Cockatoos are lively, affectionate birds that become an owner’s best friend—they’re even capable of mimicking your words if you’re around them long enough. There are 21 species of cockatoos in the world, with the most common species in captivity including the Moluccan, Goffin’s, umbrella, sulfur-crested (greater and lesser), and bare-eyed cockatoos.
All cockatoos can be identified by a crest that can be lifted and lowered. The cockatoo bird family is primarily divided into two subfamilies: white cockatoos (Cacatua species) and dark cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus species). There are a few outlying species that do not fit into either category, like cockatiels, which are the smallest member of the cockatoo family.
COMMON NAMES: Black-and-red cockatoos, red-tailed black cockatoos, white cockatoos, black-and-yellow cockatoos, yellow-tailed black cockatoos
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Cacatua (white), Calyptorhynchus (dark), Nymphicus (cockatiels), Eolophus (galah), Callocephalon (gang-gang), Probosciger (palm), Lophochroa (Major Mitchell’s)
ADULT SIZE: 12 to 24 inches (varies by species)
LIFE EXPECTANCY: 30 to 70 years, depending on the species, or occasionally longer; cockatiels can live for about 20 years
Origin and History
All cockatoo species occur in Australia and the islands around Oceania, including Malaysia, the Philippines, the eastern Indonesian islands of Wallacea to New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Cockatoos occupy a wide range of habitats, from forests in subalpine regions to mangroves. The most widespread species, like the galah and cockatiel, prefer open-country land where there are plentiful grass seeds.
Cockatoos are lively, affectionate birds. They are quite cuddly and bond very closely with their owners. However, their sociability and need for affection mean they demand a great deal of time from their owners. Deprived of attention, cockatoos will become depressed, exhibit neurotic behaviors, or self-mutilate. They are intelligent, playful, mischievous, and can be exceptionally loud.
Cockatoos are excitable, and sometimes they do not mix well with young kids. A cockatoo’s powerful beak can injure small, prodding hands, so take care when introducing a cockatoo to a household with small children.
Speech and Vocalizations
Cockatoos aren’t as prolific as some of the other parrots when it comes to talking, but they do have decent speech capabilities. Cockatoos can mimic almost any sound, including words. The size of your bird’s vocabulary is entirely up to your efforts. A cockatoo’s speaking ability depends on its species and how much training they receive. Galah, sulfur-crested, and long-billed cockatoos are the best talkers in the family.
Be aware that some cockatoos may scream the words they have learned. This tendency can be irritating and can cause problems with neighbors and visitors.
Cockatoo Colors and Markings
The plumage of cockatoos is not as vibrant as that of other kinds of parrots. Cockatoos are generally black, gray, or white. Many species have smaller splotches of yellow, pink, and red on their crest or tail. The galah and Major Mitchell’s cockatoo have pink tones.
Several species have a vividly-colored ring around bare eyes. For example, the palm cockatoo has a large, red patch of bare skin that rings the eye and covers some of the faces. Other species with rings around the eyes include the bare-eyed (little corella) and a blue-eyed cockatoo.
The plumage of males and females is similar in most species. There are a few species with sexual dimorphism, or visual differences between the sexes, namely the gang-gang, red-tailed, and glossy-black cockatoos. Female and male cockatiels have the same patterns on their feathers when young, but female plumage continues to have barring or stippling on her tail and wing feathers, while males will have solid-colored feathers after a year of age. Some species vary by eye color only (not scientifically proven); female galahs, Major Mitchells, and white cockatoos have red tones in their eyes, while males all have dark brown irises.
Caring for the Cockatoo
Cockatoos need a strong cage made of wrought iron or stainless steel, which is necessary to withstand the cockatoo’s tough beak. Horizontal bar wires will allow the cockatoo to exercise by climbing on the sides of the cage.
Smaller cockatoos should have a cage no smaller than 24 by 36 by 48 inches with a bar spacing of 3/4 inch to 1 inch. Cockatoos, including the Goffin’s cockatoo, galah cockatoo, and the lesser sulfur-crested cockatoo, should live happily in a cage of this size.
Larger cockatoos, including the umbrella, Moluccan, and palm species, need a sizable cage that is at least 24 by 48 by 48 inches with a bar spacing of 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches. The larger the cage, the better.
Cockatoos are diurnal birds that need at least 12 to 14 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night. In the wild, they usually get active mid-morning once the day warms up. In captivity, cockatoos rise with the sun and will let you know it’s time to wake up.
Cockatoos produce feather dust from their special powder-down feathers. This fine powder is used in preening. It’s similar to a cloud of fine dust, and it spreads throughout the homes of cockatoo owners and can affect those with animal allergies. To keep the dust level in check, bathe your bird once a week and invest in an air filter.
Common Health Problems
Cockatoos are prone to neurotic behavior, including feather picking and self-mutilation, if they lack the affection and attention they need. Additionally, if cuddled or stimulated inappropriately (sexually), they develop problems with their reproductive system, like cloacal prolapse and becoming egg-bound.
Other common diseases that can affect cockatoos include psittacine beak and feather disease, a viral disease that attacks the immune system; bumblefoot, painful lesions on the bird’s feet; and obesity, which results from a high-fat diet and insufficient physical activity.
Diet and Nutrition
In the wild, a cockatoo’s diet consists primarily of nuts and seeds. In captivity, cockatoos need a variety of fresh foods along with a good quality avian pellet-based diet. Pellets can make up 75 percent of the menu, while fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains should make up the rest (25%). Seeds and seed mixes should only be used as a limited treat item since they are high in fat. Nuts are another healthy special treat on occasion.
Birds of varied species and different sizes have variable food needs. The best way to gauge how much you should feed your bird is to watch how much it is eating and discarding. Cockatoos tend to like to play with and toss their food and chew on everything.
Offer more at first and scale back based on how much food remains untouched. If the bird is maintaining a good weight for its size (vets recommend weighing weekly with a gram scale) and is in good general health, then you know you are on the right track. In terms of feeding times, in the wild, most birds forage for food in the morning and right before dusk. This feeding schedule works for most pet birds.
Cockatoos love to chew and destroy things, so providing chewable toys is a necessity. Offer softwood toys, tree branches, vegetable-tanned leather, rope toys (supervise use), bells, and cardboard. Cockatoos like hanging toys and toys that can be picked up by the feet. Toys with hanging strands simulate preening and are popular with cockatoos.
All toys must be bird-safe and carefully secured so that they do not become a strangulation hazard.
Give your cockatoo three to four hours of playtime outside the cage and at least 3-5 hours of interaction with you each day. The larger the bird, the more interaction it needs with a human or other birds. Large bird play gyms with a perch outside of the enclosure are suitable places for your birds to meet their daily exercise requirements.
- Social and friendly
- Can be taught to mimic human speech
- Long-lived bird
- Screams when bored, irritated, or excited
- Requires three to five hours of exercise and interaction
Where to Adopt or Buy a Cockatoo
Cockatoos are common in the United States and can be rescued, adopted, or purchased at verified organizations like Rescue the Birds or adoption websites like Petfinder. Pricing ranges from $500 to $4,000, varying greatly depending on the species. Scarce species like the black palm cockatoo can cost up to $25,000 from breeders.
If you’re going the breeder route, make sure that the breeder is reputable by asking them how long they’ve been breeding and working with the species you’re interested in. Take a tour of the facility and make sure the cages are clean, the birds are fed a varied diet, and the breeder is knowledgeable and receptive to your questions.
Look for signs of a healthy bird, such as bright eyes, clean feathers, and a good appetite. It should appear alert and active.