The Umbrella is the most familiar and abundant of all cockatoos in captivity, and a fluffy, big-eyed, cuddly baby in a local pet shop is often a person’s first experience with one. Baby Umbrellas easily sell themselves in a pet store setting because of their sweet, unsuspicious nature and willingness to be hugged and petted by almost anyone. My nestbox cameras reveal that parent Umbrellas and Moluccans lavish an astonishing amount of attention on their offspring, so it’s not surprising that hand-fed babies enjoy close contact with their human caregivers. This is the trait that attracts so many people to the large cockatoos, and tragically, is what eventually drives them away.
Umbrella cockatoos can be wonderful human companions if three points are considered carefully:
First, the prospective owners must understand the level of long term care, understanding and commitment that these birds require. Large cockatoos are incredibly loud, long-lived, messy, dusty, destructive, and, as they reach maturity they become strong-willed and capable of inflicting nasty bites as they test their owner and attempt to find their place in their human flock. A large cockatoo should not be permitted on your shoulder and should never be purchased as a pet for a child. They are a poor choice for someone who has trouble setting firm rules and limits.
Second, the bird will require a much bigger cage than most owners are willing devote space to. 48”wide and 36”deep is ideal, and 46” wide by 29” deep is the very minimum size for an Umbrella cockatoo. Both of these cages should be dome-tops, about 6 feet high. (see Katy’s article Umbrella Cockatoos and the Big Cage Factor)
Third, the young bird must be raised by both the breeder or pet shop and the new owner in such a way that reduces its emotional dependence on human attention. In the wild, a 10-week-old Umbrella cockatoo is nearly ready to leave the nest. In the next few weeks it learns to fly, forage for food, and interact and communicate appropriately with family and flock members – all by closely observing its parents. During this short window of time the baby bird learns what it means to be a cockatoo as well as most of the important lessons that will serve it well for the rest of its life.
So, what happens during this same brief but incredibly formative time in the life of a young hand-raised cockatoo? What lessons is it being taught about its purpose in life and how to relate to human flock members? Too often the bird is alone in a cage that is far too small, with too few toys or other diversions to stimulate its awesome intelligence and ability to learn. It may not be allowed to fledge, or learn to fly – even for a few weeks, which would teach it much about the joy of being a bird. If it is not permitted continuous interaction with other cockatoos, it doesn’t develop the sense of self - that will help it cope in the years ahead when its owner is busy with other things. What often happens instead, is that being held and cuddled by people becomes the most satisfying experience in its young life.
So, sadly, an intelligent young cockatoo with nearly unlimited
potential is allowed to waste this precious window of opportunity by becoming a
teddy bear. The owner is happy for a while - until real life gets in the way and
time spent with the bird gets temporarily curtailed. Then he or she comes to the
unpleasant realization that the cockatoo has absolutely no idea what to do with
itself when it isn’t interacting with a person.
It screams for the human contact that it has been taught to crave – and
eventually ends up an unhappy statistic – being shunted from one home to
another until its frustration turns to aggression, feather abuse and habitual
screaming. And all because the
people in charge of teaching it to cope with the realities of life as a
companion animal didn’t do their job.
Prospective buyers would do well to be aware of the attitude of the baby cockatoo they are thinking about purchasing. Is it happy and busy with its cage and toys, or has it already learned to cry for human touch and companionship? An independent, well-raised bird will enjoy cuddle sessions with its owner all of its life, but a bird that has not been taught to amuse itself in its cage will always be a problem. An Umbrella cockatoo can be a wonderfully fun, affectionate, rowdy, lifetime companion for the educated buyer who knows what to expect.
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Copyright Hornbeam Aviary 2001