Breeding Behavior and Hormones
In case you didn’t know: Cockatoos don’t go into “heat” like dogs or cats. The males don’t obsessively hunt the females or quit eating like dogs. The females are not be raped, jumped, cornered, hurt, killed or attacked in our colonies.
I was really surprised, there are no pairs forming in the Cockatoo colonies. I think it’s odd, with all of those males and females in the same enclosures, you would think a little something would happen every now and then. Nobody is laying eggs, of which I am glad, we do not need to make any more birds. I think it’s because, there is no nesting site or privacy in the colonies. The females prefer to hang out with other females and the males gravitate to other males.
Domestic raised males have the instinct to do mating dances yet, most seem to be unaware there is another step beyond the dancing. There are a few, that will go into the nest building stage.It starts in early March to May and the males group together on the bottom of the colony and show off their moves while yelling, in a low tone with their wings, out-stretched, head low, tail flared, walking around in small circles. The first time I saw this, I thought a bird must be in trouble. I ran up to the sidewall of the colony and all the birds scattered in a hurry. As if, I caught them doing something that was a secret. So, I had to hide, wait patiently, and sneak up on them, when they thought the coast was clear, then figure out what they were doing and why. It took a long time for me to catch the shows.
The males practice their “moves” and incorporate new creative moves inspired by the others. It’s an endless source of entertainment for me I see the look on the faces of some males, as if to say, oh I never thought of mixing a head swirl and stomping my feet. If they trip while practicing for the other males, they look embarrassed.
There are some Cockatoo personalities that are easier to live with than others. They have unique personalities just like we do. Think of it as, picking a roommate. Also, Cockatoos will change their personality, as they age and mature. They can become depressed, angry, short tempered …….and they can go crazy, with no warning. Because of all these things, it is difficult to get specific advice or strategies to help individual Cockatoos. I naively expected my vet to give me a cure to fix my first, feather picked Cockatoo. Even though she was picking when I got her. She was a closet picker, we never saw her pull feathers out. I took it personally, back then. I wanted to fix her.
The Cockatoo Rescue and Sanctuary was established in 1992
My veterinarian at the time 1992, Dr. Robert Shelley since passed, told me during any given month, he may see 2 Goffin’s. The people who worked with the largest number of Cockatoos daily are the breeders. That made sense. Except those breeders don’t really spend time trying to analyze why their breeder Cockatoos pick feathers or scream. They wanted to leave their birds alone to let them breed. The Cockatoo breeder birds were wild caught, which doesn’t really help us understand pet behavior. They can’t give us good advice about our domestic pets because they cared for the babies just a few months, if that. Pet stores can’t help very much, they don’t keep the babies, their sold. We could get information from local bird club meetings but, most of them only have experience with a couple of pet birds. The internet wasn’t available.
Fast forward 26 years and hundreds of Cockatoos later, I am still trying to unravel the mysteries of the Cockatoos. I want to improve their lives in captivity. I have learned by watching and from hundreds of interviews with other Cockatoo lovers, now I want to share some of those stories with you. And most importantly, how I reached my conclusions. Maybe, some of the information I share, will benefit you and the Cockatoos in your life.
I hear concerns from Cockatoo homes wondering how domestic Cockatoos, pets, integrate into the colonies, especially those who have not had interactions with their species prior. Good questions and I was also concerned, when I first started looking for property to build the Sanctuary. I read all of the bird magazines, about Cockatoo aggression heard all the warnings, it will never work…..The only other option was the traditional warehousing of Cockatoos. Something that I did not want to follow. I decided I would try it and if it didn’t work, I would have to try something else. They flock in the wild. The Cockatoos are such loving, interactive birds. Why wouldn’t it work?
Coming from the pet community, I didn’t know what was involved in managing large numbers of birds. So, I talked to quite a few breeding facilities, toured them. The breeders were very helpful, they liked the idea of being able to retire their breeder Cockatoos with me. Next, a friend and I flew to Florida, to check out a few more places. I got more ideas and Parrot Jungle, the old one that is now closed, had a set up that I loved. We visited A.B.R.C. before it closed. They had a set up that was sterile, clinical, enclosures that were all identical and in rows, cement everywhere. Every cage had a couple of perches, in the same position as the next and it looked depressing. Depressing to me but, it was clean and the cages were larger then the typical breeding facilities. I was looking for something that felt cozy and jungle-lee.
Fast forward, the first colony was for the Moluccan’s. I put them all in at once and held my breath…they stared at each other, I stared at them.
Occasionally, I will get a wild caught pair, retiring from a breeding facility because, they are no longer fertile. The female will go one direction and the male will go opposite. They can’t wait to get away from each other!
I assumed that I would be trimming toenails in the colonies. Turns out the wild caught birds, taught the pets how to bite the tips off their own nails. I distinctly remember, I noticed an Umbrella that had a couple of long toenails. I went to trim them the next day and they were already done!
There are 3 “toys” that are favorites among all of the birds, in all of the colonies.
1) The white display grid-wall is a powder coated display item from retail stores. They come in 2′ wide x 6′, 8′, 10′ heights. I got them for $5. each they had chipped paint. The birds use them, as ladders to get from the ground to upper perches. I hang toys on them as well.
2) The painted snow sledding dish with fringe beads around the edges. All of the birds use them to sit under for shade, rain protection or naps. In the Macaw colony they really love them. I use a radio flyer steel snow dish. And, add fringe using stainless toy chain with beads. The top bowl is a mixing bowl, upside down. I also make a smaller one out of bright color mixing bowls. Its a big source of entertainment for me. The birds look so silly under them. I call them party hats or perch parasols.
3) The PVC play tree, left side of photo. My knock off of the “kitchen sink toy” Photo right Grey colony
The new birds that were added to the different colonies, over the years I discovered, each Cockatoo species has a different style of welcoming new birds. I have listed the specifics under each Cockatoo heading on the navigation pane.The following are traits that all of the Cockatoo species share:
1) They do not pick on feather picked or self-mutilated birds.
2) They don’t care if the new bird is male or female.
3) Nobody cares if your bird is large or small.
4) Just because your bird is aggressive with people, it doesn’t mean that he/ she will be aggressive with his own species. If its aggressive with other birds, of a different species, it is unlikely it will be aggressive with his/ her colony family.
5) If your bird doesn’t fly it won’t be picked on. Most of the Cockatoos don’t fly, even if they can. The Cockatoos prefer to climb or navigate using the wire walls and perches.
6) If your Cockatoo aggressive to people, doesn’t mean he/ she will bite us.
7) The colonies do not pick on handicapped birds. Quite the opposite, the group will treat the bird compassionately.p
Well it was no surprise, the wild caught Cockatoos started instantly preening each other. The wild caught’s were making these really cute squealing noises while they were preening each other. They were thrilled and it was really fun to watch.
The pets, those darling, sweet domestic Moluccans, went up to each other slowly and also started preening each other. I stayed close and listened in case some one needed help…..and nothing. In this mix, there were several one year old Moluccan’s that I was worried about. Well, they watched the others and fit right in. I had my pets in that colony as well. It was so wonderful to see all the beautiful Cockatoo’s sitting together, in the sun, preening each other. They were so happy! All those years they spent in individual cages, alone.
It turns out the pet Cockatoos, even the spoiled, Velcro, marshmallow, snuggle bug birds, thrive in the colonies. Mixed in with the old wild caught birds who have been in breeding facilities, pumping out babies for the pet trade. The domestic pets were interacting with the wild caught’s using body language. It was so easy for them. They instinctively know their own kind.
Even though the first day went better than I could have hoped, it was just the beginning. I hovered over that colony and didn’t want to go the the store, because I was worried. There were times, that a Moluccan would cry out for help, it was another bird coming towards them too fast. Because the pets didn’t have experience with their own species, it was hard for them to learn body language and intent. I would panic and run to the enclosure to see if a bird was in trouble. The birds would look at me as if I was nuts. I would get there and everything would be fine. I learned, sometimes they just yell at each other!
Another thing that I worried about, males harassing the girls. That first year, I was so tense waiting for the shoe to drop. I was learning all of the subtle whines and squeals they were making to communicate, with each other. I was learning with them. I would jump out of bed in the middle of the night, with a flashlight and the dogs running ahead, only to find the birds sleeping peacefully. Until I woke them up with the flashlight. I didn’t know, that the Cockatoos have occasional nightmares.
There was the anxiety of, are they eating enough, what is that funny look on their face, are they cold, are they comfortable, are they fitting in, why is that bird sitting alone? Do they need a night light? Are they being chased or, willing participant in a game of tag?
Slowly, I began to notice, the females were hanging out, with other females. The males were hanging out, with other males. At night, they would climb up to the top perch to sleep, I wondered who made that decision and how it was communicated to the rest of the group? Who was the “flock leader”? (read more in lies) By the way, there are no flock leaders, it’s a myth. There are Cockatoos that get in bad moods/grumpy, Every other bird in that colony will give grumpy more room. I think they must communicate with each other, stay away from—-he/she’s in a mood.
I’m often asked how can I tell one bird, from another. They really do, look alike in photos and video, in person there are obvious differences. And, if I am concerned I will mark the new bird with food coloring gel. By the time it wears off, I will know the bird well enough to see the difference. Most of the pet Cockatoos say their name or they have a phrase that sets them apart.
It’s hard to tell the wild caught Cockatoos apart. Many of them come here without a name. Their wild caught bands can identify them buy, I would have to catch them to look at the band for identifiers. Something I am not willing to do, unless it was urgent, I don’t want to stress them out.
The Cockatoo colonies were/ are an experiment and I had to learn when I needed to step in and when I needed to let them work out issues on their own. It was so stressful for me.
I had a dilemma with some of the pets, on one hand, they have wild instincts yelling just below the surface. On the other hand, they didn’t have experience using their instincts in a flock setting. The vast majority instinctively mix right in and never look back. Just like people, some of the pet Cockatoos have better social skills and conflict resolution skills, others need more patience and guidance. Some go at a “slower” pace. The Cockatoos learn from watching each other, monkey sees monkey do.
We built time out, enclosures near or attached to most of the colonies. Some of the enclosures are a dog run style with smaller wire. They are usually 8′ x 8′ and set up with toys and perches just like the main colony. I named them “time out” because I also use the enclosures for birds that, are “not playing well with others”. Also, used for birds that I want to keep an eye on.
Once a bird goes into the time out enclosure, they can relax and observe appropriate behavior in the main enclosure. The watch and learn approach works really well. They see the interactions on the feeding station, how everyone snuggles together for naps, how the wild caught’s don’t like any horsing around on the sleeping perch. The pets will start rocking the sleeping perch, while wild caught’s try to nap and they don’t like it. After a couple of days, I will re-introduce them back into the main enclosure. I stay close, just in case they need more time.
Monkey sees, Monkey do
It’s not uncommon that I will get Cockatoos, that are extremely phobic or mutilators and feather pickers. People have asked if their bird will learn from the feather pickers and start picking, No, they don’t pick up negative behaviors. They will emulate the positive behaviors, not the negative. The majority of feather pickers that come here stop within the first year. The mutilators also improve.
Another, monkey sees scenario that, I see in all Cockatoo colonies. Food, birds come in that won’t eat any fresh food or pellet. They see other Cockatoos in their enclosure eat fresh food /zupreem, so they figure it must be good. I don’t have to do anything, they teach each other.
Pet Cockatoos are exhibiting obsessive compulsive nesting behavior because, they are breaking down emotionally from captivity. Instead of feather picking, self mutilation, obsessive screaming or attacking people these Cockatoos obsessively nest. I believe this because when they come here, the males gravitate towards other males. The females gravitate towards other females. The Cockatoos are not pairing off and the pairs that come in, separate! Friendship and companionship is more important.
We all know how noisy Cockatoos can be in homes, I expected that multiplied. Turns out, they are very quiet, even on a large scale. The reason, they are no longer calling for attention, they have all their friends surrounding them 24/7. I just cook and clean.
When a new bird starts vocalizing for no reason, they give him the stink eye as if to say……whats your problem?
Breeding Behavior and Hormones (in your home)
Your pet male Cockatoo will exhibit breeding behavior by putting on shows for their favorite person. You know the dance, crest up, wings out, maybe a hop or two and should you get distracted in the middle of his dance. You will get a dirty look and your bird will have to start all over, from the top! If you praise him and don’t get distracted …..he may reward you with a “private dance on the back of your hand”. This is how mixed up they are from living in captivity. It’s crazy that a bird would attempt to breed with their human. And, they will often chase any people who are near you. Good way to get bit.
The males will then start building a nest for you! The nest could be a box, bag, corner of the couch, under a coffee table or just the papers on the bottom of the cage. Please do not give them a box….it kick starts a flood of instincts that your bird will become obsessive over. They become confused and angry and its mean to put them through that. They don’t need to breed…he is mixed up. The reason I say that…? I have birds here that, followed that scenario, became aggressive and were no longer safe to keep as pets. The season only lasts a couple of months, distract them. I believe, the whole mating with people/ obsessive nesting behavior is a symptom of life in captivity/ living in a cage in our homes. Because they do not behave like that once the go into the colony. The Females and Hormones
The females can exhibit breeding behaviors, it not as common as with the males. They will hunch down and position your hand on their back. Then they will start panting or it could sound like coughing mixed with seizure movements. I urge you do not pet her, anywhere but her head when she is acting hormonal. Some of the females, during breeding season, will start the seizure movements when your talking to them. And, if she starts laying eggs it could have a side effect of egg binding, which could lead to death. Don’t mistake her behavior as “wanting to breed”. She is mixed up, confused and I have a number of the hyper sexual females. They only act like that, with humans. When they are near males in the colony, they don’t exhibit that behavior.
Which reminds me of a story. I had a Sulphur Crest female donated from a breeding facility, I was told she was wild and not a good breeder. She had been “tried out” with a number of males and still no babies. The breeder had got this female as a trade, the prior facility had also “tried” her with a bunch of males with no luck. This is not unusual, females are valuable because they produce the eggs and make the breeder lots of $. The breeding facility that donated her, was very caring to retire her here. The Cockatoo didn’t have a name…she didn’t have feathers, missing toes. She wouldn’t let me touch her, so I didn’t.
She stayed to herself in the colony. One day, about a year after she came here. I was working in her enclosure, bent over picking something up. When I stood up she said hi. I did a double take, and she climbed on me and let me snuggle her……Oh, she was somebody’s pet! Who did that to her? She climbs on me when she wants to snuggle me and climbs off when she is done. She has trust now, with me and the others in her colony
Colony Introductions for Pet Cockatoos
I have been doing the colony introductions for over 18 years. It took awhile to learn the best way to introduce new birds. We always use an abundance of caution when introducing, new birds. Each spcies has unique personalities that effect introductions.
A vital component, comes from the family that has lived with the Cockatoo. During phone interviews, I get behavior and personality information that will make the transition more comfortable for their bird. The most difficult introductions are Umbrella and Goffin. The easiest, Moluccan. Read more on their species page from the navigation pane.
It took years to learn the subtle differences between species voices. The Ducorp voice sounds different then the Lesser Sulphur-Crested. Triton Cockatoos have a different voice then the Umbrella Cockatoo and so on. There are subtle tone differences between the Umbrella happy call and the tone of an argument brewing. When do I let them work it out or, step in. Unfortunately, those are things that I can’t teach you, in this venue.
When a new Cockatoo arrives, if he/she is wild caught they want to jump right in and disappear. I watch to verify they know where to find the food and water. They pick up this information by watching the others.
For the domestic hatched pets, it’s based on personality information from their family and their initial reaction when they see the colony. Just like you, I can read their expression and body language. If your Cockatoo tenses up and leans into me, I know he/ she is overwhelmed and I need to go slowly. Or, if your bird leans toward the colony, clearly he/she is wanting to get closer. I will address this one at a time.
The Cautious Cockatoo: The first day can be overwhelming so, the cautious Cockatoo will be set-up in one of my house cages. There are quarantine procedures to address. I don’t keep birds in the house unless, they are new and the introduction is going slowly or, I have a bird that I need to watch. The cages are Macaw size. I let the new bird rest for the remainder of the first day. And, in the evening I try to bond with the bird through, dinner and a movie. The morning of the second day, I take them back out to their species colony. Again, by reading their body language, I take him/her into the enclosure and put them onto a vacant perch. I stay right there, just in case your bird is feeling panicked and needs to be “rescued”. From this point I watch as the other birds start approach. Also, depending on the species of Cockatoo, I know how that particular species reacts to new birds. Each introduction is different and based on the unique personality of your bird.
The Wild Caught Cockatoos; They are also based on body language and who is donating the bird. If the Cockatoo has become a tame pet, they may need a day or two before they dive in. Once in a while I get a pet wild caught that is in shock at the sight of their own kind. If the bird is a wild caught that isn’t tame, they dive into the colony and never look back. Watching a wild caught being released to his own species, is the most wonderful experience.
After the introductions, I still need to monitor the enclosures every day. Just like people, there can be drama and moods. Here are some of the ways I can tell there could be trouble brewing in a colony and I need to stay close:
Feathers on the ground outside of the summer molting season. Do the feathers have a shaft? Could indicate feather pulling during an argument. Were they snipped off? It could be over preening from another bird.
A bird sitting alone, away from the rest of the flock. Could be an indication that someone is picking on the loner.
Scratches or marks on the feet or beak.
Cockatoo trying to get my attention. Wing wiggles, repeating words frantically, holding a foot up waiting to step up.
Flinching when other birds come up.
Sleeping alone at night, away from the rest of the flock. Before I go to bed, I walk around to see if all the birds are ok.
If one of the birds is sitting out in the rain. The birds go under the sheltered roof during rainstorms. The roof covers about 1/3 of the colony, which means all the birds congregate together in tighter quarters.
A Cockatoo jumping on me, squeezing tight not wanting to let go.
Because they are intelligent, they know how to get our attention. They use their voice and body language to make their point. I just have to pay attention.
Once the Dust Settles / Are they Really Happy?
After the introductions are over, they are all mixed in with their new family and friends. They play, laugh, explore and settle down to a new normal life. I am, asked, “how do you know the pets are really happy”? I am going to use my pets as the example.
I have had most of them since they were babies. They are sweet, snuggly pets. As pets, they would never get enough attention, typical Cockatoo behavior. They would lay flat on my chest for hours, whenever they could. I felt guilty for never giving them enough attention. So, when I introduced them into the colony, they pouted, a little the first day. They looked around and I read it as if “EW”. I’m not eating out of the same food bowl as he is. Or, “EW” don’t try to preen me, I don’t know you! You expect me to sleep outside! It was summer!
The second day, they were exploring every square inch of the enclosure and had happy faces. Started making some friends, eating together, playing a little. On the third day, my pets were having a ball. They were hanging upside down on the roof wire flapping their wings, squealing and laughing out loud. When I went into the colony on that third day, they let me pick them up, as usual, we snuggled for a couple minutes. Then, they pulled back, looked at me …… as if to say, “OK mom, I’m going to play with my friends now”. I don’t think they ever ….. pulled away before. And, that’s what I wanted for them. It was that quick. One day they were pets, the next, they were part of a new family, their colony.
The Cockatoos don’t revert to wild or lose their tameness. They are no longer desperate for human attention. It’s like kids going away to college. They still love mom and dad, free meals, laundry and gas money but, they are having so much fun with their friends and new found freedom there is no going back. You can’t put the Genie back in the bottle. I miss my pets, even though they are just thirty feet away. When a pet Cockatoo is donated, I get to snuggle with them for a little while. When they first go into the colony, it’s fun for me to see their personality bloom. Who they pick as friends and to share that with their family.
The Cockatoo introductions are quick and instinctively, they know their own kind. It doesn’t work if you mix the species or sub-species. They may tolerate being mixed, I did it for the first couple of years, as I was still building. I mix the Major Mitchells and Galah because they mix with each other in the wild. With the other Cockatoos, it’s as if they speak different languages. A medium Sulphur Crested does not relate to a Lesser or a Greater Sulphur Crested. The birds stare at each other as if they are from different planets. An example, African Greys will growl, Cockatoos won’t recognize that as a warning because, Cockatoos hiss. An Amazon and Macaws pinpoint their eyes as a warning, Cockatoos won’t know because they don’t pinpoint. All it takes, is one bite and a bird could be disabled and unable to walk. One bite in just the right place. It is not worth taking the chance. Do not mix them, it’s not worth it.
When they are introduced into the same species enclosure, their body language is relaxed, almost a sigh of relief. I joke about the introductions, it’s as if they say, “Hey, you look really familiar”! yeah, so do you!
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