The Pecking Order
Communication & Social Behavior in Cockatiels
Part III – The Pecking Order
by Elizabeth V. Vaughan
(All Rights Reserved)
“As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles.”
- Walt Whitman -
Because I decided it best to permit my cockatiels the freedom of living in a community situation year round with space enough to allow for full flight capabilities, I have learned some amazing facts about these wonderful and intelligent creatures. This past breeding season has been particularly enlightening, as I have purposely held onto about half of the babies produced in order to observe how they interact with their parents and siblings as they get older, as well as how they establish friendships and gain respect from their own kind.
Many breeders do not realize that there is a fundamental rhythm in nature which allows for times when the two sexes can actually be together without mating. For some reason, human beings are deluded into believing that if two creatures of the opposite sex are placed together, they will immediately start to copulate. If this were so, the planet, needless to say, would be so over-populated that life would be impossible. It is the amount of control that the breeder exercises that determines how far from the natural behaviors his or her birds will behave.
In my aviary I believe I have witnessed behavior which is closer to what could be considered natural. Community members are allowed the freedom to make friends or be alone, to work out rivalries on their own, to choose their own mates, and to have a complete family life involving several generations. During this past year’s breeding season, babies have hatched out at various times between late March and early July. Different pairs stopped breeding at different times. The most recently acquired hen was the last to stop laying, and as she has learned to get into “sync” with the community after her last baby hatched, all breeding activity stopped. From mid-July until the writing of this article in early November, there has been no breeding activity in the community. Instead there has been an exciting renewal of the community with the addition of new members – either born into the community, or acquired from other breeders. Old friends, who had become rivals during breeding have renewed their relationships and groups have been enriched by new young members.
If there are breeders who experience the type of situation where they must separate the sexes, it is because they have never allowed real relationships between the sexes to take place. A male and female are put together and expected to perform. If they do, they get to stay together temporarily. If not, they may never meet again. What a pity it is that many will never realize that if left alone to function naturally these creatures bond for life! There is absolutely no danger that a bird will be interested in another’s mate for anything but possible friendship. Real “love” relationships occur when birds are allowed to interact, become friends and mates, and are allowed to raise their young for the entire term, continuing to relate to the offspring as adults.
Exceptions to the above realizations occur in most breeding situations only because of human intervention, i.e., dictating who bonds with whom, how much time is allotted before birds are deemed “incompatible”, separating birds when they don’t produce the desired results in offspring, i.e., “clear-face” pieds, etc. How sad it is that many breeders never see how beautiful that permanent bond is – a bond that extends to their offspring and beyond, as I have witnessed in four generations of birds who never forget their parents and siblings and who continue to relate to them in unique ways – for life!
I would like to address how the community has evolved over the past two years from two main cliques and several “loners”, to a community of family groups brought closer together by the advent of youngsters hatched as a result of “inter bonding” between groups. There are many factors to be considered when attempting to understand where a bird fits in the hierarchy of the pecking order. Some of these are age, sex, whether wild colored (normal) or mutation, the family to which their bird belongs, personality, physical condition, i.e., whether handicapped or not, whether bonded or unbonded, who a bird bonds with, intelligence, singing ability, etc.
When taking into consideration the first two factors of age and sex, the following is a generalized hierarchy: adult male, adult female, young male, young female. An “adult” would be a bird of breeding age who has successfully reared chicks. “Young” refers to a bird who has either not matured to breeding age, or who has not yet found a mate in the community for successful bonding. Please remember that these are my own definitions based solely upon my personal observations.
When taking color into consideration, in combination with the factors of age and sex, the highest in the pecking order would be adult wild colored male, while the lowest would be young mutation female. Other factors such as personality, or exceptional flying or singing ability can help a bird overcome the stigmas attached to those three primary factors.
Two year ago the main “ruling” group consisted of the patriarch and matriarch of the community – both wild colored, and two young wild colored offspring, one of each sex. The other major clique consisted of a lutino pair, the hen of which is the daughter of the “ruling” pair, plus a young pied male. The young lutino hen, originally part of the dominant group by virtue of being hatched into it, was ousted after she was befriended by the lutino cock. The young pied male became the leader of the mutation group through exceptional singing ability. He later earned the special status in the community because of this talent, and became the “Meistersinger”. Off on his own was a wild colored, handicapped cock, son of the dominant pair.
Sons are more apt to remain in the family clique than are daughters. When a young hen becomes bonded to a member of another clique, she is usually “excommunicated” from her family – that is, until she has successfully raised offspring, at which time she is again treated with respect, although she is really now a member of a new group. This happened to the wild colored hen in the dominant group when she developed a relationship with the young pied “Meistersinger” of the lesser ranking group. Now she and her offspring are accepted by both groups.
Once chicks are weaned, very strong bonds develop between father and daughter, mother and son. Sometimes a cock who is approaching breeding age will challenge his father for the attention of his mother. If this happens, he will be considered an outcast until he becomes bonded to another hen, at which time he will again become accepted as a member of the family clan – especially if he successfully raises young. Unbonded cocks of breeding age are considered a threat to the family structure.
The young wild colored son of the dominant pair developed a hopeless crush on his mother. When birds were set up for breeding and he was one year old, no other hen was of interest to him. He was totally obsessed with activity of his parents and challenged his father, who tolerated this behavior only so far. The son was willing to take a certain amount of discipline from the father in order to be near his mother. This intensified into full-scale war! The young bird eventually lost the battle and no one was hurt. Father and son truly loved each other, as fighting never got to the point of physical harm or bloodshed. As problems were allowed to be worked out naturally, real learning took place. The warm family relationships that followed were worth the extra effort it took to supervise the colony when fighting took place. The young son learned not to overstep his bounds and once again became accepted by his parents.
At the beginning of the next breeding season, the young son reverted to his old behavior and the battle resumed. This time however, a young hen, offspring of his sister, who had been trying to gain his interest, took advantage of the situation to attract him. The clever wild colored hen kept tabs on him constantly. Whenever he would go to his mother and start displaying, she would fly between the two of them and assume a mating posture. Eventually, much to my amazement, her clever scheme worked! The new pair successfully raised two clutches. They along with those offspring that I kept are now very much a part of the dominant group, as well as being accepted by the hen’s group.
A bird’s personality undergoes drastic changes during breeding times, and so do the rules of the pecking order. For example, a cock who is usually quiet and non-aggressive can become an absolute terror when it comes to choosing a nesting site. A lutino hen who is usually pretty meek and mild, and accepting of her place in the pecking order, becomes absolutely ferocious when it comes to defending her nesting territory. Even the strongest and most dominant cocks are easily intimidated by her at this time. When breeding season is over, however, she gladly assumes the rule and place expected of her.
When obtaining new birds from other aviaries, a pair is more readily accepted into the community than is a single bird. A sociable and outgoing bird of either sex who does not overstep his or her bounds, will fast become accepted. If the new bird is a young cock, a good song will soon win him many friends. When his own unique song is incorporated into the community song, then he is really “in”.
Probably the hardest obstacle for a bird to overcome is that of being physically handicapped. The wild colored handicapped cock was tolerated by his parents, the dominant pair, but never truly accepted into the fold – that is, not until he found a mate. There is someone special for everyone in this life, and the hen that developed a great fondness for this cock is exceptionally maternal. The pair successfully reared two clutches of babies. Oftentimes when peeking into the nest box I would see him under her with the babies! It was a most precious sight! Even now, long after breeding season has ended, this hen that has more than enough love to spare, spends long periods of time preening and cuddling her fortunate mate as well as her two beautiful sons. The cock is no longer a community “reject”, but has been welcomed in as an important member.
Let’s get back to the family unit and how babies are taught their place in the social order. In my aviary, when chicks leave the nest at approximately four weeks of age, they fly right out of the box and are on their own. Flying skills are therefore learned quite early. We’ll get into the various levels of flying skills in Part V where I will cover the subject of teaching the young. There is very little discipline enforced during these early weeks of life. Certain mischievous pranks are tolerated by parents, such as babies flying and landing on their parent’s backs. Sometimes the kids are downright pests! Exasperated parents will take this behavior from youngsters up until the age of about twelve weeks. Then it’s all over! The time finally arrives when babies must learn their place in the pecking order.