Some time back I visited a home for unwanted birds. As I walked around, I discussed with the director the problem of unwanted cockatoos. Like me, she has found that males are the gender most commonly found in rescues. This is because males can become exceptionally aggressive as they reach sexual maturity, or when the unpredictable nature ingrained in their genes emerges.
As I read messages several days later, a typical scenario appeared in a communiqué. It involved a Moluccan Cockatoo Cacatua moluccensis that had been a pet for 23 years. First he attacked the husband five years ago, the cut requiring 9 stitches and then more recently the wife. That bite required six stitches to the upper and another six stitches to the bottom lip. The wife adored the bird but it was evident from the message that bites were not uncommon, the serious ones only having been displayed twice.
Only after 40 years in aviculture, have I am begun to understand cockatoos. They are highly intelligent, complex creatures whose social structure in the wild is only now being deciphered. The position of each flock member is clearly defined, and males mock fight continuously, even when breeding, to spend up hormonal flares. I have seen males fight viciously in the wild but never two females. I also know that males in the wild can and will attack their mates much as they do in captivity. We simply document such attacks more frequently in captivity because the corpse of a bird in the wild has a very short life span before being found by a scavenger.
Cockatoo aggression is a problem that is primarily seen in males. I have several birds that their owners could no longer manage, or which had attacked them, resulting as described above in the need for stitches. Can such bouts of aggression, often unpredictable, be completely stopped is a question I often receive. My answer is invariably no, but then I complement that negative word with a comment that the owner can significantly reduce the risk of being bit if they learn to understand their pet´s body language.
Here are known facts that over 40 years I have verified time and time again by questioning the owners of problem cockatoos or that I have personally experienced:
- Attention or lack of attention does not contribute or diminish the probability of attack. I have seen males that received considerable attention suddenly turn on their owners, and I have seen birds that led relatively lonesome lives also become demons.
- Cockatoos become agitated on full moons. I have heard them call in the wild and in captivity. Moluccans are especially vocal. I get more calls regarding bites directly after a full moon than at other times of the month.
- The Indonesian cockatoos can nest throughout the year in captivity, with a peak during warm weather, meaning that a hormonal flush can occur throughout the year. I do not believe that the onset of the spring and summer breeding season increases the risk of attack, though firmly believe that conditions that the bird may perceive to induce breeding can contribute to an attack. As an example, I know of one Umbrella Cockatoo Cacatua alba that after 11 years of living in the home was placed on the floor of the bedroom to play with a ball. The bird soon discovered that the area under the bed was dark. It would play under the bad each day. The owners felt that there was no harm—until one day they reached for the bird while under the bed. They noticed that the bird hissed and clicked its beak continuously, both signs that when combined mean a bite is impending, but nonetheless pushed to get the bird from under the bed. The effort resulted in the hand being badly lacerated. The dark conditions had emulated a nest and the bird had come into breeding condition.
Never—EVER—give the bird a cardboard box, wooden wine box, paper bag, or access to a dark closet, the underside of a bed or couch, or permit it to chew a hole into a wall to hide. If you do, it will only be a matter of time before you will be bit. In 81% of the cases that I have documented, the birds had suddenly taken a huge interest in something dark. In one case, the bird would hide under the Christmas tree, between the boxes of gifts; in another someone had recommended placing a cardboard box for the bird to destroy as enrichment on the cage floor; in another the bird had been allowed to live under the couch, where it would hide for the greater part of the day. The list of scenarios is endless. In most of these cases, when the owner tried to retrieve the bird, it attacked.
- Never give access to mirrors or windows where a bird can see its image. In 49% of the cases of attacks I have recorded, the bird could see themselves in a window or mirror and had an infatuation for being near those areas. The attacks occurred near those areas.
- Do not think that giving the bird a playmate of the same or another species will reduce the risk of aggression. Cockatoos can be phobic and may see the other bird as a strange being to be avoided or alternately to be attacked. Pairing cockatoos or integrating former pet cockatoos into a flock of their kind is a slow process that requires tremendous patience. It may take years before the bird realizes that the other birds are of their species and not some feathered foreign entity that they cannot relate to. As an example, I have a Moluccan that was introduced to a flight cage 7 years ago. It avoided all contact with the other cage occupants until this March, when it bonded with another bird. The two now play endlessly and are showing many traits typical of their kind when interacting.
- Cockatoos that are agitated call loudly, shy away, raise their crest, strike their feet against the perch, hiss, click their beaks in an agitated matter and move in a premeditated matter. These are warning signs to stay away. Let the bird calm down before attempting to retrieve it from the cage or stand or it will likely bite. Train the bird to step up and down from a perch whenever possible to allow a better control of being removed from or returned to its cage.
Listed for periods of agitation. It is common for individuals that are displaying aggression to become perceptively noisier over a period or a week or more.
- Never allow the cockatoo to perch on the shoulder. A full 92% of the cases that I have seen involved birds that had been allowed to perch on the shoulder, where the bird considered itself to be in a dominant position. Turning to look at the bird or reaching up for it is when the bite was recorded.
- Understand that cockatoos have a strong powerful bill that can crack very hard nuts. If in doubt, give the bird a Brazilnut or a fresh branch and see how quickly the nut is opened or the branch is converted to splinters. That bill can cause a nasty laceration.
- Individuals that bite or attack often display a trance like behavior, focusing on their sight on their owner. The bird that bites in a rage one moment may be extremely tame and gentle the next, behaving as if nothing had happened. I have seen this same feeling of remorse in males that have brutally mailed their mates.
- Never torment the bird, as this is not only abuse but it can also heighten aggression. I know of one case where an alleged trainer instructed the owner to lightly strike at their hormonal male cockatoo with a rolled up newspaper, this to apparently distract it from a hormonal rage. The bird reacted by flying at the person and biting it on the shoulder. Under NO circumstances should you doanything that increases the level of agitation or can be considered punishment.
- When a bird is agitated and aggressive, ignore it completely. Paying attention to it at that time may only increase the aggression, as the bird will deduce that through its behavior it can attract your attention.
- Do not give the aggressive bird a plush toy, mop head, a wig or anything that it can perceive to be a mate and which it believes it must protect from you. More than one caller has noted that they gave their bird a plush bird for companionship and that they got bit when they tried to remove the toy for washing.
Apart from the above, there are other important considerations.
I do not like to clip the flight feathers in pet birds bird, but with male cockatoos I believe that keeping them grounded gives you some control over the bird. I recommend clipping both wings to prevent a one-sided fall that can result in an injury.
Hormone implants work quite well at reducing the mating urge and the aggression. They are not cheap and require a veterinary visit, but clinicians in Europe that have used such implants tell me that the calming effect is quick. The implants will need to be refreshed periodically, so please consult with your avian veterinarian.
Cockatoos are highly destructive birds in the wild. In every country where I have seen them in the wild, they have spent the greater part of the day destroying their environment. They remove bark from branches, chew leaves, pluck tender shoots, tear open coconuts and more. They are high activity birds that need to be kept occupied. Toys should form part of their everyday life, but enrichment is also important. Pinecones, whole green coconuts, palm seeds, fresh branches, pieces of decomposing wood, freshly cut natural wood and much more should be available to the birds to destroy. They may at first eschew the enrichment but I assure you that once familiarized they will prefer them to any commercial toy available. Keep them busy. This is not simple, but a bird who has burned a lot of energy is less inclined to attack.
When you pet the bird, avoid sexually sensitive areas. For females, this is the vent and back. Pet cockatoos often squat on the perch, vibrate their bodies and grasp their tail with a foot. This is a copulatory stance. Males should not have the vent, back or tail touched, as this can stimulate them. (Many years ago I had Dr Nicole van der Heyden scope a male pet cockatoo. I then played with the bird daily, touching the back and tail. After two months that bird was endoscoped again. Its gonads had swollen significantly, indicating that my touching had stimulated it into breeding condition.) Pet the bird on the head, upper chest and nape, or preen the crest. Male cockatoos mate by stepping on the hen's back, so the lower body should be avoided.
Never allow the bird to control play periods. Always be informal, as a set schedule in my observation contributes to demands by the birds and bellicose fits when its expected playtime is ignored.
I trust that these words will help those whose pet cockatoo is displaying aggression and will warn potential new owners of the potentially serious implication of owning a cockatoo.