Using Change to Train My Stubborn Cockatoo

Linus, umbrella cockatoo

Parrots, like people, can become complacent and fall into routines. They can develop habits that are difficult to break as they get comfortable with the status quo. Such was the case with Linus, my umbrella cockatoo.

Linus has been away since last October. He has been staying with a trusted friend, Anna, in New Mexico, and is due to return TODAY!! I am excited beyond words to have my boy back with me – there has truly been a hole in my heart since he left.

(The details explaining the reasons for his departure can be found in this blog post.)
When Linus first came to live with me, some 5 years ago, he obstinantly refused almost all of the fresh foods I was offering. I wasn’t surprised, I know how stubborn the large cockatoos can be. It was a huge concern, however, that he was also refusing his pellets.
I had purchased a 40lb bag of the brand he was accustomed to before his arrival, all of which went untouched. I tried brand after brand, but the only ones he would eat were the colored, fruity smelling pellets which contain dyes, sugars and fillers – not my pellet of choice. However, since the only thing sustaining his life at that point were grapes and bananas, I was grateful to have him on any pellet.

The plan was to modify his diet over time. It took two long years, but I finally got him eating a decent variety of fresh, raw vegetables. I could only count on him eating them 3 or 4 times a week, but that was enough to keep me from laying awake worrying about his health at night.
However, switching him over to a healthier pellet brand, the final milestone, was a line that I could never get him to cross. It was fruity pellets, or no pellets at all.

Umbrella cockatoo


Linus’ trip to New Mexico promised to cause all kinds of upheaval to his life: he would be in a strange environment, in a strange cage. There would be different sounds and smells, and a bunch of new birds. Most evident to him, I would imagine, would be that I was not there and he would be in the care of a stranger. That’s a lot of change for a bird.

I have worked hard with all of my birds to keep them adaptable and open to change, but I was very aware how hard this would be hard on him. I also know that when a bird’s environment is turned upside down, it creates just the right atmosphere for change. Being one to seize an opportunity, I talked with Anna about how we could use this to our advantage.

Since there were already a set of circumstances that were causing everything in his life to fall out of place, and he could no longer maintain certain expectations, it made perfect sense to see that aspects of his former routine were not included in his life in New Mexico. To his way of thinking, why wouldn’t his food be different along with everything else?

The fruity pellets simply went away, never to return. He ate what was there for him because he had no reason to believe that the old pellets would make an appearance in his food dish without me there to provide them. He grew to like the new ones. Helpful was the fact that the birds who were his “neighbors” at Anna’s were loving the brand of pellets we wanted to switch him over to. There is a lot to be gained with observational learning.

This method is only advantageous when extreme change is in effect. Such circumstances would include, moving to a new home, long-term boarding (as in my case) and especially when rehoming a new bird. Don’t re-introduce bad habits formed in the previous home. It is unlikely that small adjustments to the environemnt, like changing the cage positioning, will have the same results.

Umbrella cockatoo

Life is full of changes for people, and for the parrots who live with them. But there is good that can come from all the craziness. When routine becomes disrupted, and change is forced, we can use it as an opportunity to better our lives by not falling back into old habits once new ones have come into practice. Sometimes, our greatest acheivements come when we have no choice but to move forward.

NOTE: When dealing with parrots, you must always be sure to watch that their stress levels do not exceed their ability to cope. This may present itself with screaming and nervous behaviors, such as pacing or foot and nail biting. If you see these signs in your bird, you are pushing too far and fast and should backtrack slightly giving him more time to adjust without feeling overwhelmed. Whenever you make changes to your bird’s diet, be careful to monitor weight. No matter what, your parrot MUST eat enough to keep healthy!

Author 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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