What to Know About the Cockatoo

Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 26, 2022

Of the many varieties of parrots, cockatoos have earned the reputation as being one of the most affectionate birds to be around. 

Native to only a few countries, this exotic family of birds is sure to amaze and delight, keep you company, and even drive you a little crazy from time to time. Many consider cockatoos one of the best pet birds, although caring for one has its challenges.  

Here, we’ll look at the cockatoo — its habitat, characteristics, and behavior — to learn more about these amazing animals and help you decide if adopting a cockatoo is right for you.

Cockatoos are a type of parrot belonging to the Cacatuidae family. They evolved from the major lineage of their species, known as Psittaciformes, around thirty million years ago.

The word "cockatoo" originates from Malay, meaning a "vise" or "grip" to represent the parrot's powerful beak.

Cockatoos are native to the Australasian region, which covers the continent of Australia and several surrounding countries. Australian cockatoos are perhaps the best known, but you can also find these exotic parrots in the Solomon Islands, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Within this region, cockatoos can live in a variety of natural environments, including forests, deserts, and at sea level. Although their natural habit is distinct and limited in range to Australasia, it’s still common to find cockatoos in aviaries, bird sanctuaries, and people’s homes worldwide.

Cockatoos are medium-sized to large birds. A cockatoo’s size can range between 12 and 24 inches tall, and they weigh an average of 1.7 pounds.

Two cockatoo characteristics set them apart from other parrots. They are known for their distinctive plumage (the feathers on their bodies) and crests (the feathers on their heads), which they can move.

Cockatoos are commonly white with yellow crests, though you can also find gray, black, blue, or pink cockatoos, often with a combination of colors in their feathers and crests. They have sharp, curved beaks that can pry open doors, and claws that are typical of flying birds.

Just as humans are right- or left-handed, cockatoos have a "footedness," which means they prefer one foot over the other to do specific tasks. But unlike humans, most cockatoos are left-footed.

There are 21 species of parrots in the cockatoo, or Cacatuidae, family. Within this group, cockatoos fall into four distinct types:

White cockatoos. White cockatoos are what many people imagine when they think of these parrots. They have distinctive yellow crests. White cockatoos are equally comfortable in urban and natural environments, with the Sulphur-crested cockatoo the most popular of this group. 

Black cockatoos. Black cockatoos are among the rarest, making them a favorite among bird watchers. Due to the loss of much of their woodland breeding habitats, multiple species of black cockatoos are now endangered.

Gang-gang cockatoos. Also known as "squeaky doors" for the sound they make, gang-gang cockatoos are best known for the unique appearance of the male, which has a bright red face and crest.

Pink cockatoos. Pink cockatoos prefer desert and sandy environments, and you can easily distinguish them by their pink and gray feathers. The most common in this group is the galah, Australia’s most popular and iconic cockatoo. Pink cockatoos are characterized by their playful and humorous antics and often appear to be having fun.

The best cockatoo diet is a wild one. Those not in captivity will forage for plants, grasses, insects, and seeds that provide them a balanced and nutritious diet.

For cockatoos in homes, aviaries, and bird sanctuaries, nutritionally balanced pellets will be their primary food source. You can also supplement this with small helpings of fruits, vegetables, and seeds as a snack or occasional treat.

The cockatoo personality is what truly sets these birds apart from other species of parrots. They are playful, cuddly, loyal, intelligent, and incredibly affectionate toward humans, making them excellent companion animals.

However, their affection and loyalty come at a price, as they need a lot of attention. Most cockatoos will become attached to their owners and crave their presence. If they don’t get the attention they want, cockatoos can be noisy and messy and may chew on walls and furniture.

Behavioral ecologists have observed this behavior in cockatoos, as they sometimes appear to act out of spite. Though this is unlikely to be true (since spite is a distinctly human emotion), cockatoos’ apparent displeasure in being ignored or not getting what they want can lead to erratic and destructive behavior.

Unlike other species of parrots, cockatoos aren’t big talkers. Although you can teach them to say a few words through repetition and practice, they are better known for their loud, penetrating screams when showing happiness or anger. If frightened, cockatoos may also make a hissing noise. 

In the wild, cockatoos are social but monogamous birds, mating only with one partner for years and often raising their young together.

There are several things to keep in mind when it comes to caring for your cockatoo. As with any pet, a balanced diet and regular visits to the vet are important. Here are a few additional things to keep in mind about caring for your cockatoo: 

Pay them lots of attention. To avoid your cockatoo getting restless or screaming for attention, spend lots of time with them daily. Although they are known for wanting endless love and caressing, only stroke their heads, not their bodies, which can send unintended sexual messages to the bird.

Put them on a schedule. Because cockatoos need daily attention, it’s a good idea to keep to a schedule of when you’ll be around to play and keep them company. This will teach them to learn to entertain themselves when you’re not home and look forward to getting attention at predictable times. 

Make sure they have something to chew on. Cockatoos love to chew, so providing a continuous supply of non-toxic wood or bird-safe toys will keep them entertained and prevent your furniture or household items from being destroyed.

Give them space. Some cockatoos can be let out to fly around. At home, giving your cockatoo plenty of space to sleep, play, and spread its wings is important. 

Keep them clean. Bathing your cockatoo is essential to maintaining its health and keeping its feathers clean. You can put a shallow dish or birdbath in their cage to allow them to preen or help them bathe by spraying misted water. Unless specifically directed by a vet, never use soap or shampoo when cleaning cockatoos.

Cockatoos make excellent pets, although they may not be for everyone. 

Cockatoos are high-maintenance birds emotionally and physically, so if you adopt one, make sure there’s someone around to keep them company. Their tendency to be loud (whether happy or sad) makes them unsuitable for certain indoor environments. Additionally, because they can be jumpy and have a strong bite, having a cockatoo in the house with small children isn’t recommended.

Despite these shortcomings, the loyalty, affection, and company they provide are something to be desired. With the proper care, a cockatoo’s lifespan is similar to humans, making these parrots one of the longest-living animal companions.

Show Sources

Albion Park & Gerringong Veterinary Hospitals: “Cockatoo Care & FAQ.”
Biology Dictionary: “Cockatoo.”
Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution: “The evolutionary history of cockatoos (Aves: Psittaciformes: Cacatuidae).”
The Nature Conservancy: “Cockatoos of Australia.”
Oxford University Press: “Revenge of the hungry cockatoos? Spite and behavioural ecology.”
VCA Animal Hospitals: “Cockatoos — General Information.”

© 2022 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info