Cockatoo vs Macaw: How are they different?

Most Colorful Animals: Scarlet Macaw
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Written by Colby Maxwell

Published: April 21, 2022

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Whether you are considering a bird for a pet or are simply researching beautiful birds, cockatoos and macaws are sure to be on your list! While these birds are amazing, they are similar in a few ways and quite unique in others. Differentiating them is easy, but what else sets them apart? Let’s compare the Cockatoo vs Macaw and see what we can discover.

Comparing a Cockatoo and a Macaw

Macaws are bigger than Cockatoos.
SizeUsually between 12 and 24 in.Usually between 2-3 feet long.
DistributionAustralasia (Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands)Central and South America.
HabitatVaries widely. Includes forests, mangroves, rainforests, and urban areas.Forests and rainforests, but some species are found in woodlands and fields.
DanderHas dander. Can trigger pet allergies.No dander.
Ease of careDifficult to care for. Needy, prone to biting. Not recommended for beginners.

Cockatiels are the exception here.
Somewhat difficult to care for due to size. Less needy, but still not an easy bird to care for.
A list of common speciesUmbrella, sulfur-crested, lesser sulfur-crested, and Moluccan cockatoo.Blue and gold macaw, green-winged macaw, Hybrid macaw, Hyacinth macaw

The 5 main differences between a cockatoo and a macaw

The main difference between a cockatoo and a macaw is that cockatoos are smaller, generally harder to care for, and are native to Australia and Asia. Macaws are usually larger, a bit easier to care for, and are native to Central and South America.

Both the cockatoo and macaw are members of the Psittaciformes order. The Psittaciformes order, commonly referred to as parrots, is split into three groups. Cockatoos are a grouping of birds (there isn’t a single “cockatoo” species) that includes 21 species. Macaws are also a group of birds with 17 listed species.

While keeping a bird as a pet can be a rewarding experience, the cockatoo and macaw aren’t renowned for their ease of care. They are larger birds (although the macaw is larger) with special needs due to their intelligence and habits. Still, they are relatively popular options as pets.

Although these groups of birds are similar, they aren’t the same! Let’s explore what makes them different in some detail below.

Cockatoo vs Macaw: Size

Cockatoo vs Macaw

Cockatoos are quite a bit smaller than most species of macaw.


The cockatoo isn’t a small bird by any means, but it is almost always smaller than the macaw. Most cockatoos are 12-24 inches in length, although the newest addition to the family, the cockatiel, is much smaller. The average cockatoo weighs between 10-30 ounces, depending on the species.

Macaws are large birds overall and the largest pet birds commonly kept. Most macaws are between 2-4 feet in length and weigh up to 4 lbs. The largest species of macaw is the Hyacinth macaw and the smallest species is the Hahn’s macaw.

Cockatoo vs Macaw: Distribution

Cockatoo vs Macaw

Macaws are native to Central and South America.

© Trade

The distribution of these two birds is one of the defining characteristics that set them apart. Cockatoos are native to “Australasia,” a region that includes Australia, a few places in Asia, and some other islands in the Pacific. You can find cockatoos in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and on a few Pacific islands in the region. With how many species of cockatoo there are, many of their native ranges don’t intersect with other members of the group.

Macaws are native to Central and South America, making them a New World parrot. They are quite widespread and can be found in Mexico, almost all of South America, and they used to have a native range in the Caribbean. With habitat loss, these birds have a shrinking range, with many species going extinct in recent years.

Cockatoo vs Macaw: Habitat

Cockatoo vs Macaw

Cockatoos live in all sorts of habitats.

©Gabriela Beres/

Cockatoos inhabit a region with a large variety of habitats. As a result, different species of cockatoo live in different habitats. The cockatiel and galah are two of the most widespread members and can be found in open areas with grasslands and sparse plains. Other species, the red-vented cockatoo, for example, lives in the mangroves of Asia. Across all 21 species, almost all types of habitat have at least one species of cockatoo that is native.

Macaws are a bit less diverse when it comes to their habitat. Most species of macaw live in dense jungles or rainforests. In fact, many people associate the rainforests of South America with the macaw due to popular media. Still, there are a few species of macaw that live in the grasslands and forests of South America.

Cockatoo vs Macaw: Dander

Cockatoo vs Macaw

Cockatoos have powdery dander that some may be allergic to.

©Martin Pelanek/

One of the biggest factors when considering a pet is allergies. Although it’s not widely known, many species of bird release dander that can irritate people with allergies. The cockatoo is an example of a bird that releases lots of dander. In fact, rubbing a hand through the feathers of a cockatoo can result in white dust visible on the hand. For anyone with a bird allergy, this dander is a no-go.

Macaws are known as hypo-allergenic birds and don’t have dander. When considering them as pets, this is often a factor that sensitive individuals heavily weigh. Getting a bird when you have allergies can be a truly miserable experience.

Cockatoo vs Macaw: Ease of care

Cockatoo vs Macaw

Cockatoos and macaws are both known for being tougher than other birds to care for.

©Vaclav Matous/

To be clear, birds are not generally known to be easy pets. With that in mind, cockatoos are especially known not to be easy to care for. They are regarded as needy, vocal birds that need constant attention and care. If not properly handled and stimulated, they are known to bite and self-mutilate. Still, people own them as pets, and they can make a one-of-a-kind companion for anyone looking for something exotic. The one exception to the overall difficulty of cockatoo care is the cockatiel. They are widely regarded as some of the best birds for first-timers and are smaller and friendlier than most cockatoo species.

Macaws aren’t easy birds to care for either, but most owners lean towards them being easier than cockatoos. The greatest difficulty when caring for these birds is their size and intelligence. Big birds need lots of space, and with some macaws being nearly 4 feet long, apartment living isn’t ideal for many macaws. Outside of that, they are known to be loving, caring birds when properly socialized and handled.

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About the Author

Colby is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering outdoors, unique animal stories, and science news. Colby has been writing about science news and animals for five years and holds a bachelor's degree from SEU. A resident of NYC, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone about what birds he saw at his local birdfeeder.

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