A few months ago a young woman telephoned from Denver, Colorado with questions about a baby cockatoo that she had recently purchased from a pet shop. She had seen my breeder ad in a bird magazine and hoped that, since I specialize in cockatoos, I would be able to help. She sounded near tears and in the background was the unmistakable sound of a crying baby cockatoo. 

Her story was far too common. She had fallen in love with a sweet, boisterous, four-month-old male Umbrella in a local pet shop.  The shop owner told her that the baby was still being syringe-fed once a day but was eating by himself and “was scheduled to be weaned at the end of the week.”  Things went reasonably well when she first brought him home.  He would enthusiastically gobble down his morning formula and then nibble at soft food and pellets.  He played happily with his toys and seemed to enjoy cuddle time with his new owner.  However, as late afternoon approached, his attitude changed.  He would sway back and forth, crying to be hand-fed. His owner tried to tempt him with different foods in his dishes but he wasn’t interested.  The pet shop people assured her that he was just stressed from the move and would come around.  After all, he knows how to eat by himself!”

The problem came to a head that weekend when, in accordance with the shop’s instructions, she eliminated his morning syringe feeding.  Instead of nibbling on soft food and pellets, he cried. Instead of playing with his toys, he cried. He even cried during the cuddlefests that they had both enjoyed so much.  Being an intelligent, caring person with a healthy dose of common sense, she relented and syringe-fed him, and as if by magic he was transformed back into the happy baby she had fallen in love with.  His owner correctly decided that she had been given bogus information by the pet shop and she made an appointment with a veterinarian to rule out the possibility of physical problems.  The resulting tests revealed nothing wrong, and the vet sternly gave her “one week to get that bird weaned before he is spoiled beyond help. He knows how to eat by himself!”  That’s when, in confusion and desperation, she began making phone calls.   

Weaning is often described as being a difficult time in a young bird’s life, not to mention that of the person doing the weaning. However, after several years of using surveillance cameras to monitor breeding cockatoos in their nest boxes and flights, I have come to believe that weaning only becomes difficult when we human foster parents ignore the natural time frame that governs a baby cockatoo’s development no matter if he is growing up in a nest cavity in his homeland or a brooder in my nursery.       

While climbing, perching and flying are acquired skills that a baby cockatoo must learn before it can safely leave the nest, a chick is not genetically programmed to begin searching for food until after it has become skilled enough to keep up with its parents on foraging flights.  There is nothing to eat in a nesting cavity.  In all the years we have been using cameras to monitor breeding cockatoos in nest boxes, I have never seen a parent bird bring uneaten food to a chick - although this may differ with other species of parrot.  A parent-raised baby Moluccan or Umbrella cockatoo depends entirely on regurgitated food for at least the first 12 to 14 weeks of its life.  For three months, it will never occur to the baby that food might come wrapped in any sort of package other than a parent’s crop.

Barney and Sweetie are a devoted, well established pair of wild caught Moluccan cockatoos that were encouraged to raise a chick to be held back for our breeding program. It has become apparent in the past few years that hand-raised, people-imprinted pet cockatoos rarely become successful breeders and I felt that a young bird that was allowed to remain with its parents and grow up free of identity conflicts would have the best possible parenting potential. Since we know almost nothing about the family life of wild cockatoos, particularly Moluccans, this would be a wonderful opportunity for me to learn more about these beautiful, sensitive and sometimes difficult birds.  While all of our breeding ‘toos are encouraged to care for their chicks for three or four weeks, this would be the first time we had attempted parent weaning.

 As I monitored his nest box by surveillance camera, every hour or so Barney entered the box to feed and gently preen his 8-week-old daughter, Sadie. It was late spring and the warm afternoons made the interior of the nest box uncomfortably warm for three large birds, so the parents had begun spending most of their time outside. The feedings always seemed small . . .perhaps just a few pellets or bits of grain, legumes and dandelion greens picked from their outdoor flight.  Sadie’s crop seldom appeared more than a quarter full, but she was content and obviously enjoyed the frequent interaction with her father.

By breeding cockatoos in captivity we have removed the danger along with most of the challenge associated with climbing, perching and flying, but we have done nothing to alter the wild bird time clock in our homegrown babies’ heads.  It is likely that a hand-fed baby bird that is encouraged early on to nibble at food in bowls derives some extra degree of comfort from eating more often even though the amount ingested is minimal. In some small way these tiny feedings may mimic the nearly constant level of feeding and attention that parent birds lavish on their offspring. I feel doubtful, however, that it does much to awaken an early interest in food finding. As long as the hand-feeder keeps food in its crop, the baby will spend time nibbling, peeling, grinding, playing with and sometimes even eating food from dishes. If the caregiver makes the mistake of allowing the chick to become hungry in an effort to get it to show more interest in eating on its own, the strategy promptly backfires. Suddenly a perfectly normal, happy baby bird is confronted with the awful, instinctive realization that something must be very, very wrong.  Surely, if his parents were alive he wouldn’t be hungry. The baby ignores the bowl of food and begins crying to be fed. It doesn’t occur to him to bury his face in his food dish because searching for food isn’t yet part of his programming.  The food is suppose to come to him. If that hunger is allowed to continue for extended periods the baby also begins to exhibit signs of overwhelming uneasiness, fear, and sometimes aggression. You have to teach a baby cockatoo to cry!

 Sadie spent every waking hour moving around the dim confines of the nest box. I watched her standing on tip toe, spinning in dizzy circles, playing with wood chips or splinters, practicing full feather fluffs, watching and listening for returning parent birds, but mostly trying to hoist her pudgy body up to the entrance hole for a peek out.  As fledging time approached she became less interested in food and more concerned with what was going on outside. When she was about 10 weeks old I watched her father return several times in a 30-minute period offering feedings that she stubbornly refused.  She seemed to know instinctively that baby fat must be jettisoned if her untried wings were going to support her weight on their first flight.

Unfortunately, human foster parents sometimes mistake this temporary lack of interest in being fed as a signal that the baby is eating on its own and is ready to begin weaning.  Nothing could be further from the truth. No matter how smart, tough and independent it may pretend to be, (Goffin’s and Greater Sulphur Cresteds are notorious for this) a baby cockatoo simply doesn’t begin to take food finding seriously until it feels confident in its ability to keep up with its flock.  It doesn’t matter whether the chick is soaring through the forests of its homeland or flapping gleefully around my kitchen, the instinctive fear of being left behind by parents and siblings or its human flock is very, very real.  For a short time in its life this fear far outweighs the baby’s need for food. 

There is nothing quite like the joy and exuberance exhibited by baby cockatoos while they are learning to fly.  They appear as light and buoyant as butterflies as they fly straight on at one another in mock games of “chicken”.  I had supposed that hummingbirds were the only birds capable of hovering or flying backwards, but baby cockatoos come very close to duplicating these feats as they meet in mid-air and take long moments deciding who is going under or over  - all the while shrieking happily at the top of their lungs.

            All during the weeks that a baby cockatoo is preoccupied with perfecting its flying skills and building up the strength necessary to accompany the adults on their searches for food and water, the parent birds, most often the male, will continue to feed it. 

When Sadie left the nest, her only interest seemed to be in flying. She hung around the box for a couple of days, but once she took off there was no stopping as she flew back and forth between perches in the 16-foot outdoor flight.  She flew easily from the beginning and within days it was impossible from a distance to tell her from her parents, except that she was far more active. Her father fed her whenever he noticed her sitting still for any length of time, as if he worried that she might be playing too much and not getting enough to eat.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about cockatoos, it’s that their sense of adventure doesn’t extend to what they put in their mouths.  If flying was exhilarating play for Sadie, learning to feed herself was more like work.  All of my birds get a cooked bean/rice/corn mix every day, which also contains things like pasta, raisins, carrots and peas.  She would sit on the edge of their large food crock and watch as Barney picked up a morsel of food. As he lifted his head from the dish, Sadie would carefully reach over and take the piece of food with her beak. Then she would hold it gingerly while her father picked up another chunk of food for himself.  If he happened to pick out the same thing that Sadie was holding, she would watch carefully and try to peel and eat her piece the same way that he did. If he picked up something different, she would drop her chunk of food and take his again until they both ended up holding the same thing. It was several weeks before she became confident enough to choose and eat items of food from the crock by herself. If she had been following her parents in the wild, no doubt it would have taken much, much longer to learn to locate and recognize each edible seed, nut, root, shoot, stem, bud, fruit or berry and then determine whether it needed peeling, cracking or shredding.  But no matter how long it took, her father and mother would have been close by, willing to feed her when the task grew too frustrating or difficult.

Probably nothing has fostered the myth that baby cockatoos are difficult to wean so much as the belief that they can be “spoiled” by continuing to hand feed them beyond the point where they begin feeding themselves.  Baby cockatoos are not spoiled by continued “comfort” feedings, but it is easy to create a clingy, whiny, overly dependent bird by ignoring its need to be fed.  It’s a matter of attitude. A young cockatoo that has never experienced prolonged periods of hunger is rambunctious, curious, independent, playful, incredibly affectionate and a joy to be near.   A bird that weaves back and forth crying plaintively for food or attention has learned early on that the world is a place of hunger, uncertainty and indifference.  There is little wonder that it derives so much comfort from being cuddled and held. 

When she was 10 months old, something happened that made me realize how important continued comfort feeding is to the wellbeing of a young bird.  One morning I noticed that Sadie had gotten some long strands of sisal rope wound around her leg. She didn’t seem particularly bothered, but I was afraid she’d get hung up on something so as gently as I could, I netted and toweled her and cut off the rope. There was nothing wrong with her lungs! At such close range I thought her screaming would deafen me. I returned her to her parent’s flight and went about my chores.  For the first time in several weeks I saw Sadie, visibly shaken and subdued, solicit feeding from her father.  Barney fed her several times that morning, and by the next day she was back to being her rowdy, independent self, refusing all offers of food.

Breeders often speak of the possibility of “feeding regression” or backsliding when a baby cockatoo goes to its new home as if it was something to be feared or ashamed of instead of the predictable occurrence that it is. How traumatic it must be for an anxious, stressed out “orphaned” young bird who knows instinctively that he still needs teaching and protecting, to have his new family refuse him something so basic as feeding!

I let Sadie stay with her parents for nearly a year. Barney still tried to feed her but she refused his offers more and more often. I feel certain that in the wild she would have stayed near them for much longer, perhaps even after their next clutch fledged while she learned to care for herself. However, our 20 feet of combined indoor/outdoor flight space wasn’t room enough to give the pair of adult birds the privacy they needed to go back to nest, which they obviously wanted to do.  Instead of going off, perhaps with other young fledglings or older siblings during the day on short exploratory flights, this bubbly, active young creature was cooped up with her more sedate parents.  Poor Sweetie!  Whenever she tried to slip back into the nest box for a bit of housekeeping, Sadie would come swooping in to see what she was up to.  As I watched the monitor I smiled many times as Sweetie carefully scooped out a depression in the wood shavings while Sadie, chattering excitedly, tried to help, usually covering it up again. After awhile Sweetie would give up and go outside to sit while Sadie pestered Barney to play.  Both adult birds remained gentle and affectionate with their daughter and at night the three of them always sat tightly together on the highest perch with Sadie sandwiched safely in the middle.

          So. . . . .back to the new owner of the baby Umbrella cockatoo.  She had been wise not to allow his hunger to continue long enough for him to lose trust in her ability to care for him.  I explained to her how my “weaned” baby cockatoos are always sent to their new home with a bent spoon, baby food and a frozen quantity of the familiar bean/rice/corn mix that is easy to finger-feed. I instruct new owners to start by spoon-feeding the baby twice a day, before it cries, which will eliminate most of its worry and anxiety at being separated from everything familiar in its life.  This should be done even if the bird had previously been refusing feedings and should continue until he is settled in and comfortable in his new surroundings and realizes that his new family is capable of nurturing and protecting him. We agreed that she would phase out the syringe and baby food as soon as possible in favor of hot, lumpy foods fed with a bent spoon or fingers. This would make the transition easier because she would be showing him what foods were good to eat, just as his parents would.  She should keep in mind that cutting down the number of feedings isn’t nearly as effective or natural as reducing the amount of each feeding. Often a single spoonful is enough to jumpstart a baby’s interest in feeding itself.  She understands that even when he refuses feedings, she will need to watch for those days when he might be too excited, tired or upset to eat by himself.  A baby cockatoo who knows that his caregivers are willing to support him by offering comfort feedings when necessary will not get into the habit of crying to be fed and will cope easily with each new development in his life.  Baby cockatoos aren’t supposed to cry!

 

 

 

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