Cockatoo Behavior: All You Need to Know

Cockatoo behavior varies between species and even between individuals, so it's important to know about it before dealing with one.
Cockatoo Behavior: All You Need to Know

Last update: 08 July, 2021

Complex cockatoo behavior has been the object of much scientific interest, as they are birds noted for their incredible intelligence. In homes, people have come to appreciate their exotic appearance and the richness they add to our daily lives.

If you want to get to know them a little better, here’s some fascinating information about common cockatoo behavior. If you’re ever lucky enough to deal with a cockatoo, it’s important that you know how to interact with it and respect its space.

Cockatoos characteristics

Cockatoos (from the family Cacatuidae) are medium to large birds – between 30 and 60 centimeters (1 to 2 feet) long. There are about 21 species and numerous subspecies within this group of birds, although the most common is the sulfur cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea).

These birds are distinguished from parrots by the erect plumes of feathers on their heads, which form a very striking crest. Another distinctive feature is their longevity, as some species reach up to 70 years of age.

All cockatoos have a large, curved beak and are tetradactyl animals, that is, they have 4 “fingers”, 2 of them facing backwards and 2 facing forwards. In this way, they can walk on tree branches and also on the ground.

Unlike other birds, cockatoos can move the upper half of their beak. This provides greater efficiency in their feeding.

The colors of their feathers are usually a little duller than other species of parrots, moving in the spectrum of white, gray and black. Splashes of bright colors can sometimes be seen in certain species, usually on the crest or face.

Cockatoos are used to living in wooded areas with leafy crowns in much of Asia and Australia. They don’t build nests in the branches, but they prepare the hollows of the trees to give birth to their offspring. The young receive parental care from both parents equally.

Cockatoos, although herbivorous, have a highly varied diet consisting of seeds, berries, fruits, and vegetables. They usually go down to the ground in search of seeds, which are the ones that contain the most fat, but, in the presence of predators, they can feed on the fruits of the trees perfectly well.

A pair of white cockatoos.

Cockatoos character

Cockatoo behavior is quite gregarious, as there can be over 100 specimens in any given group. They’re monogamous birds that create stable and solid bonds with their partner, and these can last a lifetime.

Within groups, a hierarchy is established. The highest-ranking cockatoos rest on the highest branches – farthest from predators – and have a preference for eating the juiciest foods.

Although they’re affectionate, you shouldn’t forget that cockatoos have adopted the role of prey animals in ecosystems. Therefore, these birds tend to be skittish and suspicious by nature.

Cockatoo communication

Cockatoos are known to be rowdy, as much communication in crowds often requires shouting. These birds emit loud and squeaky sounds for a multitude of purposes: to recognize each other, to show their mood, and as a warning, among other things.

Their great intelligence and sociability make them capable of understanding and displaying complex behavior, combining body language, and vocalizations.

Body language in cockatoo behavior

Body language is extremely important in cockatoo behavior. Their phonation allows them to display many different details and combinations with the vocalizations, to the point that each individual has their own style according to their personality. The most typical gestures of cockatoos are the following:

  • Waving its tail: Waving it from side to side usually means that the bird is happy.
  • Head-up approach: Showing interest in another cockatoo.
  • Dilated pupils: This is usually a sign of general excitement, but it tends more to anger and can precede an attack.
  • Ruffling feathers: This can occur when cockatoos are calm, but also when they get intensely angry. In the latter case, they start chasing each other, lowering their heads and dilating their pupils.
  • Flapping: This can occur to loosen their wings. However, if they spread them widely and move up and down, it’s a sign that they’re upset.
  • Hitting surfaces with its beak: This is observed especially in males, as this behavior is part of the way they attract the females’ attention in their reproductive season.
  • Jumping: When one cockatoo jumps in front of another it’s also a wake-up call, but more intense than hitting something with its beak.
  • Swinging the head: This is also a way to attract the attention of a fellow bird.
  • Raising its crest: Usually, this indicates excitement, either from joy or irritation. If they do this on purpose, it’s either courtship or territorial behavior.
  • Forming a fan with the tail: This is also part of the courtship routine, and for defending their territory.
  • Resting with legs bent: This posture, as if they were “sitting”, indicates pain or illness. In captivity, if a bird has this position or remains on the bottom of its cage, then you should take it to the vet.
  • Hanging upside down on its perch: This is a way of scaring another individual who wants to go up to their resting place.

Verbal language

Vocalizations are also relevant in cockatoo behavior. The most characteristic sounds are the following:

  • Songs, whistles, or melodic chirps: When these are soft and quiet sounds, then this is a sign that the cockatoo is comfortable with those around it.
  • Hiss: A warning sound that precedes an attack.
  • Loud screaming: Isolated sounds like this, without any other sounds, is usually a call for other birds to answer, to check that everyone is okay. If they’re continuous, it can be a sign of anxiety, pain, or illness.

Cockatoo behavior during the day

Cockatoos are diurnal. They aren’t usually the first to come out of their roosts, preferring instead to wait for the sun to warm the places where they feed.

They tend to flock to places where food is plentiful, to ensure that other species don’t steal their supplies. They can also warn each other in case a predator appears. If the food runs out, they fly on to another place, but they usually choose fixed places to rest.

How to modify cockatoo behavior

In captivity, it may be necessary to train the cockatoo so that it lets you examine it, transport it or carry out veterinary treatments. They’re very intelligent animals, and so they’ll quickly learn everything they’re taught.

However, the bird will first need to trust its owner. You shouldn’t forget that they are prey animals, so punishments should never be used in their training. All your work could be undone with one single punishment.

Cockatoos' behavior is complex.

The keys to teaching cockatoos are repetition and positive reinforcement. With patience, all veterinary procedures, handling, or other day-to-day aspects will be assimilated by the bird, creating an environment of trust and tranquility for both it and humans.

It might interest you...
Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo: Habitat and Characteristics
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Read it in My Animals
Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo: Habitat and Characteristics

Major Mitchell's cockatoo is a bird belonging to the order of the psittaciformes. This makes parrots and parrots a parent.

  • Romagnano, A., & Hadley, T. L. (2016). Psittacine Behavior, Husbandry, and Enrichment. Exotic Animal Medicine for the Veterinary Technician, 73.
  • Spoon, T. R. (2006). Parrot reproductive behavior, or who associates, who mates, and who cares. Manual of parrot behavior63, 77.
  • Cómo entrenar a una Ninfa Carolina para un mejor comportamiento. (2020, 9 julio).

The contents of My Animals are written for informational purposes. They can't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.