The Incredible Cockatoo

The Incredible Cockatoo

 February 10th, 2011
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Umbrella and goffins 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.

Rosebreasted cockatoo


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, but 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, they 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 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. On the lower mandible are two prongs that, when combined with the pointed top mandible, give the cockatoo the advantage of being able to hold and tear in three separate places. I speak from experience on this matter.

Umbrella cockatoo

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, leaving 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 get to feeling very small and vulnerable when placed there, your cockatoo will take ownership of the floor and anything on it, including feet, and he may ask you, impolitely, to remove yours from the area.

Umbrella cockatoo


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. Take a look at this video. There is footage towards the end that will show you unmistakable territorial and aggressive behavior demonstrated by this bird who clearly wants the cameraman to go away. He doesn’t, and 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, an excited cockatoo doesn’t necessarily mean an angry cockatoo, and they will frequently raise their crest when they are stimulated by conversation or playtime.  It is the positioning and movement of the body: neck stretched out, nervous pacing, wings away from the body, that is much more telling in this species.

Moluccan cockatoo

When I feel I am getting an unclear signal from my cockatoos, I look to their eyes. I find that 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 all is right in their world, 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 goffins cockatoo.

Goffins 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 – 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 as 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 that 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.

Umbrella cockatoo

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.

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11 Comments on “The Incredible Cockatoo”

Cris  02/11/2011 6:40 am

Is beautifull and inteligent

Vincent  02/11/2011 5:48 pm

100% recognisable. Even with my Dutch Galah. 😉
I’ve seen those type of behaver in every cockatoo I came across.

Laurine Jonopulos  02/17/2011 3:17 am

Do any umbrella cockatoo owners have a problem with them prolapsing, if so how has this been treated? I have spent thousands of dollars and my little lady is still prolapsing after following all the vets recommendations. Help, help, please. Regards, Laurine

Patty  02/18/2011 8:43 pm

Surgery is the best route to take for your bird, but given what you have spent, I am assuming you have done that. I can tell you to be careful to avoid any situations that result in sexual stimulation for you bird. The strain involved can worsen a prolapse. Is your vet avian certified? If not, I would recommend getting in touch with one that is for a consultation at least. A prolapse may be outside the area of expertise of a regular vet.

wanda robinson  02/14/2012 9:50 am

are girls better than boys to wark with i have a girl about 7m. old im 63 I stay home home all day but I do not hold her tell about 6pm than she is with me tell her bed time about 9pm this warks now is this what I need to do verry happy now

marianne  04/15/2013 8:11 pm

I need help ……I was given a troubled cockatoo because the third owner was at his wits end.
I don’t really know how old he or she really is. I am assuming by his name Mikko that he is a boy
but then again maybe that was a guess by the first owner.Any way this poor bird (baby) hasn’t had it easy going from home to home. The first owners gave him up because of the children….they couldn’t trust him around them. He was attached to the mom of the house and was afraid of the dad.. It was rumored that the young .children poked at him and he became mean…well ya!!! how would anyone like to be poked at !! The second owners were afraid of him because he tried to bite,and he took an entire wall apart when he got out of his cage while home alone.(this of course was a period of time …not one day.). He destroyed a lot of expensive things in the home and bit when they tried to put him back in his cage . he does not like being locked up.. the last straw in this home was when he bit dad in the the hand …a very deep bite. He seemed more comfortable with women…so they thought. When female owner number 2 tried to put him back in his cage he bit her too.Owner number 3 was a male …owner of 2 other parrots …a blue and gold and an african grey. has had birds for years and felt sorry for him. He tried to let him out of the cage …felt it was safe to do so ….Not! big bite… me same thing only i’ve been nipped at not bitten…..yet.How do I help him… what can I do to earn the trust we both need.? i’m afraid to let him out of the cage because its almost impossiable to get him back in.
afraid of getting bitten . help! I couldn’t say no ….I didn’t want him to end up unadoptable…this is going to be his home from now on ….

Laurie  01/12/2014 4:35 pm

I have a Goffin and My U2, I loved this article because i feel they are awesome birds. I give mine alot of love and play time. We cuddle and sing and dance. Most people don’t understand. I tell them they are not my pets they are my friends.

Matt  02/07/2014 5:21 pm

If your the type of person who is going to get rid of a cockatoo or any other parrot because you got bit really hard by them then you have no business what so ever in owning one.

Veronika  11/07/2014 12:42 am

I am the proud owner of a goffin cockatoo today! I’m sure I will need your help. I have only had Quakers and lovebirds. Not much is known about my bird. Very very sweet has eaten out of my hand and let me pet him, but has also tried to bite. He has not had an easy time of it, was at a pet shop delivered from his last owner and before that was at a rescue. He seems to be calm and fies talk! No feather plucking or screaming. As of yet…. He’s gorgeous and I am completely smitten…

P. Bourassa  02/09/2015 12:10 pm

We have a young U2. Got her 3 months after birth. She’s now 1 year and 8 months.
She’s a sweetie and sure like to chew.. She also likes to nip at my ears sometime or nip the back of my neck.. How do I stop her from doing that ???

Karin Fires  04/14/2015 2:28 pm

My U2 is the love of my life. He is a rescue and I spent the first year taking the bite. My patience and blood loss paid off with interest.