Cheeky Cockatoos

One of the first things that I noticed about Australia was the large number of Cockatoos that were at every stop along our journey.  These white Parrots provided constant entertainment for us and it was always fun to watch them play and interact with each other and for them to occasionally interact with us.

I didn’t know much about Cockatoos but Andrea has one at home.  His name is Mr. Ollie and she told me many stories about his “troublesome” nature.  A huge animal lover (and activist), Andrea told me many stories about the numbers of abandoned Cockatoos and Parrots.  It seems that many people think that they will make a great pet and then find that they are more work than they bargained for.  Andrea told me that research has shown that a Cockatoo is about as smart as a human 2-year-old.  For those of you with children – especially those with children in that age bracket – you know how much work they can be.  Unfortunately, many people just leave these beautiful birds in their cages and eventually the animals go mad.

On our first day we saw a gang of Corellas mobbing a pair of sandals left on the front porch by a European traveler.  Andrea shooed them away and then went up to the door and told the man that he had better secure his footwear or else he would find his sandals in many pieces.  She described the Cockatoo as “a two-year old with a pair of bolt cutters on the front of its face.”  She described how her bird had eaten clothes, seatbelts, sofa cushions, the TV remote, the keys off of her computer, key rings – pretty much anything that has a shiny look or makes a sound when moved.  They like colorful and noisy objects and have an insatiable curiosity.

A few weeks later I was sitting on the porch typing a blog post and a Corella poked his head over the roof  – he had heard the sound of my fingers clicking on the keyboard.  He turned his head sideways and gave a good look; he was entranced by the sound and wanted a better look.  He flew down to my table and walked around from behind the screen to have a look at the whole computer.  He came closer and closer eyeing my wireless mouse, the electric cord and the USB wireless dongle.  As he approached I was afraid he would snatch something and fly off.  I looked around for something to give to him but I only had the bottle cap from my beer.  I held it out using the tips of my fingers.  He waddled over and gingerly took it into his beak and then walked to the end of the table.  He turned his hand upside down – as they do to grasp objects – and then held it and gave it a good look over.  He put it back in his mouth and rolled it around sampling it with his beak and then his tongue.

Some other Corellas spotted him playing with this new “toy” (they have remarkable eyesight)) and flew down to investigate.  Soon a melee occurred and 3 or 4 of the little white Parrots were fighting over this bottle cap, it bounced around and they waddled after it in what looked like an avian football match.

I had gotten the idea to give them a toy after Andrea had a very interesting encounter with them on our second day in Exmouth.

All around the grounds of our lodging areas were seagulls, larks and the white Corellas.  These are Western Corellas and are smaller (about 2/3rds as big) than the Cockatoos around Sydney.  They have an interesting social structure and as you watch them you can begin to identify the social pecking order and how they interact with each other.  The birds can clearly understand the concept of quid pro quo and you can see one preening the feathers of another.  The bird getting the “massage” clearly enjoys it and after 5 minutes or so they switch off.  This shows a high level of intelligence for an animal to be patient enough to give attention to another animal with the ability to rationalize that it will receive reciprocation and have a memory long enough to remember that the work will equal later reward.  And the same is true of the bird to get the massage first; it must give a massage back to keep the other bird happy so that at a later time it will get its massage again.  I think many humans have a hard time grasping this concept.

And as the Corellas come and land on our picnic table Andrea wanted to play with them.  She missed Mr. Ollie and she devised a plan to bring them in close enough to play.  “Anything that makes a ‘crinkling’ noise will get their attention,” she said as she found a piece of cellophane.  She rolled it up and began twisting it to make a plastic crackling sound.  The Corellas all perked up and turned their heads sideways to get a look with one eye.  One bird landed right on the table, and walked up to take the cellophane.  He gave it a tug, flew to the ground and then proceeded to examine and then nibble on it.  He didn’t eat it, just played with it and it was put in the trash once he had lost interest (it didn’t take long).

After the camera came out another Corella flew up and landed on the table.  He logically thought that if the last Corella got the cellophane then surely he would get the camera!  He looked quite excited as the camera had all kinds of little parts and shiny pieces.  As Andrea tried to shoot his photo he was already trying to pull the lens off so that he would have a prize to fly off with.

She looked around and saw a stick nearby and went to retrieve it.  When she brought it back she played with it to make it look much more interesting than a “normal” stick.  The Corellas were fascinated; surely this must be a magical stick if the human woman is playing with it.  One Corella was determined to have it and he flew over to take it.  But Andrea wasn’t ready to give it up, yet.  She let the big bird play tug of war for a bit and then she lifted the stick up so that he was hanging by his beak; he flapped his arms and looked just like a little kid playing with his mom or his dad.  The Corella looked very happy and played back and forth some time before Andrea finally let him have the stick.  Then he played with it a bit and realized that it was indeed just a boring stick and came back to eat the camera.

After that interaction the Corellas seemed to be very comfortable around us.  One day after breakfast I was enjoying my coffee and one came to land on the table and then he just passed out from a long day of playing.  He seemed completely secure and comfortable around me and didn’t mind at all that I was sipping my coffee and moving around a bit; he just nodded off and soon was dreaming.  I could see his little eyelids flutter as he dreamed about eating an Olympus camera.

Because of the high content of iron ore in the soil in Central and Western Australia the earth has a deep red color.  The beautiful white Corellas are constantly playing and foraging on the earth and end up with a bit of a pink color.  On some rainy days we might see one that looked almost red in color especially if they got into the mud.

They were quite the cleaners and would pick every little crumb out of the picnic area.  It is no wonder that we never saw any mice – they all probably starved to death.  The Corellas could spot the tiniest crumb and could pull it out from between the wooden planks on the table and between the bricks on the ground.  Occasionally someone would leave their food unattended and would come back to find it swamped with Corellas, Larks and Seagulls.

Andrea had described to me how her Cockatoo Mr. Ollie does a Tai Chi stretch.  He will stick out one wing and leg and stretch them and then alternate to the other side.  When I finally saw a Corella do the “Tai Chi” move I understood exactly what she meant.  They really do look like they are going Tai Chi when they stretch.  Most animals (dogs and cats for instance) will stretch their entire body at once – the Corellas stretch one side and then take a minute to stretch the other side and then straighten their feathers.

They are really quite remarkable animals and I found them very entertaining to watch.  I can only wonder if I would have ever noticed all of the details were it not for Andrea’s mentioning them to me?  I do look at animals a bit differently after I’ve met her :-)

Andrea sent me this link – it is an incredible Cockatoo story, I hope that you’ll enjoy it as much as I did:

Julius’ Cockatoo story


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