15 Cockatoo interesting facts you might not know!
Cockatoo Fun Facts
Cockatoos are known for their iconic looks and distinctive crests. Their personalities have charmed humans for centuries, but did you know that they are featured in currency design? And one of their kind time-traveled to a 15th-century Renaissance painting? And there are currently 21 different species of cockatoos? Here are 15 fascinating cockatoo facts you might not know!
Cockatoo Species Overview
The “cockatoo” is a family of 21 parrots originating from Australia, Indonesia, and East Timor. They can now be found wild in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Papua New Guinea.
The Cacatuidea family (common name: cockatoo) can be divided into three large color categories: white, black, and pink. They are famous for their impressive crests and loud personalities.
Many members are endangered (eg. Carnaby’s black cockatoo of southwest Australia), while some thrived (eg. sulphur-crested cockatoo).
1. Cockatoos come in different sizes
First, the largest…
The palm cockatoo is 10 times larger than the smallest, the cockatiel. The palm cockatoo has a comical appearance with its goth-looking mohawk, black feathers, and prominent red cheeks. They are incredibly intelligent and can live up to 90 years even in the wild!
What about the smallest?
The smallest cockatoo is the cockatiel. Although there was debate about whether cockatiels truly belonged to the family or not, a series of recent molecular and biochemical studies confirmed that they are genetically true cockatoos.
And their differences
A cockatiel is around 30 to 33 cm (12 to 13 in) in length and weighs around 78 to 125 grams in weight. On the contrary, a palm cockatoo is 49–68 cm(19–27 inches) in length and 910–1,200 grams in weight. In short, a palm cockatoo is about 10 times heavier than a cockatiel.
2. Cockatoos are the second oldest branch of parrots
The Psittaciformes (aka parrot) consists of around 400 living species. It includes 3 superfamilies: Strigopoidea, Cacatuoidea, and Psittacoidea. The earliest branch has 3 living species in New Zealand (the kaka, kakapo, and kea). The second branch, the Cacatuidae (cockatoo) consists of 21 living species in Australasia. The Psittacoidea has 374 living species living all over the world.
The two earliest superfamilies are apparently homebodies, as they still reside in Australasia, which is where the original family started.
3. “Cockatoo” originated from Indonesia
The word “cockatoo” originated from the Indonesian/Malay word, kakatua. Kakatua translated to “older sister”, which came from a folklore in the Maluku Islands. According to folklore, a little boy who lived in the forest thought a cockatoo was his older sibling. The story inspired a local song called “Burung Kakatua”.
Listen to “Burung Kakatua” by Raymond Crooke and Acundrum Drummer on Youtube.
Dutch settlers, later on, brought the word over to Europe and it was later adapted to its current form in English.
4. The cockatoo’s crest is an expression
Although different cockatoo species have different types of crests, cockatoos generally use their raised crests to convey their emotional state: interest, conflict, alarm, curiosity, fear, and frustration.
Therefore, it is difficult to know a bird’s true emotion without reading his/her other body language simultaneously.
5. Cockatoos are originally from Australasia
The cockatoo’s natural habitats are rainforests, pine forests, eucalyptus groves, scrublands, and savannahs. Many members of the cockatoo now suffer a loss of habitat due to human activities and can be found in cities. Due to mass pet trades in the 20th century, wild cockatoos can now be found in places outside of their natural habitat.
Did you know Hong Kong and Singapore also have cockatoos? Check out my article about cockatoos in Hong Kong.
6. A cockatoo’s lifespan can be up to 50 years
Cockatoos live a long time. The smallest member, the cockatiel, lives around 15 to 20 years. Larger species of the family live somewhere between 20 to 40 years on average. Cockatoos in captivity with good care can live to be 50–70.
7. Cookie, 83-years-old, was the oldest cockatoo
The longest-living parrot was a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo named Cookie. Cookie lived from 1933 to 2016 in the Brookfield Zoo, near Chicago, Illinois. She was the only animal left from the original collection at the zoo’s opening in 1934. Guinness World Records certified her as the longest living parrot on earth.
Well-loved by fans worldwide
Cookie enjoyed attention and had fans from all over the world. One of Cookie’s fans, the Hindu Avadhuta, Sri Ganapathy Sachchidananda Swamiji, visited Cookie in 2013.
She crossed the rainbow bridge in 2016
Cookie retired from public viewing in 2009 and died in 2016 at 83 years of age. Nowadays a bronze statue of Cookie can be seen at the Zoo.
8. The cockatoos are featured in currency
In 2017, Australia launched its new ten-dollar note design. An iridescent and gold silhouette portraying the sulfur-crested cockatoo can be visibly spotted on both sides of the note.
Similarly, an Indonesian 10 rupiah from 1959 also featured a mirrored image of four cockatoos on the backside.
A palm cockatoo was featured on Indonesia’s 100 rupiah design in 1999. However, the oldest circulating coin featuring a cockatoo belonged to the British farthing from 1795-1801. Though the bird was not as pronounced as some of the later designs, it could still be spotted with its signature crest and noticeable beak.
9. A cockatoo ‘time-traveled’ to a Renaissance painting
The Madonna della Vittoria is a tempera on canvas by the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna. One could find a cockatoo-like bird peeking from the top left corner of the painting in the background.
Cockatoo in Renaissance painting
The common belief is that the medieval world is hugely disconnected—Australia was not mapped until the Dutch arrived in 1606 and the Indonesian islands had little to no contact with the rest of the world. How did a cockatoo from the region somehow make it into a 15th century Renaissance painting?
Was it actually a cockatoo?
Dr. Heather Dalton, a historian at the University of Melbourne, speculated that the painter must have somehow acquired a real bird because the painting showed a front-facing cockatoo, instead of a profile view, as was common in later historical paintings of cockatoos.
Where did the bird come from?
There are discussions about whether the bird depicted is a yellow-crested cockatoo (from Indonesia or New Guinea) or a sulphur crested cockatoo (from Australia). However, we can be sure that somehow one of its kind survived the trade routes from Indonesia or Australia to Europe via China, India, or the Middle East. The trade route would have taken years at the time, but not entirely impossible, given the cockatoo’s lifespan.
Why does it matter?
Whether the bird was originally from Australia or Indonesia, this certainly challenged the common eurocentric view about ancient trade routes: that the medieval world was hugely disconnected before the Europeans started their expedition. The appearance of a cockatoo in a 15th century painting shows us how connected the medieval world actually was.
Either that or the cockatoo time-traveled. 😉
Want to read more about parrots, cockatoos, and their meanings in art? Check out this article of mine.
10. Hollywood celebrities love cockatoos
In Iron Man 2, villain Ivan Vanko (played by Mickey Roueke) demanded to have his bird back before he agreed to work with Hammer. The Cockatoo “actress” that played Irina was actually Rourke’s pet, Sonny.
Rourke was so taken with his onscreen pal that he later adopted Sonny. The team sent Sonny from New York to assume the role of Vanko’s companion in the film.
Other celebrities that also were also fascinated by the cockatoo include Celo Green (singer), Diane Warren (songwriter), Sandra Lee (author and chef), and Frank Zappa.
11. Cockatoos are extremely smart. They know how to use tools
Any cockatoo owner will tell you stories of how resourceful their birds are. Researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria conducted research with the Goffins cockatoo. The research tested the Goffin’s capabilities using tools.
Cockatoos are among the most intelligent animals along with humans, corvids, and the great apes.
Read this article about the experiment conducted at the University of Vienna on the cockatoo’s cognitive capabilities and watch a video of the action on the university website.
12. Palm cockatoos can make music
The palm cockatoo might be the only animal (asides from humans) that uses homemade tools to drum. Male palm cockatoos first make good use of their beak and large bill to create tools, and they drum to create unique rhythms. Robert Heinsohn, a conservation biologist at Australia National University, observed that about 70% of the time male palm cockatoos do the drumming when a female is around.
Want to watch a palm cockatoo drumming? Check out this article by the National Geographic.
Cockatoos are very social animals. Although some members of the family (eg. palm cockatoo) prefer to live alone, most cockatoos live in large flocks.
Cockatoos interact with the researcher
To understand their social structure better, Dr. Klump in Australia spent many afternoons in a Sydney park with wild sulphur-crested cockatoos. As she got closer to the flock, she noticed that some of the birds started accepting her into their social hierarchy.
A bird with personality and social hierarchy
“Some of them will challenge you for dominance, while others will act subordinate to you. Some of them will try and allopreen your hair, which is a gesture of affiliative behavior, sort of, ‘You’re my friend now’.”
Cockatoos had suffered a loss of natural habitat due to human activities. However, they continue to adapt to the new landscape with their intelligence and adaptability.
14. Cockatoos started cultural trends
Sulphur-crested cockatoos in Australia have been seen opening trash bins. What is so special about birds opening a bin?
A lot, in fact.
Knowledge spreads within the flock
In 2015, Dr. Richard Major from the Australian Museum captured a video of a Cockatoo opening bin. He wondered whether the skill was passed down through genetics or through learning from each other. He teamed up with Australian and German ecologists to start a call-out to Australians to report cockatoos bin opening behaviors. They called the project “The Clever Cocky Project”.
The Clever Cocky Project
They later marked hundreds of cockatoos in paint dots so the team could closely observe and identify these cockatoos. When the project started in 2018, bin-opening behaviors were only reported in three suburbs. But by late 2019, Cockatoos had been seen opening bins in 44 suburbs.
Cockatoos learn from each other
Researchers believed that the cockatoos were watching and learning from each other, as the spread of knowledge seemed to become a rippling effect from neighbor to neighbor. Researchers also found that cockatoos in different neighborhoods had different styles when opening bins.
The cockatoos don’t just open every single bin. They can identify which bin has food inside by the bin color. 88.8% of the time the bird was opening the red bin with food waste.
The results of the research were published in the Journal Science.
Why does this matter?
In human terms, what the Cockatoos started was a cultural trend. Similar to how Jazz started in the African-American communities in New Orlean, developed various styles through geographic locations, and eventually became a worldwide culture.
Cockatoo vs human trash bin battles
As of 2023, humans in Australia found themselves in unexpected battles that involved trash bins and cockatoos. In the beginning, humans underestimated their opponents and quickly realized a rock or brick on top of trash bins will not stop the cockatoos. One guy tried using bungee rope as thick as a human finger. The rope was quickly chewed through by the birds. Many Australians found even more creative tricks to attempt to outsmart the birds but were quickly dismantled by the clever birds with big beaks. Researchers called this human vs cockatoo episode an “Innovation arm race” as it involves learned behavior changes in both species.
Listen to the report on The Guardian.
Read the studies led by Dr. Lucy Aplin at the Aplin lab on cockatoo cognition and culture.
15. Where you find trouble, you find cockatoos
Cockatoos adapted to living side-by-side with humans. But their natural curiosity and powerful beak caused problems.
Round 1: Cockatoo vs Buildings
In 1988, a flock of cockatoos damaged the roof of the National Herbarium of New South Wales in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. The damage caused rain to leak through where botanical specimens were kept. It cost $50,000 to repair.
In Rozelle, cockatoos picked apart a new apartment and chewed away the styrofoam. That caused the area to “rain with styrofoam bits like snow”.
Another incident of cockatoos chewing through infrastructure projects cost $80,000 to repair in 2017.
Round 2: Cockatoo vs Beware if you have a tail!
Other than buildings, cockatoos also bite the tails of other animals—snakes, lorikeets, lizards—sometimes for defensive purposes, but other times just for fun.
When you have such powerful beaks and intelligent brains, why would you only chew foams and bite small animals, right?
Round 3: Cockatoo vs Kangaroo
The volunteers at Wild2Free, a kangaroo sanctuary, observed that the wild cockatoos would spook the kangaroos by biting their tails. After the kangaroos frantically jumped away, the cockatoos would walk triumphantly toward the kangaroos’ food bowl. The volunteers tried to switch out sunflower seeds from the kangaroo’s diet, but the cockatoos seemed to bite the kangaroo’s tail not only for the sake of food.
Watch Cockatoo spooking Kangaroo
Round 4: Cockatoo vs Human
The cockatoos’ destructive behaviors, unfortunately, put some of their members in danger. Cockatoos had been shot despite it being illegal without proper permits in Australia.
Interested in seeing more cockatoos on coins? Check out this Major Mitchell cockatoo coin on the Australian Coin Collecting Blog. If you are interested in a variety of bird note designs in general, check out Robert’s Blog “Just put a Bird on it” and his extensive store. Want to own one of those Indonesian palm cockatoo coins? Check out Parrot Wizard.
Read “A Bad Cockatoo Article in the New Yorker“, a further discussion on the cockatoos appearing in a 15th-century painting from Medieval Indonesia.