By Patrick Mondout
May 4, 2005
After I placed a pair of pet cockatoos on our home page for Christmas,
I received emails from people from different parts of the globe inquiring
about our feathered friends and wanting to see more pictures of them.
While I am no longer living with them (or their owner - my ex-girlfriend),
I still have lots of fond memories and pictures that will always be with
me. I will share a few of both right here.
But first, a little background as these birds are not native to North
America. Sydney was captured in the wild back in the Super70s and imported
to the U.S. (when that was still legal, of course). He is an Umbrella
Cockatoo - so named because of the crest of feathers on his head that can
be raised (as shown on the right) - and is believed to be just shy of 30
Umbrellas Cockatoos (a.k.a. Cacatua alba, Umbies, U2's, Great White or
simply White Crested Cockatoos) come from Indonesia in an area centered
around Halmahera in the Molucca Sea. This may look like Baretta's
bird, but that was actually a Sulfur-Crested Cockatoo - a cousin to the
U2. Sydney has yellow coloring under his crest and under his wings and
tail feathers. Umbrellas come in two sizes and Sydney is of the larger
Chanel (a.k.a. 'Nelly) is a Moluccan Cockatoo, and is small as
Moluccans go but is still a few inches longer and noticeably bigger than
Syd. Moluccan Cockatoos (a.k.a., Salmon-Crested Cockatoos) come from
nearly the same area in the Moluccan Islands as U2's and can breed with
one another as Sydney in particular seemed intent on proving.
The crest on these birds is impressive. You can see Chanel in the
picture below starting to raise her beautiful orange colored crest - it is
usually at rest curved against their head. When startled, the crest goes
up apparently to make themselves appear larger to predators. I have always
seen it more comically: It reminds me of the cartoon character with an
exclamation point above their head.
Because of the crest and the feathers that sometimes cover the lower
part of their beak (see the picture of "Prettybird" below),
these birds can express much more of their feelings than other birds. When
Chanel would enter Sydney's room on my shoulder, his crest would go up and
you knew exactly what he was thinking. He would also raise it when he was
mad. When the day was done and either bird would rest on one leg, feathers
would cover the lower part of the beak and you could see the calmness and
Cockatoos also have very strong beaks. I made the mistake of getting my
hand between Sydney and a water spray bottle that he hates once and had
the scar for months to prove it. They will also happily convert the wood
molding around the bottom of your walls into toothpicks, as my
ex-girlfriend once discovered. I liked to destroy things when I was a kid
- most boys do - but I believe these birds just like to chew.
Chanel's vocabulary was limited. She could say "prettybird",
"what's new?", and a few other words, but what was really
interesting was her seemingly random alien-speak. If you were on the phone
in her room, or if you were speaking to someone else in her presence, she
would walk back and forth on her perch speaking made up words (a lot like
a certain politician, but sans the smirk) and looking like - as my mother
once put it - a professor giving a speech. (Cockatoos kind of look like a
professor slumped forward with their hands behind their back as they walk
back and forth.) If she thought you weren't paying attention or if you
tried to talk over her, she'd simply raise her voice! I am sure there are
other Cockatoos who do this, but I have yet to encounter them.
I heard about Polly, a
parrot that sings operas, on NPR a few years ago. Chanel was not much
of a singer, but she could yodel (where she learned to that is still a
mystery). She could also bark so well that I would often stop what I was
doing and listen closely to figure out whether it was her or the
neighbor's dog. Perhaps as a result of her comedy routines, she heard
enough human laughter to learn to mock it too.
Sydney cannot speak. I worked with him on and off for two years and he
never said a word. The last six months of that period, however, he did
begin making sounds that he had never made before and I'd like to think I
was making progress, though I realize there may be fundamental problems in
trying to teach a wild-caught bird to speak so many years after its birth
(apparently it is not possible with humans in similar circumstances).
Both birds had interesting dances, with Chanel quickly stepping side to
side and whipping her head around like Stevie
Wonder or Ray Charles. Sydney mostly liked to slap his foot down over
and over though he could bop his head up and down with more exuberance
than any cool cat hipster!
Another remarkable fact about these birds is their incredible lifespans:
They can live at least 70 years, though no one is yet certain of the upper
limit. This means that as an owner, you need to make plans for what will
happen to you after you die, as they might very well outlive you.
These creatures are simply amazing once you get to know them. I am
weary of people who ascribe a wide variety of human emotions to animals.
It is not that I believe we are fundamentally different. Clearly we're not
and we have the same origins in the seas. But also as clearly there are
different regions of our brains that handle different types of thoughts,
such as various emotions, and I remain unconvinced that any nonhumans have
developed anything like the range we have with our brains.
However, it is hard to have a cockatoo as a companion and not sense the
social attraction on both sides of the relationship. Unlike the dogs I
lived with, who could only be bothered to pay attention to me when they
thought I had food, Sydney and Chanel perched themselves on my shoulder
seemingly just to be social.
I could go on about that this at length, but will instead summarize:
Dogs have been bred - have evolved - to have certain qualities that appeal
to us humans. After all, we created them from wolves to be our companions
(and for specific tasks). These wild cockatoos on the other hand, from
remote islands in near New Guinea do not have such breeding and yet appear
to me to be able to create even closer bonds with us.
Until I got to know Sydney and Chanel, I could not get excited about a
bird. To me they were just another animal but with wings and feathers and
there wasn't a whole lot going on upstairs. It only took a few months of
interactions with these guys to completely transform me. I was once a dog
person. Not anymore.
I wouldn't dream of letting a dog eat of my plate or lick my face but I
quickly accepted having either bird eat from my shoulder. While many would
wonder what the difference was, to me they were worlds apart.
I hope that anyone out there who is considering having a Cockatoo join
their family won't rush and get one based on what I have said above. I
absolutely could not stand the barking of my girlfriend's Papillons, but
the much louder squawks from the Cockatoos didn't even register with me.
There are many things to consider before taking on a 'Too, but perhaps the
most important is that they are very loud birds. So loud that there
is actually site devoted to dissuading
potential Cockatoo owners.
That's all for now - back to the '70s!
Thanks for visiting!
P.S. A larger version of the Christmas picture is here
(the third bird is a talking African Grey named Floyd, who unfortunately
has passed away). I've also got some great shots of her Papillons here.