To describe cockatoos as spirited would be understating things – these birds have vivacious personalities and an insatiable appetite for social interaction.
They are also incredibly loud, intelligent, and large creatures (some measuring up to 24 inches), so owners need to be prepared to deal with a bird that is mentally and physically strong.
Are cockatoos dangerous? Cockatoos can engage in destructive, dangerous behavior when they feel personally and territorially threatened. Their powerful bite poses an obvious threat to inexperienced handlers, but they can also carry hidden health hazards such as allergy triggers and transmittable diseases.
A far greater danger in the long term than strong beaks or contagious illness is the improper care of cockatoos.
Aggressive tendencies can be combated with training, but years of poor rearing can cement behavioral issues that aren’t so easily tamed.
Read on to learn about the contributors and indicators of their aggression to give you the tools to raise them well.
How Cockatoos Can Be Dangerous & Why
It’s easily forgotten when you observe the fun highlights of living with a cockatoo plastered over YouTube, but captive cockatoos are inherently wild birds and are prepared to remind you of it at any given opportunity!
On the flip side of everything we might love about cockatoos – love of bonding, lively personality – are the dangers that come with failing to understand their needs and their inherent nature.
Here are a number of reasons these birds are perceived as dangerous:
Cockatoos can quickly become protective of their owner and their living space, which means visiting strangers may be greeted with screaming fits and biting as a means of “dominating” a perceived rival.
It also means that in the early stages of caring for them, cockatoos may display similar aggression towards you if you attempt to take them off their perch and away from their sanctuary.
Thankfully early socialization and a gentle training approach can curb the worst of these territorial instincts.
Excessive Noise Level
According to associate veterinarian Dr. Alicia McLaughlin of Washington state, the scream of a Moluccan cockatoo “produces nearly as much noise as a 747 jet airliner.”
For this reason, cockatoos are certainly not for everybody or indeed every neighborhood.
Not only can cockatoos’ screams and daily noise pose a close-range hearing damage risk, but they may also pose a health risk to neighbors who could be especially vulnerable to excessive noise, such as those with heart conditions or severe autism.
A Powerful Beak
Cockatoos have a powerful tool at their disposal to crack open nuts and seeds, which can easily translate as a weapon in the wrong circumstances.
Despite gaining a reputation as default biters, cockatoos tend to resort to biting out of fear resulting from past trauma, the above-mentioned cage aggression, and several other factors which we’ll discuss later on.
It’s worth remembering that cockatoos use their beaks all the time to balance themselves.
So on the hand of a stranger or newbie owner yet to master a good handling technique, your bird may “beak” you to get a secure foothold and explore its fleshy new perch.
Do Cockatoos Attack Humans?
Cockatoos will resort to attacking if they feel threatened, fearful, or mistrustful towards someone.
This can manifest in hissing or screaming behaviors, lunging, and biting and is most likely to be directed at unfamiliar people due to insufficient socialization.
Owners can also be attacked when birds are mishandled or refuse to leave their cage.
What To Do if Your Cockatoo Bites?
- Firstly, never yell or cause a fuss, as this can further agitate them. Instead, give a calm but firm “No!” command. If they are on your hand at the time, continually repeat a “No” command as you put them down and slowly remove your hand.
- Once free, thoroughly wash your bite area and apply medical disinfectant, such as rubbing alcohol – this greatly reduces the risk of catching a disease from your bird.
- To aid healing and further prevent infection, apply an antibiotic ointment before dressing the wound.
Less Obvious Dangers: Dust, Parasites & Diseases
Cockatoos also carry hidden health dangers of allergy-triggering dust from their feather dander and can be infected with zoonotic diseases (bird-human transmittable illnesses) that may not always manifest with clinical symptoms.
For this reason, it’s essential that prospective cockatoo owners become familiar with these kinds of hazards and how to prevent them.
Dander Dust & Allergy Control
More so than most exotic birds, cockatoos produce large volumes of dust whenever they groom and preen themselves.
This dust accumulates from the ultra-fine powder that coats their feathers to help them repel water easily, and each grooming session shakes these dust particles into the air.
This debris is often combined with other microscopic particles of dried droppings which, when inhaled, can worsen symptoms of asthma and lead to a respiratory illness known as hypersensitivity pneumonitis or “Bird Breeder’s Lung” in humans.
If left to fester for long periods, these airborne particles can also lead to a fatal sinus infection in your bird, so it’s imperative that air quality is managed regularly in your home.
Co-founder of The Parrot Posse and tropical bird-owner of more than 50 years, Judith Archer, recommends the following:
- Invest in a quality air purifier – choose one with a HEPA filter, as this helps to remove the majority of dander, parasites, and other microbes in your household.
- Keep your birds out of your bedroom – give your lungs a chance and make your sleeping quarters a bird-free zone.
- Consider swapping carpets and drapes for blinds and wooden flooring to eliminate dust traps.
- Shower your bird once weekly, and mist them with plain water in between to reduce powder buildup.
Types of Parasites & Diseases
This is a bacterial infection passed on through water or food that has been contaminated with the bird’s fecal matter.
It can cause gastrointestinal issues in humans. Symptoms include stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, but they usually subside after one week.
Treatment: Antibiotics only necessary for high-risk patients.
This is an intestinal parasite transmitted by the ingestion of contaminated food – this can be transmitted to cats and dogs as well as humans.
Symptoms include weight loss, dehydration, severe diarrhea, and stomach cramps and can last anywhere between 2-6 weeks.
Treatment: Course of antibiotics for those with moderate to severe symptoms.
Also known as “Parrot Fever,” this is a rare respiratory disease transmitted to humans via exposure to the bacteria in an infected bird’s dried feces or dust.
Symptoms can range from mild flu-like symptoms to severe issues in some individuals (pneumonia, inflammation of the heart and liver).
Treatment: Vigorous antibiotic therapies.
Infected cockatoos can sometimes display signs such as a decreased appetite, runny eyes and nose, diarrhea, and general weakness, but when in doubt, be sure to get them examined by your vet.
Washing your hands thoroughly after handling your cockatoo and its food/water/cage should be your first line of defense.
You should always try (wherever possible) to do the following:
- Avoid kissing them.
- Don’t let cage droppings build up.
- Change cage lining frequently.
- Only ever buy birds from a licensed breeder or pet store.
Causes of Cockatoo Aggression: 4 Contributing Factors
Once cockatoos reach sexual maturity (between 4 and 5 years old), their hormones really come into play.
Previously friendly faces and familiar objects in their cage or outer environment can become targets of their new-found aggression and sexual frustration.
Getting a handle on their behavior during this time can be difficult, but you can limit certain triggers that exacerbate hormonal aggression as best you can, such as making dietary changes and ensuring they get their recommended 12 hours of sleep during the summer months.
Improper Pairing (With Other Cockatoos)
If you decide to pair up your cockatoo with another, be sure to do so with careful consideration.
Cockatoos crave deep connections and an incompatible or hasty pairing can cause unnecessary stressors due to cage territory and jealousy – which can breed destructive, often violent behavior.
Cockatoos should ideally be paired with another of similar age, and only pair with the opposite gender if you intend to breed.
A large cage with separate exits and nests is crucial to allow each bird their private space.
The cage should also be set up with plenty of obstacles (hanging feeders, puzzles, etc.) to make attacks harder to carry out.
Lack of Stimulation
Cockatoos need to feel challenged and absorbed in activity as boredom can breed frustration, screaming fits, and even feather plucking and self-mutilation.
Ensuring their stimulation boils down to two main factors – social interaction (two hours per day minimum) and a living environment that enriches them.
An enriched environment means spending at least four hours of outside cage time for flight and general exploration, plus an abundance of chew toys, food, TV time, and puzzles that challenge their intellect and ease their separation anxiety from you.
Aggression is often manufactured by owners who have milked the strong bonds beloved by cockatoos to the point of spoiling their bird – they are nicknamed “Velcro birds” with good reason.
On a parrot forum, the owner of a re-homed male Moluccan cockatoo shared that he “attacks anyone and anything without warning” due to 15 years of being conditioned to expect his own way.
As parrot behavioral consultant Pamela Clark explains:
It is healthy that owners learn to be their bird’s companion, not their soulmate so that they “look to you for guidance rather than physical affection.”
Warning Signs To Watch For
Screams and squawks will not necessarily be the sole indicators that your bird is angry and preparing to attack.
Cockatoos will use their beaks, crests, and plumage to signify to you that they do not wish to be handled.
Here are the most telltale signs of impending aggression to look out for:
Foot Tapping: If they feel their territory is under threat, some cockatoos will tap their feet as a show of dominance and a warning sign that you should come no further.
Beak Clicks: While a single beak click can be a mere greeting gesture, a series of beak clicks (tapping/sliding the lower beak with the tip of their upper beak) is normally an indication that handling them is a no-no.
High Crest: Lifting their crest is often an excited “happy to see you” gesture, but if the crest is especially high this can indicate fear and uncertainty. If this fails to warn you off, they may hold their crest flat to their head with an accompanying crouching position and hissing or growling sounds.
Ruffled feathers: Unless they’ve recently been grooming, ruffled plumage and flared tail feathers are normally a sign that your cockatoo is in defensive mode. Combined with a swaying body and eye-pinning (dilating and contracting the pupils), this is warning not to come closer.
Why Do Cockatoos Scream?
Cockatoos naturally scream in the wild to communicate with their flock and will tend to scream in captivity either in communication with another bird or to signal boredom and frustration.
Keeping them sufficiently stimulated with cage toys and social interaction can help in tackling screaming behavior.
What Does It Mean When a Cockatoo Bobs Its Head?
Head-bobbing back and forth often indicates excitement and a desire for your attention.
If the head bobs are accompanied by a crouched position and lowered head, your cockatoo is asking to be petted.
If they are flapping their wings with a head bob, it usually indicates hunger.
What Is the Bite Force of a Cockatoo?
Cockatoos have a biting force of around 350 PSI (or pounds per square inch). This is enough to draw blood and in some cases cause nerve damage.
Bare-eyed and Moluccan cockatoos are considered to have the worst bites, which could potentially break a small child’s finger.
In summation, cockatoos can pose a danger to their handlers due to their strong beaks and capacity for transmittable diseases.
Both trusted owners and strangers can be faced with loud and destructive behavior from cockatoos, though this can be lessened with dedicated socialization and mental stimulation.
Cockatoos are inherently loving birds with an unearned reputation for consistently reckless behavior due to their complex and often misunderstood needs.
Doing your homework when it comes to their care is a must if you want a happy and healthy relationship with them.