Breeding Cockatoos

As I grasped the bird to place it in the shipping crate, my little finger felt a bulge. I looked closer and my heart sank. The Little Corella or Bare-eyed Cockatoo Cacatua sanguinea that I was holding had a tumor, a fairly large size fatty lipoma that in the cage I did not visualize. Quickly my mind raced. Should I not acquire it, or should I take a risk. I had been searching for some time and here was the opportunity to find a mate for the female that I owned. For the 1970s the price was steep: $750.00. I was barely a teenager at the time but this species had always mesmerized me. With a lump in my throat I nodded in the affirmative and then said “yes, I will buy it.” That particular bird went on to produce 67 young and it showed that what the species lacked in beauty, it more than made up for in personality and intelligence. The tumor was just above the vent and would have prevented mating, except that he would back up into the female. Every egg that pair produced was fertile. I no longer keep this species, though I have an empty aviary waiting for a pair that I hope to acquire when the again opportunity arises.

The Little Corellas were observed several years later in the field, along with a myriad of other species in Australia. This fieldwork, along with extended studies in Indonesia, has taught me a lot about cockatoo behavior and breeding.

Of the more than 350 species of parrots, the cockatoos are to me the most complex. They are intelligent, calculating, can be gentle or insidiously aggressive, beautiful, prolific or frustrating breeders, noisy, destructive, temperamental, unpredictable and absorbing. Once you have had contact with this group, it is difficult to ever live without them again.

Six genera comprise the cockatoos. These genera can be divided based on primary body color: the black species (Probosciger, Calyptorhynchus, Zanda and Callocephalon), the grey and pink species (Eolophus) and the white species (Cacatua). The white cockatoos form the largest group. The common English name for the group, Cockatoo, is derived from the Malay Kaketoe, whose vernacular usage began in the 1600s. That name according to A.A. Prestwich’s I Name This Parrot … is onomatopoeic.

In the course of more than 40 years, I have bred species from all of the genera and have also observed them in the wild. That fieldwork has revealed a tremendous contrast that is typical of the group. The Galah or Rose-breasted Cockatoo Eolophus roseicapillus is the most common and adaptable species. It is found throughout Australia. I have come to expect Galahs wherever there is water. Food they will find almost everywhere, as they can feed on tiny seeds and can spend considerable time foraging each day. And nesting sites, the absence of which is mitigating against many species, also seems to be no obstacle, as they will nest in tiny trees or even the ground. Pastoring activities across Australia allowed numbers to explode. This is why it is the first wild parrot most visitors to Australia encounter. They live in the interior, in hilly country, agricultural areas, city parks and even the tarmac of the various international airports. The other end coin is found in the Philippines and Indonesia.

The most endangered cockatoo is Cacatua sulphurea abbotti, a member of the Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo group which should perhaps best be treated a a distinct species rather than a subspecies of Cacatua sulphurea. Arguing points for this arrangement include a dark beak on fledging (it is white in the yellow crested sulphurea group) and a precarious status. The current population estimate for this cockatoo is less than 20 individuals, making it the most endangered of all parrots. It is barely represented in aviculture; the few birds traded in the past have probably been hybridized with other Lesser Sulphur-crested subspecies. Without it having a species designation, allocating conservation funds will be nigh impossible, as current thinking is that species and not subspecies should be the focus of conservation dollars.

As a group, the four recognized subspecies of the Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoos are in grave peril of extinction. Some unidentified forms have already become extinct, with the tiny form from Nusa Tenggara likely already having fallen into the abyss of extinction. I will never forget seeing two of these birds that were imported by the Stevens into the USA in the early 1980s. Both sat on a finger and were not much larger than a Senegal Parrot Poicephalus senegalus.

Cockatoos are island inhabitants. The restricted landmasses are what make them so vulnerable to extinction.

The cockatoos are found from Australia, New Guinea and surrounding islands, to Indonesia and the Philippines. Deforestation has created havoc in the Philippines and Indonesia, where some populations are found on tiny islands. The current push to replace tropical forests with African Oil Palm Elaeeis guinensis plantations, whose oil has seeped its way into more than half of all foods currently consumed across the globe—red oil, palm oil, stearin and a host of other names are found in margarine, chocolate, chocolate spreads, creamer, and cooking oil, to mention just a few products found in the average home pantry—has seen complete areas in Indonesia deforested. The greatest threat to the Orangutans on Borneo is the felling of forests for conversion to palm plantations. This massive expansion of the palm oil industry will eventually lead to the extinction of many island parrots, including cockatoos in Indonesia, along with large mammals, reptiles and plants. The biotic loss cannot be understood until one visits the area.

In the Philippines, the granting of timber concessions has seen widespread destruction. The precious tropical timber has been exported. The required replanting of the cleared land has rarely occurred and when it has, a single species is used. This eliminates the forest diversity required to maintain wildlife populations.

Trapping for the local trade is often an artifact of deforestation, which gives access to formerly inaccessible areas, as does the abject poverty. The cockatoo that a local trapper sells for US$20.00, a sum that is very significant in Indonesia, may sell for US$1000.00 once it reaches Jakarta. Parrot ownership in Asia is in vogue and this created a local market. The claims that the birds are trapped for export to Europe or the US are spurious, as many cockatoo species sell for less in the USA and Europe than they do in Indonesia, where they are native. The current commerce is focused on a ravenous internal trade, which no one wants to accept and yet it is very real.

My view is that if the internal trade was acknowledged and figured into the equation, arguments used by the anti-captivity lobby and the hysteria they use to raise funds will have no weight. These fanatics have pushed through the government in the USA the inclusion of many species on the ESA (Endangered Species Act) list. That listing bans commercial interstate transfer (including moving a bird from a rescue to another or to a new home if a donation or adoption fee is charged) unless both seller and buyer have permits (that will never be issued by the government). The law is supposed to protect wild populations yet it only undermines captive breeding, which can and will save many species. The trade in the range countries continues inspite of these protectionist rules, which ignore the complete annihilation of the habitat.

As a group, the Indonesian cockatoo were once very prevalent in the US pet trade; in Continental Europe pet keeping does not have the ingrained history as it does in the USA and many of the birds reared by breeders pass along to other breeders. American hobbyists produced large numbers of these birds for pets. The most prolific species was the Umbrella and this is why it is is ubiquitous in the USA pet trade. Visit any rescue and you will find several. The same can be stated for the Moluccan Cockatoo Cacatua moluccensis. The brunt of these unwanted pets are males, which turned aggressive as they matured or killed their mates and were no longer wanted by breeders. The sheer numbers of these two Indonesian cockatoo species in rescues provides a very distorted picture: They may be common in cages but in the wild their numbers are declining at a vertiginous pace. Many localized populations, some subspecies and possibly some species will become extinct in the next 20 years. If in doubt, research the fate of forests from the Philippines, Indonesia and New Guinea to the Solomon Islands.

Writing about encouraging the breeding of cockatoos has tremendous mixed feelings, especially as they apply to the USA; the same scenario is not replicated everywhere else in the world. On the one hand, I have witnessed the fate of forests throughout the cockatoo range and know that extinction is approaching ever so closely, but on the other hand I have visited many rescues where there is no more place for unwanted cockatoos. The problem is that few have adequately understood the complex nature of cockatoo ownership. The gentle birds become aggressive, even dangerous, as they age and they then become unwanted. This lack of understanding and a lack of education have created the problem that is currently at hand and which has no simple solution.

So considering the sweltering numbers of Umbrella and Moluccan Cockatoos how can anyone encourage their breeding? That is not an easy answer. The majority of unwanted cockatoos are males. These individuals become assertive as they enter maturity. In many this turns into outright unpredictable aggression. The problem started as chicks, when they were made to feel like feathered humans by their owners who coddled and played with them non-stop, and progressed through puberty and then maturity. The many of these imprinted birds will not breed. They do not see themselves as birds. Indeed, many eschew contact with another cockatoo when first introduced. But can these species be allowed to vanish simply because there is an already excess supply?

Almost all of the unwanted cockatoos are Moluccans or Umbrellas that were imported from the wild during the heyday of trade (1970s-1980s) or are the offspring of wild birds defined in biological terms as F1.  Very few people have bred them to the second generation or F2. The answer I believe lies in allowing the ever-decreasing number of breeding pairs to reproduce and encourage them to rear their young through independence. This is not easy, as cockatoo males can kill their males the offspring on fledging or are not the best of parents. Alternately young can be hand-reared with future breeding in mind. This means limiting physical contact to feeding and cleaning and then rearing them in groups. This will allow the birds to realize they are cockatoos and not feathered humans.

The situation for the other once commonly imported Indonesian cockatoo is very different from that of the Umbrella and Moluccan. The Lesser Sulphur-crested and the distinctive Citron-crested Cacatua sulphurea citrinocristata are rarer in rescues and rarely produced. Aggression on the part of the males has resulted in the number of producing pairs significantly dropping. These small crested cockatoo have a dim future in aviculture unless pairs are brought together, encouraged to breed and then the young are reared to be future breeders. If this is not done, both will become biologically extinct in aviculture in the US in 20 years, followed at about the same time by most wild populations. In Europe a lack of interest means that few new pairs are being created and that at some point the level of attrition of wild birds will outpace new recruits, the term used for youngsters added to the population. The additional problem is that the various subspecies have not always been properly identified and a percentage of the young are the offspring or more than one subspecies.

The time clock is ticking. Sadly by the time that most recognize the problem, it will be too late: the captive production will have dropped below sustainable levels and the caged birds will be too old to reproduce.

This article is thus focused on the individual whose genuine interest is to help save the Indonesian cockatoos in captivity and not on the production of young for pets.

As aviary birds, cockatoos are hardy. They have a need to fly. Observing them in the wild has revealed this to me time and time again. They should be housed in as large an aviary as possible, with 3.6 m or 12 feet being the absolute minimum length. The wider the aviary the better. The intention is to offer the female a place to escape from the advances of an aggressive male, who may injure or kill her in a frenzy whose causes are not fully understood. How this risk can be diminished has already been discussed before here, but a summary is justified for those that did not see that article.

When cockatoos first became available to aviculture in the 1970s, mate killing and injury was soon reported. Breeders responded to the threat of male aggression by clipping the flight feathers from one wing, this to slow the male. Wing clipping proved partly successful if the flight cage was sufficiently long enough to allow a hen to fly out of reach, this because a male intent on injuring the hen will persistently chase her until she is tired, when he moves in for the kill; I have seen such males stop eating and enter a murderous mental state that is not easily described. The longer the cage and more difficult it is for the male to reach the hen, the greater the chances the hen will remain unscathed.

In a long flight cage, making it difficult for the male to approach the female can further reduce the risk of injury. This can be achieved by creating obstacles inside the flight cage to make an attack difficult. A male with clipped wings can grasp the side of the flight cage or perch suspended from the aviary roof to try to catch a flying female. Solid aviary sides and a roof can make this difficult. (The enclosure can have open ends and an enclosed mid section, as cockatoos come from relatively open forest and dislike dark enclosures.) The male would then be relegated to walking to the enclosure floor, across the aviary and climbing to a perch, this while the female can flee easily. Where the cage center cannot be made solid, baffles suspended from the enclosure roof can be used. These should be suspended in multiple successions on opposite sides of the aviary. They arrangement should contain a gap sufficiently large to permit the female to maneuver her flight from one end to the other while making it difficult for the male with clipped wings to pursue her. Baffles are normally used for the smaller species, whose lesser weight may allow the males to glide some distance even with clipped wings.

Providing a specially designed nesting box is another important step. The most commonly used model has two entrances, as this will prevent the hen from being imprisoned inside, where she can be an easy target. The double-entranced nest should have a divider down the center so that the male cannot simply enter, perch near the top and block the female´s exit. The female should be able to escape easily by exiting out through the side opposite to the male.

Placing a ball on the tip of the bill has also been tried, though the beak continues to grow and the bumper (made from dental acrylic) eventually falls off. The solution (like clipping the flight feathers) is temporary at best. Some males intent in causing harm to their mate may utilize their intelligence to achieve this means. I know of one case in which a male with an acrylic bumper attached to his bill flew at the hen, grasped her with his feet and then frantically hit the female on the head. He could not puncture her beak but caused injuries from the repeated blows.

Management principals can also be employed along with the above. The most common method is to fly pairs in groups after breeding. I have found that same sex groups are best when dealing with imprinted males, though the introduction must be done with care as they can and will fight with one another. Alternately one male can be kept with multiple females. Clearly how the groups are kept depends on the individual birds. In my collection, I have some Medium Sulphur-crested Cacatua sulphurea eleonora and Moluccan Cockatoos that I can keep together and others in which more than one male will result in explosive battles. I decide how they are to be housed depending on the experience gather over time with the individual birds. As the breeding season approaches—in our case fall, winter and spring, the birds are separated in the summer—the pairs are returned to their cages. I normally add a group of females, including the former mate, to the cage where the pair previously bred. This allows the male to change partners if he so wishes. Interestingly my experience suggests that the claim that they mate for life is erring: in 37% of the cases, the males choses a new mate and do not re pair with the hen with which they bred successfully the previous year. This concept of divorce has also been observed in wild cockatoos in Australia and Indonesia.

Finally there is a contentious and sometimes illegal (in Europe, for example) procedure that was developed by veterinarian Dr. Scott McDonald. It involves splitting the lower mandible on the male. This eliminates the crushing strength. The birds can eat normally, but some will require periodic catching to cut the bill, which can overgrow. Though controversial and the procedure was eventually recanted by Scott, I know of only one case where a male with a bisected bill was able to injure his mate.

The aforementioned double entrance nest can be Y or T shaped. I have also seen drums placed vertically with a door at the top and another near the bottom to allow the hen to escape if necessary. This type of nest was shown to me at M.N.J. Sultan’s collection in India.

Cockatoo nests should never be filled with shavings. Rather rotted wood should be used to fill it to the entrance. This will force the pair to chew the wood into slivers for nesting. The behavior detracts from aggression and seems to induce the birds coming into breeding condition. This preparatory phase occurs in the wild, where the pair not only work on preparing the internal cavity but also (especially the male) in defacing the cavity. I suspect this activity is intended to deter predation by varanids lizards, which can and will consume eggs and chicks, as well as alert other cockatoos that the cavity is occupied.

Diet is an important consideration for cockatoos. The fresh imports were fixated on sunflower or safflower seed and could rarely be induced to eat much more than corn on the cob and occasionally some apple. Over time these birds or their offspring were converted to a broader diet that included pellets, fruits, green and vegetables. All of my cockatoos are maintained on a pelleted diet supplemented primarily with vegetables, greens and some fruit. We provide many of the food items that they encounter in the wild. As an example, our Moluccans are given green coconuts, which they eat in the wild. The birds will spend time chewing at the fibrous covering and then they either drink the milk or eat the thin flesh. We do not feed nuts to the cockatoos as I do not believe they have evolved to cope with the high fat content; indeed some species can develop fatty tumors if fed fatty seeds or nuts as a large proportion of their diet.

Cockatoos can be classified as easy to moderate breeders, with a few species being regarded as difficult to breed. The main difficulties in breeding them in my opinion are compatibility (a problem especially evident in imprinted individuals), male aggression and egg breakage. Aggression has already been discussed, though I am sure that the definitive word on what causes this behavior is far from appearing in print.

Egg breakage is a common occurrence in cockatoos. There are, I believe, several reasons for this. In the wild I do not believe that males spent nearly as much time at their nest as in captivity. They are, in my opinion, the primary culprits when it comes to egg breakage. Indeed of six nests that during several years contained cameras, when eggs were broken they could be attributed 71% of the time to the male. Wild nests are deep and dark. In captivity we tend to give the birds roomy and rather shallow nests. I have two pairs of Moluccan Cockatoos that formerly broke their eggs. When a much deeper nest (48 inches deep, 120 cm) was provided, the egg breakage stopped. I applied this theory after seeing Blue-throated Conures Pyrrhura cruentata and Amazon parrots in the Caribbean, where predatory birds would take the eggs or chicks if they could see the nest bottom. The deeper nests invariably had a higher success rate. The shallow nests contained far more activity than the deeper nests, where the hens tended to incubate without the nervousness seen in the shallow nests. Finally, imprinting may be a factor that contributes to the destruction, as the birds are often expected to start incubating from the first clutch, this without the experience they would have gathered in the wild by observing their parents or even by participating in the breeding/rearing phase.

In the Indonesian cockatoos, incubation is shared in captivity; in the wild I believe males spend very little time inside the nest. (In Zanda black cockatoos only the hens incubate and this may be as a result of an evolutionary trend.) The average clutch contains two eggs. The eggs hatch after 26 to 28 days depending on the species, with the shorter incubation period applying to the smaller species. The chick have a variable amount of down, which is yellow. The intensity of the down color can range from bright to a whitish-yellowish.

All of the cockatoos are easily hand-reared with the exception of the Palm, whose digestive system is uniquely adapted for feeding on key species endemic to its habitat and the Glossy Calyptorhycnhus lathami, whose thick down can cause it to overheat; it also has a slower than normal digestive system; the Glossy feeds primarily on the tiny seeds of Allocasuarina, which require a tremendous effort to collect and this necessitates that both the parents work at gathering food to satiate the appetite of the growing youngster.

When hand-rearing cockatoos, avoid high fat diets for the white species, as they can suffer from fatty liver disease. Try and rear more than one chick together, as this can reduce the often annoying crying. Introduce foods at a relatively early age. If the chicks are intended for breeding, avoid imprinting at all costs and if possible rear them in a group, so that they are fully aware that they are birds and not feathered humans. For pets, teach them to play on their own by introducing them to enrichment and toys at an early age. Do not spend all of the day playing and petting them, no matter how cute they are or how much you love to interact with them. They must develop their own independent personality; they are not an extension of your body.  Playing sessions are fine—but in moderation, erratically so that the bird does not expect the attention at the same time each day and initially incorporating toys and enrichment. The objective must be in developing an independent spirit and not a dependent child who must cling to its owner continuously.

As cage and aviary birds, the cockatoos are a favorite. They are my current obsession not only because of the plight of many species but also because of their beauty and intelligence. This is a group that the future owner, especially the pet owner, can never acquire on impulse. Cockatoos are not an easy group and acquiring one comes with huge responsibilities that many sadly can never meet. They may be cuddly but they can also turn aggressive, can be loud, destructive and controlling. With this group the saying caveat emptor is especially apropos!