Breeders, white cockatoos and weaning parrots

Rosemary Low

Can there be anyone who reads parrot magazines who is not aware of the fact that white cockatoos are too demanding to make suitable pets? That is putting it mildly.  Many, perhaps even the majority, of these highly intelligent and (when young) irresistibly appealing birds, end up as unwanted or abused. They develop serious psychological problems that manifest themselves in problem behaviours such as biting, screaming and feather plucking. If you think I exaggerate, read some of the case histories related below by Wendy Huntbatch of the World Parrot Refuge in Canada. These heart-breaking stories are just a sample. She has enough to fill a book.

The sad lives of these birds are transformed when they enter the Refuge. As well as the loving care and understanding of cockatoo needs that Wendy bestows, they have something fundamental to their being that no ordinary parrot keeper can emulate: a flock situation. Those that can fly are kept in huge flights with other white cockatoos. Here they can choose their partner or, if what they really need, at least initially, is human contact, special volunteers are present just to play with the cockatoos. Under these circumstances, the screaming, plucking or biting soon subsides and those cockatoos which have not destroyed their feather follicles after years of self-plucking, grow feathers again.

                                                Flights for macaws (left) and cockatoos at the

World Parrot Refuge on Vancouver Island, Canada.

To see these cockatoos and how their lives have been turned around just tears at your heart. Cockatoos are capable of such tender affection, to a mate of their own species or to a human. They are uniquely sentient birds whose capacity and need for affection can be understood only by someone who has had a close relationship with one. I believe there is not one owner in a hundred who can provide what they need, because of the constraints of time and the high level of commitment required. The World Parrot Refuge has hundreds of parrots of dozens of species but they are much less demanding than white cockatoos. The macaws, for example, even though most are tame, soon revert to the natural behaviour of living in pairs high up in the aviaries – the equivalent of the rainforest canopy. While some of the cockatoos, probably wild-caught adults, behave like this, most of them never lose their desperate need for human contact that is the result of hand-rearing and, in many cases, of forced weaning at an early age.

On too many occasions I have received a telephone call from someone who has bought a white cockatoo – and is now paying the price. One lady told me: “I have just bought a copy of your book The Loving care of Pet Parrots. How I wish that I had read it before deciding to buy a cockatoo. Everything you said has come true…!” In the book I warn about the demands of tame cockatoos that cannot be met by those who go out to work.

She was not an unthinking lady who had carelessly embarked on buying a young hand-reared bird. She had wanted to do everything possible for her pet, who she loved dearly. She had even built an aviary in the garden so that when she was out her cockatoo could play and exercise there. The problem was that she worked and when she returned home the cockatoo screamed so much that, very reluctantly, she had to part with it. In fact, the breeder took it back. So already this young bird had lost its first home. I believe that the majority of white cockatoos spend less than three years at their first location.

                                                Could you cope with a screaming, biting Moluccan Cockatoo?

The breeder told her that she had also taken back from the people who bought them as hand-reared youngsters, the other two she had reared. Her plan was to use them for breeding. Yes, she had already encountered this most common of problems so she proposed to perpetuate it by producing even more hand-reared cockatoos! Was it a coincidence that all three young were returned? I think not! I think it was the breeder’s fault.

Why do I blame breeders? Almost all of them sell white cockatoos before they are fully weaned. They sell them at 15 or 16 weeks or even before and tell the buyer that they are weaned, or that they might need one feed a day for a couple of weeks. These cockatoos have been forced-weaned, that is, made to eat on their own before they are physically and emotionally ready. The only exception to this weaning age is that of the Australian cockatoos such as the Bare-eyed or Little Corella, which weans much earlier (also the Galah, but I am only considering white cockatoos here). Their temperament is different, much more independent than the large species such as the Moluccan and the Umbrella that are usually sought as pets because they are so “cuddly”.

While working as curator at Loro Parque and Palmitos Park, I personally hand-reared many cockatoos: Moluccans, Umbrellas, Tritons, Goffin’s and Lesser Sulphur-crested. Many people commented on the Moluccans, for example, because they were so large. The key to producing healthy and psychologically sound white cockatoos is in prolonged weaning. In my experience, they are normally weaned between the ages of five and six months. I was happy to feed them until they weaned naturally. Of course commercial breeders cannot do this because feeding cockatoos for so long would be too time-consuming. There would be no profit in it.

Forced weaning has profound psychological effects on white cockatoos, more so than any other species I have hand-reared (more than 100 species of parrots). It makes them exceedingly anxious and clinging. They go on to become screamers, seed-flingers, pluckers and, in the worst scenario, self-mutilators (they gauge out areas of flesh, usually from the breast). I am not pretending that wild-caught cockatoos never show these traits but the incidence is low.

                                      

Plucking of breast feathers and then self-mutilation in that area is typical of cockatoos that have suffered years of neglect or abuse. This Umbrella Cockatoo finally found a safe permanent home.

Several years ago a lady sought my advice regarding an Umbrella Cockatoo which she had bought as weaned. She could not persuade it to feed on its own. She had sought advice from many people and always the answer was the same: cut out the hand-feeding and make it feed on its own. I am appalled that breeders and other people are so ignorant on the subject of weaning parrots.

They fail to understand a fundament fact. When a young parrot is hungry, and unable to eat enough hard food to sustain it, it will be anxious and miserable and disinclined to feed on its own. As soon as its crop is full or nearly full, it will start to nibble at the food provided. Young cockatoos that are permanently hungry will be continually whining to be fed. In other species hunger might manifest itself as biting. All species will be susceptible to ill health at an age when their immune system is not yet fully functional. So food deprivation affects them physically and emotionally. This has an impact that will affect the behaviour of a cockatoo or parrot for the rest of its life and make it hard to live with.

The second mistake that parrot breeders make is to tell the purchaser that the young bird is feeding well on pellets and/or seed. The easiest way to kill a captive-bred young bird, whether it is a Canary or a Cockatoo, is to force it to eat hard foods too soon. Young parrots (and Canaries) need soft foods. They will eat some seed or crumble up some pellets but these hard foods cannot sustain them. They will gradually lose weight and, in the worst cases, die, unless they consume more easily digested items. Many people ignore the fact that the larger cockatoos spend many months with their parents after fledging. The parents feed them regurgitated foods for many weeks. Yet breeders expect them to eat hard foods before they would even have left the nest if they were in the wild. Go against nature in such a vital aspect as the digestive system of a young bird and you court trouble.

Many young parrots suffer weaning regression when moved to a new home. Hand-feeding will tide them over this difficult period. Again I am appalled at the number of breeders who tell purchasers than on no account should they hand-feed the new purchase because if they do it will never learn to eat on its own. This advice can amount to a death sentence. The following foods should be offered: whole grain bread, thawed frozen sweetcorn and peas, fresh young corn (not hard cobs), pomegranates and other fruit such as juicy, sweet Satsumas and grapes. Cooked red peppers and other warm cooked vegetables also appeal. Warm cooked pasta with a little tomato sauce is another excellent food. Many parrots also like seeded batch bread moistened with lory nectar.

Unfortunately, it seems that breeders give incorrect or very poor advice regarding the diet. I know this from the number of people who phone me about the most basic aspects.  When I ask what the breeder advised it is evident that in many cases the purchaser is given some seed or pellets with no further instructions. While it is true that the purchaser should have done his or her homework on this subject, they expect the breeder to give better advice than is available elsewhere.

To sum up, the first mistake that breeders make concerning the future welfare of the cockatoo is to sell it before it is fully weaned. The second mistake is to give totally inadequate advice about diet. Because hand-reared cockatoos are very expensive birds, it is unfortunate that the eagerness to sell seems to override concern for the cockatoo’s future. No purchaser of a young, adorable-looking hand-reared cockatoo has any conception of the degree of commitment required unless they have kept such a bird before. It is highly unlikely that the breeder will warn the prospective purchaser unless he or she is one of those rare individuals who really puts the future welfare of the cockatoo before everything else.

Unless the breeder is fairly inexperienced (but who starts with cockatoos?) the chances are that they are commercially orientated. I already asked the question is there really anyone in the parrot world who does not know what is in store for most hand-reared white cockatoos?  Even ten or 20 years ago real parrot lovers were misguidedly hand-rearing these birds. Now that the problem is so well known, and parrot rescue facilities with sad, plucked and demented socially-deprived cockatoos are even seen on TV programmes, only the commercial breeder who cares more for money than for birds, continues to hand-rear them.

In Canada Mark Hagen runs the biggest commercial parrot breeding operation. His company produces parrot foods and cages that are known all over the world. He told me a couple of years ago, and reiterated this statement when I met him in September, that he no longer considers it ethical to breed cockatoos. There are so many parrot species that can make good pets. Why add to the rapidly rising numbers in parrot refuges in North America? Why add to the misery that so many of these highly sensitive and intelligent cockatoos must endure, sometimes for decades.

The misery will end only decades after white cockatoo breeders shut up the nest-boxes forever. Even if that happened tomorrow, the supply of sad and abused birds to refuges would not dry up for another 50 years. Some people are dedicating their lives to repairing the damage that breeders have done. Cockatoo breeders: please take your heads out of the sand where they have been buried for at least a decade. The blame lies firmly on your doorstep. If you really love cockatoos you will stop breeding them now. And parrot owners, if you love them you will stop buying them from breeders. Only if there is no demand will the market dry up and the misery end.

World Parrot Refuge - website



 

 
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