Cockatoos - General Information

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

General Information

The cockatoo (family Cacatuidae) are large-bodied parrots with a crest of feathers on top of the head that stands erect when they are alarmed or excited. These natives of mainland Australia and surrounding islands are most widely treasured as desirable companions because of their intelligence and incredibly affectionate nature. They are suitable pets for families with elementary school-aged and older children. Their jumpy nature and strong bite make them inappropriate for families with young children.

People adopting a cockatoo must realize that having a cockatoo can be like having a small child - forever! These birds are high maintenance both physically and emotionally, as they demand a lot of attention and a great deal of time outside their cages. Without adequate attention, cockatoos sometimes become excessively boisterous and are potentially destructive, chewing on furniture, walls, and other household items.

While these birds love endless coddling, caressing, and hugs, care must be taken to not pet their bodies, and only stroke their heads, as touching their bodies may send an unintended sexual message to the bird and cause sexual frustration. These birds bond strongly with their owners, but may become profoundly possessive of them, aggressive, and start to feather pick because they are not mating with the owners to whom they have so fiercely bonded.

Like human toddlers, cockatoos should be placed on a schedule. This allows them to learn to entertain themselves in their cages (with several different toys and types of food to chew on), and they also learn to anticipate attention from their owners at predictable times of the day. Scheduling attention and teaching a cockatoo to occupy itself in its cage are crucial to socializing it properly, particularly after it has reached sexual maturity.

"This is a high maintenance bird both physically and emotionally, as they demand a lot of attention."

This beautiful bird is not generally as talented a talker as some other species of parrots, but may be taught some words with repetition and practice. It has a loud, harsh, penetrating voice that may indicate joy or outrage. When alarmed or frightened, cockatoos often give off a peculiar hissing noise as a warning. These birds may scream often and are not recommended for noise-sensitive individuals.

Cockatoos need to chew; therefore, providing a continuous supply of non-toxic wood or cardboard bird-safe toys will afford it many hours of entertainment and likely save household items from being destroyed. Cockatoos also naturally produce a lot of feather dust or powder down from their feathers, so they are not recommended for people with airborne allergies. Misting them daily with water or taking them into the shower can help minimize powder down from shedding off feathers.

Some commonly kept cockatoos include the larger Moluccan (salmon-crested) cockatoo, the greater sulfur-crested cockatoo, and the umbrella (white) cockatoo. Smaller-sized cockatoos include the Goffin's cockatoo, the lesser sulfur-crested cockatoo, and the citron-crested cockatoo.

Obtaining a Cockatoo

Cockatoos may be adopted from shelters or purchased from pet stores or reputable breeders. Thousands of cockatoos are given up to bird rescue facilities ever year as a result of their destructive or loud behavior; and therefore, they are readily adoptable worldwide. When selecting a cockatoo, try to choose a young bird, as it may be easier to tame and train. Older, wild, colony, or parent-raised birds may prove more challenging to tame. Hand-raised babies often make better pets, since they have been completely socialized with humans. Young birds generally are easier to tame and adapt readily to new environments and situations.

"When selecting a cockatoo, try to choose a young bird, as it may be easier to tame and train."

Your new bird should be exposed early in its life to different events (young and old people, males and females, other pets, car trips, visits to the veterinarian, etc.) to help them be calmer and more well-adjusted. A lively, alert interactive bird is more likely to be healthy. After purchasing your new bird, have it examined by a veterinarian familiar with birds as soon as possible to help ensure it is healthy.

Veterinary Care

Cockatoos require annual, routine veterinary health check-ups. Your veterinarian can perform a physical examination, grooming (including nail or wing trimming, as necessary) and laboratory tests, including blood and stool analysis, as recommended. During these annual check-ups, your veterinarian can identify and discuss your bird’s health, nutritional, and behavioral issues, and can make recommendations for future care. Veterinary check-ups help prevent disease and aid in the maintenance of a long-lasting, healthy relationship between you and your bird.

Characteristics and Husbandry

Color: The main color of mature cockatoos is white and depending on the species, various shades of yellow, pink, and orange. A few species are dark gray to black. The legs are dark gray. Immature cockatoos have similar coloring to the adult.

Sexing: Generally, mature male and female cockatoos have few external differences. Mature females of some species have a reddish-brown eye (iris). Males generally have a dark brown or almost black eye. There are no reliable external sex differences in immature cockatiels.

Weight: Average 10 to 30 ounces (300 to 900 grams), depending on the species.

Size: Average 12 to 27 inches (31 to 70 cm) in length.

 Life span: 25 to 45 years (upwards of 70-80 years is possible).

Diet: Commercially formulated, nutritionally balanced pellets should make up the base diet, supplemented with smaller amounts of vegetables and fruit and seed as an occasional treat. Consult your veterinarian for dietary recommendations specific to your bird’s age, activity level, and health status.

Breeding: Sexual maturity for smaller species is 2 years, for medium species 3 to 4 years, and for larger species 5 to 6 years. Successful breeding can be challenging, depending on the species.

Clutch size:1 to 8 whitish eggs hatch in 17 to 31 days; young leave the nest in 6 to 9 weeks. Birds can lay an egg every 48 hours.

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