All About the White Cockatoo: The Umbrella Cockatoo

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 15th October 2023

NameWhite CockatooDietHerbivorous
Scientific nameCacatua albaWeight400 to 800 grams (14 to 28 ounces)
Pronunciationwite kaa-kuh-tooLength46 centimeters (18 inches)
ClassificationAves, Psittaciformes, & CacatuidaeLocationIndonesia (Asia)

The White Cockatoo

Gage Beasley's White Cockatoo Bird Soft Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s White Cockatoo Bird Soft Stuffed Plush Toy

Most birds have an intricate collage of colors for their feathers, but a few are monochromatic, too.

The white cockatoo is one of the few birds with a predominantly single solid color.

It is also known as the umbrella cockatoo due to the semi-circular crest that extends out of its head when startled.

The white cockatoo is native to the tropical rainforest of Indonesia

It has also been introduced to other regions of the world, where they’re mostly kept as pets. 

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Although the desire to keep white cockatoos as pets might seem like a cute idea, this activity is also threatening their population in the wild, which is currently on a decline. 

This is why studying and learning more about this bird species is becoming considerably important. 

In this article, we profile the white cockatoo, detailing its physical characteristics, habitats, and habits. 

We’ll also discuss the ecological role of this species and ongoing conservation efforts to preserve them in the wild. 

Taxonomy and Classification

white cockatoo
Just a White Cockatoo chilling on wood | Reynita Rosita via Getty Images

The white cockatoo is known scientifically as Cacatua alba

Other common names for this bird include umbrella cockatoo and ayab, which is the local name it is called on Papua Island in Indonesia. 

It is a species of cockatoos. 

The white cockatoo belongs to the genus Cacatua alongside others like the blue-eyed cockatoo, Moluccan cockatoo, red-vented cockatoo, and yellow-crested cockatoo. 

Cockatoo and parrots are superficially similar and also related. 

white cockatoo
White Cockatoo | keiichihiki via Getty Images

They both belong to the order Psittaciformes, which includes all 21 species of cockatoos, the true parrots (Psittacoidea) and the large New Zealand parrots (Strigopoidea). 

Some of the anatomical similarities between these groups of birds include a hooked bill and zygodactyl feet. 

Despite these similarities, cockatoos and true parrots may have diverged from a common lineage as far back as 66 million years ago. 

They have remained relatively similar over the course of their evolutionary history, with barely any difference in their overall appearance. 

They, however, differ in terms of their overall coloration and the distinct head-crest of the cockatoo. 

Physical Characteristics

white cockatoo
Take a look at this cute one! | Asli Akkaya via Getty Images

The white cockatoo is a medium-sized bird. 

It measures about 46 centimeters (18 inches) long on average. 

Males are typically bigger, with an average weight of about 800 grams (28 ounces), while females only weigh about 400 grams (14 ounces). 

Males also tend to have bigger heads and beaks compared to the females. 

Apart from this and the differences in their size, there’s barely any other difference between males and females.

One of the most distinctive features of cockatoos that set them apart from superficially similar parrots is their color. 

Cockatoos are typically black or white with small hints of pink, red, or yellow. 

Conversely, parrots have green plumage with hints of yellow, red, or pink.

white cockatoo
White as day, isn’t it? | mauinow1 via Getty Images

As the name implies, the white cockatoo’s main color is white. 

However, the trailing edge of their large wing feathers tends to have a yellow color on the upper and lower surfaces. 

This notably yellow portion tends to stand out against the contrasting white color of the other feathers surrounding it. 

Similarly, some of the tail feathers also tend to be yellow. 

The beak and legs are a distinct black. 

Their feet have zygodactyl digits, meaning they have two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward. 

This is a feature they share with parrots, too. 

white cockatoo and parrot
White Cockatoos share the same feature with the Parrot | GlobalP and wrangel via Getty Images

This type of foot is effective for grasping and manipulating objects. 

The upper legs typically have a covering of short white feathers. 

One of the most distinctive features of the white cockatoo is its expressive crest. 

When they are excited or alarmed, they can raise their head feathers, creating a striking and elegant crest. 

The crest is usually white but can have a slightly yellow or pinkish tinge in some individuals.

White cockatoos have bare patches of skin around their eyes, which are typically a pale blue color.

The color of the iris tends to vary from reddish/brown in females to dark brown or black in males. 

Habitat and Distribution

In the wild, the white cockatoo’s range is limited to the Maluku Islands in Eastern Indonesia. 

This includes the Islands of Halmahera, Bacan, Tidore, Ternate, and Kasiruta. 

A small population is also found in the Obi and Bisa Islands, but these are believed to be introduced. 

This also applies to the local population found in Taiwan, which are introduced locally as well. 

In the places where this bird is found in the wild, they mainly live in tropical and subtropical ecosystems. 

white cockatoo
A white Cockatoo during a wonderful tropical season | yellowsarah via Getty Images

This includes coastal and lowland rainforests, mangrove swamps, and adjacent woodland areas. 

These tropical and subtropical regions are characterized by a warm and humid climate, with distinct wet and dry seasons. 

White cockatoos are also found in other regions of the world where they’re commonly kept as pets.

In fact, they’re among the most popular parrots kept as pets due to their intelligence, playful nature, and ability to learn tricks. 

Behavior and Social Structure

white cockatoo
The White Cockatoo says to eat your fruits, kids! | Salsabila Rahma Ayu via Getty Images

White cockatoos are primarily herbivorous. 

Their diet consists of various plant materials such as fruits, nuts, seeds, flowers, and sometimes insects. 

Seeds and nuts form a significant part of their diet, and their beaks are adapted for cracking these open. 

These birds are highly skilled foragers.

They often feed in the treetops, using their agile flight to access fruits and nuts on top of trees.

However, they may also forage directly on the forest floor, feeding on fallen fruit and seeds.

White cockatoos are often seen in large flocks, which can consist of dozens to hundreds of individuals. 

Although they are social and form large flocks, white cockatoos often have strong pair bonds with a single mate.

These pairs may engage in mutual grooming and other bonding activities.

white cockatoo
Flock of White Cockatoos | Searsie via Getty Images

This pair can be territorial during the breeding season when they establish nesting sites. 

However, outside of this period, they are generally less territorial and can be seen in large flocks.

White cockatoos are mostly sedentary birds, staying within their preferred habitat throughout the year.

However, their movements may be influenced by the seasonal availability of food.

White cockatoos are diurnal. 

This means they’re more active during the day than at night. 

They are known for their loud vocalization throughout the day. 

This includes calls to communicate with each other and establish their presence within the flock.

Diet and Feeding

white cockatoo
White cockatoo eating on a tree branch | chameleonseye via Getty Images

The white cockatoo is a herbivorous bird, but like many other birds, it can eat insects sometimes. 

Nuts and seeds form a significant part of this bird’s diet. 

They’re skilled at cracking hard-shelled nuts like palm nuts and macadamia nuts using their strong beaks.

They also consume a wide range of fruits, such as figs, papayas, mangoes, and other rainforest fruits. 

They also eat flowers, leaves, shoots, and other vegetative parts of plants, especially during seasons when fruits and nuts are less abundant.

In the wild, you can find white cockatoos feeding on the forest floor, where they eat fallen fruits and seeds. 

However, they may also feed high up in the tree canopies. 

The zygodactyl feet of this bird make it possible to hold onto tree branches while cracking nuts open or feeding on other plant materials with their beaks. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle

white cockatoo
White Cockatoo (6-week juvenile with pin feathers developing) | IMtheEyeInTheSky via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

White cockatoos become sexually mature when they’re about three to four years old. 

At maturity, they have an elaborate courtship behavior aimed at forming a bonded pair. 

This typically starts with the mature male ruffling its feathers, extending its wings, and spreading its tail feathers. 

The head crest also stands erect while he bounces back and forth to impress the female. 

The female cockatoos may feign disinterest initially but will eventually accept him. 

Once a pair forms a bond, they can be seen preening each other’s head and eventually mate. 

After mating, the pair will find a suitable nesting site to lay eggs and raise their young. 

The courtship display is less elaborate for bonded pairs. 

The female may approach the male without an elaborate display from him. 

Although they’re mostly social, breeding pairs tend to separate from the larger group once it’s time to nest. 

white cockatoo
Eggs of white cockatoo collection of Jacques Perrin de Brichambaut. | Roger Culos via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

They typically make their nest in the hollow of large trees, where they lay a clutch of two eggs. 

During the incubation period, which lasts about 28 days, the male and female take turns incubating the eggs. 

After hatching, the chick remains in the nest for about 84 days. 

Both parents participate in feeding the chicks, regurgitating partially digested food to provide nutrition. 

The chicks grow rapidly during this period.

The two chicks are usually of different sizes, with the larger chick taking more of the food the parents provide as they grow. 

They’re fully dependent on the parent for about 15 to 18 weeks, after which they leave the nest. 

Ecological Role and Interactions

white cockatoo
White Cockatoos in the wild | keiichihiki via Getty Images

As a herbivore, the ecological position of the white cockatoo directly affects the plant population in the region where it is found. 

Most significantly, the fact that these birds feed on fruits, nuts, and seeds makes them essential seed dispersers for various plant species within their ecosystem. 

As they feed, white cockatoos may drop or discard uneaten portions of these plants in different parts of the tropical rainforest. 

These discarded seeds will eventually germinate and grow into new plants, contributing to forest regeneration and maintaining plant diversity.

While feeding, white cockatoos may also inadvertently transfer pollen between flowers, aiding in the pollination of certain plant species.

white cockatoo
Fly away, cockatoo! | BBeale via Getty Images

White cockatoos can also become prey to various predators within their ecosystems.

This includes terrestrial and aerial predators, such as snakes, monitor lizards, birds of prey (eagles, hawks), and even introduced predators like domestic cats.

Their only defense against these prey species is their ability to fly away from danger. 

When living in groups, white cockatoos can also make loud calls to alert others to the presence of predators. 

Conservation Status and Threats

white cockatoo
Protect the White Cockatoo at all cost! | mb-fotos via Getty Images

The white cockatoo (Cacatua alba) is classified as “Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. 

This status means that the species faces a high risk of extinction in the wild if conservation actions are not taken.

Habitat destruction and fragmentation due to human activities, such as logging, agriculture, and urban development, are among the most pressing threats to the existence of these birds. 

This results in the loss of critical nesting sites and food sources for the white cockatoos, leading to a decline in their populations. 

White cockatoos are also sought after as pets. 

This leads to the illegal capture and trade of these birds, which poses a major threat to their populations in the wild and disrupts their breeding cycles.

Climate change is also impacting the typical habitats of these birds. 

Altered rainfall patterns and extreme weather events are also causing a decline in the tropical rainforest on islands of Indonesia, where these birds are endemic. 

white cockatoo
Hostile weather conditions approaching to the green landscape of Flores Island. | funky-data via Getty Images

Various conservationist groups are investing efforts in bringing back the white cockatoo from the brink of extinction. 

The white cockatoo is listed as protected in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) list of endangered animals. 

This makes the illegal export and import of these birds illegal in countries that are a party to this treaty. 

The government of Indonesia currently has a catch quota in place to protect these birds. 

This limits the number of wild-caught cockatoos that can be traded in the country. 

As a result of these efforts, there has been a drop in the number of cockatoos caught in the wild in recent years. 

However, some NGOs still report that there’s still significant trade in these birds going on illegally across the region. 

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

white cockatoo
White cockatoo powerful beak | Patrick_Gijsbers via Getty Images

Like other cockatoos and parrots, the white cockatoo is known for its powerful curved beaks, adapted for cracking hard-shelled nuts and seeds open. 

This adaptation allows them to access a rich food source many other animals cannot exploit, especially during seasons when fruits and softer seeds are not abundant. 

Another distinctive feature of these birds is the expressive crest of feathers on top of their heads. 

They can raise and lower their crest at will, forming a large, umbrella-shaped structure useful for communication and may also serve as a defense mechanism against predators. 

When alarmed, they raise their crest feathers to appear a little more intimidating to potential threats. 

The crest also signals their emotional state to other members of their flock and is useful for judging their mood when they’re kept as pets. 

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

white cockatoo
The White Cockatoo was famous during the Tang Dynasty in China | Brayden Stanford via Getty Images

Human interactions with the white cockatoo date back several centuries. 

They were well-known in China during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907)

Gua Ying, a traditional Chinese god of compassion, is represented by a white parrot. 

Since wild parrots don’t really exist, the depiction of Guan Yin is most likely a white cockatoo. 

In 1229, the fourth crusade between the Roman Emperor Frederick II and the Sultan of Babylon was sealed with the gift of a white cockatoo. 

This demonstrates the cultural importance of this bird, especially in Asia where it is naturally endemic. 

Today, the white cockatoo is still considered relevant in some Indonesian cultures.

The feathers of this bird may be used for traditional rituals and ceremonies. 

white cockatoo
The feathers of the White Cockatoo can be used for certain rituals and other traditions | Brisbanecolours via Getty Images

They’re considered very valuable as a symbol of purity. 

Historically, white cockatoos have been hunted and poached for these feathers. 

This and the demand for the birds as pets led to the illegal wildlife trade that currently poses a significant threat to their population in the wild.

Various conservation efforts and legal measures have been put in place to help curb the poaching of these birds. 

Like parrots, white cockatoos are known for their intelligence and can be kept as pets. 

While they can form strong bonds with humans, their complex care requirements and long lifespans make them challenging pets to keep. 

The capture and trade of wild white cockatoos also contribute to the illegal pet trade and their population decline. 

Future Prospects and Research

white cockatoo
White Cockatoo bird walking on a gravel beach | Anfisa Tukane via Getty Images

Most of the ongoing research relating to the white cockatoo focuses on understanding their behavior and ecology. 

These studies focus on their habitat preferences, foraging behavior, and reproductive biology to help with conservation strategies and habitat management.

Other aspects of research not directly related to the cockatoo, such as habitat restoration techniques and land management practices, can also help with conservation efforts indirectly. 

The knowledge gained from these studies can help conservationists in their efforts to create and maintain suitable habitats for white cockatoos and other birds. 


The white cockatoo is a medium-sized bird with an all-white color. 

It is endemic to the Islands of Indonesia, where it lives in tropical rainforests. 

This bird is a herbivore that thrives on a diet of nuts, fruits, and other plant materials. 

The feeding activities of this bird may contribute to the dispersal of plant seeds and the overall health of the plant population in the tropical forests where they’re found. 

Despite their ecological significance, the white cockatoo’s population in the wild is fast declining. 

You can take action by learning more about these birds and how you can contribute to efforts to bring them back from the brink of extinction. 


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