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Choosing an Umbrella Cockatoo

By: Dr. Susan Clubb

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Umbrella cockatoos – also known as white cockatoos - are affectionate and highly intelligent birds. Raised correctly, they are excellent companions for those who want a charming, loving bird that likes to cuddle. Unlike Moluccans, they are even-tempered and tolerant.

They are, however, demanding of attention. If deprived of it, they can become noisy and destructive or turn to plucking or self-mutilation. Some may become possessive of their owners, which can lead to unpredictable behavior toward other people, especially as the bird reaches sexual maturity.

While umbrellas will occasionally speak, they are not known for their ability to mimic. They are, however, very vocal; screaming is often learned when young birds hear the morning or afternoon screaming of another cockatoo.

In the wild, umbrellas (scientific name Cacatua alba) are found in the northern Maluku province of Indonesia, inhabiting lowland forests – especially mature canopy forests – along rivers. They also frequent cleared lands and are most active in early morning and late afternoon. Wild cockatoos feed on nuts, seeds, berries and insects.

Umbrella cockatoos are playful and inquisitive and they love to chew objects in their surroundings; they should always be provided with toys, blocks of wood or branches to chew on. Young cockatoos should be socialized to many people and exposed to a variety of situations such as new cages, toys and visits to the veterinarian.

Appearance

The birds have long white crest feathers that conform to the shape of the head; when the crest is erect, the feathers spread out like an umbrella. The only color visible on the bird is the yellow on the insides of the wings.

Umbrellas and other cockatoo species can be very long-lived and a few individuals in zoos have lived to be 50 or 60 years old. Precise data on the life span of the average umbrella cockatoo is poorly documented because most umbrellas die long before.

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.

Feeding

Cockatoos should be fed a pelleted diet supplemented with fresh fruits and vegetables daily. Feed approximately 1/4 cup of formulated diet and 1/4 cup of fresh fruits and vegetables daily. If the bird consumes all of her food, give additional food as desired. Be careful, though: Overfeeding leads to pickiness, wastage and throwing food. Treats such as seeds, nuts and table foods may be given in small amounts as rewards for good behavior.

Umbrella cockatoos utilize their calories very efficiently. If overfed, they may become obese, especially when hand-rearing. Juvenile cockatoos are notoriously picky eaters and don't seem to need much food to maintain themselves, so try to ensure that the food that they do eat is nutritious. Vitamin supplements are not needed for birds on a pelleted diet.

Housing

Umbrella cockatoos are very active and should be provided the largest cage that space and budget permit – one that allows the bird at least enough room to fully spread his wings. Durable construction is very important because umbrellas are very strong chewers and can easily break welds on poorly constructed cages. Many are also adept at opening cage latches, so locks or escape-proof latches may be necessary. Ideally, the bird should also have an outdoor cage to allow playtime in the fresh-air and sunlight.

Breeding

Breeding age can be as young as 3 years, however hand-reared birds may not begin breeding before they are 6 to 8 years old. Breeding life span is not known precisely, but is possibly up to 30-plus years.

Umbrella cockatoos breed well in captivity and are bred commonly in the United States. In North America, the birds breed mostly in winter and spring, although some pairs may produce year round. Clutch size is typically two to three eggs.

The breeding cage should be large enough to allow some limited flight between perches. One inch by 1 inch 12 gauge welded wire is a good choice for cage construction. A suggested size is 4 feet wide by 4 feet tall by 8 feet long suspended 4 feet above the ground or floor.

Male cockatoos may become aggressive toward their mates. Fatal attacks may occur in which the male bird severely bites the face, wings, and legs of the female. Clipping the wings of the male prior to the breeding season will help the female to escape in case the male becomes aggressive. Aggressive behavior may occur in compatible breeding pairs.

Double-entrance nest boxes are often used to reduce the chance of the male trapping the female in the box. Large wooden boxes can be used; size should be approximately 18 inches by 18 inches by 24 inches. Metal barrels, plastic pickle barrels and garbage cans can also be used.

Incubation period is approximately 24 to 26 days. Chicks will usually fledge at approximately 12 to 14 weeks of age. Umbrella cockatoos are relatively easy to hand-rear. Most hand-rearing formulas can be used successfully, however if you are using a formula relatively high in fat, care must be taken not to overfeed the chick.

When breeding any kind of cockatoo, 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
  • Feather-picking
  • Psittacosis
  • Mate aggression
  • Self mutilation
  • Juvenile chewing of flight feathers and tail
  • Poor eating habits - picky eaters
  • Obesity
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Bacterial and fungal infections
  • Sarcocystis
  • Cloacal prolapse
  • Toxicity, ingestion of metals

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