In celebration of National Bird Day 2014, Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiast, is writing a special six-part blog series in December and January where he will describe some of his favorite avian species.
Scientists are a bit at odds: do the 21 species of birds collectively known as “cockatoos” belong in their own family, or are they members of the same family as other parrots?
Answer: it doesn’t matter to anyone but those scientists. To the rest of us, they’re all parrots.
The parrot family has a world-wide distribution concentrated in warm climates. The cockatoos are pretty well restricted to the Australasian region. All have at least some degree of crests and many are mostly white. However, there are six species that are mostly black, one that is dark gray with a red head, one that is mostly pink and gray, and the smallest, the Cockatiel, is predominately gray but with a yellow head and orange-red ear patch and white wing patches.
Because they are loud, conspicuous birds, most cockatoo species tend to be well known to various communities within their range, and many species have a variety of English, or “common,” names. For example, the Pink Cockatoo is also called the Leadbeater’s Cockatoo and the Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo. The Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, or some of its subspecies, are also known as the Yellow-crested Cockatoo, the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, the Timor Cockatoo, and the Citron-crested Cockatoo.
Many have quite limited ranges, restricted to certain islands or island archipelagos. About eleven species naturally occur in the wild only in Australia, with a couple of others found only in Australia and some nearby islands. Some are abundant in the wild, but others are endangered (some critically so). One subspecies of the Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, the so-called “Abbott’s Cockatoo,” found only on Masalembu Islands in the South Java Sea, was rediscovered after being thought to be extinct, and has been called the world’s rarest bird (a claim unfortunately made for several other bird species). A few cockatoo species do breed fairly well in captivity and have self-sustaining captive populations. Arguably the most dissimilar of the group, the Cockatiel, is probably the only one reasonably well suited as a companion animal, and has been essentially domesticated. It now comes in a variety of odd colors and patterns, although I think the wild type is the prettiest of all.
Cockatoos are not only beautiful; as birds go, they are very intelligent, and they tend to appeal to us by virtue of their hand-like use of their feet (a trait they have in common with other parrots, but which is exceptionally well-developed among the larger parrot species, including cockatoos). At least one cockatoo, the Palm Cockatoo (also known as the Cape York Cockatoo, Great Palm Cockatoo, Black Palm Cockatoo, Black Macaw, Great Black Cockatoo, and the Goliath Cockatoo), has been filmed “tool using;” it can take a sturdy stick and beat it against a log, like a primitive form of drumming.
Cockatoos are, by any reasonable definition, intelligent. That makes them inquisitive, restless, and intellectually engaged in their surroundings. They are quite emotional. They naturally occupy huge regions where there are uncountable interactions with a vast multitude of physical complexities. Captivity provides none of that. And so captive cockatoos are easily bored, and when bored, they can literally become psychotic and indulge in unfortunate, often self-destructive, stereotypic behavior. Most notorious is so-called “feather plucking,” a serious form of self-mutilation whereby the birds pull out all the contour (body) feathers within reach. Once this horrific behavior starts, it is extremely difficult, if not almost impossible, to cure. It can lead to bleeding, hypothermia, and infection, and is sadly unsightly.
Cockatoos form strong bonds, and these can cause problems with captive birds when they bond with one human, and become jealous or resentful of others, to the point of biting other people. And, a cockatoo bite is quite powerful and can cause a very serious injury and permanent scarring.
And then there is the noise: loud screeches that developed over millions of years to allow the birds to communicate long distances across mountain valleys and through jungle forest canopies, or over vast desert landscapes. They grate on human nervous systems and exceed safe decibel levels to the point of putting human hearing at risk.
They are also destructive. It is in their nature to chew, and so the well-intentioned cockatoo owner who allows a bird some freedom of the house may incur expensive repair or replacement bills to doors, molding and sills, books, and furniture.
And finally, since captivity is not healthy for them, if they are to be humanely treated, they may generate costly veterinarian bills.
There is a certain irony here. Many owners, thousands of them across the country, finally become fed up each year—or, perhaps the birds, being long-lived, outlast their owners, and it is assumed that the now unwanted birds will easily find a new home. They are valuable, aren’t they? In fact, as a general rule, so many people get rid of them that zoos are soon filled to capacity and will take no more. Sanctuaries and refuges are never guaranteed to be available, and even if they are, they are usually filled to capacity, or beyond, having reached that unfortunate state where they have so many birds that they can no longer provide adequate care for each one.
Sadly, huge numbers of these birds spend years, even decades, huddled in steel cages or chained to perches, unfortunately deprived of the rich stimuli their minds crave, until death finally releases them from miserable existence.
They may look ever so cool when seen in movies or on TV shows, or in properly equipped zoos—but after the initial novelty of having a pet cockatoo is replaced by the frustrations they generate, the results are too often tragically negative, for bird and human both.
Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Artwork by Barry Kent MacKay