Bristling with high IQ and high jinx, Cowboy the Cockatoo turns “birdbrain” into a compliment and antics into an art. When this winged rascal cocks an ear at you, speak discreetly because he doesn’t. And he’s a whiz at linguistics.
Some years ago Cowboy and his dad (his featherless father) Mark Chambers went river cruising. Because the boat was new to Mark, he used extra care as he steered it into the dock—an overkill of caution in the opinion of the trailing boater who bellowed, “Drive the effing boat!” Except he didn’t say “effing.”
Guess who picked up the phrase, committed it to memory, airs it on special occasions and has, wouldn’t you know, exceptional enunciation.
Mark got Cowboy 22 years ago from a pet groomer whose menagerie of dogs, cats, chickens and ducks had taught the bird to bark, meow, cluck and quack.
Cowboy, now 29, is a Medium Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, a parrot family member whose potential life span is 60 years. An Australian native, Cowboy came to the States just before the law curtailing import of wild exotic birds went into effect.
When do those long-lived Medium Sulphur-crested Cockatoos reach maturity? “I have no idea,” says Cowboy’s mom Phyllis Chambers. “Personally, I’d say never. Cowboy is like a 3-year-old. Forever a 3-year-old,” with the unceasing Why? to prove it.
You didn’t bring Cowboy?
In the summer, Phyllis, Mark and their 29-year-old 3-year-old live Mississippi riverside in Hager City, Wis., where they’re renovating a 1983 Bluewater boat that they may live on someday, pending Cowboy’s approval.
Cowboy, quite the party bird, loves his Wisconsin lifestyle. His parents take him along everywhere they can. “A lot of restaurants and bars on the Wisconsin side welcome him,” Phyllis says. When she and Mark arrive sans cockatoo, people ask, “Where’s Cowboy?”
“He’s a major ham,” she says. He’s been on stage with bands at Hager City’s Harbor Bar, bobbing his head to the rhythm, dancing, singing. His favorite tune is “King of the Road.”
Judging by Cowboy, political correctness is not for the birds. He likes bosomy blondes, isn’t shy about showing it and ogles conspicuously.
An unforgettable wedding
Mark and Phyllis met on the Mississippi six years ago and married on a friend’s boat, mid-river, five years ago. Among the guests was Cowboy, sporting a tuxedo instead of his usual Western bandana, and displaying his best manners until the minister asked if anyone wanted to say something. Cowboy did. “Drive the effing boat!” he shouted. Except he didn’t say “effing.”
Most of his vocabulary isn’t so blue, but he does chatter a blue streak.
“Hey, baby.” “Toast and coffee?” “Bye-bye.” Phyllis is “Mom.” No is an unequivocal “naaaah.” Cowboy laughs, sasses and sometimes switches to cockatoo jabber. “I’ve had arguments with him,” Phyllis says. “I don’t know how many I’ve won.”
Cowboy Chambers makes humbug of the old-hat notion that talking birds can’t understand context. Not only does he follow context, he creates it, specializing in sarcasm. When he’s made a mess, he watches Dad and Mom clean it up. “Happy now?” he jeers. “Having fun?”
His bird sitter Juli, who has an aviary in her basement and owns a large flock of parrots, says Cowboy has the most human characteristics of any bird she’s ever seen.
Cowboy measures 9 inches high and 12 inches long from beak tip to tail tip and weighs less than 2 pounds. But when he performs his big wings trick—raising his yellow crest, fluffing out the white feathers that cover his body, extending his wings, stretching his neck, thrusting his chest forward—he looks much larger, though surely not as big as he thinks he is.
Phyllis has a perch on her beachcomber bike, and when they go riding (“slowly and carefully for short distances,” she emphasizes), Cowboy spreads his wings like he’s flying. He can fly but doesn’t unless he has to. Instead he hops and waddles and, applying beak and claws, climbs with the skill of a Mount Everest Sherpa.
He uses his beak to untie knots and likes to hitch rides on the oscillating fan. To see some of Cowboy’s capers, visit his Facebook page, Cowboy the Cockatoo.
A working bird
He’s rough on his toys (beads, plastic keys, rattles, a little piano) and on his toy box, a sturdy wood box half gnawed away. Parrot beaks grow like human nails and require conscientious whittling down, a routine that destroys playthings in no time. (Phyllis suggests bird toy manufacturing as a lucrative pursuit because of the frequent need for replacement.)
Wooden and plastic toys aren’t the only beak grinders. Before Mark and Phyllis sold their house, they needed to hire finishing carpenters to redo the woodwork. All the damage was beak-level to guess who.
When Mark and Phyllis aren’t home, Cowboy stays in his cage, watching cartoons and, he claims, “working.” He’s happy when they return but angry that they left.
“He gets even,” says Phyllis. “He ruins something. We both have shoes with great big bite marks and clothes with holes in them.”
Parrots, like people, are omnivores. Cowboy’s diet includes nuts, grains, pellets, vegetables, fruit, pizza (he can open the box) and the fat from bacon. When Mark brings home a burger with the works, Cowboy chows down his favorite parts and tosses the leftovers for Mark to reassemble and enjoy.
To eat like a cockatoo means creating a shambles. “He gets food all over the room,” Mark says, “then wipes his beak on something expensive.”
“There are people who have gotten cockatoos because of Cowboy,” Phyllis says. “I try to tell them”—about the shenanigans, the destruction, the racket.
“Making noise is part of what a cockatoo does.” Their speaking voices are pleasant, but that changes when they get outraged and announce it by screeching and screaming. “If you don’t want a noisy bird, don’t get a cockatoo.”
“Cockatoos, so needy and fragile, are a lot of work,” Mark says. “When I had three dogs, umpteen cats, and Cowboy, he was more work than the others put together.”
Cockatoos’ attitude inspired a new word: cockatude. Medium Sulphur-crested Cockatoos abound in cockatude, sufficient to earn them a place on the birdsinbackyards.net list, Birds Behaving Badly.
“I’m a good bird.”
To date, Cowboy’s costliest escapade was burning down the kitchen. Late one night he slipped out of his cage (“My fault,” Mark says. “I didn’t close it properly.”), shuffled to the kitchen, climbed to the countertop, and turned a knob on the stove.
The heat from the burner melted a plastic coffee pot, and flames erupted and spread to the curtains and beyond. All this as Mark’s Dalmatians snoozed. (“Firehouse dogs,” he says with an ironic laugh.) At least and thank goodness the Husky puppy whimpered.
Mark awoke, located Cowboy hiding under the living room couch, and called 911. Firefighters saved the rest of the house, but the kitchen was a total loss. As the firefighters left, Cowboy told them, “I’m a good bird.”
Entertainment value and cockatoo
Why do Phyllis and Mark keep the avian rogue? “No one else will take him,” Mark quips, then adds, “and we love him.”
“He’s hilarious,” Phyllis says, again equating him to a 3-year-old. “You wouldn’t get rid of your kids. He talks back, and because he does talk back, he doesn’t seem like a pet.”
Cowboy excels in entertainment value, prevents dull moments and, when he’s not raising Cain, likes to snuggle.
“He doesn’t think he’s a bird,” Mark says, “but he’s better than a person. He’s a person with wings.”
Quick Facts about Cockatoos
• Cockatoos belong to the parrot family, come in 21 varieties and live in Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia, Solomon Islands and the Philippines.
• They have strong, curved beaks that don’t stop growing.
• Their feet are zygodactyl—four toes on each foot with two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward. That configuration, along with the powerful beaks, helps the birds climb.
• A group of cockatoos is called a family or a crackle.
• Depending on their variety, cockatoos in captivity live from 40 to 70 years.
• In the wild, their life span falls to 20 to 40 years.
• Among their virtues are curiosity, intellect, sensitivity, playfulness and ability to bond with people.
• Among their vices are biting, screaming, mess-making, gnawing and neediness. They demand hours a day hobnobbing with their humans.
• The most talented conversationalists are the African Gray Parrots.
This was the first time freelancer KL Snyder got to interview a cockatoo, and she hopes it won’t be the last. She sends a “hey, baby!” to Cowboy.