When I answer the phone and the person on the other end asks simply if I have any baby cockatoos available, I can be pretty certain that they are talking about Umbrella cockatoos.  Umbrellas or White Cockatoos (Cacatua alba) as they are also known, are the most familiar and abundant of all cockatoos in captivity. Umbrellas are so much more prolific than other cockatoo species that commercial breeders often refer to them as their “bread and butter” birds. While most male cockatoos that have been raised as pets have definite problems relating to females of their species, “umbies” apparently have a stronger innate sense of themselves. They are the only cockatoo that can boast significant numbers of hand-raised individuals who have made the successful transition from pets to breeding birds. It is likely that the availability of chicks of other cockatoo species will drop sharply as the age of the breeding imports in this country increases, but there will always be baby Umbrellas.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it?  Well, it depends whom you talk to. Unwanted Umbrella cockatoos make up an inordinate number of the parrots in rescue and rehabilitation programs around the country.  And that’s not because of any inherent flaws in their pet potential. A properly raised, well-socialized, happy Umbrella cockatoo can be a wonderful companion.

The key word here is “happy”. Cockatoos have one of the most complex psyches of all birds, and their need for closeness with other creatures makes them both endearing and difficult pets. It’s not always easy to keep a large, intensely emotional, in-your-face sort of bird happy.  A buyer who is made aware in advance of the potential difficulties is in a much better position to determine if he or she is truly up for cockatoo ownership.  Anyone who sells a baby parrot has a responsibility to make sure it has a good shot at a long, happy life with the people who are taking it home. And that is doubly important with a bird as potentially overwhelming as a large cockatoo.

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Most people who think they want a baby cockatoo have good intentions and many will back out gracefully when you gently point out some of the facts of cockatoo ownership. One of the facts that aren’t discussed nearly often enough is adequate cage size. A large cage is one of the most important factors in assuring the long-term well being of a pet cockatoo.  Committing to a large cage and the floor space it requires will quickly separate the truly committed parrot owner from the impulse buyer or the person who just thinks it would be cool to own a big beautiful bird.

 A cockatoo’s happiness depends to a large extent on interaction with its human flock, but we all have to deal with events in our lives that can temporarily affect our ability to give our birds the attention and out-of-cage time that they need. Most large cockatoos start out as treasured family members until a new baby, job change, illness, divorce or other disruption takes its toll on family harmony or familiar routines. There is a direct relationship between a cockatoo’s willingness to amuse itself for hours in its cage and the demands that it puts upon its owners. A bird in a large cage with lots of toys and room to swing, play and work off steam by flapping its wings hard, is in a far better position to cope with a much-loved owner’s temporary unavailability without becoming part of the problem.  A big cage can be an effective buffer between a cockatoo and family tensions.

So what would I consider an adequate sized cage for an Umbrella cockatoo? No less than 30 or 36 inches deep by 48 inches wide – always keeping in mind that there is no such thing as a cage that is too big. Similar dimensions are recommended by parrot rescue and rehabilitation organizations that see every day what harm small cages can do.

Yes, a large cage is expensive. But so is a large bird and all of the toys, food and veterinary care it will require over the years. It is grossly unfair to a cockatoo to sell it to someone, however well intentioned, who plans to buy a bigger cage as soon as they can afford one. If the bored, unhappy bird begins screaming or feather plucking while in the small cage, the owner may opt to get rid of it rather than invest more money.

            People often argue that the bird will be out much of the time on its play stand, so a smaller cage should be sufficient. However, a cockatoo rarely develops the same level of attachment to its cage or play area that other species of parrots do, and they can be notoriously difficult to train to stay put when they are loose. Their reputation for being destructive insures that they are rarely afforded the unsupervised freedom often allowed other parrots. At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, the behavior of a cockatoo confined for 8 or 10-hour stretches in a cage that is too small will soon resemble that of a claustrophobic person stuck in an elevator. A large cage is an Umbrella cockatoo owner’s best insurance that his bird won’t develop habits such as screaming, feather plucking or repetitive rocking and weaving.

On a personal note: No cage can solve the problem if a bird hasn’t been taught to amuse itself there. However, since I have been enforcing the “big cage” rule, I haven’t had a single new owner of one of my baby cockatoos call to ask, “What can I do to get my bird to like his cage?”  



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