We hear about a Cockatoo research project.
I have always been fascinated by the natural world and became particularly interested in bird keeping at a very young age, when having received a pair of Budgerigars for my birthday; it wasn’t long afterwards that I had soon successfully bred the pair at the proud age of 8.
It was from here that my real obsession for Parrots grew, first with smaller Parakeets such as Cockatiels and Conures, then onto African Greys, Amazons and finally the larger white Cockatoos and Macaws. However, it was really on my first ever encounter with a Lesser Sulphur Crested Cockatoo that had become a long established resident in a local pet store, that I became obsessed with the taxonomic family Cacatuidae.
Since my days as a young bird keeper I have pursued both my hobby and interest in the natural world – where I am very fortunate to admit has formed a very large part of my career and research interests to date. For instance, my previous positions have included working on isolated island bird observatories to working on environmental research projects in Australia – notably where I took the valuable opportunity to carryout firsthand behavioural observations of both white and black Cockatoos in the wild.
One of my most memorable experiences to date however was observing the wild behaviour of a closely bonded pair of yellow tailed black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus funereus) in Wollemi National Park region in NSW, Australia.
In January 2013, I joined the PhD programme in the school for Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia, UK. During the early states of trying to locate a suitable topic for my PhD I must confess whilst in the heart of the prolonged winter I did contemplate using the PhD as an excuse to head overseas to warmer climes. Moreover, with an unfortunately endless list of endangered Parrot species requiring ecological research to aid conservation efforts it was a plausible idea.
However, having a strong research interest in the conservation and behaviour of Parrots in captivity, I was also more than aware of the many welfare issues which arise when keeping certain Parrot species (notably larger Parrots) in a captive environment. Therefore, I decided to concentrate all my efforts in finding a particular captive welfare issue that would substantially benefit from a comprehensive research project.
Having undertaken previous research on captive Cockatoos a particular topic closely associated with the target genus Cacatua had attracted my interest for some time – principally why some Cacatua species are reputed to be more difficult to maintain and breed, with certain taxa exhibiting what can only be perceived as evolutionary ‘Counter-productive’ behaviours, such as ‘mate aggression and overall non-reproduction, whilst many other Cockatoo species are prolific and easily manageable in a captive setting.
For example, the mysterious and aberrant behaviour known as intraspecific aggression (or more widely known as either Mate /trauma aggression) is the disturbing incidence where a sexually mature male Cockatoo attacks its mate.
Disturbingly, there is no shortage of reports from the Cockatoo avicultural community claiming that the occurrence of mate aggression without human intervention frequently leads to serious injury or in extreme cases the fatality of female Cockatoos.
Significantly, an important fact to comprehend is that no such behaviour has ever been recorded in the wild. As a result, it can be assumed with confidence that the issue is one constrained and thereby initiated by captivity.
However, after communicating with many Cockatoo aviculturists both from zoological sectors and from many UK/International private breeders - although there are copious amounts of suggestive factors for the possibility for the abnormal behaviour occurring - to date no comprehensive research investigation has been undertaken in an attempt to try and understand what appears to be a multifaceted behavioural impasse.
Furthermore, with many Cacatua species warranting conservation status due to environmental threats in the wild such as habitat destruction and from the over harvesting of birds, many of the Cockatoo species kept in zoological institutions worldwide have an important role in the conservation of these unique Parrots.
Consequently, there is an urgent need to identify the captive environmental attributes which are instigating the aforementioned abnormal behaviour and overall low reproductive success that are currently impeding the optimum welfare of many species of captive Cockatoos.
In light of this a research project was established with the main aim of identifying the main factors responsible for the aforementioned captive management problems in the target Parrot genus Cacatua.
The project questions
The first part of the project will investigate the factors responsible for initiating intraspecific or mate aggression in the target genus Cacatua.
A questionnaire will be sent out to both zoos (worldwide) and hobbyist/private aviculturists who specifically hold Cacatua Cockatoos in their collections.
The questionnaire will ask a series of questions based around testing the proposed factors frequently put forward by the Cockatoo aviculture sector – i.e. Lack of socialisation, communication skills: hand raised versus parent reared birds - therefore making conclusions about their suitability as breeding birds; Impact of confinement/small aviary size; Pair compatibility, dietary problems etc..
The second part of the project aims to investigate what captive environmental factors are responsible for the low reproductive success in many captive Cacatua species. However, an important tool often used in attempting to understand the behaviour of captive animals is to regularly compare the captive stock with its wild counterparts.
Unfortunately, to date there is still a lack of Information relating to the breeding and overall behaviour of Cockatoos in the wild – notably in the Indonesian Cockatoos. This can cause particular problems when attempting to understand the breeding biology of an animal.
However, such problems can be easily overcome by using species which are ecologically/physically/behaviourally similar to make general assumptions about life history patterns (e.g. all events/changes undergone in an individual’s lifetime) in the wild. Therefore this section of the project will be a case study using the four key Cacatua Cockatoo species managed in the European Endangered species Programme (EEP) – the Moluccan, Citron-crested, Red-vented and Blue eyed Cockatoo.
The project will compare the captive environment and management practices of both reproductively successful and non reproductive Cockatoo pairs – in the hope of identifying key attributes in the reproductively successful pairs which are not currently being emulated in the welfare and husbandry species management plans of those non reproductive birds.
The final part of the project is an exciting topic –one which has been of specific interest to me for many years. It surrounds the topic of ‘Ultra violet sensitivity’ and whether the properties of UV induced fluorescence is used by the true white Cacatua Cockatoos.
Finally I would like to take this opportunity to thank NORTHERN PARROTS for kindly supporting this project.
Find everything you need to know about caring for Cockatoos here.