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RIO, the psychotic cockatoo

In December 2013 Dr Dorianne Elliott of the Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital at Onderstepoort asked me if I would take on a psychotic cockatoo and attempt to rehabilitate it. The bird had had multiple owners and was taken into the practise to be euthenised. Dr Elliott sedated the bird, which calmed it down dramatically. As she could not keep the bird indefinitely, she asked me if I would be prepared to take it to see if it would settle down in a new and caring home.

This poor bird had been handed over for euthenasia due to her “excessive” screaming. Her previous owners just couldn’t cope with the racket she made. They believed that this noise was a behavioural problem, and so got rid of the bird. This is so sad, as all parrots scream as a means of communication. When we were offered our first cockatoo to rehabilitate, I did a lot of reading up to learn about what makes them tick before accepting the challenge.

Melinda Johnson in her book “Clicker Training for Birds”, sums it up quite nicely. She says “Birds are vocal creatures, and some breeds and individuals are noisier than others. Five or ten minutes of screaming at sunrise and dusk, plus a squawk here and there during waking hours isn’t anything to get excited about. To a bird, quiet might indicate danger: if a raptor appears in the sky, parrots become very quiet after the alarm call of a sentinel, diving for hidey-holes.
“Screaming is a bird’s attempt to communicate, and many problems with avian behaviour are a direct result of miscommunication”.

As we already have an umbrella cockatoo, a medium sulphur-crested cockatoo and several ringnecks and lovebirds, we are used to the noise parrots make. In fact initially I was quite concerned about how little Rio screams!! I’ve since realised that she is just a quieter type of cockatoo than we are used to.

So Rio came to join our family. She is a Galah, one of the Australian cockatoos and is about 5 years old. We will be her fifth home. Her wings were badly damaged from bashing them against the bars of her cage, and she had a trauma wound to her chest which required an operation to reattach the muscle and repair the skin over it.

The first thing I did was get her a nice big aviary, and furnish it with lots of natural perches at varying levels. A lot of leafy branches were added so that she had places she could hide behind if frightened. I also put in a ladder or two in case she wanted to change levels. Her aviary was placed at the end of the line, four aviaries from Noodle, another cockatoo which I was asked to rehabilitate (you can read about Noodle’s story under “Articles”).

On the 6th December 2013 I went up to Onderstepoort to collect Rio. The trip back home was uneventful, and she seemed happy enough to travel in the car. I released her into her new habitat, and realised that she was very weak as well as being sedated. It took weeks for her to be able to climb between the perches and up a ladder. She was not able to climb up the wire of her cage at all. She had no coordination and was exceptionally clumsy. Of course she was also frantic to get up away from the potential danger of being on the ground, so in her scrambling often overbalanced and landed up back on the ground, to have to start the journey all over again. She had no flight feathers on her wings from having bashed them on the bars of her previous cage. She also had no tail feathers, so could not fly at all. In fact she flew like a rock.

Because of her splatting on the ground every time she got a fright, we placed two splat mats under her preferred perches. These are basically foam cushions so that she bounces rather than splats on the ground. So she now plops instead of splats. A great improvement we believe. She seems particularly fond of one of the splat mats, and seems to deliberately plop onto it. Once on it she runs all over it and jumps up and down. I can’t decide whether she is trying to fly, or just using it as a trampoline. Either way, it’s obviously great fun, which is super as it means she is a lot more confident about being on the ground. When she gets tired of leaping up and down, she climbs up a ladder or the side of the aviary to one of her perches.

A few weeks passed and it became obvious that she was gaining confidence. Her musculature had improved and she could balance on the perches much better. The great day arrived where she was able to turn around on a perch!! And then she managed to stand on one leg. (she now does this regularly – holding a foot in front of her face and admiring it whilst she twists her toes around in yoga fashion). She also developed the technique and skill required to climb up and down the wire. Dr Elliott came to visit her (I was concerned about the damage to the wound on her chest because of her plopping so frequently). It was decided to take her off Clomicalm and see how she would fare. By this stage Rio was saying “hello” and “hello daddy” and allowing her head to be scratched from time to time. She was still wary of most humans but had become accustomed to the dogs.

At the time of writing Rio has settled in nicely. Because she has regained her strength she is able to groom herself properly and has grown 3 flight feathers on one wing and 4 feathers on the other. She has also grown herself one tail feather!! She has put on quite a bit of weight, and is generally looking much better. She zooms up and down her ladders and moves amongst her perches with confidence. She has a safety spot at the back of the aviary behind some leafy branches where she goes when she wants to have a nap or a break from all the hustle and bustle of life. She loves basking in the sun and getting wet when it rains. She has a voracious appetite but will only eat seed. Hopefully she will begin to enjoy her fruit and vegetables in the near future. She has now started to call at dawn and dusk along with all the other birds, (their version of the “dawn chorus”) and so must be feeling a lot happier.

Unfortunately she is still wary of me, and moves away when I enter the aviary to replenish her food and water. However, this is also improving in that she no longer hurls herself onto the ground (I believe she thinks she can fly is not deliberately plopping onto the ground), and sometimes says “hello” as I approach. I’m sure in time we will develop a relationship and become friends. As with many other animals, it generally takes six months to a year before they settle properly into their new homes.

The bottom line is that Rio is now well enough for us to rule out the need for euthanasia. She is very pretty and I’m sure that once she can fly again she will feel more in control and become a happier parrot.

Welcome to your new home Rio. We look forward to spending many happy years together.

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Maxine Quinton
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