Fagan's Tale is the story of my mistakes and his triumph over them. Fagan is a wild-caught, 12-year old (his age in 1997 when the article was written) male Moluccan Cockatoo ... my first large paarrot. Our life together began in 1985 when Fagan was thought to be about 6-9 months old. I met him at a So. California bird store, the day after he arrived from quarantine. The store proprietors were importers who also owned the quarantine station he came from, so they had the opportulnity to observe him before he reached the store. However, I never thought to ask why he was being offered for sale as a semi-tame bird when he had just arrived from the wild. I was totally inexperienced with large parrots then and didn't think of many questions to ask. The only discussion I had with the store manager centered on how much she had tried to talk her husband into buying this bird. Perhaps that was her sales technique. In retrospect, I believe she should have spent that time educating me about cockatoos and questioning my suitability as a prospective owner. She knew I was inexperienced so it still amazes me that she didn't attempt to give me even the most basic information. Since this first encounter, I've always seen red when I hear about anyone who sells a parrot without providing the new owner with good information and resources. It's heartbreaking to know how these wonderful creatures can unintentionally suffer in the hands of the uninformed.
Back to Our Beginning
To remove Fagan from his cage, the store manager had to towel him since he was frightened and his cage-mate was aggressive. Once removed he was given to me. He was still nervous, but nestled against my chest and looked up at me with his huge dark eyes. My heart melted ... it was love at first cuddle! For the next hour we stayed glued together. Since Fagan was being offered as a semi-tame bird, the store personnel knew he was gentle; however, his extreme tameness surprised them. As enthusiastic as I was becoming, buying a large parrot was a big decision. My former pet birds were a wonderful Cockatiel and two Budgies, and it had been two decades since they had been my companions. It was hard to go home without Fagan, but I decided that I must try to learn something about Moluccans before buying this large bird.
Stopping by the bird store that day was unplanned. I needed time to think and also see how my husband felt about bringing a parrot into the family. Upon leaving the store that day, I had an armful of books on Cockatoos that I'd purchased. As it turned out, the books had information on physical description, breeding, illnesses, life in the wild, etc., but very little about personality and nothing about behavior. There may have been other information available in the store that day, but none was suggested to me. After a few days of reading, thinking about Fagan constantly and visiting another bird store, I decided that I couldn't live without him. My husband gave me an enthusiastic okay and that sealed the decision. I called the store and he was still available. Once we made the decision to buy him I couldn't get there fast enough. It was so exciting!
I brought Fagan, his cage, food, and a playstand home together. The one-hour trip went fine eventhough he traveled in a cardboard box. (Today I transport my parrots in well-ventilated dog crates). Upon arriving home I opened the box and Fagan stepped out onto my hand. He continued to accept me and this latest change in his young life. Many years ago I learned about the horrible trials that imported birds must endure. I can only assume that Fagan somehow received treatment that encouraged him to trust people. Fortunately, he seemed to trust me and I did my best to make him feel secure and loved. We spent all our time together and he participated in most home activities. The only negative reaction I ever saw happened one day when he and I were preparing his morning veggies. The night before I had polished my nails for the first time since getting him. When he saw the bright red color he panicked, screamed and tried to get as far away from me as possible. At first I didn't realize the cause of his fear, but then it dawned on me. I removed the polish and everything was okay. The only other things that frighten him are gloves. I discovered this when I used them to garden one day. He eventually got used to the nail polish, but has never overcome his fear of gloves. I've always wondered what had happened in his past to cause these reactions. I love giving physical affection (hugging, cuddling and lots of kissing) to my parrots, and that habit started with Fagan. Like most Cockatoos he loved this attention and I know it help us bond.
Because we were moving when Fagan came home it was several days before my husband Don had the opportunity to meet our new family member. I wish I had a video of their introduction. After all the affection I heaped on this bird, the moment he saw Don it was love at first sight. I was really pleased that Fagan like Don, but secretly felt hurt that the new love of my life was in love with another. Since Fagan didn't reject me, I took comfort in being able to share his affection.
Soon we were in our new home and life with Fagan was going well. After all, he was a very young bird with all the wonderful characteristics that age endows. Because he was so adorable and sweet we allowed him to do whatever he wanted. The only thing he couldn't do was fly as his wings were clipped. It never entered our minds to set guidlines for him. He gave us no reason to believe changes were ahead. I have always been a very enthusiastic lover of animals. Although I've had many animal companions throughout my life, I'd never experienced living with an adapted wild animal. Somehow my brain glitched and I never considered Fagan's needs for the future. He was so intelligent and lovable that I thought he would always be perfect. My brain was on automatic ... just cruising along having a great time. I'm still not certain why I was so naive, as I had always given my other animals structure and training. Somehow Fagan just seemed larger than life. As I was about to find out, Fagan's needs were more complex than my other animal friends. Though I read a great deal, I wasn't getting the type of information I needed to help him adapt to the unnatural world he would live in the rest of his life.
Rough Road Ahead
Fagan's love affair with Don continued. We were permissive with him and eventually he discovered new adventures that included wandering about on the floor. When Don came home from work Fagan would climb off his playstand, run to the sofa a climb up on Don's shoulder. He was then content to groom Don (especially beard stubble) for hours. As cute as this was it got old after awhile. Since we let Fagan set his own rules it became impossible to keep him on his playstand. He would even flutter to the floor rather than make the effort to climb down.
When Fagan was about two years old, we admitted his habits were out of control and decided to find a way to change his behavior. One day I happened to visit a bird store and started talking to the owner. The man also trained parrots and had developed a bird show. Still naive, I thought someone who trained parrots was just the ticket we needed. So I discussed the problem of Fagan refusing to stay on his perch. He gave me some advice and to be truthful we weren't comfortable with it as it seem very harsh. Don and I discused it and agonized and finally decided this trainer must know something we didn't. So against our better judgement we put his suggestion into action. We decided Don would carry out the correction. We were told the next time Fagan got down to tell him "No", and immediately place him back on the playstand. And to repeat it a few times, if necessary. So far, that was fine. But if he
were to get down again (which he did) to tell him "No", then pick him up at the base of his tail (not the tip) and place him back on the stand. Of course, that is the part we had trouble accepting. But we decided that Don would do it anyway. The trainer assured me that this wouldn't physically hurt Fagan, but "would get his attention". What he didn't discuss, and what we didn't consider was how it might affect Fagan emotionally. The trainer was right, it didn't hurt Fagan physically. However, the result of this punishment had a cruel effect of him. From the moment Don used this correction to set Fagan back on his stand Fagan would have nothing more to do with Don. Everytime Don came within eyesight Fagan would turn his back and refuse to look at him. This went on without exception for about 18 months. Instantly, Fagan went from being in love with Don to pretending he didn't exist. I feel so guilty when I think about the confusion he must have been suffering. In retrospect, we might have undone some damage if we had reassured Fagan after a few minutes and told him what a good boy he was for behaving. We didn't because we thought the attention would encourage him to get down again. Ignoring him was supposed to be part of the punishment. Fagan stayed on the playstand for the rest of the evening. Obviously, he didn't want anything to do with us after this event. That was the beginning of a prolonged decline.
After experiencing the effect of our first serious attempt at discipline, I was afraid to try anything other than saying "No" and giving him a brief time out. He had gotten away with things for so long that a simple "No" and time out meant little to him. Fagan continued to get off his perch when he felt like it. The floor remained his happy hunting ground. Although spoiled, for the rest of his immature years we got along okay. Since he lost trust in Don, I became his favorite person.
Eventually Fagan began showing signs of sexual maturity and not long after the hormones really began to rage. At this point, he began seeking out dark places, began rooting around and refused to be picked up. Since we hadn't established any rules, UP commands, etc. the ability to deal with his struggle for independence and escalating aggressive behavior was very difficult. He could be frightening at times. During his raging hormone espisodes he would lunge and attempt to bite. He also started screaming when he wanted out of his cage. I tried giving him time outs by covering and/or isolating him for short periods. He only screamed louder and pulled the cover off his cage. I was consistent, but there was no improvement. Again, the dark ages guided my actions. When his incessant screaming pushed my stress level beyond the breaking point, I squirted him with water (aiming anywhere below his head). That was another huge mistake. I caused him to resent things held in the hand. Fortunately, for my self-respect I didn't squirt him many times. However, being a very intelligent and sensitive bird, I must admit that for him one squirt was equal to abuse. And his bouts of screaming abused me to the brink of insanity. Obviously, the only thing I was accomplishing with my barbaric efforts of discipline was a loss of trust for both of us. Our relationship declined and we both became fearful.
Fagan was in total control of his life outside his cage. But I didn't have the heart to keep him caged all the time. So he still had access to the floor. The floor attracted him because of the mischief he could get into. Although not a wood chewer, Fagan is very mechanical and was always looking for something on which to apply his exceptional talents. This destructive capability added to the problem of a free-roaming bird. But even worse, the floor empowered him. He could hide under furniture and I couldn't get him out. Finally, I resorted to using a broom handle on which he could step. He learned to bite it rather than step on it. Then he would run to another hiding place. I have yet to see another bird run so fast. I think we could enter him in an Olympic sprint event ... maybe even a Marathon (that is a tribute to his incredible endurance). Finally, I reached the point of considering a breeding situation for him. Fortunately, I couldn't make a decision like that. To be sure, Fagan was a mess, but I wouldn't abandon him. I knew I was responsible for his decline, so continued to struggle with him hoping that I could find a solution.
The Route to Recovery
Finally, I really began to understand the complex nature of parrots due to the excellent behavioir information that was becoming available. The first feature articles Sally Blanchard wrote for bird magazines began to give me hope. I read and reread them and read them to Don. We began to understand Sally's behavior philosophy and the need for nurturing guidance. The parenting idea was a new experience for me as I've never been a Mom to little humans. I worried that it might be too late for Fagan to change ... but I knew that I could. Now I was determined not to give up. We started with the UP command. It's a small word with a huge impact.
Since Fagan had freedom from his cage everyday he
always had access to the floor. I needed to gain control of him while he was on the floor so that's where I chose to start retraining him. He was unpredictable, so I wrapped a towel around my arm and waited for him to wander to an area of the room where I could force him to step on my arm. Every time he stepped on my arm he heard the word UP first. That was the beginning. Once he was on my arm I would hold him close to me and give him the love he had always enjoyed. We did this repeatedly. He began to associate the word UP and the towel with positive things. He had always felt secure when I held him close and now he associated it with approval. He stopped trying to avoid me by running away. Slowly he began to have confidence in our new relationship. My confidence was growing, too. Once he learned UP, I added NO with a time out when he did something wrong. Finally, the "No" he heard so often over the years began to have new meaning. After he started accepting verbal commands his spoiled behavior began to fade. Although he was mature, he learned UP, DOWN and NO so quickly. Our confidence in each other began to blossom.
Well-adjusted Mature Male Cockatoo
I'm happy to say that most of his dysfunctional behavior is gone now, although it took a lot of time and patience. The seasonal hormone surges are still there but are not as rampant as they were initially. The UP command helps to get us through them. Adult male Cockatoos have their moments when they get excited and over stimulated. I've learned to let him work through these times by himself. He soon wears himself out, settles down and turns into a marshmallow.
The floor had been my nemesis for so long you may think that Fagan is never allowed on it. Not true. I give him permission to "run" on the floor to get his daily exercise. Although his cage perches are arranged so that he can run around (and believe me, he does) he enjoys the freedom of the floor. Most of the time he takes advantage of his free time, but other times doesn't feel the need. He doesn't do well playing on counter tops because a favorite game is to throw anything within reach to the floor. Playing on the bed doesn't work for him either. The difference is now I put him on the floor with the word "okay". It's my decision, not his. I carefully supervise Fagan during this time so he doesn't get into mischief. I give him a plastic cup or empty water bottle to toss around. He loves this rowdy play ... it is great fun for both of us. He can be on the floor 10 feet away and he will run to me when I extend my hand and say "Up". This is especially true if I have a towel on my arm. Fagan loves towels. Recently, there has been another breakthrough. Now, when I tell him "UP CAGE", he will run back to his cage and climb in. However, it was the discovery that Fagan loves hand clapping that has really made a difference. He loves clapping and being the center of attention so much that he will accept it as a reward for good behavior. He will climb into his cage to get a hand clapping reward and then jump out again so he can return and get more hand clapping. The clapping reward has enabled us to invent several games to play. He's become a real ham.
Nurturning guidance redirected Fagan's behavior so dramatically. Today, Fagan is a happy, playful, reasonably well-adjusted bird. Don't get me wrong, he isn't perfect. I don't expect that. Once in awhile he can be stubborn and tests the rules, but it is momentary. He is so inquisitive and mechanical (he's a master at taking things apart) that it can lead to trouble. Fagan is also very jealous of the other birds in our family (which is now my biggest problem). The best way to explain it is that he is kind, lovable and lots of fun, but also a mature male Cockatoo.
Passion for Learning
I'm very thankful for the information I've received from enlightened avian behaviorists. Their knowledge, experience and insight gave me the courage and methods to change my relationship with Fagan. He is proof it is never too late to change ... even for a sexually mature delinquent. We didn't even need "tough love"! I'm very proud of Fagan. He has come a long way and I credit his inherent intelligence, kindness and a willingness to forgive my mistakes. Fagan has always been, and continues to be, one of the great loves of my life.
My hope for all birds, whether they're delinquents like Fagan in desperate need of guidance or innocent babies is to be cared for with respect and humanity. It distresses me that every bird isn't guaranteed an informed caretaker. Ignorance is perpetuated by lack of information and bad information. Unfortunately, bad information and methods still exist, even in this era of avaian enlightenment. There are bad bird stores and pet shops with incompetent and/or uncaring personnel at the helm. There are bad books and other published material with archaic information that are sold to the inexperienced. There are breeders who are more concerned with making money than practicing good husbandry and properly preparing their "production" for the future, and so forth. As in Fagan's case, it's obvious that a lack of common sense can result in diaster, too. When ignorance or lack of common sense exist, the bird always loses to some degree.
I personally owe a debt of gratituded to all the excellent avian educators, no matter what their specialty. It has become my passion to find out as much information about parrots as possible. I hope that everyone who purchases a parrot (or any animal) will do the same. I would love to live long enough to see an end to ignorance and the abuse it causes. What a marvelous gift that would be!