The Loud, Smart, and Beautiful Cockatoos of Australia

Looking more like stars of a 1980s punk band, cockatoos are loud, wacky parrots. If you don’t own one yourself, you’ve probably seen one in a pet store or dancing in a YouTube video. Yet, as popular as they are as pets around the world, they are only native to a small quadrant of the globe. They are found as far north as Philippines and as far east as Indonesia, but the majority of cockatoos are found in Australia. Of the 21 species of cockatoos, 11 are exclusive to the Land Down Under.

Throughout Australia, cockatoos have adapted to the various extremes of the continent. You can find them in the steamy, tropical north, the arid, desolate Outback, and the cool, temperate south. Some species have even benefited from humanity and have adapted very well to cities, and their extensive numbers ravage crops and man-made structures and objects. As a result, they are considered a pest in some areas and are occasionally culled.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) preening itself in Cairns, Queensland, Australia.

Cockatoos look a lot like other parrots, but there’s one major difference: their headgear. All cockatoos have a feathery crest that they can raise or lower at will. In some species, such as the sulfur-crested cockatoo, the crest is clearly visible, whether raised or lowered. In others, such as the little corella, the crest is not apparent until it is raised. Depending on the situation, cockatoos will raise their crests to express emotion, communicate with other cockatoos, or respond to danger. They will also raise their crest after landing.

Galah (Eolophus roseicapilla) at Cape Ranges National Park, Western Australia.

Cockatoos come in a variety of sizes, but Australia is home to both the largest and smallest. The palm cockatoo is the largest cockatoo, and it grows up to 60 centimeters (24 inches) in length and weighs up to 1,200 grams (2.65 pounds). In Australia, it is limited to the upper reaches of the Daintree Rainforest on the Cape York Peninsula, but it is also found in the rainforests in New Guinea.

On the other hand, the cockatiel is the smallest of all cockatoos, growing up to 33 centimeters (13 inches) in length and weighing up to 125 grams (4.4. ounces). Unlike the palm cockatoo, cockatiels are found throughout Australia, and around the world, they are the most well-known cockatoo. Among bird-owners, cockatiels are second only to budgerigars (aka common parakeets), which are also native to Australia.

Cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus) congregate in a tree near Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia.

Like other parrots, cockatoos are very intelligent. In fact, they are among the most intelligent birds. Some species can solve complex mechanical puzzles, such as picking locks, and as pets, they are known to frequently escape their cages. They can also learn tricks and make wooden tools. These are all behaviors normally associated with primates, and they add a whole new meaning to the term ” bird-brained”.

Galah (Eolophus roseicapilla) near Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia.

That said, among Australians, some cockatoos, such as the galah (known as the rose-breasted cockatoo among bird-owners), have a reputation for being, well, stupid. In fact, “galah” is an old Aussie slang word for “loud-mouthed idiot”. Yet, while galahs are quite loud, their reputation is undeserved. Galahs are arguably the most successful of all cockatoos, having spread across all of Australia with the help of land clearing and the production of cereal crops. They now inhabit every Australian state, including Tasmania. This unprecedented distribution has made them a nuisance for farmers, who must defend their crops from the flourishing, flocking birds.

Little corella (Cacatua sanguinea) hanging on a seed pod in Karijini National Park, Western Australia.

But galahs aren’t the only flocking cockatoos. All cockatoos are quite sociable, and they all travel in flocks. Some that inhabit open country, such as little corellas, have been known to travel in flocks of over 32,000. The availability of food heavily influences the size of these flocks, and in times of scarcity, they travel in much larger flocks.

Red-tailed black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii)  perched in a tree in Bowen, Queensland, Australia.

When breeding, cockatoos are monogamous, and they form pair bonds. Essentially, they get married. These “married” couples stay together for many years, and sometimes, they stay together for life. This behavior is quite common in parrots and a number of other birds, and according to a 2007 study, it accompanies their high intelligence.

Galah (Eolophus roseicapilla) feeding near Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia.

In the wild, cockatoos primarily eat seeds and nuts. They use their thick, curved bills and muscular tongues to crack nuts and husk seeds. They will often pick up seeds with one of their feet and eat like a human would. They also eat tubers, roots, and pinecones, and some species even eat insects, especially beetle larvae and caterpillars.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) feeding in Cairns, Queensland, Australia.

So that’s the (very) basic run-down of Australian cockatoos. They’re smart; they travel in huge flocks; and they primarily eat seeds. For more information, please check out Wikipedia and Cockatoo Info. Both are very good resources for both wild and captive cockatoos.

Like birds? Check out these other bird-brimmed articles:

Walking with Dinosaurs: The Cassowaries of Etty Bay

The Magnificent Artwork of John James Audubon

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