The Umbrella Cockatoo

It was 1976 when I first saw the species. In the quarantine of George Kroesen there were hundreds. The birds congregated in the farthest corner, each trying to hide. The facility contained more than 300 individuals. I picked two, a male and a female. The birds were easily sexed: the head of the male was larger and his eye was almost black, while the female´s head and bill was more proportionate and her eye was reddish-brown. The birds were brought home and released into a traditional flight cage containing a metal garbage can with an entrance hole cut into its side, near the top.  The aviary was wooden framed; the mesh was 25 x 50 mm in size, 14 gauge. Almost immediately the birds, which had been wild caught, disappeared inside the nest. Three days later the birds had reappeared– they had chewed their way out of the cage and had reduced one of the wooden support beams to splinters. I had been introduced to the cockatoos—a species whose beak can demolish mesh and wood without any hindrance. To be more specific, the Umbrella Cockatoo Cacatua alba.

At the time, Cockatoos were the fad. A television program called Baretta featuring a cop and his pet talking, gin drinking, telephone answering Triton Cockatoo Cacatua galerita triton was airing weekly on American television. The furor resulted in huge numbers of cockatoos being imported. Breeders were suddenly introduced to species that were formerly unknown or very rare.

After 7 years, when the Umbrellas had finally lost their fear and did not dive into the nest on seeing someone, I realized just how beautiful this species was. The male would display with the crest and wings wide open, would call while clicking his bill and would periodically bob. It was that year when they first laid. I had noticed that the droppings had gotten significantly larger—this is a sign of nesting, as the female holds defecating while inside the nest, and this along with hormones produces a larger droppings. The female also began spending longer periods of time inside the nest, so I decided to look. As I walked inside the aviary, she emerged from the nest and the two birds flew to the opposite end of the flight cage. I then looked inside the nest. There were two eggs. The next day both eggs appeared on the aviary floor broken. I had been introduced to another common cockatoo behavior: egg breakage. They clearly resented my intrusion and taught me a lesson.

About a month later, the large droppings were noted again along with the missing hen. This time I waited. Exactly 28 days later I heard a chick. A week later I decided to look inside the nest. It contained one chick, which was covered in yellowish down. The other egg had failed to hatch. The chick was taken for hand-rearing.

This early experience taught me considerable about cockatoos and sparked an interest that to this day is still strong. Cockatoos hold a special fascination.

The Umbrella Cockatoo is native to Indonesia, being found on Halmahera, Bacan, Ternate, Tidore, Kasitura and Mandioli Islands in North Maluku (Moluccas), with reports from Obi and Bisa probably being attributable to aviary escapees. The species occurs in the lowlands in primary, logged and secondary forests. I have seen them in coconut palm plantations, agricultural fields where large trees remain and in mangroves. The species is considered endangered. When I visited Halmahera I found that the population was still sizable but logging was removing most trees suitable for nesting and this I felt posed a major threat to the population. The second mitigating factor was trapping of the birds for the local trade, even though Indonesian law bans this trade. In every village I saw birds being kept as pets, some obviously freshly trapped. Most of the birds were tethered to a metal perch. I also saw how many Indonesian military offices boarded ships with one of these birds attached to the stand, presumably to sell in the next port of call.

Habitat loss and trapping are a menace to the long term survival of the Umbrella Cockatoo. The threat during the 1970s-early 1990s was from trapping for legal export from Indonesia compounded with logging of the larger trees. Post the 1990s the threat of habitat loss aggravated. Many birds (though not nearly as many as during the heyday of exports) are still collected and most of these are sold within Indonesia. Like with all K-strategist species (long lived birds), the population may seem to be large and declining slightly, but new recruits are not being added at the rate of attrition and this bodes poorly for the future survival of the species. The population is clearly aging. I have only ever seen one chick out of the hundreds of specimens kept on the islands. I suspect the harvesting of trees is playing a key role in this.

As an aviary bird, the Umbrella has as many good as bad attributes: It is imposing, hardy, long-lived, a fairly willing and prolific breeder, and widely available, but males can become aggressive, killing their females, even after having bred successfully for many years, they are destructive, can be erratic breeders, and can be noisy, calling (albeit less assiduously than Moluccan Cockatoos Cacatua moluccensis) on full moon nights.

As pets, Umbrellas tend to be highly affectionate when young. They crave affection and would be happy becoming permanently attached to their owner. They can also drive the household mad with their screaming, especially when left alone. This calling is intended to bring their owners back, who talks to the bird, releases it from the cage, pets it or picks it up. Very quickly these highly intelligent birds will realize that they can beckon their owner on will by calling loudly. By responding to their calling, the owner has unwittingly created a monster.

Cockatoos can become highly imprinted. On being acquired, they need to be trained to play on their own for long periods of time. I find that natural enrichment can keep them focused far longer than traditional toys, though feel that both should be offered.  The bird can be shown an enrichment item or toy by its owner, who should play and manipulate them, attracting the bird, or alternately can place these items in a area where the bird can find them. I have often placed split green coconuts (the fibrous covering minus the fatty meat) inside a box. The birds often spend hours destroying the box and then the fibers of the coconut. Branches with the leaves are greatly enjoyed. Pine cones, spent paper towel holders with a seed in the middle that is kept in place by wads of newspaper, palm seeds and even flowers from the yard (if it is insecticide and pesticide free) will be greatly enjoyed. The list of play items is endless. Imagination can here play an important role.

With cockatoos, I feel that intermittent interaction with its owner is better than a set daily schedule. The reason why I never recommend playing with the bird at the same time each day is that this establishes a pattern that can be difficult to break.  Also, the human schedule is prone to change. Having a bird that expects to be released at 6 PM every night can create a monster: if the bird is not let out, it may become frantic, calling or throwing things around its cage in the hopes of attracting the attention of its owner. Cockatoos many soon find can be incredible time keepers!

Rushing to the bird when it calls should be avoided, as this creates a trend that can be difficult to break. With all cockatoos, the objective should be to rear a bird that is independent, does not feel it is part of its owner´s physiognomy and that can adapt to change.

Cockatoos are highly sociable creatures. The social structure of the flock dictates behavior and teaches tolerable parameters. In a flock the members can prevent inordinate aggression, rogue behavior and much more. A single pet bird cannot benefit from the rules established by a flock—foraging periods, play sessions, preening bouts and roosting. In a cage the bird may feed throughout the day, or may preen intermittently. The behavior of flying to and from foraging grounds is thwarted. As they come into breeding condition, there is no bird available for a mate, or a bird to challenge and threaten during a hormonal rage. This is where problems arise. The birds become aggressive, even vicious to their owners. The individual will look for a dark area that they construe as a nesting site, which they can defend. Calling bouts will become longer in the hopes of attracting a mate. The bird is intent on breeding. Such aggression usually follows a period of agitation. For cockatoos that are mature, keeping any ostensible nesting sites out of reach—this means eliminating all dark areas and preventing the bird from going under the couch, behind a nightstand, inside a cardboard box and much more—and avoiding contact when the bird is visibly agitated are keys to avoid getting bit. Hormonal injections can be given by veterinarians to reduce this aggression.

I have several individuals that came to me because of their aggressive nature. I can handle all of them. I simply avoid giving them access to anything that they could perceived as a nesting site, avoid all contact when they are agitated (and this means keeping them caged during these periods), spraying with a fine mist when the birds are in a hormonal rage to distract their attention and insuring that they have plenty of enrichment to keep them occupied. When the owner is observant, even the most aggressive male can be managed and kept as a pet.

Aggression in cockatoos is seen primarily in males. Typically the aggression is directed at the female, which can be maimed or killed, even in long-term proven pairs. Usually the beak is the site of trauma.

Because of the aggression, pairs of cockatoos must be seen as problematic and their management should include all of the elements to deter mate killing. These parameters include offering a long flight cage, clipping one wing on the male to prevent him from chasing the hen, offering separate feeding and watering sites, providing a nest with a double entrance so the hen can escape should he enter the nest with an intent to injure her, providing visual barriers behind which the female can hide, and, in the extreme, bisecting the lower mandible.

If aggression can be controlled, this cockatoo can breed very prolifically. They can produce many clutches during a year.

Umbrella Cockatoos produce two egg clutches. Incubation lasts approximately 28 days. The chicks are covered in yellow down and grow quickly. Cockatoos do not acquire a secondary down like neo-tropical parrots and feather out simultaneously; in many parrots the feather growth is asynchronous. Chicks spend about 8 weeks in the nest and can take as long as three months before they become independent. Sexual maturity is reached as early as three years but averages 4-5 years in most individuals.

Cockatoos should be fed a broad variety of items, though high fat foods should be avoided, as they tend to suffer from fatty liver disease. The same applies to hand-rearing.

Cockatoos chicks are very easily hand-reared. This means that most chicks are taken from the nest and eventually sold as pets. When being hand-reared, it is best to keep more than one chick together and to encourage playing from an early age. I have always placed fresh branches, colorful palm seeds and toys in tubs containing cockatoos that are just starting to feather out. This is to teach the bird to play and to desensitize it to foreign objects (which can make a cockatoo jump out of its skin). The intention is to prepare the bird for its future home. Imprinting should be avoided especially if the bird is to become a future breeder. Future pets should also not be overly handled.

Cockatoo chicks are simply cuddly, but they mature, produce powder downs that can create an allergic reaction in many people, can be noisy and difficult to manage. Only persons who understand the responsibility of bird ownership should acquire them. The act should be seen as the same as adopting a child—but in this case the child will never mature. The responsibility is truly great and unfortunately underestimated by many. This is why cockatoos are such a common species in rescues. Acquire one only if you truly understand the commitment.