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Cockatoo: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Cockatoos, with their striking features and captivating behaviors, are among the most recognizable and beloved birds in the world. These parrots, characterized by their distinctive crests and curved bills, are not only admired for their aesthetic appeal but also for their intelligence and sociability.

This article serves as a comprehensive guide to the fascinating world of cockatoos, covering everything from their classification to intriguing trivia.

The Cockatoo at a Glance


Class:Aves (Birds)
Genus:Multiple (e.g., Cacatua, Callocephalon, Nymphicus)

Essential Information

Average Size:12-24 inches (30-60 cm)
Average Weight:0.66-2.2 lbs (300-1000 g)
Average Lifespan:40-60 years, some species may live longer
Geographical Range:Primarily found in Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and some Pacific islands
Conservation Status:Least Concern to Critically Endangered (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

Cockatoos are classified into several species and subspecies, each with distinct characteristics.

The genus Cacatua includes the larger cockatoos like the Sulphur-crested (Cacatua galerita) and the Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo (Cacatua leadbeateri).

The smaller cockatoos, like the Cockatiel (Nymphicus hollandicus), belong to different genera. The Red-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii) and the Palm Cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus) are other notable species.

Key differences among these species include size, coloration, and crest shape. For instance, the Sulphur-crested cockatoo is known for its bright yellow crest and white plumage, while the Major Mitchell’s boasts a multi-colored crest and a more nuanced color palette. Subspecies variations often involve slight differences in size, feather patterning, and habitat preferences.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo


Cockatoos are renowned for their distinctive physical appearance. They typically exhibit a striking crest of feathers on top of their heads, which they can raise or lower.

Their coloration varies widely among species: from the predominantly white Sulphur-crested Cockatoo with its iconic yellow crest to the deep black of the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, adorned with vibrant red tail feathers.

The sizes range from the relatively small Cockatiel, measuring around 12 inches in length, to the larger species like the Umbrella Cockatoo, which can reach up to 24 inches.

They possess strong, curved beaks designed for cracking nuts and seeds, and zygodactyl feet (two toes facing forward and two backward) ideal for climbing and grasping.

Sexual dimorphism is present in many species, often visible in eye color differences; males typically have darker eyes compared to females.

Habitat and Distribution

Cockatoos are native primarily to Australasia, including Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and some Pacific islands. Their habitats are diverse, ranging from rainforests and mangroves to open woodlands and mountain forests.

Some species, like the Galah and the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, have adapted well to urban environments. These birds require large territories for foraging and are often seen in flocks, especially in regions where food is abundant.

Red-tailed Cockatoo
Red-tailed Cockatoo


In terms of behavior, cockatoos are social and intelligent birds, known for their loud calls and playful nature. They are diurnal, active during the day, and roost in large groups at night. These birds are highly social, often seen preening each other, which helps strengthen social bonds.

Communication is vital in their social structures, involving a range of vocalizations, from soft chattering to loud calls. Cockatoos also use body language, such as crest position and wing flapping, to express themselves.

Cockatoos are also known for their remarkable cognitive abilities and can learn to mimic human speech and sounds from their environment.

In the wild, these vocal abilities play a crucial role in social interactions and territorial displays. Due to their intelligence and need for mental stimulation, cockatoos in captivity require plenty of enrichment activities to prevent boredom and destructive behavior.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Cockatoos are primarily herbivores, with their diet consisting mostly of seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, and, in some cases, insects and their larvae. Their strong beaks are perfectly adapted for breaking open hard-shelled nuts and seeds.

In the wild, these birds are often seen foraging in groups, using their beaks and feet skillfully to manipulate food items. Some species, like the Palm Cockatoo, are also known to use tools to assist in feeding, showcasing their intelligence.

In urban areas, cockatoos have adapted to eating food scraps and can often be seen frequenting gardens and parks.


The natural predators of cockatoos vary depending on their habitat but generally include birds of prey like eagles and hawks.

Nestlings and younger birds are more vulnerable to predation. In some regions, snakes and introduced species like feral cats also pose a significant threat.

Habitat destruction and human activities have further exposed cockatoos to predators by reducing their natural shelters and nesting sites.

Salmon-crested Cockatoo
Salmon-crested Cockatoo

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Cockatoos are monogamous and often form lifelong pair bonds. Their breeding season varies according to species and environmental conditions.

These birds are cavity nesters, typically using tree hollows to lay eggs and raise their young. The female usually lays between 1 to 3 eggs, which she incubates while the male provides food.

The chicks are altricial, meaning they are born blind and featherless, and thus entirely dependent on their parents for warmth and nourishment. Both parents participate in feeding the chicks.

The fledging period varies among species but generally lasts several weeks to months. After leaving the nest, young cockatoos may stay with their parents for an extended period before joining other flocks and eventually forming their own pair bonds.

Conservation and Threats

Cockatoos face various conservation challenges, primarily due to habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade, and in some areas, persecution as agricultural pests. The conservation status of cockatoo species ranges from Least Concern to Critically Endangered.

Notably, species like the Philippine Cockatoo and the Yellow-crested Cockatoo are listed as Critically Endangered, with their populations declining due to habitat destruction and poaching for the pet trade.

Conservation efforts include habitat protection, legal protection from trading, captive breeding programs, and education to raise awareness about the plight of these charismatic birds.

Fun Facts

  1. Vocal Communicators: Cockatoos are known for their loud calls which can be heard over long distances. These calls are used for various reasons, including signaling danger and strengthening social bonds within the flock.
  2. Impressive Lifespan: Some cockatoo species can live for more than 50 years in the wild, and even longer in captivity, with proper care.
  3. Tool Use: The Palm Cockatoo is one of the few bird species known to use tools. It creates drumsticks from branches and uses them to drum on hollow trees, a behavior believed to be part of its courtship ritual.
  4. Emotional Display: Cockatoos can express their emotions through the crest of feathers on their head, which they can raise or lower. An upright crest often indicates excitement or alertness.
  5. Intelligent Problem Solvers: Cockatoos are highly intelligent and have been observed solving complex problems, especially related to obtaining food.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the largest species of cockatoo?

The largest cockatoo species is the Palm Cockatoo, which can reach lengths of up to 60 cm (24 inches) and is recognized by its large crest and unique beak.

Can cockatoos mimic human speech?

Yes, cockatoos are capable of mimicking human speech and sounds, although their ability varies among individuals and species.

Are cockatoos good pets?

While cockatoos can be affectionate and intelligent pets, they require a lot of attention, mental stimulation, and space. They are also known for being loud and can have challenging behaviors if not properly cared for.

How can we help in the conservation of cockatoos?

Supporting conservation organizations, avoiding the purchase of wild-caught birds, and advocating for habitat protection are effective ways to contribute to cockatoo conservation.

What do cockatoos eat in captivity?

In captivity, cockatoos should be fed a varied diet consisting of specialized pellets, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds to ensure they receive all necessary nutrients.

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