Breeding the Goffin's Cockatoo ... Notes from the Aviary


I was first captivated by this small white cockatoo in the late 1970s while attempting to gain some insight into their social behavior. This modest beginning left an indelible mark. I was amazed at what I observed in these birds and decided to make the Goffin's Cockatoo a long term project.

This little cockatoo is slightly sexually dimorphic. The iris of the mature male remains the juvenile black, while the adult female has a reddish brown iris. In addition, the mandibles of the male are noticeably larger than those of the hen. The larger mandibles of the male are noticeable at only a few months of age.

Although Goffin's Cockatoos are still imported in large numbers, their small island habitat is being rapidly altered by humans and their chain saws. The remaining natural habitat on the Tanimbar Islands, north of Australia, is rapidly diminishing. Captive propagation is the only way to ensure their continued long term survival.

The following information is not meant to establish a standard but rather a description of some of what we have done and observed over the past dozen years.

The little Goffin's Cockatoo has frustrated many accomplished aviculturists attempting to breed them. As with many difficult to breed species, the problems are often buried deep in the evolutionary social structure of the species. Without the minimal expression of critical social patterns, reproduction is often nil. This very complex and controversial arena is often, understandably, ignored or glossed over by many top zoological facilities.

In an effort to gain some insight in this lack of success, I placed four pairs in a large flight cage. All eight birds were surgically sexed to determine levels of maturity, as well as confirmation of their gender. All the birds were color marked with food coloring for individual identification. A remote video camera was used to monitor their behavior.

The video taping prompted more questions than it answered. Many observations were quite perplexing and are not the direct subject of this article. The video taping confirmed well developed social patterns that are the subject of a much more detailed study than will be presented here. Other behavior patterns, however, are incorporated below.

Of avicultural interest, it is worth noting that the birds chose mates of their own age-class. The oldest male bonded with the oldest female, the youngest male with the youngest female, etc. The sample size here is too small statistically, to be valid; however, the implications are worth noting.

In the first year, as the season progressed and pair bonds strengthened, the dominant or alpha pair eventually drove the next most dominant pair's male to the floor of the cage. At this point, the dominating pair was removed from the communal flight and put into a separate breeding flight.

With the alpha or original dominant pair removed, the next most dominant male and mate became the new '' alpha pair'' at the top of the pecking order and the cycle began all over again, until only the youngest (and lowest ranking) pair was left in the cage.

Establishing a real pair-bond is, in my opinion, a leading factor in reproductive success. Simply placing any male with any female is very chancy and likely to lead to failure. Allowing the birds to choose their own mate is crucial. Direct observation or videomonitoring is the best method for assessing the development of the pair-bond. A bonded pair sit close together, engage in mutual head and vent preening. Non-reproductive copulation is frequent.


Breeding Management

All the Goffin's Cockatoo pairs were placed in 3 ft. x 3 ft. x 6 ft. cages elevated three feet off the ground. Dark, metal-lined, 1-shaped nest boxes with inspection doors were placed outside and to the rear of each cage. The nesting chambers contained two inches of white pine chips mixed with poultry dusting powder for insect and mite control.

Each elevated breeding cage was located outside but sheltered from the wind, with rain protection over the nest box, perches and food bowls. Overhead protection was not complete, because the Goffin's Cockatoo, like the rest of their kind, love to hang upside down on the top wire and shower in the rain, be it in the cold winter or warm summer.

Few of these small, intelligent birds have been captive bred and little publish ed information on successful breeding is available. Therefore, I was quite unaware that prevailing wisdom stongly advised against allowing the breeding pairs to have visual contact with each other.

Ignorant of this position, I placed all the Goffin's pairs within easy sight and sound of each other. I reasoned that island birds competing for a very limited resource (nesting holes) would evolve a tolerance of, and perhaps even benefit from, the stimulation of others as the breeding season drew near.

I must clarify that there is a crucial difference between a stimulating, neighboring pair, and pairs crowded too close together. Crowded pairs that have their nesting territory space continuously violated by the presence of others are unlikely to go to nest at all, and may well be responsible for the male mauling the female.

Direct and video observations clearly indicated flock excitement and simultaneous nest site defense displays among the pairs. On moonlit nights, the Goffin's Cockatoos became very active, flying back and forth between perches, landing with wings spread and crest up, uttering a sharp, two note call that resembled that of the red-tailed hawk.

Here in the mild climate of western Washington, the Goffin's Cockatoos are kept outside all year around. During the dozen or so days of freezing weather at night, all the hanging water bottles are removed each evening to avoid freezing and breaking. The bottles are replaced in their original cages at dawn the next morning.

Most of the Goffin's Cockatoos sleep in their cozy nest boxes at night. However, on a moonlit night, even in sub-freezing weather, all the cockatoos are out, flying about, squawking well into the night.

In this part of the country, Goffin's Cockatoos kept outside will breed from February to June. An occasional late summer and early winter breeding will occur.