Lifespan: 40 to 60 years or more, depending on species and quality of care
Size: Smallest – Solomon corella and Philippine cockatoo at about 12 inches tall
Largest – Red-tailed black cockatoo at 20 to 26 inches tall
Native to Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia, Solomon Islands and the Philippines
Endangered Status: varies among species from Least Concern to Vulnerable, Near Threatened and Critically Endangered
Cockatoos are a varied bunch, comprising 20 distinct species within the family, but they do share a number of distinguishing characteristics. Most obvious is the cockatoo's crest: the tuft of feathers on top of the head. Pay attention to a cockatoo's crest to learn about its mood: an erect crest means the bird is anxious or startled, and a relaxed crest suggests that all's good in birdie town. Watch out for a crest that's flattened against the cockatoo's head, however – that fid's not happy and might get violent!
Most cockatoos are black or white with a splash of yellow or red on their crest or head. Notable exceptions include galahs, who rock a dusty grey and rose color combo, and cockatiels, whose shades include grey and yellow, green and albino. This variety in color comes from the varied structure of cockatoos' feathers. The black and white birds lack a texture in their feathers – called Dyck's texture – which creates visible color because it reflects light in a special way.
Cockatoos also lack the oil glands that let many other bird species keep their feathers healthy. Instead, cockatoo feathers create a special kind of dust, which comes from the breakdown of specialized feathers. This dust coats the other feathers, keeping them healthy and clean.
Behavior and Personality
With all these special attributes, you won't be surprised to learn that cockatoos' personalities shine as well! These babies have a reputation for being the most social, people-friendly birds around. When people call them "Velcro" birds, they're only half kidding! Cockatoos love attention even more than most birds, often happiest while being petted and spending out-of-cage time cuddling their humans.
Wild cockatoos love company, too. They usually live in large groups, which can range from a few dozen to several thousand birds or more! It's a big party, and everyone's invited; sometimes these flocks include multiple cockatoo species. Most cockatoos mate for life, developing strong pair bonds and sharing the responsibilities of incubating eggs and raising chicks.
While they are sweet, intelligent birds, being a cockatoo parront is not for the faint of heart – or sensitive of ear! These birds are LOUD. They scream to get attention, to communicate with distant flock members, and maybe just to celebrate how great it is to be a bird. This can be problematic in a variety of circumstances; for example, if you live in an apartment (Sorry, neighbors!), have small children (Adios, nap time!) or are easily irritated (Sayonara, sanity!). While the screaming can be managed with lots of attention and plenty of engaging foraging toys, you cannot completely remove this natural habit. Birds that do not get enough mental and physical engagement resort to feather picking, biting and even more screaming. Before you adopt a cockatoo, carefully consider if you can realistically provide one of these cuddly babies with the love and attention he needs.
- Palm cockatoos make tools! They select a stick and then carefully break it apart until it's the perfect size. Then, clutching it in one foot, they drum on the hollow part of the tree they're nesting in. This might be a way of marking territory or calling to their mate.
- Snowball, an Eleonora cockatoo, is the first and only non-human scientifically proven to be capable of beat induction – that is, comprehending music and spontaneously moving in time with it. There are numerous videos on YouTube of Snowball's impromptu dance moves; in fact, that's how scientists first heard of him and studied his behavior!
Cockatoos can be incredible pets and lasting friends, but these fids are shotgun-riding partners-in-crime, not wussy back seat birdies! Giving them the respect and attention they deserve will win you a life-long snuggle buddy.
San Diego Zoo
Return to Bird Articles