Cockatoo: Bird Species Profile

Temperament, Diet, and Care Tips

Cockatoo at birdfeeder in tree, side view

Eric Van Den Brulle / Getty Images

There are 21 species of cockatoos in the world. The most common species in captivity include the Moluccan, Goffin's, umbrella, sulfur-crested (greater and lesser), and bare-eyed cockatoos. All cockatoos have 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.

Species Overview

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 in 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.

Temperament

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 affection, cockatoos will become depressed or exhibit neurotic behaviors. They are intelligent, playful, mischevious, and can be exceptionally loud. They are somewhat excitable, and sometimes they do not mix well with young kids. A cockatoo's powerful beak can injure small, prodding hands.

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 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 face. Other species with rings around the eyes include the bare-eyed (little corella) and 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 cockatiels have the same coloring as males, but female plumage is duller. Some species vary by eye color only; female galahs, Major Mitchell's, 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 on the smaller size include the Goffin's cockatoo, galah cockatoo, and the lesser sulfur-crested cockatoo.

Larger cockatoos, including the umbrella, Moluccan, and palm species, need a sizeable cage that is at least 24-by-48-by-48 inches with a bar spacing of 1 inch to 1.5 inches. The larger the cage the better.

Cockatoos are diurnal birds that need at least 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night. In the wild, they usually get active midmorning 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 like fine dust that 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.

Common Health Problems

Cockatoos are prone to neurotic behavior, including feather picking and self-mutilation, if they lack the affection and attention they need.

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 be up to 50 percent of the menu, while fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains should make up the rest. 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 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.

Exercise

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 an hour of interaction with you each day. Large bird play gyms with a perch outside of the enclosure are a suitable place for your birds to meet their daily exercise requirements.

Pros

  • Social and friendly

  • Can be taught to mimic human speech

  • Long-lived bird

Cons

  • Can scream when bored, irritated, or excited

  • Requires at three to four hours of exercise and interaction

  • Larger species require large cages

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 full crops. It should appear alert and active.

More Pet Bird Species and Further Research

If you’re interested in similar species, check out:

Otherwise, check out all of our other large parrot species profiles.