The Australian Galah


Wild, Wild Rose...
By Sam Foster


Given recent theory that Congo African Greys may be raised in the wild similarly to the Rose-Breasted Cockatoo, and the fact that there is little research on wild Greys, we requested avian behaviour consultant and cockatoo breeder, Sam Foster, to write about the behaviour of Rose-Breasted Cockatoos in their wild natural habitats.

Perhaps no other bird is more widely recognized as a symbol of the Australian Continent than the Rose-Breasted Cockatoo, or galah. This unmatched combination of avian beauty, intelligence and gracefulness combined with their captivating spirit enhances and intrigues those who, like myself, are inexplicably drawn to the creatures we call Cockatoos.

The complexities of various Cockatoos offer a tremendous challenge to those humans who accept the roles of caregiver, teacher and flock member. In a domestic setting there is an even more formidable task...that of realizing and appreciating the unique behavioural traits of each species. Fortunately with Rose-Breasted’s, we have the fieldwork of several leading ornithologists and aviculturists including Ian Rowley who have provided comprehensive and valuable data concerning natural habitats, breeding, flock structure, diet and behaviour.



Jane Hallander and I have spent many months considering some interesting similarities between Galahs and African Grey Parrots, particularly Congo’s. Ironically, the basic personalities of these species contrast significantly. The Galah, which has a slang interpretation of ‘fool’ or clown, well defines the conduct of these exuberant little balls of fire. They are raucous, precocious, jaunty and often seemingly inexhaustible. African Greys would appear to be much more refined and dignified in comparison. Yet, there are some significant correlations to their actions and reactions in captivity. Perhaps their lifestyle in the wild is the common thread.

One of the most fascinating aspects of natural Rose-Breasted behaviour is the early socialization process. Galahs are raised unlike any other Cockatoos. As soon as the young have mastered the art of flight, they are taken to a creche tree, where all fledged Rose-Breasted’s within the flock are taken by their parents. Here, they are watched during the day and night by "nannies," who might be adults without mates or older adolescents. Parents may still have babies in the nest, and remain to care for these birds, bringing them one at a time to the creche as they fledge. Mom and dad make the daily journey to the nursery tree and continue feeding their own young for a short period of time, able to identify the calls of their offspring from among dozens of other begging juveniles. Typically by three months of age, all contact with the parent birds has been severed.

These young Galahs therefore form bonds with others of their own age, learning by watching the behaviour of the adult birds in the primary flock, and from those who serve as their nannies. If we think about the mind-set of these particular birds, they are forced in nature to become independent and much more self-reliant at an early age than other Cockatoos in the wild who remain within a family unit for many months, and in some cases, years. While Rose-Breasted’s do indeed have a very strong social structure, they do not form that close family dependent bond.

If we correlate the creche system and resulting social structure to how Rose-Breasted’s are raised in captivity, the majority of breeders and pet bird owners would raise a Galah exactly in the same manner that they would a Moluccan, Umbrella, or any other Cockatoo, and expect their behaviour to be similar. My feeling is that the methods often used to raise Rose-Breasted babies, combined with the limited knowledge by some of their uniqueness, may lead to behavioural disorders that are otherwise "unexplainable."



During breeding season, Galahs may nest in sites very close to other Galahs, unlike many other Cockatoos who seek out safety and solitude of a more protected and distant location. So, during the entire process of breeding and raising the young, Rose-Breasted’s are often exposed to other members of the flock participating in the same activities, combined of course with the shared creche. If this instinctive behaviour carries over into our captive-bred birds, which we believe it does, this is one possible explanation for the easygoing acceptance that is often observed between Galahs when they are put into an aviary or flock setting. Perhaps they do not share the fear of intrusion from others of the same species which can result in some Cockatoos becoming aggressive and protective of a particular site and surrounding territory.

If we think carefully how large flocks of Rose-Breasted’s intermingle in the wild, it almost appears as if these graceful acrobats move in complete unison, as one entity. Even on the ground there does not appear to be a rule about "space," as with some other species. They often literally walk wing to wing, stepping on each others’ feet, crawling over each other almost like ants, a mannerism also observed with African Greys who sometimes look like an inextricable grey mass when feeding on the ground. This type of social interaction seems to conflict somewhat with our interpretation that domestic Rose-Breasted’s are more independent than other Cockatoos...that they are not as "cuddly." While those statements may be true, and many Galahs would much prefer a nice scratch on the head than being held against your chest for a long period, humans who enjoy the companionship of these creatures can attest to their absolute delight in lots of playful interaction, emotional stimulation, and being a part of daily household activities.

This is not to say that they are less devoted to flock members and mates than other Cockatoos. Like many parrot species, adult Galahs form monogamous relationships and there are documented instances, which prove the affection and attachment of a bonded pair. Preening is a favoured activity among pairs during periods of rest and prior to roosting.

I remember watching a film showing wild Galahs in southern Australia feeding on grain which had been spilled along a country highway by trucks transporting the grain to holding silos. As cars approached, the flock would rise to the sky, landing again once the automobile had passed. On occasion, serious injury or death would result when a member of the flock did not react quickly enough. It was very poignant to see a Galah remaining close to its dead mate on the roadside, sometimes pushing the body with its own beak or foot in an obvious effort to encourage the lifeless body to take flight.

In the wild, Galahs spend a great deal of time on the ground foraging and grazing on surface seeds, or raking their beaks in the dirt to uncover a tasty morsel. The ground is also an arena for play and these little pink bundles of energy can be seen rolling over on their backs, playing tug of war with a small stick, or suddenly jumping straight up in the air several inches for no apparent reason, which is normally accompanied by a stacatto ‘eeh eeh.’ Rose-Breasted’s are regularly seen displaying their sheer delight just to be alive by hanging upside down on telephone wires or small branches, often spinning around and around in circles with wings outstretched and screeching to the world.

Rose-Breasted’s are also little "sticky beaks" (one of my favourite Aussie expressions for being nosy and into everything). They are not content to sit on the arm of your chair or in your lap being held and stroked. I’m convinced that they feel it is their mission to uncover all the mysteries of life...What’s this? How does this come apart? Can I turn this over? What’s under here? And so on.

I do find it interesting that in Australia we had 5 breeding pairs of Rose-Breasted’s, all wild caught. Two of our companion Galahs were wild caught and another was hand-raised, by my husband and myself. None of these wild-caught birds, nor any of the Galah babies we raised, exhibited any type of extreme negative behaviour. I feel strongly that allowing our captive-bred babies (some were parent-raised) to socialize with older juveniles and adult Galahs (SIMILAR TO CRECHE SYSTEM PREVIOUSLY DESCRIBED IN THE WILD–Ed) was a major factor in this positive outcome....not the ‘only’ factor, but an important one in my opinion.

I do not claim that there is not, never has been, or will never be, a wild-caught Galah or other Cockatoo who exhibits some type of extreme behaviour, a phobia, or mutilates either feathers or flesh. However, my personal feeling based upon experience, information gathering, consultations with other aviculturists and veterinarians, is that a wild caught phobic bird is the exception, not the rule.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the unforgettable opportunity to personally witness the behaviour of some of these species in the wild, and to learn from those observations. My hope is to continue to learn and share that information with those who are interested. I don’t have all the answers. I wish I did. In order to fully appreciate the differences between wild caught and domestically bred, hand-raised (even parent raised) birds, there are numerous factors to bear in mind. However, when we carefully reflect on the ‘wild’ chain of events that occur in a parrot’s natural habitat, it becomes evident that no matter how hard we try to duplicate that process, it will never be the same.

We may teach then the art of foraging, encourage their natural curiosity, offer them opportunities to experience physical exercise and visual stimulation, provide fresh air and natural sunlight, an expansive cage and limitless play gyms and natural climbing trees. In some cases we might even allow them to fly within a controlled environment. Yet nothing we teach can begin to compensate for the valuable and fundamental lessons birds learn from their parents and other avian role models about ‘being a bird.’

When I witness a Galah in a pet or breeding situation and attempt to parallel the behaviour and quality of life to their predecessors in Australia, in my heart I must acknowledge that there is nothing like a Wild, Wild Rose.
Accessed: March 2005


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