Eclectus and Cockatoo

In the early 1990s, Australian aviculturists Peter Chapman and Keith Dickins, the owner of Loro Parque Wolfgang Kiessling, and myself visited Queensland, Australia. We spent time at Musgrave Station looking at wild Golden-shouldered Parrots Psephotus chrysopterygius, which nest in peak-shaped terrestrial termitaria, but our focus of that trip and the final destination was even further north than Musgrave—it was the Iron Range. Here are found two species that were on our “must see” list: the Palm Cockatoo Probosciger aterrimus and the Australian Eclectus Eclectus roratus macgillivrayi. Peter Chapman, who is an extolled aviculturist and field observer, literally told us the time and location where we would see both. The Palm Cockatoos had come to the ground to drink on the spot and time he indicated. The Eclectus nested in a tree in whose base we set up camp. We could observe the nesting habits of the Eclectus. The days spent with Peter were like watching a movie for the second time: you knew where and when events would occur.

The tree under which we set up out tent had an active Eclectus nest. The female was fed and mated with multiple males. She was like a bee who controlled the hive (the males), calling for food when hungry and mating when she felt it was necessary.

Those days of observation changed my entire perspective of Eclectus. Before seeing them in the wild, I knew that the female was dominant, that they lack a pair bond—the nexus seen in macaws and cockatoos, for example, which spend long hours preening each other (the hair like feathers on the head of Eclectus do not require preening for the sheath enveloping the feathers to fall) is not present in Eclectus—and females accept food and the mating advances of multiple males. This allowed me to experiment with colonies and with trios. In a colony, the females can bicker over a particular nest; I had one crush the lower mandible of a cage mate, even though they were sisters and had been reared together. In a trio, the hen could pick the male with whom she wanted to mate and she could receive food from both f her consorts.

More pairs of tame Eclectus produce clear eggs than any other group. Every time I visit an aviculturist that has multiple Eclectus I am asked about infertile eggs. In many cases a quick glance gives me the answer. The male is afraid of the female, never feeding with her, never sitting on the same perch and avoiding close contact at all cost. Such males rarely build up the courage to breed. Because of this, I always recommend that when Eclectus are to be kept as pairs, that they should be introduced when very young. The female then learns to tolerate the male and as such does not display aggression towards him. I prefer pairing young parent reared birds but find that hand-reared youngsters reared together are also make suitable future pairs.

Pairing adults, perhaps even tame, former pet birds, is a complicated affair. I would recommend acquiring more than one male and housing them with a female. If more than one female is at hand, a simple system can be used: two separate cages, each with one nesting box, can be constructed and interconnected with multiple tunnels. By adding multiple males, the female can pick and choose which male she will accept food from and also mating. This cage also reduces the risk of a female aggressing one particular male, who can flee to the other cubicle. Also, by housing multiple males together they seem to build up courage to confront a female who may turn bellicose.

If only one cage is available, then a solid board should block view of the next  nests; females tend to perch with the head emerging from the nest and if they can see each other, they are more prone to fight.

With Eclectus it is important to pair birds of the same subspecies. Unless this is done, eventually aviculture will be confronted with a single hybrid species—a domesticated Eclectus whose genetic constitution is composed of multiple races.

With the likelihood of wild imports ever again appearing being virtually nil, maintaining subspecies integrity is very important.


Cockatoos have fascinated man for millennia. Near Jakarta there is a Pramnaban temple dating to the ninth century. If you walk around, you can see reliefs of cockatoos. This suggests that they were known as cage birds. Today this interest persists throughout their range. Many stations in Australia have a pet “cockie” and throughout Indonesia it is possible to see pet “kakatoe” that are maintained as pets, the loud calling revealing their presence. Mans fascination with this group is due to many reasons: their intelligence, beauty, talking ability, tractability, and friendly demeanor, in which they seek and thrive on  human company. Cockatoos can make fabulous pets or can turn a household into an inferno, with loud calling and even physical attacks. Part of the reason for the latter behavior is our misunderstanding of their complex nature. Pet cockatoos that are tame cannot be reared to become an appendage of their owner. Rather, they must learn to be independent: to play alone, to be content sitting on a play stand or cage where it has complex toys to interact with, where it can be provided with enrichment to destroy—they are very destructive in their environment and this need to chew should not be thwarted in captivity– and where it can enjoy being in the company of the family or owner. It must learn to cherish the play sessions. The owner, in turn, must learn that cockatoos can be possessive, aggressive and obstinate. They must learn to read their body language and avoid physical touching that the bird could perceive to be sexual; access to dark areas or cubby holes that the bird could perceive to be nesting sites must be prohibited.

As aviary birds, cockatoos can be equally complex and difficult. Males can be fantastic companions to their mate; they can preen and defend them and even spent long periods of time playing with them. The pair can rear young together for many seasons. However, one day the devil inside the male can emerge and then they either severely maim or kill their mate.

To reduce the risk of attack, the breeder must prepare and be ever observant:

  1. Continuously watch for signs of aggression. These include bloody feathers, the male flying at the female, the female perching at the bottom of the cage or aviary and dodging when the male flies overhead, or the female flying to another perch when the male approaches. Pay attention to usual calling, including a wailing call, and the bird entering a stage that can be described as a trance.
  2. Provide a nest with two entrances (the so-called “T”-shaped nest) that has a division down the center, except at the base where the nesting chamber is located. This prevents a male from entombing the hen inside and starving her. With a double entrance nest, the hen can flee from the opposite hole.
  3. Clip one wing on the male to give a fleeing advantage to the female. We clip the wings at the start of spring and insure that the one wing is clipped throughout the summer and into the start of winter.
  4. Provide a large aviary. Cockatoos kept in a cage can breed but it will only be a matter of time before the hen is murdered. Flight cages at least 15 feet long are recommended, even for the small species.
  5. If the aviary is large enough, provide barriers behind which the hen can stay out of visual contact from the male. This can be as simple as suspending a piece of opaque plastic or even a hessian bag in front of a perch. Insure that the visual block extends about half the aviary width, so that a hen surprised by a male can fly unimpeded.

If the breeder is observant and pays heed to the measures indicated above, the risk of injury to the hen diminish greatly.

Mate aggression makes cockatoos a challenge to breed, but if the breeder is careful and observant they are no more difficult to manage than other groups of parrots.