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Choosing a Palm Cockatoo

By: Dr. Susan Clubb

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The palm cockatoo is a unique and magnificent species, gentle by nature, and can be an excellent pet bird. These birds are relatively quiet except for their breeding call, which is a series of shrill whistling calls performed with bows. Palm cockatoos don't often speak.

Palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) are found primarily in New Guinea (Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya, Indonesia). They inhabit coastal forests and are also found in the Cape York Peninsula of northeastern Australia (Queensland). They inhabit eucalyptus forests and dense savanna woodlands.

Palm cockatoos and other cockatoo species can be very long lived (probably around 50 years) but precise life span is unknown.

Appearance and Personality

Palm cockatoos are large black cockatoos with erect crests, bright red naked facial skin and a large imposing beak. The plumage is entirely black but looks gray due to feather powder. The mandibles do not fit when closed and reveal the bicolor (red and black) tongue.

Palm cockatoos are inquisitive and love to chew objects in their surroundings. Their beak was designed to open very hard nuts so they are powerful chewers and need to chew to keep their beak the proper length. They are very destructive if allowed to perch on furniture. They should always be provided with toys, blocks of wood or branches instead. In order to ensure safety, companion cockatoos should not be allowed unsupervised freedom in the home as they often encounter toxins or dangerous items. Young birds should be socialized to many people and exposed to a variety of situations such as new cages, toys, visits to the veterinarian, handling by friends, wing and nail clips to avoid fear of novel situations.

Feeding

Palm cockatoos are not as efficient in using calories as many other cockatoo species. They need a relatively high caloric diet including nuts and high fat seeds or a higher fat extruded diet. Palm cockatoos should be fed a formulated (pelleted or extruded) diet as a basis for good nutrition. The diet should be supplemented with fresh fruits and vegetables daily to add variety and psychological enrichment. Feed approximately 1/2 cup of pellets and 1/3 cup of fresh fruits and vegetables daily. They should also be offered 4 to 6 large nuts daily. The best choices are walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, almonds or filberts. If peanuts are fed they should be shelled first and inspected for fungal growth. Palm cockatoos are usually thin by nature and not likely to become overweight.

Vitamin supplements are not needed for birds that are eating a formulated diet. Provide fresh branches for additional chewing.

A good indicator of general health is the cheek patch color. A pale color indicates poor health or environment. Sunlight is important for good health and enhances the red color of the cheek patches.

Grooming

Routine bathing or showering is vital to maintaining good plumage and skin condition. Birds can be misted and allowed to dry in a warm room or in the sun, or gently dried with a blow drier. Care should be taken not to clip the wing feathers excessively as cockatoos often fall and injure themselves. Clip only the primary flight feathers and only enough so the bird will glide to the floor. Palm cockatoos are lightweight and are better flyers than Moluccans and umbrellas and a few more feathers should be removed.

Housing

Palm cockatoos are very active and should be provided the largest cage that space and budget allows. Durable cage construction is very important because palms are very strong chewers and can easily break welds on poorly constructed cages. One inch by one inch 12 gauge-welded wire is a good choice for cage construction. For birds that are destructive of wire, chain link is the most durable caging material. A full flight (to the ground), is recommended. A suggested size is 5 feet wide by 8 feet tall by 12 feet long.

Many are also adept at opening cage latches, so locks or escape proof latches may be necessary. The cage should be as large as possible but must allow at least enough room to fully spread the wings. Ideally the bird will have an outdoor cage as well to allow playtime in the fresh-air and sunlight.

Breeding

Palm cockatoos are difficult to breed in captivity. They require a roomy flight with privacy. Unlike most psittacines, palm cockatoos build a nest of twigs inside the nest box.

The nest box should be open on top, 24 inches by 24 inches and approximately 6 feet tall. Metal barrels, plastic pickle barrels and garbage cans can be used, however the act of chewing a wooden nest box may stimulate reproductive behavior. They must be provided with branches with which to build a nest.

Clutch size is typically 1 egg and incubation period is approximately 27 to 30 days. Chicks will usually fledge at approximately 10 to 12 weeks of age. Palm cockatoos are very difficult to hand-rear and this should only be attempted by very experienced hand-feeders. Ideally chicks should be parent reared for at least 3 to 4 weeks. High protein, high fat custom formulas are needed for rearing palm cockatoo chicks.

Male cockatoos frequently become aggressive toward their mates. While such attacks have occurred with palm cockatoos this behavior is uncommon. Because of special courtship behavior and nest building activities, the male should not be clipped as in other cockatoo species.

When breeding cockatoos, noise and proximity to neighbors must be considered. If housed outdoors cockatoos often call at night especially during a full moon. In southern states outdoor caging must be protected from opossums to prevent exposure to the parasite Sarcocystis falcatula which can result in a fatal lung infection.

Common Diseases and Disorders

Cockatoos are relatively healthy birds but are susceptible to the following:

  • Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (Occurs in the wild population)
  • Feather picking
  • Psittacosis
  • Aspergillosis
  • Beak over-growth – may require periodic trimming
  • Poor eating habits - picky eaters
  • Bacterial and fungal infections
  • Sarcocystis
  • Malnutrition, anemia, hypoproteinemia
  • Toxicity, ingestion of metals

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