Cockatoos in Brief
Scientific Name: Various species in the family Cactuidae
Adult Size: Anywhere from 12 to 26 inches (30 to 36 cm) (tail included), depending on the species
Life Span: Around 50 to 70 years with proper care
Talking Ability: Not well known for talking, but most cockatoos will learn to say some words and develop a fairly large vocabulary over time
Cockatoos are smart and affectionate birds who are prized for their loving natures and tendency to bond strongly with their human companions. If you are able to properly care for a cockatoo over his literally decades-long life span—and shower him with attention and love in the process—this may be the perfect bird for you.
Although cockatoos can vary a great deal in size depending on their species, most are generally similar in appearance. Nearly all the cockatoo species are mostly white or black in color (a small number of species have gray or pink as their base color), with patches of other colors along the body. For example, the Goffin's cockatoo has pink feathers on his face, while the lesser sulphur-crested usually has bright yellow on the face.
Cockatoos also have crests of feathers on their heads, which vary widely in size and color according to species. They use these crests to indicate feelings such as fear, excitement, or anger.
All white cockatoos belong to the genus Cacatua and are found throughout Australia, New Guinea and surrounding islands, Indonesia, and part of the Philippines. Many of these birds are actually endangered in the wild and are not likely to be available as pets. Black cockatoos, who belong to the Calyptorhynchus and Prosciger genera, can be found in Australia and New Guinea and the surrounding islands, respectively, but these are extremely rare and almost never seen as pets.
In the Wild
Wild cockatoos tend to live in grassy savannas, agricultural areas, arid scrub forests, and open woodlands. Like many parrots, they have powerful beaks that they use to break open nuts and seeds when eating, but they will also eat fruits and the occasional insect.
Cockatoos in the wild are very social animals who bond closely with their mates and the other members of their flock. (This is why it's so important to spend as much time with your cockatoo as you can—you're taking the place of these other birds for him!)
Common Cockatoo Species
The following are some of the cockatoo species you're most likely to encounter in the pet trade.
Goffin's (Cacatua goffini)
This is a white cockatoo with some pink on the face and yellow on the undersides of the tail and flight feathers. He reaches about 13 inches (32 cm) in length and has a very small white crest.
Sulphur-Crested (Cacatua galerita)
This cockatoo is white with light yellow on the face and brighter yellow under the tail and flight feathers. He typically reaches about 20 inches (50 cm) in length and has a tall, bright yellow crest that curves forward from the head.
Umbrella (Cacatua alba)
This bird is almost all white—he is also known as the white cockatoo—with a small amount of yellow underneath the tail and flight feathers. He reaches about 18 inches (46 cm) in length, and his crest is white, broad, and curves backward from the head.
Cockatoos as Pets
The cockatoo's affectionate nature and high intelligence make him a popular pet. This is a very social and interactive bird who will happily return the affections of his owner—and who requires a great deal of quality time and attention to thrive. His remarkable intelligence also makes him an interesting and entertaining pet—watching a cockatoo interact with and figure out his toys is one of the joys of owning this type of bird, and he can easily be trained to perform a number of useful commands and entertaining tricks. (The downside of this intelligence, however, is that the cockatoo is a well-known escape artist—make sure to keep his cage secure!)
A cockatoo does best with a varied diet that combines pelleted food with fresh fruits and vegetables, a small amount of seed, and occasional “people food” treats. His diet should also be particularly rich in calcium—a cockatoo requires more calcium than most other birds. Provide your bird with access to pellets throughout the day, with seed and a small piece of fruit in the morning and a second serving of fresh food and a small treat later in the day.
Because of the large size difference among different cockatoo species, there is no single cage size that's ideal for this type of bird. In general, the larger the cage, the better, but a smaller cockatoo such as a Goffin's or the lesser sulphur-crested needs a cage at least 24 inches (61 cm) wide by 20 inches (51 cm) deep by 30 inches (76 cm) high, with the space between the bars between 5/8 inches (1.5 cm) and 1 inch (2.5 cm). Larger cockatoos require a cage a minimum of 32 inches (81 cm) wide by 20 inches (51 cm) deep by 35 inches (89 cm) high, with bar spacing no greater than 1 inch (2.5 cm).
The most important thing to remember when keeping a cockatoo is to spend time with him regularly. Not only will doing so be fun for both of you, but an ignored or neglected cockatoo can quickly develop problem behaviors such as screaming or self-mutilation. Show your cockatoo love and attention and he will happily do the same for you for many years to come!