3 Mistakes You Must Not Make With A Cockatoo

 

If you are the kind of person who has scoured the internet to learn everything available about your parrot, you have no doubt come across this word “anthropomorphism”. It means to assign human traits to things that are not human, such as a parrot. An example of this would be the presumption that parrots fall in love like humans do based on the fact that they choose a mate for life.

Anthropomorphizing is a tool that many humans use to try to make sense of things that they don’t understand. However, when we allow ourselves that convenience it causes us to make mistakes in our care for our parrots, such as allowing them to “play” in a “fort” they are building inside a dark cabinet.

In reality parrots choose mates based on their ability to produce healthy chicks and defend their nest. It has nothing to do with having found their other half. The “fort” is a nest and the bird is definitely not playing. However, we are human, and it is hard to see things from a parrot’s perspective. It is even harder to WANT to see things from their perspective because sometimes it is a harsh look at the realities of nature.

Anthropomorphizing is a hole we don’t want to fall into. One of the biggest struggles we have in doing things right for our parrots is with our humanness because it makes something that should be completely natural feel like work. However, our humanness is also the very thing that makes us try so hard to get it right.

The cockatoo, specifically the white ones, are parrots that excel at pulling on our heartstrings. There are specific traits that they have that make it nearly impossible to avoid anthropomorphizing their behavior. As it turns out, the traits that make us fall in love with cockatoos are the same ones that cause their behavior problems and land them in rescues everywhere. A cockatoo is his own worst enemy.

There is an abundance of very entertaining videos posted all over that make life with a cockatoo appear to be the most fun a human could ever hope for with a companion animal. I will put money on the fact that those videos depict the day’s best 3 minutes with that bird and that the endings of some of the videos were edited out.

For anyone considering a cockatoo, I want to offer three pieces of advice that might help you avoid ruining your life and the life of your new cockatoo.

  1. Don’t allow your cockatoo to become over-excited.
    The videos mentioned above often depict cockatoos in a very excited state. They are often “arguing” with their humans with very animated, human-like gestures and voice inflections that are an impeccable imitation of human excitement. It’s impressive. However, they aren’t just pretending to be excited. They are excited. There is a tipping point with a cockatoo where excitement becomes aggression. It is very much like the child whose birthday party has become overwhelming. The event often ends with tears and tantrums. You will be wise to end the excitement while it is still of a happy nature. That time frame is short. Remember, you can always initiate more fun times later, but the bite you might receive because you waited too long will be on everyone’s permanent record.
  2. Try to keep your cockatoo off the floor.
    I know. This is a tough one. Cockatoos tend to migrate to the floor. I don’t know whether it is because they are ground foragers or because their brazen nature makes them unafraid of things that tower over them. What I do know is that they have a foot fetish, and a floor is the place where feet are most commonly found. If you notice your cockatoo quietly staring at your feet, you need to remove one or the other from the floor right away. This behavior is very common, and I feel it is tied into over excitement. Even the feet of seated people are in motion more than we might realize, and from the vantage point of a cockatoo that is on the floor, it may look like an invitation to “interact”. A cockatoo can cause serious injury to a human foot.
  3. Resist the urge to cuddle your cockatoo.
    This is the hardest one of all but also the most important, and it is the reason I went on about anthropomorphizing at the beginning of this post. The cuddly nature of the cockatoo is their biggest selling point, but also, unfortunately, their downfall. It is hard to understand why a cockatoo would want to cuddle with a human being, a predator. I know with my Goffin's cockatoo, Theo, it is a sexual thing. The minute she feels the warmth of an embrace she starts to quiver. But with Linus it is different; it feels like hugging a child. There is only a sense of the need for affection, comfort, and love; and it feels right, but giving into your bird’s constant requests for this type of interaction will result in problem behaviors. A constantly cuddled cockatoo will grow into an overly needy and demanding bird which can’t get through the day without his human. They often never learn to play independently because they are constantly seeking human attention. They become seriously high-maintenance birds, screaming until they get what they have grown to expect from their human flock member.

Those who have the best success with a cockatoo understand and dispense tough love. They know that they must never compare the behaviors of cockatoos with those of humans, and they understand that less is more when it comes to just about everything they do with their bird.

Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.

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18 comments

Jan Ford

I have a 27 yr old Cockatoo that I ‘rescued’ from a ho.e where he was shut in a 10′ × 10′ room for 3 years. We have came a long way and he is a wonderful bird. His problem is he will not step up from his cage. This has become a real issue as he is the one that decides when he will come off the cage for anything. He will step up anywhere else, his behavior is great in almost every other way. Not saying he is perfect, he’s a Cockatoo with all the normal Cockatoo behaviors! Good and bad. I am at a loss as to how to get him in and out of his cage on my direction, not his!! Can you help? A sincere thank you for any advice!

Jan Ford
Kerre Anne

I just got this Umbrella Cockatoo about 2 months ago and even though I have a blue and gold macaw I couldn’t find much on the behaviors have a cockatoo and if I had I probably have thought twice! The people I got him from didn’t disclose all of his bad behaviors and I’ve tried to have as much patience as I can but without the proper tools I didn’t know what to do and your advice is the best I’ve seen yet! He screams to no end and the other people used to cover him all the time and so that’s what I do to get them to quiet down and I hate it! I give him wooden blocks to chew and he loves them but they do make quite a bit of a mess but that’s okay. He’s attacked my son any his girlfriend. At first he was fine with my son and then all of a sudden the more he got attached to me the more he didn’t like anybody else! This bird came from a family of 7 people from kids to adult but after spending time with him and learning what I could from the old owners it looks like this was more the husband’s bird and the wife wanted it gone I’ve tried to talk to the husband about the bird but the wife or you seems to intervene when I send emails it says that this bird never had any issues… yeah right! I’m not giving up because I feel like it would be unfair to him but he’s a very sexual bird on top of it sometimes I don’t want to hold him because all he does is try to make love with my hand LOL help please anyone

Kerre Anne
Vivianne Lee

Guilty of all 3. Is there a guide on correcting behavior? Also my Goffin’s Cockatoo plucks. She’s a rescue and I got her with all her back and chest feathers plucked. I’ve tried making sock sweaters so she can’t get at them. I’ve taken her to a vet who said it was behavioral.

Vivianne Lee
Michael Chaitin

I’m totally guilty of #3 with my 19 year old female Umbrella. 36 years ago when I first started keeping or should I say parronting toos there was very little information. Certainly no internet ! I happened to make some serious mistakes with my U2. During breeding season I can’t get near her as she has bonded with me (mate wise). I feel sorry for her….I take the blame ! When things get bad I take her to her avian vet for hormone injections ( I didn’t like the implants as they were just too invasive).

Michael Chaitin
Barb s

Very well said. And I totally agree. Thanks.

Barb s
Lori

This is what I try to impart on others when they meet Casey (29 yr old Male Goffins) and in his blog. It isn’t all cutsey fun and games. It is a lot of hard work and sorry, this is anthorpomorphizing but it can be LIKE having a young inconsolable, tantrum-throwing child that bites! The key is understanding their behaviour. Casey gets aggressive if he gets over excited but I have learned how to read his body language very well. At times, I push it but it is my own fault. As for the feet… hard to avoid. He runs around when he is out but what works is good eye contact and communication as a means to avoid any beak n’ toe run ins. He can entertain himself but yes, as with all ’toos is demanding of his humans. His timer goes off at around 5 pm daily and we have to be diligent in not caving in to the screams and waiting until the lulls are present around his designated “out” time otherwise we are doomed :)

Lori
betty

Extremely wise, but difficult to follow advice. I wish everyone understood these 3 things as realities before they got a cockatoo.

betty
Jessica

This is a great article… My female Umbrella Cockatoo is the ultimate affectionate cuddler of all times. Sometimes its bc she wants a feather rub and other times it can be sexual. I have been working with Molly for almost 3yrs to break her of the, “I need my human all the time” issue. She has come a long way since she first became a family member. I have found that a routine time schedule and plenty of toys has been the most effective approach… also, she does have a foot fetish but we call it the Molly Pedicure, bc she just tickles our toes. She’s not a biter just a lover.

Jessica
Launa

I have 2 cockatoos, 1 sulfer crested and 1 umbrella. They were my aunt & uncle’s, who have both passed. The umbrella had a collar on when I got her, due to the lack of attention she was used to when my aunt was living. I have had 3years now and the collar is an on again off again thing. The cuddling thing probably explains the plucking? She can go a couple months with it off then one day she will pluck again. This isn’t just plucking, she digs a wound in her chest. She loves to cuddle and will start panting like a dog. When she has the collar on we don’t cuddle. I thought maybe she would realize the collar was a bad thing. How do I break these habits without her feeling neglected? She is a sweat lovable bird but i hate the collar on her. And she does have feet issues as well.

Launa
Margaret

I have a galah who I leave at my dads place when I cant have him at home. Now all of a sudden he has grown to love my dad. He just sits with my dad for as long as he is not in his cage.. Now when I go over to my dads place to see Rocky and let him out for a fly he goes over to my dad. When I go near dad he fluffs up to three times his size. I ignore it and give him a treat to distract him. Twice now he has attacked me savagely and I mean, drew blood. After he calms down he says “are you okay” like it was nothing. He seems very dangerous. How can I change that anger.

Margaret
Leesa Strawbridge

Yes great information. I learned all those lessons the hard way. Now I’m working on making things right.

Leesa Strawbridge
Jason

Funny people praise how great my cockatoos are and they both plan on the and I cuddle them often. I have never had a problem. As far as getting over excited, it is impossible to avoid that all the time unless you NEVER interact with them. If that is the case you shouldn’t have them in the first place.

Jason
Gayle

Excellent advice…thank you. I don’t have a Cockatoo in my life, but I have a Buff-Crowned Hawkhead. The behaviors you describe in your three “Don’ts” could be written about owning and interacting with a Hawkhead – at least mine anyway. Her breeder experienced her foot fetish when she was still a chick – around 3 months old. I have to be constantly aware of her proximity when she goes to the floor, which is often. She really likes being on the floor, and she isn’t a large bird. However, my Caique also likes being on the floor, and the two of them often go on walk-abouts. Anyway, I find it interesting how well your advice applies to my Hawkhead, who also flares her head feathers when she gets excited :-)

Gayle
Sherry N

This is great info. If only every potential Cockatoo or parrot owner would read it and listen. I’ve rescued 2 throw-away u2’s. It has taken lots of hard work, advice, and persistence. 8 years later…… My male is in a good place. The new female is still working on feeling safe. It breaks my heart to see posts about, bad birds who bite, scream, throw food, destroys stuff! This is natural behavior the human is fighting against, not working with.

Sherry N
Susan

I had a citron crested cockatoo for 22 years. He is now in a Bird Sanctuary with other birds in an aviary. I miss him terribly, but his life is better and more bird-like now. He would bite when he got excited and lots of things made him excited. Other people approaching me, playing too rough with a toy…..I used to take him outside in the yard (his wings were trimmed) and sit him on the back of my lawn chair. He would occasionally get cranky and literally lunge for the back of my head. I would take him in after that, being very careful to watch him as I carried him. If he went for my hand, I’d shift his balance so he would have to straighten up again and couldn’t bite me. Other times he was SO sweet – but yes, he could be very testy and bitey. I never let him on the floor – it always resulted in some attempt to bite me.

Susan
Jamieleigh

Sounds like using the treat as a distraction has actually been rewarding him for being aggressive towards you (fluffing up, etc) and literally trained him to exaggerate the behavior. Check out our tuesday videos on youtube; www.youtube.com/birdtricks

Jamieleigh
Laura Rankin

How easy can it be to break a Too of previous owner’s bad habits? MI e is only about 4 or 5 years old, and he is an all day screamer… but only when I’m home.

Laura Rankin
Stephen

I am opposed to all sweeping and broad generalizations, whether about people or birds. We have 4 parrots – all different breeds, including a big "Too.. Every bird is a different “person” and has his or her own personality. Our ’Too likes be on the floor but it does not cause him to be aggressive at all. He likes to explore and play hide and seek and tag with us. If he ever displays aggressive behavior in any situation, we let him know RIGHT AWAY that is not acceptable and he gets it.

Stephen

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