All About Cockatoos

PetMD Editorial
By PetMD Editorial on Aug. 15, 2016
All About Cockatoos

By Vanessa Voltolina

Considering adding a new avian member to your family? You might be thinking about a cockatoo, as they are one of the most popular types of pet birds. While all birds have distinct personalities, there are some common threads that run through the history, behavior, temperament and care requirements of cockatoos. Here, find out what you need to know before you bring a cockatoo home.

The History of the Cockatoo

There are over 20 species of cockatoos, each with their own behaviors and personalities, said Jody Rosengarten, a dog trainer, behavior therapist and parrot enthusiast. Cockatoos are highly social and in the wild will forage in flocks as large as 100 birds. The most widespread and numerous cockatoo species found in the wild is the 14-inch galah, which shows off its pink and gray wings throughout the skies of Australia. Pet owners are generally more familiar, however, with the 20-inch long sulfur-crested cockatoo, with its crest of narrow, golden, forward-curving feathers on its head, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Depending on the type of cockatoo, these birds are often white and are originally native to northern and eastern Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania. Some species of cockatoo, however, such as the Moluccan, are salmon-colored, while the rare black palm cockatoo is a brilliant black and red. Cockatoos have long lifespans of more than 60 years for some of the larger species in the wild, said Dr. Alicia McLaughlin, DVM, associate veterinarian at the Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine in Bothell, WA. Unfortunately, these birds do not typically live as long in captivity – usually only into their 30s and 40s – since they often do not get proper nutrition, exposure to sunlight, or fresh air, said Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, board-certified bird specialist and owner of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, NY.

What Do Cockatoos Eat?

According to Dr. Hess, cockatoos need a varied diet, including greens, vegetables and fruits, with around two thirds of a typical diet coming from nutritionally-balanced, formulated pellets. An exclusive, seed-only diet is not recommended, she added, as seed is deficient in nearly all vital nutrients. Seeds should make up no more than 10 percent of a cockatoo’s diet, said Dr. McLaughlin, with a larger focus on fresh vegetables, fruits and cooked grains and legumes.

Behavioral Issues in Cockatoos

Each cockatoo has its own personality, and while some can be affectionate, even “cuddle-able,” especially as babies, Rosengarten said, others can be very aggressive and prone to biting once they become sexually mature after about five to seven years of age. In general, however, cockatoos are known for their ability to bond with their people, and while this trait may be wonderful in a pet, it often leads to the development of separation anxiety in these birds.

“It is very difficult to meet the husbandry and socialization requirements of most cockatoos,” Dr. McLaughlin said. In general, cockatoos do not make good pets for a first-time bird owner because of their constant need for attention, need for large amounts of time outside of their cages and tendency to squawk and scream. Dr. McLaughlin also said that she sees far more behavioral issues in cockatoos than in any other parrot species group.

It’s common to hear stories of cockatoos plucking their feathers—often completely off, down to bare skin, and sometimes even mutilating the skin. “Feather plucking is a complicated subject, and there are no hard and fast rules for prevention and treatment,” Dr. McLaughlin said. Illnesses can often contribute to development of feather picking, she says, as well as inappropriate husbandry or improper socialization. Because a bird’s owner is the one providing the bird with food, attention and social interaction, some birds can develop an abnormally close bond with their owners, seeing them as their mates, which can lead to the development of separation anxiety, territorial aggression and sexual frustration manifested by problem behaviors such as feather picking, self-mutilation, biting and screaming.

If you are considering a pet cockatoo, it is vital to set boundaries early when they are babies, says Rosengarten. Resist the temptation to handle your bird constantly as a baby, as this is not sustainable in the long term, and pet your cockatoo only on his or her head, and not their bodies, as they become sexually mature. Setting these boundaries from a young age may help lessen the likelihood of developing behavior problems later on.

Caring for Your Cockatoo

Cockatoos are also known for swallowing non-food items and often develop certain medical conditions including reproductive disorders like egg binding, liver disease and obesity, Dr. McLaughlin said. As these birds have a penchant for chewing (and hence, swallowing) non-food items, particularly wires, furniture and paint, they should be closely supervised whenever they are outside of their cages. Cockatoo owners can also promote exercise with play — such as climbing on tree stands out of the cage — to help prevent obesity.

In addition, according to Hess, these birds also produce a white powdery coating on their feathers, called powder down, to protect their feathers. This coating is dusty and is not only messy, but can be a respiratory irritant to both people allergic to birds and to some other particularly sensitive species of birds, such as macaws. Therefore, if you have a cockatoo, keeping the cage and your home clean is paramount. General precautions, such as hand washing after handling your cockatoo, changing the cage paper daily, and using a vacuum with a high-efficiency filter, may help keep mess at bay. Giving your cockatoo a daily shower or misting it with water also can help keep down feather dust.

The biggest factor in owning a cockatoo, perhaps, is the noise. According to all of the experts, cockatoos are very, very loud (for example, a screaming Moluccan cockatoo can produce nearly as much noise as a 747 jet airliner, Dr. McLaughlin said). As one would imagine, this can not only be damaging to hearing, but incredibly stressful to the pet owner and neighbors. So think twice about a cockatoo if you are in a living situation that’s not conducive to this level of noise.

Excessive loudness or screaming may be mitigated if an owner sets proper boundaries with the bird when it is a baby and provides the bird with outlets to expend excess energy (think: out of cage time), as well as adequate mental stimulation (like providing bird toys to chew on, such as brightly colored wood and leather, or boxes that they can shred or that require them to open and forage for a treat inside), Rosengarten confirmed. If your cockatoo becomes very loud, be sure not to inadvertently reward the screaming by acknowledging it (by yelling back at the bird to stop, for example) or by coming back into the room (which reinforces bad behavior) or by punishing the bird for screaming. Birds are loud by nature and won’t understand these consequences, Rosengarten confirmed, adding that if your cockatoo is producing unusual sounds, bring it to an exotic/avian veterinarian to confirm there isn’t a medical issue.

Where to Buy a Cockatoo

Sadly, due to their long lifespans, behavioral issues and loudness, many cockatoos get re-homed—sometimes multiple times in their lives.

“Getting one of these birds is a huge commitment that the great majority of pet owners are completely unprepared for, which is why cockatoos are so frequently surrendered to bird rescues,” McLaughlin said.

If you are set on making a cockatoo your next pet, both Dr. McLaughlin and Rosengarten recommend adopting one in need. Search for local parrot rescue group near your hometown, which often have many cockatoos to choose from, Rosengarten said, adding that Foster Parrots – The New England Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Rhode Island, is an excellent resource for more information or to find cockatoos in need near you.

blue caterpillar via Shutterstock 

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