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Cockatoos

Big, boisterous, noisy parrots recognisable by their curved beaks and movable crests.

Australia is home to 14 cockatoo species, of which 11 exist in the wild only in Australia.

White cockatoos

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita), Little Corella (Cacatua sanguinea), Long-billed Corella (Cacatua tenuirostris) and Western Corella (Cacatua pastinator).

Black cockatoos

Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo or Short-billed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus latirostris), Baudin's Black Cockatoo or Long-billed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus baudinii), Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus), Red-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii) and Glossy Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami).

Others

Palm Cockatoo* (Probosciger aterrimus), Pink Cockatoo (also known as Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo – Cacatua leadbeateri), Galah (Cacatua roseicapilla), Gang Gang Cockatoo (Callocephalon fimbriatum) and Cockatiel (Nymphicus hollandicus).

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo displaying its tail feathers. Photo Alec Brennan.
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo displaying its tail feathers. Photo Alec Brennan.

Cockatoos are mainly white, grey or black with spot colouring in the crests, cheeks or tails. Several species have brightly coloured areas around their eyes and face called periophthalmic rings. The large red patch on the Palm Cockatoo is the most obvious.

Cockatoos share many characteristics in common with other parrots, including their curved beaks and gripping zygodactyl feet (two middle toes pointing forward and the other two backward). They’ll also make use of their bill as a third limb when climbing.

Where do cockatoos live?

As well as Australia, cockatoos can be found in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.

Of the Australian species, Galahs are the most widespread, occurring over most of the country. Along with the Cockatiel, Galahs are nomadic, open country specialists that feed on grass seeds and move in flocks over large areas to wherever food is plentiful.

Gang Gang Cockatoo. Photo Graeme Chapman.
Gang Gang Cockatoo. Photo Graeme Chapman.

The Glossy Black Cockatoo, on the other hand, is more inclined to inhabit woodlands and forests because it's a dietary specialist, feeding exclusively on the seeds of she-oaks (principally Allocasuarina). It's fairly widespread though with the two eastern subspecies occurring from roughly Townsville to north-east Victoria, and the South Australian subspecies on Kangaroo Island.

Others are confined to small areas, such as Baudin’s Black Cockatoo and Carnaby’s Cockatoo, both endangered and limited to small areas of habitat in south-west Western Australia and some subspecies that are confined (e.g. Kangaroo Island Glossy Black Cockatoo and south-eastern Red-tailed Black Cockatoo).

Cockatoo behavior

Like other parrots, cockatoos also have short legs and a waddling gait. In captivity cockatoos can live as long as humans. They also share with us a tendency to have a preferred foot (most will use their left foot to grip food when they eat). 1

Their movable headcrest is raised when the birds are landing from flight or aroused.2

They are diurnal (active in the day), need light to find their food and aren’t early risers, tending to wait until there’s warmth in the sun before feeding. 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos at Goonderoo Reserve, Qld. Photo Ian Mayo.
Sulphur-crested Cockatoos at Goonderoo Reserve, Qld. Photo Ian Mayo.

These noisy birds often feed in large flocks, making their unmistakable presence known (except for glossies – they tend to feed in pairs, trios of mum, dad and fledgling, or small family units).

Their harsh squawking vocals and the number of different calls varies by species. Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo has up to 15 different calls, whereas others have less. Some like Gang Gang Cockatoos are relatively quiet, while the Palm Cockatoos will also drum on dead branches with sticks to communicate over distances. 3

Intelligent birds with engaging personalities, scientists have found as mimicking birds they’re hard-wired to connect sounds with motor skills, which means, they can synchronize body movements to a beat.4

Yes, cockatoos can dance – a skill very few animals have!

They are also known for their ability to mimic – including human speech. Social birds, Cockatoos also spend time preening themselves and each other throughout the day. They produce preen oil from a gland on their backs and wipe their feathers with their heads or other already oiled feathers. 

Moulting is a slow process. Black cockatoos replace flight feathers one at a time, a moult taking two years to complete. Other species such as the galah and long-billed corella are faster, taking around 6 months. 

Cockatoo breeding

Cockatoos are socially monogamous, with pair bonds lasting many years, and make their nests in tree hollows. Their hollows are often only slightly larger than themselves and usually seven or eight metres above ground. Where possible they’ll also return to the same nesting sites consecutive years. 

Glossy Black Cockatoos (the middle bird is a young fledgling, indicated by its spotty chest). Photo Bruce Thomson.
Glossy Black Cockatoos (the middle bird is a young fledgling, indicated by its spotty chest). Photo Bruce Thomson.

Females won’t start breeding until between 3 and 7 years and males can be older. They’re late breeders compared to other birds, so they can develop the skills for raising young. Young will stay learning from their parents for up to a year and possibly still hang around in large family or social groups for longer or the rest of their lives. 

Cockatoos are long-lived (most can live 30 to 70 years or longer in captivity, though Cockatiels can expect about 20 years).

Palm Cockatoos and some of the other large species lay a single egg, while smaller species lay between two and eight. Black cockatoo females care for their eggs and nestlings alone, while the work is shared between sexes in other species. Cockatiels will incubate eggs for around 20 days with larger species such as Glossy Black Cockatoos and Red-tailed Black Cockatoos taking roughly four weeks for incubation and nine weeks until fledgling (around 12 weeks total). 

Cockatoo diet

Cockatoos eat seeds, tubers, corns, fruit, flowers and insects. In times of plenty flock sizes are smaller, while in droughts some species can gather in flocks numbering thousands of birds.

Galahs, corellas and some of the black cockatoos mostly feed on the ground, and ground feeders tend to forage in larger flocks. Western and Long-billed Corellas have longer bills to dig out tubers and roots. 

Other species forage for seeds in the trees – Eucalypts, Banksia and Hakea plants store large supplies of seeds in cones or gumnuts. These are too tough for many birds to access but Cockatoos can crack them open. Often where the fruits are on the end of small branches that won’t support their weight, Cockatoos will hold branches in their feet and bend them closer. As well as strong bills they have muscular tongues to manipulate seeds and to de-husk them. 

Some species are specialists. The Glossy Black Cockatoo specializes in She-oaks, grabbing cones in its feet and shredding them to extract the seeds. The Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo eats lots of insects – digging in rotting wood for grubs and larvae.

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo searching for bugs at Brogo Reserve, NSW. Photo Joshua Wellington.
Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo searching for bugs at Brogo Reserve, NSW. Photo Joshua Wellington.

When food is abundant Cockatoos may spend only a few hours each day foraging and the rest preening in trees. But in winter or other times of scarcity they can spend most of the day foraging. 

Threats to cockatoos

Being large birds and nesting in tree hollows, they need large, mature trees for habitat and all species are impacted by habitat loss and land clearing.

Others (Long Billed Corellas, Little Corellas, Sulphur Crested Cockatoos and Galahs) have adapted well to human changes and in places have become agricultural pests. Cockatoos can also be a nuisance in urban areas. Used to maintaining their bills in the wild by chewing wood, in the suburbs they will chew outdoor furniture or window frames.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo. Photo Alec Brennan.
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo. Photo Alec Brennan.

Carnaby’s and Baudin’s Black Cockatoos are both listed as endangered, due to the clearing of its breeding habitat. They’re now confined to an area of south-west Western Australia. The Kangaroo Island Glossy and South-eastern Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo are EPBC Endangered. The Forest Red-tailed Black Cockatoo is EPBC vulnerable and others are listed at state levels too.

The Yellow tailed Black Cockatoos are also thought to be in decline as urban expansion reduces their habitat. The IUCN’s conservation status for most species is ‘of least concern’ but in South Australia there are threatened populations at state level.

Large raptors such as the Peregrine Falcon and Wedge-tailed Eagles can be predators of cockatoos. Their tree hollow nests face many hazards, including various goannas and possums.

The wildlife trade has also been a significant threat and though most are now protected by law, in some areas the trade continues illegally. 

Cockatoos have historically made popular pets – although their needs are actually very hard to meet. They are intelligent and engaging animals but are very social and can suffer if kept on their own for long periods. They demand lots of attention and their curiosity and intelligence means they need a steady stream of objects to examine, play with and destroy.

Climate change is also a major threat, bringing with it fire, drought and the decreased productivity of food trees. Our cockatoos can ill afford to see events such as the Black Summer fires of 2019-20 in successive years.

Pink (Major Mitchell's) Cockatoos at Naree, NSW. Photo David and Sue Akers.
Pink (Major Mitchell's) Cockatoos at Naree, NSW. Photo David and Sue Akers.

What’s Bush Heritage doing?

All around Australia our reserves and partnership properties protect old-growth woodlands and forests with big mature trees that provide large nest hollows and are ideal cockatoo habitat.

The two white tailed cockatoo species listed as endangered – Carnaby’s Cockatoo and Baudin’s Black Cockatoo – both have limited ranges in the south-west corner of Western Australia and are affected by habitat loss. In this region we’re contributing to the GondwanaLink connectivity project, linking up habitat corridors.

Cockatoo food was high on the list of plant species to include in the seed mix at our Monjebup North Reserve in south-west Western Australia when some cleared areas were revegetated.

A few years on, and raucous Carnaby’s Cockatoos have been found tearing into Cauliflower Hakeas planted especially for them.

Between 2011 and 2014 just over 400 hectares of grazing and cropping land was reseeded with locally sourced native plant species.

Our wonderful donor Eva Palmer, and subsequently WA State NRM have, over several years, funded the establishment of many hectares of proteaceous vegetation at Monjebup specifically as forage for Carnaby’s Cockatoos. Revegetation on Monjebup North was also supported by a grant from the Loro Parque Foundation.


* Typically, black-cockatoos are those of Calyptorhynchus genus. Although Palm Cockatoos are black in colour, they're not part of the black cockatoo family and are more closely to related to other cockatoos.

References:

  1.  Rogers, Lesley J. (1 January 1989). "Laterality in Animals"International Journal of Comparative Psychology3 (1). Archived from the original on 7 March 2018. Retrieved 27 March 2018.
  2. (Forshaw, Joseph Michael; Cooper, William T. (1978). Parrots of the world (2nd ed.). Melbourne: Lansdowne Editions. ISBN 978-0-7018-0690-3.)
  3. Murphy S, Legge S, Heinsohn R (2003). "The breeding biology of palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus): a case of a slow life history". Journal of Zoology261 (4): 327–39. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.475.7031doi:10.1017/S0952836903004175.
  4. Swift, W. Bradford (1997). "The healing touch – animal-assisted therapy". Animals16 (4): 130–32.