Cockatoos, they say – everybody says! – are the most challenging of all parrots. They are the most often rehomed of all parrots. They have perhaps the scariest beak of all parrots, one point above and two below. They are the most emotional. They are the most reactive.
Rocky is all of those things. In the span of less than a week, Rocky bit his human daddy three times, and all three were serious bites. He was testy and bitey with me as well and left a couple of nasty bruises, though with me he didn't break the skin. He has lived with us three months and the first two of those three bites happened on the very day that marked three months.
We have turned ourselves and our lives upside down for Rocky. We gave up half our living room for his giant cage. We have made toys for him. We invented games for him. We spent and continue to spend a lot of money to make him healthy, happy and comfortable. He gets attention and time before any other creature in our care, and every last one of those other creatures was there first, the eldest of those a geriatric Lab with health issues who cannot move fast enough to get out of the reach of a charging 'Too bent on mayhem.
Human Daddy cannot pick up Rocky. He pets him when he's on his cage. They play the Towel Game and seemingly, Rocky enjoys playing the game, and that's the way he interacts with his daddy. And the two of us are the only ones who can interact with him at all. A friend's daughter, who spends a lot of time at our house and loves animals, talks to him and he accepts this with calm grace, but she is smart enough to keep her hands and the rest of herself out of reach. She is the only other person who can even do that. Rocky reacts with suspicion and sometimes a display of 'Too Temper to anyone else he sees. The day of the first two bad bites, he was sitting with me on the porch, tense and testy, but of course, I thought sitting on the porch would still be okay. He likes to sit on the porch.
Then the garbage truck came. He's seen the garbage truck before. Both dogs started barking (“MOM! They're taking our STUFF!!!!”) and Rocky joined in, as he is wont to do, with a display and his car alarm call. I said, as I am wont to do, “It's okay, Rocky, it's just the garbage truck” and on this day, it was not okay. Instead of smoothing down when the truck went on to the next house, Rocky continued to display and I decided discretion was the better part of valor and rose to take him back to his cage, at which point he fastened The Beak to my upper arm and chomped hard enough to make my whole arm tingle, though he didn't break the skin.
I have two Quaker parrots, who are known for their chompy tendencies, and the way to end a chomp with them is to jiggle your hand a bit so they have to think about their balance and will stop thinking about chomping. I've had these Quakers for several years and that reaction has become instinctive. So … I jiggled my arm. Rocky did, indeed, have to think balance and grabbed a new spot on my arm, chomped down hard, and then lost his grip and ended up hanging from my arm upside down, flapping and squawking. By then I had reached his cage, he grabbed on it instead of me and righted himself and then had a full-blown Cockatoo Fit. The dogs, Hubby and I retreated posthaste, and for the rest of that day, Rocky was untouchable and unapproachable.
Then came the third bite. Hubby came into the room and saw Rocky being “cute” – upside down on the outside of his cage. He reached out to stroke him and Rocky grabbed his finger and bit down hard, hard enough to go through-and-through.
We thought we were beaten. Rocky had clearly become aggressive toward Hubby and was getting more aggressive toward me. If neither of us could touch him, what was left? How do you care for a parrot you can't approach? You can't clean his cage or fill his dishes if you don't dare get within reach, and he was aggressive even when I was performing those tasks. Hubby had to watch and try to distract him while I zoomed through only the most necessary of chores, always poised to dodge. This was not a good way to take care of him, and he was also deprived of human interaction.
We decided we had to find him a new home. We have had many critters in our almost-34 years of marriage and only once before did we have to admit defeat and give up an animal whose heart we could never win. We were heartbroken, especially considering that Rocky has had numerous homes before ours and we had vowed that ours would be his home at least the remainder of our lives, and that we would make provision for him if he outlived us. I have a friend who runs a parrot rescue. I made arrangements with her. She knows cockatoos.
But we wouldn't be able to hand him over for a couple of days due to my work schedule. In the intervening time, Rocky grew quiet and distant. He didn't make any noise to speak of. He didn't come out of his cage. We suspected he knew what was up and had resigned himself that, once again, he'd been rejected.
We felt horribly guilty. And on top of everything, we both adore him, even Hubby, even in spite of the bites.
Hubby had an idea. With Quakers, who are totally different birds from cockatoos, if you rearrange their cage, sometimes you can, as Hubby phrased it, “hit the reset button.” It worked on our project Quaker, Jade, who is also untouchable for the most part, but no longer attacks as she once did. Why don't we try that? We'll take the cage apart, remove the worn out toys, give the whole thing a long-overdue cleaning and see what happens. The cage also arrived at our house with no wheels, and is a large, heavy, California Cage that is a chore to move. Hubby is a carpenter and attaching new wheels wouldn't be that much of a job.
It took both of us and at the end we had a very angry 'Too, but we got Rocky into his travel carrier, dismantled the cage, Hubby took it to the car wash and scrubbed it within an inch of its life, while I cleaned all around where it had sat. When he came back, he got the new wheels onto it, we brought it back in and replaced toys and dishes and gave Rocky a new basket to sit in and destroy in his Deep Thoughts Corner and, finally, released Rocky from the carrier. Much against my better judgment, I offered an arm to take him to his clean cage. He accepted, but he was very, very angry. I set him on the cage and he turned his back to us and would have nothing to do with us for a couple of hours.
But he got over his pouting and, we think, realized that the dismantling of the cage and the putting him in the carrier did not mean we were sending him away. He asked for a snuggle. He said “I love you.” He ate a snack and played with his toys.
And since then, he has been affectionate, calm and doesn't even scream much. A Too will scream in the morning and before bed and occasionally other times just because he can, but Rocky either skips the session or cuts it short, for the most part. He helps me eat my dinner most nights. He even goes to bed meekly and, mostly, quietly.
Perhaps we are personifying him too much, but I wonder if the idea that we might send him away, and then discovering that we did not, convinced him that he really is home this time, and he can settle down and relax and feel safe.