Recently, I engaged in a dialogue with a new cockatoo-owner about her new bird, and it brought back memories of my galah called, ironically, Corella (because we thought she might have an identity crisis) from before I went to Western Australia. Galahs are something special. Much of this post has been cribbed from that dialogue.
Galahs are one of Australia’s larger native cockatoos, distributed unevenly over most the the continent, arid and swampy, baking-hot and alpine.
They are great birds. Right up-there with Australian native magpies as companions, full of charisma, though probably slightly less intelligent than magpies.
It’s important to remember that in the wild, their diet consists mostly of foliage and grasses, with a proportion of fruits, and only a relatively small percentage of seeds of any kind. So for them to have a healthy diet, a permanent tray of seed with occasional supplementary greens, which is what most people seem to do, just isn’t right. They will become unhealthy. They need green leafy stuff in bulk (which they will throw around the cage, aviary or house), and a daily dose of miscellaneous fruit (this needn’t be a chore: your apple-cores, bruised bits of bananas etc are just fine), plus a small amount of supplemental seed sometimes. Make this a mixed blend for cockatoos, not purely sunflower seeds. To a cockatoo, sunflower seeds are the equivalent of chocolate for us: lovely and tempting, but not very healthy. She ate greens, but she’d play with them, too. Galahs are really into Interior Decorating with their food – I suppose other cockatoos are, too.
It’s also important to remember that many cockatoo species live to be well over a century old. Unless you’re aiming to be really exceptional, you’ll have to spend the last decade of your life or so habituating it to another person so that it bonds with them too before you die, so that it will have someone else it loves and trusts to live with after your death.
I didn’t find that we had a – er – waste disposal problem, not after I trained her. She had a la-a-arge cage in the corner of the living-room, into which she was locked at night, sleeping on branches which I regularly replaced as she shredded them into woodchips. During the day she had the run of the house and the yard, with the cage-door open all the time, though when I left the house I closed the doors and windows and she only had the run of the house. I wasn’t worried about the cat and dog getting her: they were completely terrified of her and never harmed a feather of her head (which is more than I can say about her – they both ended up with pierced ears!)
Poo-training consisted of feeding her ONLY in her cage. Then keeping her in the cage until such time as she pooed after the meal, no matter how loudly she complained. Then praising her and letting her out. Took her a couple of noisy weeks in the beginning, but she learnt and she wasn’t even that young a bird.
They are quite trainable – you just have to be consistent. Love and consistency, and they will voluntarily wander into their open cages to poo at any time of the day, after a meal or not, for the rest of their lives.
Some people seem to think offering a bird eggs or eggshell is like cannibalism. It is important that they receive shell-grit in their diet, though, as it is necessary to their digestive systems. And it’s not cannibalism. Birds are a whole order of creatures, like the order of mammals. If it’s cannibalism for a cockatoo to eat chicken-eggs, then it’s cannibalism also for humans to eat sheep or cows – we’re as closely related to them as cockatoos are to chickens.
Crushed eggshells are really, really good for all kinds of birds – they need grit in their diet in order to help digest their foods, and they need supplementary calcium. Crushed up chicken-eggshells are a really good way for them to get both of those things, and mean one less waste product going into landfill (or in my case, now that I am bird-free into the compost where they alkalise the soil, also a worthy use of eggshells). When I have hens I even give their own eggshells back to them: after I use the eggs, I crush the shells so they are not recognisable as an eggshell in case it might encourage them to eat their own eggs, and scatter them on the ground in the chook-run. If they are laying frequently, they become calcium-depleted very quickly, and feeding their eggshells back to them as well as watching the other sources of calcium in their diet is an easy and effective way of giving them both the grit they need for digestion and the calcium they need to form healthy shells on their eggs and prevent muscle cramping.
As to getting to know cockatoos, spend enough time with it, and it’ll get tame enough to leave the house with you and stick with you. I used to walk my dog with a blue-tongued lizard draped around my neck and a galah bouncing all over me, the dog and the ground.
As to talking, great! My galah used the words “Bugger off” as a sign of great affection (when she meant bugger off, it was inarticulate cockatoo screeching). She said “Stoner!”. She was working on “Now then – where did I leave my gun” and was getting pretty good when she met her end. She had learnt to turn her back and do a poo if anyone approached her and said “Hello cocky” – nonverbal communication.
Her funniest thing, though, was this. Not all my visitors were bird-people, and occasionally when I had a bird-fearful visitor I’d banish her into her cage. We’d usually end up in the kitchen over tea, and she’d be in the living-room unable to stomp heavily into the kitchen and climb up someone. So she’d try to attract our attention. Not with any of the usual phrases. Not with galah-screeches. No, she’d do it by mimicking great long slabs of dialogue. I kid you not – there’d be not a single word in it, but it would sound exactly like Human. And not only Human, but English. And not only English, but English with no accent (or for the foreigners, an Australian accent). Without a single real word in it. She could keep up the chatter for hours. And answer herself – you could hear real dialogue going on. I used to laugh extremely.
Someone asked about schedules and keeping the bird to a routine. Having lived with Corella the Galah, I am leery of doing this. I used to put her in her cage and shut it up before I started preparing for the night, quite late. I’d have a shower in the morning and get dressed before I let her out. Aside from that, as birds pick at their food continuously, there wasn’t really a schedule. She’d wander outside with me when I went out to feed chooks and collect eggs (the Girls were, very rightly, terrified of her, as much as the household carnivores!), and she’d wander around when I went out to hang up washing on the line or take it in. I usually didn’t take me with her when I went out to visit or work or shop, but I left her with the run of the place, though not the yard – I’d shut the doors and windows. I did these things at irregular times.
She knew and loathed weekends.
Weekends were the days I’d try to sleep in. She hated that. She knew when it was time to get up and let her out.
My daughter who also didn’t like my sleeping in very much, devised a technique of getting me to get up very quickly. She’d get Corella out of the cage and drop her on the end of my bed. The first time, Corella stomped heavily up the bed to my face. How cute, I thought, and put out a hand to scratch her under the feathers of the neck where she liked it. Not a chance – she wasn’t playing. She was there to try and twist my ears and my nose off my face. Those beaks are powerful! The second and all subsequent times that my kid put the bird on my bed, no matter how tired I was, I’d get up bloody quickly. As soon as that galah was put on the end of the bed, she’d start stomping menacingly up to my face.
So, yeah, They know time. And if you do the wrong thing time-wise, they’ll punish you. So my advise is, don’t establish *too* many routines. Keep it fairly free – then you’ll have fewer instances where you do things at the wrong times and get punished for it! Under all that Pretty, they all hide the souls of highly charismatic killer-demons.
I’d have a galah again, any day.