Bare-eyed and one Eastern Slender-bill Corella, two Rose-breasteds and one Major Mitchells. The Rose-breasted male (Mateus) and the Major Mitchells (Inca) were captive bred. Although these two birds were hand raisedto some degree, Mateus was not taken from the nest until 7-weeks old and Inca was removed at 12-weeks. The other five were wild-caught and, with the exception of Fred the Bare-eyed, who was over 60 years old, came to live with us when they were young, just after being trapped in the wild. These birds lived in harmony in a large enclosed screened porch overlooking the cockatoo breeding aviaries.
Although only two (the Greater Sulphurs-both females) interacted on a daily basis, these birds quickly established their own flock structure and protocol. All seven could be out at the same time in their habitat, on various perches and playgyms or grazing on the floor (usually the Galahs). As these birds often mingle in the wild, the Major Mitchells perhaps less than the others, there were never any signs of discomfort, fear, or intimidation, even when a new flock member was introduced.
Alfie, the Slender-bill (female), immediately took the role of sentinel and would announce with great gusto any possible or perceived threat or danger. The flock leader in this instance was a female Greater Sulphur, Mooloolaba. She had a very relaxed personality and was totally non-aggressive toward us or the other birds. However, the other cockatoos always looked to Loo-Bird, as she became known, for direction. Her cage was the closest to the door leading into the house, she was always fed first, was the first to be uncovered in the morning and the last to be covered at night. Her actions very often dictated how the others would behave when a new person came to visit, there was a disturbance in the outside aviaries, when fresh tree branches, pine cones, or other new items where placed in their cages, or even when there was a mild territorial squabble among one of the other six flock members.
Watching these birds interact daily, doing many of the same things and behaving in many of the ways they would naturally, gave me a valuable lesson in learning to accept and appreciate these birds for who they really are. African greys do not appear to intermingle their flocks with flocks of other parrot species in their wild habitat, as do amazons, macaws and conures in South and Central America.
There are far fewer African parrot species than South American, therefore less competition for food and nest holes. One theory is that survival competition from other species creates a need to become independent sooner than perhaps the grey, who does not compete with other species within its habitat. Therefore, the amazon who may receive intense socialization and survival training for a shorter period of time is better equipped to draw on its own instinctive social personality in a domestic situation. The grey, on the other hand, may need longer and more detailed instruction from its surrogate parents (we humans) before it is equipped to handle our man-made stresses.
There are reports from those who have studied African greys in the wild that they appear to stay in closely bonded 'family' groups of five or six birds, within the confines of the larger flock. The theory is that greys stay with their parents for an extended time period -- maybe even over a year -- before moving on to juvenile groups and even more habitat education.
The social structure of most cockatoos is very similar to African greys and they also typically remain in family groups within a larger flock until the adolescents become completely independent. Even when forming bonds and associating primarily with others the same age, young cockatoos will often go on living within the same mini-group as their parents, continuing to learn by observing the behavior and interaction of adult birds.
There are several stages during the physical and emotional growth of cockatoos, indeed throughout their lives, when these complex animals are highly impressionable. There are two periods that I feel are extremely critical, and potentially have the most impact on the long-term behavior and development of these birds...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 the same clutch exactly the same way. Just as in human infants, there are those babies who are more aggressive, who are naturally bigger and stronger and who require more nurturing.
Cockatoos have varying clutch sizes of typically 1-4 chicks, although some will occasionally lay 5-6 eggs. When feeding and raising these babies, the parents are extremely busy from dawn to dusk feeding and protecting their young. While we may think 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. Having the opportunity to witness the fledging and weaning process of wild cockatoos taught me a great deal about the love, tenderness and concern these parents show for their young.
Even in the wild there are babies who, for whatever reason, just are not yet ready to wean, even though the majority of other juveniles in the flock are totally food independent. So how do wild parents deal with this situation? They dont abandon the baby and leave it to its own devices, try to chase it away to get rid of it so they can go back to nest, or completely ignore it as if thinking Hey, youre 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 parental connection.
Whether this lengthy weaning process is the result of a physical or emotional need we have no way to document. What we do know is that the end result is an independent bird who is then fully prepared to continue the learning process for becoming a well-adjusted and self-confident adult cockatoo.
In the wild, when these birds begin to reach sexual maturity, not all cockatoos automatically behave in the same manner. Although the males seek out the female when looking for a mate, some are much more aggressive than others. During this time as well, there may also be some challenging by young, strong, dominant males for the position of flock leader. These are two of the times when natural instincts will be very strong in cockatoos, and when the actions we take or the reactions we exhibit can either help produce a happy, well adjusted, self-confident and independent companion parrot, or one who will be constantly demanding our attention, perhaps shredding or plucking its feathers or even in extreme cases, self-mutilation.
Other questions this brings to mind: What effect does the lack of this first-hand knowledge from parent birds have on hand-raised cockatoos who are eventually placed into breeding programs? Could this possibly be one of the influencing reasons for the difficulty some breeders experience in successfully matching pairs with hand-raised cockatoos? Is this one of the reasons many former hand-raised pets do not make good parents, sometimes killing their babies or refusing to feed them? Remember that these are only theories. This article isn't meant to 'turn aviculture around', but instead to add food for thought about common misconceptions and problems.
Are our domestically raised greys less able to handle what we consider everyday stresses because they cannot relate those human-created stresses, such as being left alone for periods of time, nearby construction sounds and sights, or the pain and trauma of someone pulling bloodfeathers, to their instinctive, genetically-driven fears of being devoured by a predator? Are the unfortunate phobias we see all too often in domestically bred parrots the result of an inability to differentiate between a human, who raised them and suddenly appears to the hand raised parrot to be a predator, and an actual parrot?
Aggression and Bonding Behaviors:
When most people think of African greys, they think of an aloof bird who may or may not stay bonded to its first primary human, while cockatoos are perceived as 'velcro-birds' that cannot stand to be anywhere but attached to their human's chest. Where problems occur are as the cute bappie grows up into a grey who does want more attention, albeit perhaps not the intense hands-on attention associated with many cockatoos. In the wild, when these birds begin to reach sexual maturity, not all cockatoos automatically behave in the same manner. This is also a period when the strong natural instinct to find a mate and breed brings about another natural behavior, which is to leave the family unit and seek out a new partner, thus preventing interbreeding.
There are many instances with cockatoos where bond changes occur during or after sexual maturity, primarily in males and more commonly in some species. My feeling is that this is an instinctive behavior which pet cockatoo owners sometimes, unknowingly, encourage. Also, when seeking a mate some male cockatoos are much more aggressive than others. Something else can be happening during this time...there may be a challenge by the young, strong, dominant males for the position of flock leader.
My personal feeling, after comparing and documenting the behaviors of male cockatoos in captivity and in the wild, is that many of the birds we often refer to as super males (particularly Umbrellas, Moluccans and some of the Sulphur-crested family) 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 often present quite a challenge for their owners around the age of 3-5 years. It occurs to me that these qualities are what best suits that leadership role in the wild.
Dealing with this type of bird in captivity can be interesting, frustrating and at times, frightening. In captivity these particular birds may become extremely territorial and in a multi-person household may feel they have to protect and defend their chosen mate against all intruders, even if that might be their formerly chosen one. In the wild, they would merely use body posturing and vocalizations to claim their territory, nesting site, or mate, with perhaps the occasional beak battle. However, the freedom to take flight along with the vastness of their natural habitat, prevents these squabbles from becoming major altercations.
African greys are extremely social birds in their natural habitats. They have constant flock interaction. A recent informal survey had some interesting results regarding long-time bonding patterns with African grey parrots. The birds in the survey were all three years or older, domestically bred, DNA sexed and lived in households of two or more people.
A common complaint about African greys is that they don't always choose to bond with the person they were originally intended for. For instance, a grey might be raised by the wife in a household, only to decide it wanted to be close to the husband a couple of years later. Or a grey may suddenly prefer a wife or child to the rest of the family, often rejecting the person who cared for it as a juvenile. The survey showed that 63 percent of nominate (Congo) species African grey males changed their human bonds between the ages one and one half and two years of age, from one family member to another, aggressively rejecting the original bonded human.
The original bonded human was the person who raised or gave primary care to the parrot when it was a fledgling and juvenile. However, percentages changed with female nominate greys, where only 16 percent changed their human bondmates as they neared maturity. This was strictly an informal survey that did not follow the closely regulated conditions that would make it a truly scientific survey. Therefore, the results only 'suggest' potential information and should not be taken as 'hard fact'. That being said, here is a theory about African greys and human bonding, based partly on those survey results.
If greys are raised in close family groups in the wild, laws of 'natural selection' would require greys to seek a mate outside of their immediate family group -- to prevent inbreeding and insure a strong gene pool for the species' survival. If it is the male grey who selects a mate from available females, rather than a female selecting from courting males, that would explain why a far greater percentage of male nominate species change their bonds to another family member than do females.
Although our domestically bred greys do not have the benefit of 'parrot parenting' to teach them how to select mates, they do have plenty of wild genes to give them the necessary instincts that protect the survival of a species. Although they may not view us humans as potential nesting mates, the instinctive urge to leave the family group (person who raises the parrot) and bond to someone else could be strong enough to make the parrot reject the first bond and show affection to another family member.
The interesting surprise of this survey was that from an equal number of Timneh African greys as nominate species greys, there was no Timneh, male or female, who changed its pair bond from one human to another. I have no theory about this, except that perhaps Timneh greys live in a different habitat, under different flock social conditions. We do know that Timnehs inhabit a more 'savannah' type of terrain than the wetter 'rainforest' habitat of the so-called Congo grey.
It is possible that, like different cockatoo species that show vastly different behavior patterns, the Timneh grey may actually be a separate species of African grey. I have spoken to evolutionary biologists who believe the Timneh to be a separate species. However, since I lack the background and qualification in this field, I have no opinion either way.
It disturbs me greatly when I hear comments that a particular cockatoo (or any parrot) should be weaned by a certain age or should be at a certain weight, as if its engraved in stone. Or when someone makes a statement such as, Moluccans are all feather pluckers, or, Once a super male goes through sexual maturity youll have to put him in a breeding program. One of the first and worst mistakes parrot owners and, in some cases parrot educators, make is gross generalizations about their feathered charges that lumps them all into the same categories, without understanding the environmental motivations and instincts that have developed within each species.
To say that African greys are aloof, neurotic and prone to feather plucking is a disservice to the species. If they don't behave like that in the wild and do in captivity, then it becomes 'our' problem to solve, rather than to lay the blame on the species. Have we created such an artificial growth environment that some greys cannot cope? Perhaps we should look toward modifying our breeding and hand-raising practices, instead of modifying the birds.
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