skip to main content

FAQ About the Hiking Cockatoos

Chapter 2 What is a Cockatoo and Where does it come from?

Previous Ch 1  |   Start  |   Next Ch 3

What's a Cockatoo?

A combination of a Teddy Bear and a Puppy, but sometimes possessed by a devil...

Is this a parrot, a parakeet, a cockatiel or a cockatoo? They are "Triton Cockatoos". Some people have trouble with the names "Cockatoo" and "Cockatiel", the latter name for the smaller birds from Australia. I often use the name "Cockatoo-much" to emphasize that these are the bigger birds. The English language uses the term "Parrots" to name a wide variety of birds with hooked beaks.

So what is the scientific name and genus information? Step back, here it comes:
Family: "Psittacidae",
Sub Family: "Cacatuinae",
Tribe: "Cacatuini",
Genus: "Cacatua Vieillot",
Nominate subspecies: "Cacatua galerita galerita"
described as "white cockatoos, with short squarish or rounded tails and long round-tipped wings." (This from the text "Australian Parrots" by Joseph Forshaw.)

In another book, "Parrots of the World", Forshaw identifies "C.g. triton Temminck" and describes it as having "crest feathers broader and more rounded than in galerita; naked periophthalmic ring blue." The latter reference is to the blue ring around the eyes of Triton Cockatoos. The word "Temminck" is the name of an ornithologist observer. The book "The Atlas of Parrots" by David Alderton, Graeme Stevenson, identifies them specifically "C.g. triton", naming the species as a "Triton Cockatoo." Important physical characteristics of Cockatoos: feather head crests that can be erected or lowered, hooked shaped beaks, feet with four claws arranged as two forward and two backward which allows them to grasp and manipulate objects very easily with their feet and, Gall Bladders (I bet that you didn't know that factoid!) Had enough of the scientists? Hey, this came from a set of texts weighing over 25 Lbs., it must be true! See a Lexicon of Parrots for additional pictures and descriptions.

I recently (circa 2002) found an explanation for the name of Triton Cockatoos from a now defunct Caroona Creek Aviary web site ( in the Google search engine cache: "The word Triton is named after the Dutch vessel 'Triton' which landed in 1828 in the western part of New Guinea. The Dutch saw this subspecies first and collected it." For a long time I thought that the name "Triton" had something to do with the apparent three peaks of feathers in the crest, a sort of reference to King Neptune's Trident, but I was mistaken.

While the words and descriptions science uses are important, if you have met and interacted with one, then you know that the words fall short of the reality of meeting a cockatoo.

On hearing the word "Parrot" many people think of the South American green parrots of Amazonia or colorful Macaws (Spanish "Pappagaillo"). Australian Shell Parakeets (Budgies) are also lumped into the "Parrot" description. Where did the name Cockatoos come from? I've read that the name comes from the descriptions of the early Portuguese Explorers in the Pacific.


Valentine, a Pied Cockatiel Cockatiels are smaller birds that resemble Cockatoos. They have feather crests on their heads that can be erected, and feathers that exude a powder. Cockatiels were given their name by the same Portuguese explorers (from the Portuguese word for "little Cockatoo"). They are more commonly seen in pet stores than Cockatoos because they are more affordable and smaller. The accompanying picture shows a Cockatiel named Valentine. She lived with us for 12 years and helped to prepare us for the job of caring for our first cockatoo, Mozart.

Show Birds

Have you ever seen a Cockatoo on TV? They often appear in commercials on television and in Wild Animal Park shows. If you have ever seen the 1970s Cops and Robbers show "Barretta" which starred Robert Blake as a freewheeling police detective and had a bird co-star named "Fred", then you have seen a Triton Cockatoo. Many people refer to them as "Barreta-Birds!" A few people on the trails have muttered "Fred" as I walked past, so that bird has made quite an impression on the audience. Mozart, playing dead with Susanna I used to think that the producers had a different Cockatoo for each trick, but I have read that one bird named "Fred" actually did them all. More recently I have read that there was more than one bird doing the tricks. Which story is true? -I don't know. However many birds, one or many, played the role of "Fred" Triton Cockatoos are noted for their ability to be trained to perform. The picture here shows Mozart playing his "Dead Cockatoo" trick. We pretend to shoot him with an imaginary gun, and he pretends to die by flopping over belly up on our hand. Then he waits for his "medication" (Pine nuts) for resuscitation.

In one story I heard about Fred the Cockatoo from Baretta some years ago "Fred" was bird-knapped from Busch Gardens. But two days later he was found walking down the middle of a nearby road. His abductors evidently found him to be too much to handle and set him free! Probably a false story, but it has a grain of truth; these birds can be difficult to handle. I've noticed some difference in behavior between the different breeds of Cockatoos, Tritons appear less friendly to strangers, whereas Umbrellas and Moluccan (other breeds of large Cockatoos) seem more affable with strangers. But that is an unverified generalization on my part.

Where do they come from?

US State Dept Asia and Southwest Pacific Region Map, select for detail

Cockatoos are native to the Southwest Pacific: New Guinea, Australia, Indonesia, Java, etc. They come in all kinds of colors: peach, black, rose, and white varieties. All 3 of our Cockatoos are Triton Cockatoos. Triton Cockatoos are a subspecies of the white Cockatoos part of a group commonly known as (Greater) Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. Tritons are native to New Guinea (see US State Dept info) and the nearby Island archipelagos. Greater Sulphur Crested Cockatoos range in size from 17 to 22 inches from head to tip of tail. Mozart is about 20 inches and weighs about 1000 grams (at about 2.2 pounds, he's a "Kilotoo!".) Tritons are distinguished by their blue eye rings, blueish scaled claws and the multiple branches of their prolaptic (curves forward) crest feathers when viewed from the front. The three peaks are not always visible in the crest as it folds up under coverlet feathers.


Access tracking

Return to Start