Cockatoos - General Information

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

General Information

The cockatoo (family Cacatuidae) are large, slender-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 adult children. Their jumpy nature and strong bite make them inappropriate for families with young children.

People adopting or purchasing a cockatoo must realize that having a cockatoo can be like having a small child – it is 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. Most species of cockatoos exist in a colony setting in the wild, so they thrive on companionship with their human family. Without adequate attention, cockatoos sometimes become excessively boisterous and can be destructive, chewing on furniture, walls, and other household items. Many cockatoos scream for attention when left alone, but can hear humans in another part of the house.

While these birds love endless coddling, caressing, and hugs, care must be taken to only stroke their heads, not their bodies, as stroking their bodies may cause an unintended hormonal stimulation to the bird and create 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 and given some boundaries, or “Dos and Don’ts”. 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. As for all birds, teaching a cockatoo to forage for food is a well-known training method that keeps them entertained and provides a functional way for them to obtain food.

"These birds are high maintenance, both physically and emotionally, as they demand a lot of attention and a great deal of time outside their cage."

This beautiful bird is not generally regarded as a talented talker like some other species of parrots but may be taught several words or phrases through repetition and practice. Cockatoos possess 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 them 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 their feathers and spreading throughout the house. Many cockatoo owners purchase a HEPA air filter to place in the room with their bird(s).

Some generalizations can be made about many commonly kept cockatoos:

  • The larger Moluccan (salmon-crested) cockatoo is generally sweet and loveable but can be very loud. They become attached to one or two family members. They are known to feather pluck if they do not get their way. 
  • The Greater Sulfur-Crested cockatoo is a magnificent, stately bird. They are large and very energetic. They need a fair amount of training to become well adjusted pets. 
  • The Umbrella cockatoo is an all-white, medium to large-sized cockatoo. They are known as the “Velcro-Bird” as they like to be held and caressed by their owner. They are less high strung than other cockatoos. 
  • Rose-Breasted cockatoos, called Galahs in their native land, are medium-sized cockatoos and are very sweet for the most part. They have a light pink chest and have a soft voice. 
  • Smaller-sized cockatoos include the Goffin's cockatoo, the lesser sulfur-crested cockatoo, and the citron-crested cockatoo. These species are generally high-strung and very active.

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 because of their destructive or loud behavior, and so 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 caught, colony-raised, or parent-raised birds may prove more challenging to tame. Hand-raised babies often make better pets, since they have been socialized to interact with and not be afraid of being handled by humans. Young birds generally are easier to tame and adapt readily to new environments and situations.

Your new bird should be exposed early in its life to different events (young and old people, men and women, other pets, car trips, visits to the veterinarian, etc.) to help them be more well-adjusted and learn to adapt to new people and new events. 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 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 help maintain a long-lasting, healthy relationship between you and your bird. Your bird’s nutrition is the foundation of good health for its entire life. It is critical to feed a diet recommended by your avian veterinarian.

Characteristics and Husbandry

Color: The main color of most mature cockatoos is white, with the following exceptions: Moluccan cockatoos have a salmon color; rose-breasted cockatoos have a pink chest with grey feathers on their wings; and there are several species of “black cockatoos”. 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 reddish-brown eyes. 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 for larger Cockatoo species).

Diet: Commercially formulated, nutritionally balanced pellets should make up the base diet, supplemented with adequate amounts of fresh or frozen vegetables daily and fruit or 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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