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Cockatoo Bathing and Species-Specific Behavior

Donna Hefton

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Many common misconceptions and myths have been linked with parrots. For instance, the "myth of the Amazons" as being a massive and nasty green parrot that would sooner take your finger off as look at you. The misconceptions and myths have emerged in regard to bathing the cockatoo. You may have educated yourself in the study of the avian psyche, the avian quirks and habits that make our birds who and what they are. Through your education you can better understand the myths for what they are and the misconceptions for what they may be. Showering the cockatoo has its many myths and misconceptions and the focus of this article is to dispel some of the ideas we have assigned to this particular genus.

Cockatoos are certainly one of the most stunningly beautiful parrots after a good bath. The plumage of the 'Toos is unique to them, with longer contour feathers when compared to other psittacines and broad primary and secondary flight feathers that make them the astounding fliers that they are. Keeping this gorgeous plumage in good order is a full-time occupation for the cockatoo and, without the ability to properly bathe, a cockatoo may tend to over preen the feathers which can lead to shredding, tearing, and eventually plucking out the feathers. If ignored, plucking of the feathers can manifest into tissue mutilation and in resultant infections of the skin.

The geographic distribution of some of our most popular cockatoo species surprises some people when they realize that their species of cockatoo has genetically developed in areas outside of the continent of Australia. While Australia is quite renowned for its cockatoo flocks, the most commonly kept species of cockatoos in the United States may have never set one zygodactic foot on the soil of Australia in terms of evolutionary development. It becomes difficult to evaluate whether some species were displaced naturally, perhaps by monsoons and hurricanes, to islands in places that many of us have never heard of, or whether they naturally occurred in these regions.

Putting either argument aside, the majority of our pet cockatoos have come from a long line of island dwellers and the islands they hail from have an average annual rainfall that generally astounds some of the caretakers of these beautiful parrots. Your lovable Umbrella, Mollucan, Sulphur Cresteds, and Goffins are from the islands in and around Indonesia, Micronesia, New Guinea and points thereabouts. Australia holds airspace for the Gallahs (Rosebreasteds), Corellas (Slender-bills and Bare- Eyed), Major Mitchell's (Leadbeater's) and a variety of the Black cockatoos. It must also be mentioned that not all of Australia consists of dry grasslands. The eastern end of the continent has large rainforest tracts that are inhabited by many species of cockatoos. In the drier areas of Australia, the cockatoos will follow the rains throughout Australia for bathing and the abundance of food that it will afford as a result. Unfortunately, there are very few individuals of the larger Australian species mentioned above that are kept as pets in the United States, so it is fairly safe to assume that your particular species of cockatoo comes from a lineage that developed somewhere in an island group at or about the equatorial region of the world.

The need for frequent showering of the cockatoo makes perfect sense when you realize the neighborhood they come from. The island regions that the ancestors of our birds have developed in average In temperatures of 80° to 100°F with intense humidity, and rainy seasons that bring monsoons and rainfall averages ranging from 1 to 250 inches annually. Makes you want to shower that cockatoo, doesn't it? Perhaps the plucking problems we encounter in the cockatoos are not hormonal after all, in light of where these birds have climbed the evolutionary ladder. Parrot behaviorist Sally Blanchard commonly recommends that the patient, but frustrated owner of a plucking cockatoo resort to a frequent showering regime for their cockatoos. This recommendation has proven itself with positive results in many cases. Since I began researching the hows, whys, and wherefores of bird bathing behavior, and after speaking with many frustrated owners of feather pluckers, I have come to the conclusion that Blanchard's recommendation of frequent showers is sound and practical advice. In many cases, feather pluckers will cease this behavior if given regular and adequate showers or baths (using plain water). For a plucking cockatoo a good shower must feel remarkable!

Now we come to the question that has developed into a great debate...do you soak the cockatoo? There are two schools of thought on this question: 1) Do not soak the cockatoo to the point of compromising the powder or: 2) Get the cockatoo soaking wet. I have always been a proponent of the second opinion, that is, get 'em wet, real wet. Film footage of cockatoos in the wild has revealed that the 'Too will put itself in the position of getting wet in rainfall until you can see that beautiful black skin. For this to occur, a cockatoo must be literally soaked to the skin. In a healthy cockatoo, powder will be produced as the bird's feathers dry and this will become apparent by the dust on its beak as it preens after a shower. If your cockatoo is not producing powder you should consider visiting a trusted avian veterinarian for a consultation and examination to rule out an underlying condition. All healthy cockatoos will produce powder regardless of how wet they get. I am of the opinion that they should be soaked once in awhile as if in a natural environment.

This leads us to the habits of cockatoo bathing behavior, or how to soak the cockatoo. In my experience, cockatoos have a particular bathing habit in that they perform this "wide surface area strut or stroll" that is unique to this group of birds. With wings held out in full lateral extension they will stroll through water to reap its full benefit. Surface area and lots of it is the preference here. I have encountered but a single "flapping" cockatoo (my friend sweet Skeet) and found that flapping simply is not a rule with the 'Toos. Since cockatoos are a larger species of parrot it is to be suggested that these birds be given a good shower at least one or two times a week on their own. While it is good to shower with your 'Too friend, it is difficult for them to properly "stroll" and we always seem to be in the way when they want to unfurl those beautiful, long feathered wings. Give your cockatoo the option of a natural shower with the ability to move in and out of the water at will. All parrots love options and should be provided with as many as possible. I have found that the more options I provide my birds, the better they respond to me. Being forced into a single situation seems to make them cranky and given a choice seems to bring out the best in them. When bathing your cockatoo, try to focus on their natural habitat and what it affords them. If there are trees to form a canopy to shelter them from downpours when they simply don't want to get wet, we must understand this when they back off from being showered. Respect their decisions.

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