The Incredible Cockatoo


The cockatoo is one of the most challenging of the many parrot species. They are an enigma. They are a white, fluffy ball of contradiction. They are emotionally complex, highly intelligent and devilishly manipulative. They keep you guessing on a daily basis as they strive to out-maneuver you. The relationship between an owner and his cockatoo is like a crazy dance choreographed by Mother Nature. Oh, how I love these birds!



I don’t know how many times I have read a book or an article where the phrase “parrots and cockatoos” is used. Why the segregation? Are cockatoos not parrots? Of course they are! However, there are some distinct physiological and behavioral differences that make them unique.

Physical differences:

  • First and most evident is the crest. Aside from the cockatiel (who may or may not be a distant cousin depending on what literature you are consulting), cockatoos are the only parrot with a set of muscles whose sole purpose is for raising the long feathers on their heads to an erect stance. A cockatoo’s muscular structure also allows the beak to be nearly concealed by surrounding feathers in moments of contentment.
  • A cockatoo is the only species of parrot with feathering that is white or contains pink. Along with the cockatiel and the African grey, they have powder down feathers that have the power to unleash on your house the most hellacious mess ever seen outside of your teenager’s bedroom.
  • Also, if you’ve ever been the recipient of a cockatoo bite, you will have noticed how it differs from other bird bites. The lower mandible with two prongs combined with the pointed top mandible gives the cockatoo the advantage of being able to hold and tear in three separate places. I speak from experience on this matter.


Cockatoo Behavioral Traits

The cockatoo is the diva of the avian world. Dramatic and vocal, a cockatoo might throw a tantrum befitting a princess because her oatmeal is 2 degrees too cold or because she objects to your shirt’s shade of blue.

Needy and demanding, the cockatoo might hold on furiously to your shirt collar (perhaps the same one she just found fault with) when cuddle time must draw to a close. Good luck getting to work on time!

Notoriously hard to read, a cockatoo can send signals so minute and vague that a mere human doesn’t stand a chance. This leaves their owners scratching their heads as to why she was bouncing and happy one minute and hissing the next.

They are frightfully destructive. Being a tree cavity nester, they love to chew wood, any wood, and lots of it. However, this doesn’t exclude your curtains, carpet or laptop from their to-do list.

Have I mentioned the foot thing yet? Cockatoos are surprisingly at home on the floor. Where most birds feel very small and vulnerable when placed on the floor, your cockatoo will take ownership of it and anything on it: including feet! He may ask you, impolitely, to remove yours from the area. 


Reading Cockatoo Body Language

The ability to effectively read your cockatoo’s body language is the owner’s most essential tool. It is something that can only be learned through exposure to this species. Being told what to look for is almost inconsequential, as every individual cockatoo has it’s own way of asserting it’s opinions about life. However, there are some signs that are universal.

This video, towards the end, will show you unmistakable territorial and aggressive behavior. This bird clearly wants the cameraman to go away. He doesn’t, and he has taken quite a risk in not doing so. Had my cockatoo presented to me in this way, I would have been long gone.

I find that feather positioning, a means of determining the disposition of most birds, to be ineffective in reading a cockatoo. When the crest is raised, for example, it signals an excited bird. The problem is this: an excited cockatoo doesn’t necessarily mean an angry cockatoo. They will frequently raise their crest when they are stimulated by conversation or playtime. It is the positioning and movement of the body that is much more telling in this species: neck stretched out, nervous pacing and wings away from the body.


When I feel I am getting an unclear signal from my cockatoos, I look to their eyes. I find that there is a great deal of expression and information there.The shape of the eye will usually tell me everything I need to know. When a cockatoo is contented and when all is right in their world, then the shape of their eye is completely round. Anything other than that tells me something is on their mind. A squint tells me that something is not to their liking or is making them uncomfortable. Then there is the “glarey eyeball” as Dave and Jamie put it, or the “stink-eye” as I refer to it. It can be read as: “What are YOU looking at?” or “If you’re smart, you’ll back off”. Either way, it’s a clear warning even when issued by my mild mannered Goffin's cockatoo.


One of the more notable movements is the lack of movement, which is always concerning to me. When mine come to a dead stop in the middle of an activity and stare at me or something else, I have the distinct sense that they are plotting their next move, which is usually an unfavorable one. One of the birds in the above video did this. It just stopped, foot still raised in the air.

Cockatoos, especially the white ones, are not for everyone. While many birds of other species can carry the behavioral traits listed above, a cockatoo will surely have several if not all of them. It takes a certain kind of personality to mesh successfully with these high-maintenance birds. This fact is the reason they are the parrot most relinquished to rescues and sanctuaries throughout the world. They will test your patience to the limit and delight in doing so. If you don’t have a sense of humor about their activities and behaviors, you are surely sunk.


Should you be the sort to be able to handle the many demands of cockatoo ownership, then you (like me) will find it to be the most rewarding of all of your avian relationships. There is nothing like the special brand of love you get from a cockatoo, as it has been hard won and painstakingly maintained. I am heading downstairs to get in some cuddle time right now.

Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.


1 comment

Robin Croce

Thank you for this information. I’ve had my Moluccan Cockatoo (my first parrot by the way), Mango, IS as complex as I’ve thought all these years. It took me at least 2 years to gain his trust. Many bites and tears but he’s my little love now.

Robin Croce

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