An umbrella cockatoo named Romeo has flourished under the special care of Scotty Parker in Pratt.
Though Romeo is a large white bird of the cockatoo species, his life revolves around love and understanding, much like the famous Shakespearean character he gets his name from. It wasn't until he met up with Scotty Parker about five years ago, that his life took a turn for the better with no tragic ending in sight.
Romeo, now a regular visitor to Pratt schools and the Teen Center, and most recently the South Wind Thrift Shop where Parker volunteers as a cashier or takes on maintenance jobs, was not always such a friendly bird.
"He came from a rescue situation," Parker said. "When I got him he was pretty much a basket case - biting, plucking feathers, very defensive and scared of almost everything. You could tell he had been totally neglected."
Parker had owned a Macaw parrot and other types of ornamental birds before, but never a cockatoo. He studied up on the subject and quickly became completely devoted to turning Romeo's life around with a few simple changes.
"First I had to learn to think like a bird," Parker said. "Cockatoos are highly intelligent, right there with crows and ravens. I had to go slow with him, spend a lot of time with him, just reassuring him that he was loved. It's a lot like raising a child, you can't get angry with him or yell and scream, that type of negative reinforcement escalates bad behavior. These birds understand cause and effect, and they also understand affection."
Parker said that cockatoos, similar to cockatiels but larger and smarter, were likely the shortest-owned domesticated type of birds there were. Only they had never really been domesticated.
"These are still wild animals," he said. "It takes thousands of years to domesticate a species and that has not occurred with cockatoos yet, these are fight or flight brains you are dealing with and a person really has to have time and be committed to taking proper care of them or they will revert to wild reactions."
Cockatoos can live to be 50 to 60 years old, but they have the brain maturity of a three-year-old human, so Parker said using "time-out" as a behavior tool was very effective.
"They are very trainable," he said. "They love treats and they love interaction. That is why getting mad is such a bad idea around a cockatoo. They are very curious and love a good show, so if something they do, that is considered bad by the owner gets a good scolding or display of shouting, jumping around or throwing things, they are going to do it over and over again."
Parker said he found the most effective way to encourage good behavior with his bird was to simple let him know he was loved.
"Every morning I open his cage and tell him I love him and cuddle him next to my chest," he said. "Romeo loves that and responds very affectionately. If, during the day, I catch him doing something I don' t like, I just tell him I love him and he comes and cuddles, calms down, and we go on. It works very well."
Romeo often tells Parker that he loves him right back, but saying the words and understanding them are two different things in the mind of a bird, Parker said.
"He says a lot of things, like I love you, pretty boy, what's up and peek-a-boo," he said. "These are things I say to him, but he perceives them from a different perspective."
For example, when Parker calls to his bird, saying "Romeo" the bird comes to him, but whenever Romeo wants attention, he calls out his own name over and over.
"He has learned that the word 'Romeo' is an attention getter, so when he calls out his own name, he is really saying, 'look at me, play with me', not calling for someone named Romeo," Parker said.
In addition to caring for his mental state, Parker said daily maintenance of a bird like Romeo involved feeding him, misting him down with a feather-spray and providing ample space for him to live. In Romeo's case, he lives in a large aviary-type cage in the Parker's basement and has a large cage by the garage where enjoys the outdoors when Parker is around. The cages are about 40' X 30' X 6' each. One aspect of bird care that Romeo and his owner enjoy are occasional showers.
"I just take him in there with me," Parker said. "He just loves the shower. He would spend half a day in there if I let him."
All-in-all, Parker said he did believe that Romeo knows the meaning of the word love.
"When I tell him I love him, he responds immediately," Parker said. "Often when he repeats back to me, he will look me right in the eye and tell me 'I love you'."
Parker said Romeo enjoyed meeting other people, especially in the thrift shop, because he is very curious about the world around him. When he fluffs up his head bonnet it often means his curiosity is aroused, he is fascinated, surprised, and entertained, and feelings he thrives on. He said it has been a long time since Romeo had exhibited the bad behaviors he had when he first got him.
"They are extremely smart and social birds," he said. "They respond to others how they are treated."