pet bird


pink cockatoo

Cockatoo information

The species of the family Cacatuidae are commonly referred to as cockatoos. The name is derived from the Malay name for these birds – kaka(k)tua, but the exact meaning of the name in Malay remains unclear. Some sources say it is a combination of the Malay words for parrot and sister, kaka and tuwah, while others think is comes from the Malay word for older sister, kakaktua (where kakak means sister and tua means old). It may also be derived from the Malay word for pincher, which is actually a very fitting description of this bird since its powerful beak can deliver really impressive pinch.

Compared to the true parrots, the geographical distribution of cockatoos is very limited. In the wild, cockatoos can only be encountered in Australia and nearby islands. Half of the known species live wild in Australia only, seven is native to Indonesia, New Guinea and nearby south Pacific islands, and three species occur in both Australia and New Guinea. 

Cockatoos taxonomy

A cockatoos belong to the family Cacatuidae; a family which currently contains 20 described species.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Psittaciformes
Family: Cacatuidae

The family Cacatuidae is divided into three subfamilies: Cacatuinae, Calyptorhynchinae and Microglossinae.

Subfamily Microglossinae
The only known member of this subfamily is the Palm Cockatoo, Probosciger aterrimus, of the genus Probosciger. This black cockatoo was earlier grouped together with other black species, but has now been moved to its very own genus and subfamily. 

Subfamily Cacatuinae (white cockatoos)
This subfamily contains the genus Cacatua and the subgenera Cacatua (true white cockatoos, 6 species) and Licmetis (corellas, 6 species). The members of Cacatuinae are not sexually dimorphic, i.e. males and females look the same and are hard to sex.

Subfamily Calyptorhynchinae (dark cockatoos)
This subfamily contains four genera: Callocephalon (1 species), Calyptorhynchus (5 species), Eolophus (1 species) and Nymphicus (1 species). The genus Calyptorhynchus is divided into 2 subgenera:  Calyptorhynchus (black-and-red cockatoos, 2 species) and Zanda (black-and-yellow/white cockatoos, 3 species).
The members of this subfamily have a lot of melanin in their plumage and are decorated with red, orange or yellow on wings, tail and face. Females usually have barred feathers on wings, tail and/ or body and you can often see contrasting ear area spotting. Males have their corresponding feathers unbarred and is spotting is much less common. 

Cockatoo care

Important information for prospective cockatoo owners
Before you decide to purchase a cockatoo, it is important to familiarize yourself with national and international trade regulations. Always check out the latest regulations, since they change over time. Also keep in mind that international and national regulations may not be identical to each other.

All species of cockatoo are protected by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). As of now, five species of cockatoo are listed on CITES appendix 1 (endangered species) while the rest are listed on CITES appendix 2 (vulnerable species). The five endangered species are:

  • Goffin's cockatoo, Cacatua goffiniana
  • Red-vented Cockatoo, Cacatua haematuropygia
  • Moluccan Cockatoo, Cacatua moluccensis
  • Yellow-crested Cockatoo, Cacatua sulphurea
  • Palm Cockatoo, Probosciger aterrimus

Import, export and trade in wild-caught specimens of appendix I species is illegal, but can be permitted with a licenses in exceptional circumstances. Captive bred animals of appendix I species are considered appendix II specimens when it comes to trade, and you must therefore adhere to the appendix II requirements.

Cockatoo care
Cockatoos are intelligent and highly social animals and they must receive plenty of mental stimulations as well as social interaction in order to stay happy and healthy. They are known to be both active and curious and are very fond of showing off new tricks and playing with interesting toys.
Cockatoos are normally kept in pairs since it is hard to for a human keeper to spend enough time with the cockatoo. In the wild, cockatoos live together in flocks consisting of anything from 8 to several thousands of birds. If you keep a single cockatoo, it will require a lot of interaction with you. Some captive cockatoos have developed strong bonds to compatible birds from other species.

Both single birds and pairs should ideally be housed in a room where you spend a lot of time. The cage must be protected from drafts. Cockatoos are quite apt at bending metallic bars, opening joints etcetera, and snap locks are a good idea to decrease the risk of escape. The recommended minimal cage size depends on the size of your birds and how many specimens you keep together. A smaller cage can be acceptable if you let your birds out and into a playing pen during the day where they can move around more freely and get some exercise and stimulation.

In addition to chatter and shrieks, cockatoos can learn to repeat words and sounds. Cockatoos can be really noisy so don’t place the cage where it can disturb any neighbors.

Cockatoos appreciate being sprayed with lukewarm water once a week and/or having a bathing dish with fresh water placed in their cage. Ideally include natural branches, concrete perches and other rough surfaces in the cage where your birds can trim down their claws and keep their beak in shape, otherwise you will have to trim claws and beak for them. Lava blocks and similar rarely works well with cockatoos since they use their powerful beaks to demolish the new “toy” within minutes.
Cage maintenance
once a day                          clean water and food dishes, clean bars and perches
twice a week                       change bottom trays, replace dirty litter
once a week                        wash all bars, perches and toys     
once a month                                            clean the entire cage
once or twice a year            disinfect the entire cage

Feeding Cockatoos

It is important to keep your cockatoo on a varied diet to prevent malnutrition and make life less monotonous in captivity. You can for instance serve a commercially prepared large seed mix with added vitamins as a base and supplement it with all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Do not serve avocado since it is suspected of being poisonous to cockatoos. Sprouted seeds and flowers are known to be highly appreciated. If you think the diet is a little low on protein, give your bird occasional servings of hardboiled eggs, cottage cheese or cooked chicken. Avoid processed and seasoned meat. In addition to protein, cottage cheese will also provide the bird with calcium. Some bird keepers choose to sprinkle calcium over seeds and fruit instead.

Don’t forget that stress, e.g. being moved to a new home, can increase the bird's need of vitamins and minerals.

Breeding Cockatoos

The dark cockatoos (subfamily Calyptorhynchinae) are sexually dimorphic and therefore comparatively easy to sex (see taxonomy section for guidelines), while the white cockatoos (subfamily Cacatuinae) do not display any difference in feather coloration and pattern between males and females.   

In species hard to sex, the iris color can sometimes give you a clue. In quite a few species, the female bird will develop a red, chest-nut brown or red-brownish iris when she is roughly two years of age. The lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo, greater sulphur-crested cockatoo, Goffin's, rose-breasted cockatoo, umbrella cockatoo, and Philippine cockatoo are all examples of species that display this sexual dimorphism. In the moluccan cockatoo, the iris becomes really dark brown in female specimens and can therefore be hard to distinguish from the even darker iris of the male bird.

The most commonly captive bred cockatoos are the greater sulphur-crested cockatoo, the lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo, and the rose-breasted cockatoo, but many other cockatoos are captive bred as well. One of the most difficult parts of cockatoo breeding is to establish a compatible pair. Ideally keep several young birds of the same species together and let them do their own pairing.

If you want your birds to breed, you must provide them with a nesting box. A round hollowed out tree trunk might be even better, since this is more similar to what the birds would use in the wild. Regardless of which type of nest you choose, it should be place high up, otherwise the birds will not deem it safe enough. Cover the nest with a 4 in / 10 cm layer of bedding, e.g. wood shavings.

A female cockatoo will usually lay only 2-3 eggs which will hatch after roughly 25-30 days of incubation. It will take several weeks before the chicks are developed enough to open their eyes in the nest and they usually need 60-100 days to develop their plumage. Once they have started to explore the world outside the nest they will continue to depend on their parents for at least 2-3 weeks.

Please note that cockatoos can become extra aggressive during the breeding season and that they may deliver painful bites with their strong beaks.  

Cockatoo Health

Cockatoos are rather hardy and seldom fall ill, unless kept in an unsuitable environment or given an improper diet. When a cockatoo falls ill it is often hard to determine the exact illness, and you are advised to contact a veterinarian. Cockatoos can for instance suffer from intestinal inflammation, parasites (such as Coccidia which causes coccidiosis), and parrot fever (psittacosis). Please note that is possible for a human to become infected with parrot fever.  

Visible signs of illness in cockatoos:

  • the bird sleeps more than normally
  • the bird sleeps a lot resting on both feet instead of having one foot tucked up
  • loss of appetite
  • discharge from nostrils
  • sneezing
  • slit eyes instead of round eyes
  • changed faeces
  • lustreless plumage
  • ruffled plumage
  • bare spots begin to appear in the plumage
  • feather plucking  
  • unusual screaming  

Feather plucking can be a sign of loneliness. Cockatoos are highly social birds and you need to spend a lot of time with your pet or provide it with suitable companions if you want it too stay happy in captivity.

Cockatoo Facts

Cockatoo fact # 1
Cockatoos are affectionately referred to as “velcro birds” due to their fondness of cuddling and urge to stay near their keeper.

Cockatoo fact # 2
Cockatoos differ from true parrots in several ways. Cockatoos are for instance equipped with a gall bladder and a movable headcreast. 

Cockatoo fact # 3
Wild cockatoos inhabit three very dissimilar environments: tropical rainforest, grassy plains, and dry savannah.

Cockatoo fact # 4
Cockatoos easily grow bored in captivity. Provide your bird with new interesting toys and food types and try to give it plenty of opportunity to use its highly developed brain.

Cockatoo fact # 5
Most cockatoo species are very noisy, but many specimens limit their vocalization to two short periods per day. Do not reward your cockatoo with attention when it shrieks since this can turn into a bad habit. Reward it with companionship and treats when it is silent.

Cockatoo lifespan

Cockatoos are believed to be parrots with the longest lifespan, and some specimens have allegedly lived for 100 years or more. It is however tricky to accurately determine the age of a cockatoo. Generally speaking, young cockatoos have smooth and pale beaks and a pale plumage, while older specimens have dark, striated beaks and the coloration of their plumage tend to be fuller.


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