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Super70s Pets

By Patrick Mondout
May 4, 2005


After I placed a pair of pet cockatoos on our home page for Christmas, I received emails from people from different parts of the globe inquiring about our feathered friends and wanting to see more pictures of them. While I am no longer living with them (or their owner - my ex-girlfriend), I still have lots of fond memories and pictures that will always be with me. I will share a few of both right here.


But first, a little background as these birds are not native to North America. Sydney was captured in the wild back in the Super70s and imported to the U.S. (when that was still legal, of course). He is an Umbrella Cockatoo - so named because of the crest of feathers on his head that can be raised (as shown on the right) - and is believed to be just shy of 30 years old.

Umbrellas Cockatoos (a.k.a. Cacatua alba, Umbies, U2's, Great White or simply White Crested Cockatoos) come from Indonesia in an area centered around Halmahera in the Molucca Sea. This may look like Baretta's bird, but that was actually a Sulfur-Crested Cockatoo - a cousin to the U2. Sydney has yellow coloring under his crest and under his wings and tail feathers. Umbrellas come in two sizes and Sydney is of the larger variety.

Chanel (a.k.a. 'Nelly) is a Moluccan Cockatoo, and is small as Moluccans go but is still a few inches longer and noticeably bigger than Syd. Moluccan Cockatoos (a.k.a., Salmon-Crested Cockatoos) come from nearly the same area in the Moluccan Islands as U2's and can breed with one another as Sydney in particular seemed intent on proving.

'Nelly & Sydski!

This picture was taken from the dining room of a house we were renting along the Oregon Coast. While we loved the view, Syd and 'Nelly were sometimes startled by all the gulls, geese and crows flying around. Click here for a larger version of this picture.

The crest on these birds is impressive. You can see Chanel in the picture below starting to raise her beautiful orange colored crest - it is usually at rest curved against their head. When startled, the crest goes up apparently to make themselves appear larger to predators. I have always seen it more comically: It reminds me of the cartoon character with an exclamation point above their head.

Because of the crest and the feathers that sometimes cover the lower part of their beak (see the picture of "Prettybird" below), these birds can express much more of their feelings than other birds. When Chanel would enter Sydney's room on my shoulder, his crest would go up and you knew exactly what he was thinking. He would also raise it when he was mad. When the day was done and either bird would rest on one leg, feathers would cover the lower part of the beak and you could see the calmness and contentment.

Cockatoos also have very strong beaks. I made the mistake of getting my hand between Sydney and a water spray bottle that he hates once and had the scar for months to prove it. They will also happily convert the wood molding around the bottom of your walls into toothpicks, as my ex-girlfriend once discovered. I liked to destroy things when I was a kid - most boys do - but I believe these birds just like to chew.

Chanel's vocabulary was limited. She could say "prettybird", "what's new?", and a few other words, but what was really interesting was her seemingly random alien-speak. If you were on the phone in her room, or if you were speaking to someone else in her presence, she would walk back and forth on her perch speaking made up words (a lot like a certain politician, but sans the smirk) and looking like - as my mother once put it - a professor giving a speech. (Cockatoos kind of look like a professor slumped forward with their hands behind their back as they walk back and forth.) If she thought you weren't paying attention or if you tried to talk over her, she'd simply raise her voice! I am sure there are other Cockatoos who do this, but I have yet to encounter them.

I heard about Polly, a parrot that sings operas, on NPR a few years ago. Chanel was not much of a singer, but she could yodel (where she learned to that is still a mystery). She could also bark so well that I would often stop what I was doing and listen closely to figure out whether it was her or the neighbor's dog. Perhaps as a result of her comedy routines, she heard enough human laughter to learn to mock it too.

Sydney cannot speak. I worked with him on and off for two years and he never said a word. The last six months of that period, however, he did begin making sounds that he had never made before and I'd like to think I was making progress, though I realize there may be fundamental problems in trying to teach a wild-caught bird to speak so many years after its birth (apparently it is not possible with humans in similar circumstances).


This map, courtesy of the CIA (boy it is weird typing that), shows the island group that is home to Moluccan and Umbrella Cockatoos.

Both birds had interesting dances, with Chanel quickly stepping side to side and whipping her head around like Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles. Sydney mostly liked to slap his foot down over and over though he could bop his head up and down with more exuberance than any cool cat hipster!

Another remarkable fact about these birds is their incredible lifespans: They can live at least 70 years, though no one is yet certain of the upper limit. This means that as an owner, you need to make plans for what will happen to you after you die, as they might very well outlive you.

These creatures are simply amazing once you get to know them. I am weary of people who ascribe a wide variety of human emotions to animals. It is not that I believe we are fundamentally different. Clearly we're not and we have the same origins in the seas. But also as clearly there are different regions of our brains that handle different types of thoughts, such as various emotions, and I remain unconvinced that any nonhumans have developed anything like the range we have with our brains.

However, it is hard to have a cockatoo as a companion and not sense the social attraction on both sides of the relationship. Unlike the dogs I lived with, who could only be bothered to pay attention to me when they thought I had food, Sydney and Chanel perched themselves on my shoulder seemingly just to be social.

I could go on about that this at length, but will instead summarize: Dogs have been bred - have evolved - to have certain qualities that appeal to us humans. After all, we created them from wolves to be our companions (and for specific tasks). These wild cockatoos on the other hand, from remote islands in near New Guinea do not have such breeding and yet appear to me to be able to create even closer bonds with us.


Chanel liked to say, appropriately enough, "prettybird." I taught her to say "pretty- pretty- pretty- pretty- pretty- pretty- prettybird very rapidly. It was the first step towards teaching her to rap! Click here for a larger version of this picture.

Until I got to know Sydney and Chanel, I could not get excited about a bird. To me they were just another animal but with wings and feathers and there wasn't a whole lot going on upstairs. It only took a few months of interactions with these guys to completely transform me. I was once a dog person. Not anymore.

I wouldn't dream of letting a dog eat of my plate or lick my face but I quickly accepted having either bird eat from my shoulder. While many would wonder what the difference was, to me they were worlds apart.

I hope that anyone out there who is considering having a Cockatoo join their family won't rush and get one based on what I have said above. I absolutely could not stand the barking of my girlfriend's Papillons, but the much louder squawks from the Cockatoos didn't even register with me. There are many things to consider before taking on a 'Too, but perhaps the most important is that they are very loud birds. So loud that there is actually site devoted to dissuading potential Cockatoo owners.

That's all for now - back to the '70s!

Thanks for visiting!
Patrick Mondout


P.S. A larger version of the Christmas picture is here (the third bird is a talking African Grey named Floyd, who unfortunately has passed away). I've also got some great shots of her Papillons here.

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