A Major Event


by Steve Groom

Major Mitchell Cockatoo - Cacatua leadbeateri. Photograph by & courtesy of Queensland Police Service, Brisbane, Australia

Cockatoos are amongst the most enjoyable, yet frustrating birds that we attempt to propagate, and the Major Mitchell, Cacatua leadbeateri is by no means any exception. Sure, we have all heard the stories of breeders having "instant success" with their first pair, or hens laying at two years of age, and the quote "The easiest Cockatoo to breed". But by and large, I'm sure most people know someone who has kept Majors for years with no success at all... and I'm sure one of them.

My birds were purchased as 12 month old young with the view that they would bond together as they matured and become good breeding pairs. As the years progressed, I began to wonder whether I would even see a hen look at a cock bird, or a log, before it or I, died of old age.

Almost 10 years had passed since I obtained them and the only hint of a change in luck was eggs of the perch some three years ago. Not once did a hen venture inside a log, although the variety I tried over the years would surely have filled a timber jinker. Both pairs over the years had become so incessantly noisy that they had stretched the patience of the breeder to the limit. Both pairs were always in peak condition; so much so that I was beginning to think I had done all possible to entice them to copulate.

One day I was talking to a friend about disposing of these rowdy, seed eating "pets" by means of strangulation, shotgun blast (said tongue in cheek) or exchange, and the latter seemed the most humane. As a result of our discussions about previous stimulus, different environments and the like, it was decided that one of my pairs needed a holiday in the city, and away they went to Brisbane.
The effect on the pair I kept at home was nothing short of amazing. No more ungodly screeching at all hours and by midday the next day, the hen was seen emerging from a vertically hanging log. The same log that had hung for this pair, for years, and bred nothing more than Redbacks and Daddy Long Leg Spiders!

By the end of the week the hen was sitting quite intently and an inspection the following week (mid August) revealed two beautiful white eggs.

I almost had to put myself in a half nelson to contain my excitement but whoa!!! lets not get ahead of ourselves here. Murphy's Law was so rampant around here that I know him on a first name basis. Out came al the literature ever written on Majors (seemingly) and they all stated that "incubation begins with the laying of the second egg". The third egg came three days later and still they were cold to touch.

I philosophically told my wife that Murphy was back, but at least we now had a hen that knew logs had holes in them. The fourth egg was laid two days later, and lo and behold, incubation commenced immediately. The pair brooded like old hands from here on in, with the cock sitting by day and the hen at night.

Major Mitchell Cockatoo chicks. Photo by & courtesy of Garry & Shirley Walsh, Westbrook Qld

The first chick hatched after 27 days incubation with the last chick taking 30 days. In contrast, most writers claim incubation periods of 24 to 26 days. This should serve as an important reminder to us all, not to discard eggs that are only slightly overdue. These chicks hatched over a four day period even though incubation began concurrently. It should be noted that during the incubation period we experienced enormous temperature variations with some bitterly cold nights with big frosts and some very warm days.

Throughout the entire brooding/hatching process, the change in personality of the parents remained. No defensive or aggressive behaviour towards the hand that feeds them and no raucous calling that had been such an annoying trait for so many years.

The chicks powered along and were seemingly being fed all the time, day or night. The main extras to their basic seed mix were pea and com mix, sweetcorn, peanuts, almonds, Madeira cake, silverbeet, pine nuts an cooked sausage. Calcium syrup in their water every second day avoided any of the calcium deficiencies which young Cockatoos (of all species) can be prone to.

The first chick fledged after 55 days in the nest with the remaining chicks all leaving the log over the following four days. the satisfaction in seeing four beautiful Major Mitchell chicks flying with their parents bears testament o the fact that whoever said "patience is a virtue" was either a lunatic or an aviculturist.

But seriously, I hope that it encourages people holding potential breeders of some of our rarer species to make that little extra effort to change something, either mate or environment, in an attempt to "get them to go".

My pair are obviously very territorial and don't want the distraction of other Majors, yet I know people with multiple pairs breeding almost side by side. You may not have to do a lot of things differently to proudly change your status from a keeper of a species to a "breeder".

As they say, you don't have to be mad, but it sure helps...

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