What Is the Thing on Top of a Cockatoo?

It's easy to tell when something has piqued a cockatoo's interest.
It's easy to tell when something has piqued a cockatoo's interest. (Image: Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

The cockatoo, a member of the parrot family, has a distinctive crown of feathers on top of his head. But this crown is no mere clutch of feathers. A cockatoo's head feathers or crest can tell you a lot about what he's thinking. You just have to know how to read his body language.


Cockatoo crests range in color from pale yellow or pink to bright orange or even black. And though they are beautiful, crests are actually a means of communication. If a cockatoo displays his crest feathers, he could be excited, defending his territory or trying to attract a mate. If he is also vocalizing, he may become aggressive and even bite. Conversely, if his crest is flat, he may be signaling approachability. Signals can be confusing for the novice cockatoo owner, and learning them takes time and patience.

Recursive Crests

Cockatoos have two main styles of crest, distinguishable by the type of feathers. Recursive crest feathers are narrow and curved in a way that makes them appear to arch forward when the crest is raised. When a cockatoo lowers his crest, the feathers lie one over the other and point towards his tail. But the curved ends remain slightly raised from the body. Only the Leadbeater's, greater sulphur crested and the lesser sulphur crested varieties have recursive crests.

Recumbent Crests

Recumbent crests have broad, straight feathers that bloom like umbrellas when raised. The way these feathers fan out gives white cockatoos their alternative name, umbrella cockatoos. Because the feathers are notably flat, the crest tends to disappear into the cockatoo's body when the crest is lowered. Recumbent crests also can be multicolored. Besides whites, the blue-eyed, Moluccan or salmon crested, and palm varieties boast recumbent crests.

Modified Crests

All varieties of cockatoo who lack either the fully recursive or fully recumbent crest have modified versions, ranging from short and recumbent to mildly recursive. Goffins, bare-eyeds, ducorps, red-venteds and rose-breasteds sport shorter, white recumbent crests. Slender-billeds, some black cockatoos and gang-gangs also have very short crest feathers, which come in various colors. Cockatiels, which are smaller cousins of cockatoos, sport crests that are are mildly recursive and can be white or colorful.

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