If you are the owner of a cockatoo, especially a white one, you have undoubtedly encountered their constant demand for cuddling. For many people, it is their favorite quality about their cockatoo.
Any time I pick up Linus, my umbrella, he will let all of his weight fall against my shoulders to encourage a good cuddle session. He loves it when I completely envelop him with my arms. I always found it interesting that a prey animal would feel comforted in the arms of a predator – something that in a natural setting would always be regarded as bad.
Theo, my goffin, is a “nestler”. She likes to wedge herself in under my chin or into the crook of my arm, any place of her choosing that is warm and cozy. Both birds have completely different cuddling styles.
While there are many parrot species that enjoy the hands-on attention from their owners, the cockatoo stands alone in their neediness for physical attention. Why is that? There is a theory that has been passed around for a few years now that may hold the answer. It begins with the raising of a cockatoo in the wild.
A wild parrot hatchling is doted upon while it is in the nest. As it feathers out, it is fed and kept warm and is fiercely protected by its parent. Once it fledges and becomes adept at flying, it is taught what it needs to know about foraging and survival skills. Then it is asked, somewhat impolitely, to find a place of its own and move out.
Generally speaking, this happens shortly after fledging with most species. The parents’ duties have been completed and the bird must now fend for itself. It’s not a touching story, but it is efficient, like most things in nature.
This is not where the story ends for the wild young cockatoo. The wild cockatoo is unique in that juvenile birds remain with their parents for a year or more and continue to be doted upon. Cockatoo parents have been seen in the wild continuing to feed their young well beyond their weaning age. One report observed a parent forcing a feeding on a fully fledged and already satisfied youngster. One has to wonder if the juvenile’s “failure to launch” originates with the young’s reluctance to leave – or the parent insistence that they stay.
Wild cockatoos also give new meaning to the term “close-knit family”. They tend to perch in unusually close proximity and even when going about a normal day’s activities, members of the immediate family can almost always be found nearby. Parents remain close, physically, with their young.
It is hard to call the need for physical attention an innate behavior. Those behaviors are usually those that are relative to immediate survival – such as eating or the awareness of predators, but it also makes sense that a bird might see physical contact with other member of the flock in that light. There is safety in numbers, after all, and a smart bird depends on its flock mates to help keep it safe. In the cockatoo, physical interaction might be more deeply ingrained than in other parrots species.
This leaves the question about nature vs nurture. In captivity, a human bred cockatoo is unlikely to be allowed to be fully raised by its parents. My experience is that most breeders still have the idea that they must remove the chick from the nest for hand rearing so that human contact is imprinted at an early age. They believe that this makes them better “pets”.
I completely disagree. I believe that the most mentally healthy birds are those that understand that they are birds – this is most effectively impressed through parent raising.
Could it be that it is in the cockatoo’s nature to be physically needy as demonstrated by the relationship they have with their parents, and do they bond with their human “family” in the same way? Might captive bred cockatoos require so much physical attention because of what they weren’t allowed to receive from their parents in the nest?
What is your opinion?
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.