Cockatoos can be very playful and are especially good at playing games. The trick is to set the rules for the game or else their games can create some behavioral problems. There is no doubt that our pets try to initiate play with us. This is seen most clearly when a dog rolls his ball toward us or brings us a stick when we are in the yard. Pet birds also initiate play with us, but all too often their message is misunderstood.
I frequently bird sit an umbrella cockatoo named Ginger. I don’t get much work done when she is here because we have such a good time. She spends a lot of time on the rope gyms hanging from the ceiling about 8 feet from my desk. She loves to play and constantly tries to initiate play with me. Even though I find her completely charming, it is impossible to play constantly, and sometimes she starts screaming a bit if I ignore her. If I just look over and say something silly, she usually resumes playing by herself. She can be a bit demanding, but the key is to acknowledge her invitations to play without getting up and giving her attention every time.
1) Silly games that give the parrot lots of attention are always fun. I play “Ms. America” with Ginger. This is an absolutely silly game that Ginger loves to play with me. Clearly it is frivolous without any purpose except to have fun. After her caregiver leaves, Ginger starts to initiate the game with her postures and excitement. It is mostly me making a big deal out of all of the things she does. She throws her crest, spreads her wings and knocks her beak on my hand. She has to win the Ms. Cockatoo contest first. Of course, there are no other contestants, so she is the winner every time we play. We sing and dance and I move her crest from side to side. She squeals with delight but it is not screaming; it is an indication of how much fun she is having. When she is on my hand, I flap her up and down just a bit, and she spreads her wings and I tell her how beautiful she is. When I announce her as the winner, I put a makeshift paper crown around her crest and she is really happy about it all. The game only takes about five minutes. If I played much longer, I think she would get too excited and go into overload. Ginger is a delightful play friend and I think this is because her caregiver understands how important play is for her cockatoo.
2) The first time I met my friend Barbara Bailey’s Moluccan cockatoo, Tiwi, we played a wonderful game of roll the wiffle ball. I would toss it past her, and she would run and get it and throw it back. Her aim was pretty good, but sometimes it was way off and I had to convince her to go get it and try again. We had a lot of fun together during my visit. Fast forward a year or so … from then on when I visited, she would climb or jump down from her stand to chase me around the room. If she caught me it seemed as if she would try to bite my toes. I call this classic cockatoo game “Dance when I say Dance” and it is a favorite for many of these energetic birds.
With Tiwi, I missed the obvious clue that she wanted to play our game with the wiffle ball. She remembered how much fun we had playing together the last time I visited; I didn’t remember. I responded in a way that obviously encouraged more negative behavior and I should have known better. I didn’t realize that she was initiating play with me, because she remembered how much fun we had playing before. The last time I visited Tiwi, I made up my mind that I was going to do better and use my own logical theories with her. I had just arrived and put my suitcase on the guest bed and opened it to get something. As I went into the bathroom, Tiwi came barreling down the hall full of excitement. I shut the door, but I knew she wasn’t going to go away. She started banging the ball against the door but by the time I opened the door she was on my suitcase throwing all of my clothes around the room.
Catch can also be very popular with the smaller cockatoos like the rose-breasted cockatoo and the bare-eyed cockatoo. I played catch with a bare-eyed cockatoo named Roo for over an hour and I didn’t think she was ever going to tire of the game.
3) Teach your pet cockatoo tricks. I recently worked with a large, absolutely gorgeous Moluccan cockatoo. He was a screamer that had been in several homes and his new caregiver was dedicated to working with his problems. The best way to deal with screaming behavior is to teach a cockatoo a few basic behaviors that can be used to distract the screaming. Once the cockatoo learns the tricks, if the caregiver notices the pet bird winding up for a screaming session, he or she can give the cue for the trick. This can actually “change the channel” in the bird’s mind and instead of screaming, the bird performs the behavior. The caregiver can then give the bird a lot of positive praise for his positive behavior. I taught the Moluccan to lift his foot to the “Gimme Four” cue in only a few minutes.
4) A quiet way to play with cockatoos is by reading to them while they are in the cage or on a playgym. It can be anything from the newspaper to a children’s’ book. Of course the key is to read it with a certain amount of drama and to make enthusiastic facial expressions and eye contact. If nothing else, cockatoos love drama.
5) Cockatoos are real swingers. I have seen them swing around and around on branches, on their perches and from their caregiver’s hand. This seems to be a fairly natural cockatoo behavior, and it is easy to encourage. When I watch a cockatoo friend of mine named Bianca, she loves to hang from the hanging rope gym. I start to swing the gym from side to side, and she starts to pump on the perch so it swings more and more. Then she starts going around and around on it. At this point she usually starts screaming, but it is not irritating screaming; it is happy-to-be-alive screaming, and it is easy to tell that she is having a great time.