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The Magnificent Cockatoos – Pros and Cons for Potential New Owners – Part 2

Cockatoo in SydneyStriking in appearance, playful and affectionate when socialized, hardy and possessed of complex, interesting personalities, Cockatoos have much to recommend them as pets (please see Part I of this article for more information).  Today, however, I feel it is important that we also consider some of the difficulties that may face the Cockatoo owner (or person owned by a Cockatoo!).

Need for Contact

A high degree of sociability renders Cockatoos as wonderful companions but in need of a great deal of human contact.  Even more so than many other parrots, Cockatoos left alone for long periods nearly always begin to scream or to pluck their feathers.

A typical working schedule does not allow for enough interaction time…two birds should always be kept in such situations (on the positive side, Cockatoos often get along well with other parrots, including lovebirds and other small species).

Housing Considerations

Cockatoos are extremely active and need a very large cage  or outdoor aviary.

The degeneration of powder-down feathers forms a fine, powdery “dust” that Cockatoos use in grooming and waterproofing their flight feathers.  This material spreads like windblown ash, and invariably winds up on furniture, clothes and floors.  Air filters and spraying the bird with water daily (Cockatoos like this!) will help, but powder down will remain a fact of life for the Cockatoo owner.

Potentially Troublesome Characteristics

Palm CockatooEven by parrot standards, most Cockatoos have very loud voices.

Cockatoos are inveterate wood chewers, and can demolish furniture and perches that would stand up to the largest macaw (or, it seems, axe!).  Interestingly (or annoyingly!) they are quite systematic in their “projects”…once a potential target has caught its eye, your Cockatoo, no matter how well trained, will usually find a way to get at it.


While most species can learn to repeat a few words, Cockatoos are not the most gifted mimics (they do excel in learning tricks, however).

Further Reading

You can read about a unique “digging” cockatoo, the Long Billed Corella.

An interesting article on powder down and its relation to health and illness in cockatoos is posted here.

For some idea of the impressive carrying power of a cockatoo’s voice, check out this video.



Cockatoo in Sydney image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Snowmanradio
Palm Cockatoo image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Doug Jansen

Light and Color Vision in Birds – Improving our Pets Quality of Life

Recent research on avian vision at Sweden’s Lund University has revealed that birds lose their ability to see color at twilight.  These findings have inspired me to consider how we might use lighting in order to improve the health and breeding potential of captive parrots, finches, doves and other birds.

The Findings

The article, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, points out that birds need 5-20 times the amount of light as do humans in order to see color.  By day, birds have extremely sharp color vision, and see both UVB light and a far greater range of colors than do people.  However, their color vision disappears at twilight – far earlier in the day than does that of any other animal studied thus far.

Light’s Effect on Captive Birds

I believe it is important that we consider the type of light we provide to our birds…the zoos in which I have worked are now experimenting with full spectrum lighting in their bird exhibits.

Poor light quality and intensity may explain the difficulties experienced in breeding otherwise hardy bird species in captivity.  Light can have some unexpected implications for reproduction.  Captive female desert iguanas (lizards native to Southwestern North America), for example, rarely reproduce unless given full-spectrum lighting…without UVB light, they cannot see the pheromone trails laid down by males.

Similar scenarios are likely at work where birds are concerned.  Indeed, there are indications that proper levels of UVA and UVB light encourage natural behaviors, reproduction and strong immune systems in captive birds.

Providing Birds with Appropriate Light

Fortunately, a number of options are open to bird owners.  Exposure to natural sunlight (bearing in mind that glass and plastic filter out UVB rays) is the best of these, but when this is not possible a high quality Full Spectrum Bird Lamp should be utilized.

Further Reading

The new findings on light intensity should be valuable in explaining certain aspects of bird evolution and behavior.  For example, the chicks of Gouldian, firetail and zebra finches, all of which nest in dark tree hollows, sport light-reflecting nodules near their mouths.  To read more about this survival strategy, please see my article Flashy Finch Chicks.


Smoking, Nicotine and Pet Birds – Expected and Unexpected Health Concerns

The hazards of second-hand cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke to non-smokers have been well-accepted for years.  As many have expected, these health concerns extend to the lungs and hearts of pets exposed to smoke as well.  New evidence, however, indicates that nicotine may be harmful not only to bird respiratory systems, but also to their skin.

Respiratory Disease

Birds are especially sensitive to airborne toxins…so much so that canaries and other species long played a vital role in warning workers of the presence of poisonous gases in underground mines (the birds weakened and died long before the fumes affected the miners).  It is, therefore, not surprising that veterinarians have documented a high frequency of respiratory disorders and eye irritations among birds kept by owners who smoke indoors.

However, it has also become apparent that problems of a different nature are also affecting birds owned by smokers, even when the birds are never exposed to second-hand smoke.

Nicotine on the Skin and Feathers

Nicotine is readily absorbed through the skin of some animals and clings to hair, fur and feathers.  In the course of working with amphibians in zoos, I’ve been made aware of many frog and salamander deaths that occurred, often instantaneously, after the animals were handled by someone who had smoked and not washed well afterwards.  It now seems clear that nicotine lingering on fingers also causes dermatitis and other skin afflictions in pet birds, and may lead to their deaths.

Birds with nicotine-stained skin often pick at their feathers, nibble on their feet and otherwise exhibit signs of discomfort.  Dermatitis often follows, with small sores or areas of eroded skin developing.  Birds so afflicted will pick at these areas and the scabs that form, opening an avenue of attack for opportunistic bacteria and fungi.  These micro-organisms (which are always present in the environment) can cause severe and potentially fatal infections.

Further Reading

To read more about the dangers posed to birds by nicotine and other common toxins, please see this article.


Photo by jdurham from Morguefile

Towards Balanced Bird Diets – That Pet Place Variety Treat Packs

The importance of dietary variety is a constant (annoyingly so, some say!) theme in my writing.  In my own and zoo collections I have noticed improved health, color, vitality and breeding success when appropriate variety is introduced to most any type of bird.  Providing foods in different forms, especially where birds must search or otherwise “work” for their food, is also a very useful means of improving the general quality of their lives.

I have found that even birds that are known to live long captive lives on somewhat limited diets show great improvements in their condition when variety is introduced.  Be it frogs offered to fishing owls or fresh sprouts provided to red bishops and other finches, the vigorous reactions induced by novel foods leaves me with no doubt as to their value.

A Practical and Inexpensive Tool

Of course, life often intrudes on our abilities to provide our pets with diets comprised of dozens of ingredients, however noble our intentions.  That Pet Place Variety Treat Packs offer an ideal solution by combining several types of difficult-to-find foods in one convenient package…and at a lower price than if the items were purchased individually.

Group-specific Products

There is a specially formulated Variety Pack for all types of popularly kept birds, including large macaws and large parrots, conures and small parrots, lovebirds, cockatiels, doves, finches, canaries and parakeets.

Each pack contains a wide variety of foods, with some in the form of toys that encourage natural foraging behaviors.  Lafeber Nutri-Meals and Avi Cakes, which are helpful in introducing pelleted foods to bird diets, are included in some of the packs.  Other ingredients include fruit, nut and berry treats, dried coconut, papaya and other tropical fruits and honey-dipped seed sticks.

Further Reading

For a look at what it was like to prepare bird diets for a collection numbering thousands of individuals, please see my article Alternative Bird Diets, Yesterday and Today.



Parrot Body Language – Puffed Feathers

Parrots use a wide range of postures when communicating with one another and with their owners.  Understanding the meaning of your parrot’s body language will simplify interactions with your pet, and is also important in assessing its health.  Today we’ll look at puffed feathers – a behavior which can have several very different meanings, and so must be judged in the context of the surrounding circumstances.


Parrots, and all birds for that matter, puff up their feathers in an effort to keep warm.  The layer of air trapped within the feathers and warmed by the parrot’s body provides amazingly effective insulation.  If you watch native birds during cold weather, you can readily observe this behavior.  A bird’s internal temperature is much higher than our own, averaging 106-110 F, and so many species (but only a few parrots!) easily tolerate frigid weather.

Puffed feathers can, oddly enough, also indicate that your parrot is too warm.  In this case, the feathers may be flared to a greater degree than when cold temperatures are involved, and the wings may be held out a bit from the body.  When very hot, the parrot may open its beak and pump the throat rapidly, a behavior known as gular flapping.


Umbrella CockatooLike many animals, parrots that feel threatened will attempt to make themselves appear larger…flaring their feathers and sometimes spreading the wings.  The head feathers may be raised quite high, even among species without crests (the “head display kings” are the cockatoos and hawk headed parrots; please see photo).  Aggressive parrots will also stare at the threat – you may notice the eye’s pupil widening as well – and may snap their beaks or scream.

A normally friendly bird that suddenly begins exhibiting this behavior, especially if it does so as you approach, may be masking an injury.  Anticipating pain, the bird is warning you off and so should be checked carefully.  Sudden aggression may also arise as a result of hormonal changes associated with sexual maturity, or because the bird is jealous of attention being given its favorite person by another pet or individual.


Sick or injured parrots, and females having difficulty passing eggs, will sit, sometimes on the cage floor, with their feathers puffed out and the body held in a “hunched” position.  The eyes may be closed or partially closed as well.  As it is in a bird’s “best interests” to hide any symptoms of illness (predators single out sick and injured individuals as prey), parrots exhibiting such dramatic signs of illness should be seen by a veterinarian right away.

Further Reading

Parrot sounds also convey a great deal of information; to learn more, please see my article What is My Parrot Saying?


Umbrella Cockatoo image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Benjamin Graves

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