Curious and intelligent cockatoo

Cockatoos are renowned for their lively manner and attractive head adornments. What many don’t know is that cockatoos are very demanding birds. If treated in a species-appropriate manner, however, they reward their owners with affection and lifelong loyalty.

Cockatoo appearance: always well coiffed

With a body length between 30 and 70 centimetres, cockatoos are one of the larger parrots. Their family is made up of 21 different species, which are divided into six genera. Although their affiliation has been controversial for a long time, the cockatiel is also part of the cockatoo family, since its plumage is always perfectly coiffed, as befits true cockatoos.

The feathery crest is one of these birds’ characteristic features, along with their strong hooked beak. Their feet, which they often use as tongs, are just as powerful.

Cockatoo feathers

Though strikingly coiffed, cockatoos are rather reserved in terms of colour. Depending on the species, their plumage is white, grey or pink in colour. Black, red and yellow colourings can also be found. The feet, beak and skin around the eyes also differ in colour depending on the species.

The crest consists of accent colours with some cockatoos and differs from the rest of the plumage. The sulphur-crested cockatoo, probably the most famous of all, has a white body and yellow feathered crest. With the attractive Inca cockatoo, the crest is a striking red and yellow, whilst the body is predominantly pink.

With some species, there are differences between males and females with the crest or eye colour. However, it is difficult with cockatoos to tell the difference between the two sexes, as is the case with many parrot species.

Cockatoo preening
Cockatoos use their feet as gripping aids. They clean seeds and fruits that they find on the floor with their strong beak.

Character: fun and loyal birds

Like many other parrots, cockatoos are sociable and intelligent birds. These playful crested birds have the reputation of being great fun and excellent impersonators. They observe the movements of humans and interpret them with their own body as the fancy takes them.

If you have looked online for cockatoo videos, you may have come across Snowball. This sulphur-crested cockatoo became famous for its dance moves, which it likes to show off to Cindy Lauper or Queen songs.

This is a sign for researchers that these birds are unusually spontaneous.

Can cockatoos speak?

These fun birds can imitate movements, surrounding noises and human voices. Their sounds are varied, although they aren’t nearly as linguistically talented as grey parrots, for instance. However, these two bird species do have one main thing in common: they have very loud voices.

Cockatoo owners can understand them just fine without any sounds. The mood of these birds can be easily interpreted from their crest: if their crest is upright, they are showing that they are excited or unsettled.

Dealing with people and fellow birds

These parrots are often fixated on one caregiver and can be very devoted. However, they do tend to be jealous and defend their caregiver with all means possible – preferably with their strong beak.

Separation from their loved ones is often painful for cockatoos, which is why you should definitely keep at least two birds.

Housing: plenty of space and patience

Cockatoos stay loyal to their partner throughout their life and most species care for their offspring as partners, which they by nature raise in hollow trunks. However, some males develop aggressive behaviour towards their female partner during the breeding season. There is still no scientific explanation for this.

It is clear though that these birds need sufficient space to be able to get out of each other’s way. Although cockatoos are naturally used to living in swarms, they do need their space due to their hot-tempered nature and are less suitable for socialisation with other bird species.

The ideal environment for demanding crested birds

A sufficiently sized aviary in which birds live in pairs as a minimum is part of species-appropriate housing. As a cockatoo owner, you should take two special features into account:

  • Regular chewing: Cockatoos use their beaks to chew everything they encounter. Hence, they need plenty of opportunities to chew and an aviary made of metal instead of wood. No metal containing zinc or lead should be used in order to prevent intoxication. The railings of the cage should also be thick enough to withstand the cockatoo’s strong beak.
  • Heavy dust formation: Cockatoos don’t protect their plumage by lubricating it from the oil glands, but with what are known as powder down feathers. The tips of these little feathers break down to a fine dust, which is spread throughout their plumage. However, the dust exposure in the environment is particularly high as a result of this. Outdoor aviaries are therefore ideal for the health of the owner and cockatoos – although only with access to the home or a heated refuge.
Pink and grey cockatoo
Cockatoos like this cheeky galah chew everything they can get their beak on.

What belongs in a cockatoo aviary

These birds are real bundles of energy and need regular opportunities for free flight. Hence, the aviary should offer them plenty of mobility and the following equipment:

  • Different types of perches and climbing branches
  • Food and water bowls, if possible high up and not positioned underneath perches
  • Bathing pool with fresh, lukewarm water
  • Opportunities to retreat
  • Varied toys and fresh twigs from untreated fruit trees that ease the urge to chew

Since cockatoos make a lot of dust, defecate and are messy eaters, you should clean the aviary regularly. In addition, drinking water should be changed twice a day and food remains removed every day.

The aviary should have at least 60% humidity in order to protect the birds’ sensitive mucosa. With indoor aviaries, part of species-appropriate housing is also flicker-free UV lighting to offer the birds sufficient UV radiation.

Diet: balanced and low-fat

Despite their urge for exercise, cockatoos tend to gain weight. Hence, low-fat seed mixes should be on the daily menu, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Other components of a balanced diet depend on the cockatoo species and its origin. Amongst others, these include:

  • Insect larvae as a source of protein
  • Roots
  • Blossoms
  • Berries
  • Nuts and sunflower seeds only occasionally as treats

Health: observe attentively

Cockatoos often only give signs of being unwell at a late stage, therefore you should always closely observe your birds. In any case, discuss changes in your bird’s weight, faeces and behaviour with a vet.

Obesity and lung problems are typical complaints. However, you can prevent suffering with a carefully considered and balanced diet and sufficiently high air humidity.

Furthermore, many cockatoos are prone to the feather and beak disease PBFD. This viral disease frequently affects parrots and budgies and is not curable. Hence, their origin and state of health should be clarified when making a purchase.

If you care for your cockatoos lovingly and conscientiously, they will accompany you for many years. Their life expectancy is between 25 and 35 years of age, although there are species that can even reach 60 years of age.

Purchase: what does a cockatoo cost?

A proof of origin is required for some species, whilst CITES documents (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) are needed for others.

Origin: well-travelled exotic creatures

Cockatoos originally come from Australia and Tasmania, though can also be found in the Philippines and Indonesia. The first specimens come to Europe with Dutch seafarers in the 17th century.

The habitats of cockatoos living in the wild are diverse and include, for instance, tropical rainforests, coastal areas and open grassy or forest landscapes. Some species like the galah or sulphur-crested cockatoo have got closer to urban habitats and can at times be found near cities in Australia.

They are popular with private owners in these parts thanks to their majestic appearance. Although their character and demanding nature regarding housing are a great challenge, many bird lovers like to take this on.



Name: Cockatoo (Cacatuidae)
Size: Medium-sized to large, 30 to 70 centimetre body length
Life expectancy: Depending on the species 10 to 60 years, at times older
Housing (number of fellow birds): At least in pairs, ideally more
Socialisation with other pets: Not recommended
Cage: Cockatoos between 25 to 40 centimetres:
min. 2 × 1 × 1 metre (L × W × H)
Cockatoos over 40 centimetres:
min. 3 × 1 × 2 metres (L × W × H)
Food: Diverse; largely seed mixes, in addition fruit, vegetables; nuts rarer
Level of difficulty: High
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