Cockatoo Heaven

Cockatoo Characteristics

Those Magnificent Cockatoo Crests
by Carol Highfill

moluccan cockatoo crest up by Lynne One of the things unique to cockatoos, and their smaller cousins the cockatiels, is their unusual and often magnificent crests. They are the only members of the parrot family (psittacines) to have such a feature and they display it well. Crests range in color from white, to pink, to orange to black. They vary in size, shape and design as well. This crowning glory is one of the reasons that people are so enthralled by the cockatoos' beauty and are so attracted to these birds.

Crests are much more than an ornament. As they evolved, so did their uses. A major purpose of the crest is communication. A raised crest is a signal to another bird (or human), whether it be friend, mate or foe. In combination with other parts of the body, a cockatoo can indicate that it is defending it's territory, displaying for its mate, calling to the flock, defending the flock, expressing fear or frustration, telling the world "I'm Here", asking a question or just taking a stretch. Conversely a lowered crest may indicate approachability, friendliness and a number of other non threatening situations. As one observes the various postures and listens to any accompanying vocalizations, it soon becomes clear what each one means.

As a general rule of thumb, if a cockatoo has its crest raised, beware. Often it indicates that something is bothering the bird and an aggressive action may soon follow. To a pet owner this can be a nasty bite. As time passes, it becomes obvious when a raised crest is a warning or something friendly.

The look, color and size of cockatoo crests vary from species to species. They fall into two basic types, called recursive and recumbent. Some cockatoo species have crests which fit well within these categories, but many species have crests which are variations of the two basic types.

The Recursive Crest

2 major mitchells cockatoos raised, lowered crests The recursive crest is magnificent and truly something to be seen. Unlike the recumbent crests which consist of broad straight feathers, the recursive crest feathers are narrow and curved. When the crest is raised, the curved feathers become erect and appear to bend forward towards the front of the head. When the crest is lowered, the feathers lay back, one over the other, pointing towards the tail. The curved ends are slightly raised from the body, so even when at rest, the crest is a noticable feature. Three species of cockatoos boast these unusual crests: the Leadbeaters (Major Mitchell's), the Greater Sulphur Crested and the Lessor Sulphur Crested.

medium sluphur crested cockatoo, eleanora, lowered crest The crests of the sulphur crested cockatoos consist of mainly yellow feathers with a few white feathers in front. When the crest is lowered these form a white cap which partially covers the yellow feathers. This can be seen in the Eleanora Cockatoo on the left. The raised crest is shown on the Lessor Sulphur Crested below and on the right. The Citron's crest and cheek patches, seen below, are a more orange color.

2 sulphur crested cockatoos raised and lowered crests The recursive crest is found on all six sub-species of the Lessor Sulphur Crested: abbotti, citrinocristata (Citron), djampeana, occidentalis, parvula (Timor) and sulphurea (Lesser Sulphur Crested) as well as on all four sub-species of the Greater Sulphur Crested: galerita (Greater Sulphur Crested or GSC), eleonora (Eleonora, sometimes called Medium Sulphur Crested or MSC), fitzroyi and triton (Triton).

2 leadbeaters cockatoos raised and lowered crests
Most striking of all is the crest of the Leadbeater's or Major Mitchell's Cockatoo. The crest is white at the tips and pale pink at the base. There are three stripes of striking color in the center of each feather, a yellow band flanked by two bands of red, one on either side. These colors are easily visible, even when the crest is down.

The Recumbent Crest

moluccan cockatoo crest up The recumbent crest while not as glorious as the recursive, is still very striking, especially when multi-colored as on the Moluccan Cockatoo. Recumbent crests consist of broad straight feathers which, when raised, appear to open like an umbrella and fan out. When the crest is lowered, the feathers fold back, one over the other and the crest seems to disappear. Umbrella Cockatoos (White Cockatoos) and Moluccan Cockatoos (Salmon Crested) have the largest and fullest recumbent crests, while the Palm Cockatoo's is long and spiny. Most of the remaining cockatoo species have shorter, modified recumbent crests.

 moluccan cockatoo crest down
The Moluccan Cockatoo's crest consists of large, deep salmon/pink feathers with shorter pale salmon/pink feathers in the front. When erect the fanned out crest gives the bird an imposing image. The crest is so full, that even when lowered, the crest is evident and the large deeper colored feathers can be seen.

 u2 crest up front view
The crest of the Umbrella or White Cockatoo is as impressive in size as that of the Moluccan. The completely white feathers are long and wide, unfolding to form a large, wide adornment. When lowered, the crest feathers are held tightly against the head and the crest seems to disappear.

The crest of the Blue Eyed Cockatoo is similar to the Umbrella's in shape, but also contains some yellow inside the crest.

palm cockatoo crest up
The Palm Cockatoo is unique in many aspects, including its very long and abundant black crest. It is made up of many spiny, backward curving, feathers. The Palm is the largest of the cockatoos. Its long crest and large head combine to give this gentle bird an awkward appearance.

The Modified Recumbent and other Crests

goffins cockatoo crestsThe remaining species have crests varying from shorter recumbent to very short recumbent to mildly recursive.

The Goffins belongs to the shorter recumbent group, sporting a shorter, white recumbent crest. Others in this group are the Bare Eyed (Little Corella), Ducorps (pinkish color at the base of the crest), Red Vented (Phillipine)and Rose Breasted (Galah) Cockatoos.

slender billed cockatoo crests

The Slender Billed Cockatoo and some of the Black Cockatoos, such as the Black Funereal (Yellow Tailed), Banksian (Red Tailed Black), Glossy Black and White Tailed have very short crest feathers.

gang gang cockatoo crest

At the other end of the spectrum is the Gang Gang (Red Crowned or Helmeted Cockatoo) with a small, short crest. The reddish orange crest feathers are slightly curved, forming a mildly recursive crest, far short of the beauty seen in the Sulphurs and Major Mitchell's.

cockatiel crest

Included for comparison is a picture of the Cockatiel crest. Cockatiels are the small cousins of the Cockatoos and share many of their distinctive features. Cockatiel crests are mildly recursive.

Parrots and Related Birds by Henry Bates and Robert Busenbark

Photographs courtesy of: Moluccan with crest up by Lynne at Also Keyinfo Services, ABRC, Edward David Photography, Herschel Burgin and The Australian Birdkeeper Magazine.

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