By Lloyd Marshall
Major Mitchell's cockatoos (Cacatua leadbeateri) are probably the most beautiful cockatoo in the world — but they don't make good pets and have serious drawbacks as breeder birds. So why would anyone bother to keep more than 100 of them?
"It's simple," said a West Australian aviculturist who, for security reasons, I'll call Harry Moore, "I love them and breeding them is a great challenge." Moore's 9-acre property outside Perth, the Western Australian capital, also houses many other Australian parrots, as well as some Alexandrine's. Moore started work on a bank of 20 aviaries designed specifically for the Major Mitchell's soon after building his home and moving in 22 years ago.
Each cage is 28 feet deep, 6 feet wide and 8 feet high with frames made from 1-inch and 1½-inch galvanized steel tubing, with 1-inch tubing used for the doors. Two-inch chain mesh wire is used throughout, and the back wall is metal, with the rear 8 feet of the roof covered. Seed trays and nesting logs are in the covered section, and three of the aviaries have been sectioned into 14- by 6-feet flights to provide more accommodation. No metal sheeting is used on the dividing walls adjacent to the nesting/feeding area for good reason, "You'd think that, being a very territorial bird, they would go better if they couldn't see the neighboring nests," Moore said, "but that's not the case. I don't know if the movement of the tin rattled them or if it was the noise made by mice on the tin, but something upset them and they breed better without it."
The birds like to roost at the front of the flights at night, so there is a 3-foot covered section there as well. Each flight has two perches — one toward the back of the covered section and one at the front of the flight. "This provides them with plenty of space to fly, which is important to keep them in good condition," Moore said.
Major Mitchell's are a flock bird in the wild, and Moore finds their warning behavior is the same in captivity. "When feeding in the wild, they have a sentry sitting in a tree that lets the others know if danger threatens, whether it's a hawk, a car or only a branch flapping wildly," Moore said. "In my situation, the birds in the flight nearest to the house warn the others farther away when they see me."
|Photo: Lloyd Marshall
Major Mitchell's have no set breeding age. Moore's Major Mitchell's like to roost at the front of the aviary. The added roof section is positioned over the perch where the birds sleep at night.
This means that if Moore visits the aviaries at an unfamiliar time of the day, he can scare the birds off their eggs, sometimes for as long as an hour. "They are very nervy," he said, "and they can be spooked by a branch falling from a tree, by large birds, by planes flying over, by helicopters and by the neighbors using a chainsaw."
All of Moore's birds get a basic diet of goodquality pigeon mix, which he adds sunflower to in a ratio of four to one. The pigeon mix contains corn, peas, safflower and wheat, but the birds prefer the sunflower. "Once the sunflower is gone, they clean up the other stuff as well," he said. Seed is placed in 2 by 2-foot trays that are about 2 inches deep. The birds are fed sprouted sunflower and wheat, especially when breeding, as well as various nuts and green food. Moore also gives them canary seed when they are breeding. He also feeds "dock," a local seeding grass with small red seeds and "velt" grass.
Clean water is provided daily in ceramic dishes placed a foot off the ground. Each winter Moore plants all his Major Mitchell's flights with wheat and oats in the unroofed areas. "I add a handful of fresh seed each week, so that it sprouts continuously for months," Moore said, "and the birds love to get in among the foot-high plants, foraging around."
The number of Major Mitchell's in each flight vary from one pair to six birds — usually a pair with youngsters — some pairs are happy to share accommodation, while others insist on having their own private quarters. Moore plans to try colony breeding Major Mitchell's, something he has not attempted previously. "
He now has eight young birds — five hens and three cocks !151 in a new aviary just outside his back door. "It's handy, so that if there is trouble I can step in quickly," he said. Three of the hens were hand-raised and he intends to remove the excess hens once the birds have paired up. "It'll be interesting," Moore said, "the 25- by 9- by 10-foot high cage is roomier than those I usually breed majors in, and I'm hoping that they'll be okay."
Moore uses nesting logs for all his birds, with the length varying from 3 to 4 feet for the Major Mitchell's. A tall man, Moore inspects most nests from the top.
There is no set breeding age for Major Mitchell's with some of Moore's going down at 2 years, while others reach 7 years and show no inclination to breed. They are extremely fickle birds, with males sometimes turning on long-term mates for no apparent reason. "Whenever I see two birds on the ground for longer than usual, I know there's trouble," Moore said, "and it's usually a case of the male chasing the female down there so he can beat her up more easily."
Moore has had cases of birds laying and incubating, but deserting the young when they hatch. "They sit beautifully, but when the first egg hatches the two of them sit outside the log, crests raised in alarm," he said. "It's as though they don't recognize the babies and think they're rats or mice."
Moore doesn't like hand-raising, preferring to let the parents do the job. "But in cases where they've been deserted and I don't have another pair where I can place the chicks, I take them in," he said. He also pulls eggs from pairs that have a history of abandoning chicks and places them under good parents.
Some of his birds lay fertile eggs, but don't sit. "With them I pull the eggs, give them infertile eggs, then incubate the real eggs and switch them back to the parents or another pair when they pip," he said, "and the they then raise the chicks beautifully."
To assist hens that are being attacked, Moore leans a chain mesh gate or a piece of bird wire against one of the aviary walls to give them somewhere to take refuge from the cock. "It's impossible to figure out, pairs can be in the same cage with the same log, same neighbors and be doing well for a long time," he said, "then for some reason things start to go wrong."
Moore occasionally swaps Major Mitchell's with other breeders to introduce new blood.He knows the history of every one of his birds, which aviary it's been in, what its unique characteristics and problems are and how it has interacted previously with its mate and neighbors. "If a bird is a problem I move it," he said, "taking into account its behavior pattern, as well as the characteristics of the bird I'm going to put it with."
Half of Moore's birds are youngsters, and he believes his breeding results will improve now that he has stopped work and has more time to spend with his birds. "But I still won't pull eggs or chicks unless it's absolutely necessary," he said.
"They are a beautiful looking bird, but they don't make good pets, because when they reach breeding age they start to bite, but many people still want them because they are so pretty." Some of Moore's birds that remained semi-tame when they matured give him a nip occasionally, but there's no way he'd part with them. "I love the birds too much," he said, "I suppose you could say they are my addiction."
Lloyd Marshall has been a birdkeeper for 42 years and a journalist for 26 years.