Cockatoo Cichlids: Intriguing and Colorful Swimmers

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton


Cockatoo Cichlids

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Named after the colorful pet bird with frilly feathers, cockatoo dwarf cichlids match their feathered namesakes with their exotic colors and impressive crested fins.

But while they may be alluring, cockatoo cichlids are not the ideal beginner’s fish, and won’t fit in any old community aquarium.

Their complex requirements and aggressive streak mean that this fish is best left to intermediate and advanced fish keepers only.

Cockatoo Cichlid at a Glance

Cockatoo Cichlids Info
Scientific NameApistogramma cacatuoides
Common NamesDwarf Cockatoo Cichlid, Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid, Cacatuoides Cichlid
Level of CareIntermediate - Advanced
Minimum Tank Size30 Gallons+
Tank MatesUpper-mid layer schooling fish
Temperature69°F to 75°F
Water pH5.5-8.0
Water Hardness5-28 dKH
BreedingBreeds readily, but becomes aggressive
Lifespan4-8 Years

Species Overview

Family Background: The Apistogramma Genus

The cockatoo cichlid is probably the most popular member of the Apistogramma tribe of South American cichlids. This fascinating family of aquarium fish has won a large following of advanced fish keepers who have been charmed by their good looks and intelligent character.

Its relatives include Apistogramma agassiz (Agassiz’s Dwarf Cichlid), Apistogramma borellii (Umbrella dwarf cichlid), and Apistogramma Macmasteri.

While the cockatoo cichlid is often regarded as the easiest to keep of all Apistogramma, they still demand skillful, dedicated care and are not well suited to beginners.

If you’ve never kept cichlids before, be sure to get some experience with easier species like kribensis, ram cichlids, or blue acaras before trying any Apistogramma cichlid.

Origin & Natural Habitat

Cockatoo cichlids hail from the Rio Ucayali and Rio Solimoes rivers and surrounding lakes and pools in the Amazon rainforests of Peru, Colombia, and Brazil.

These headwaters of the Amazon River have highly variable water conditions through the seasons, meaning the fish that live here must be remarkably adaptable!

While South American cichlids are typically associated with warm temperatures and soft, acidic water, the cockatoo dwarf cichlid can handle a wide range of water parameters and tend to do best in cooler water.

Size and Appearance

Cockatoo cichlids are marvelous-looking fish with flashy colors and spectacular fins. Decades of domestic breeding have produced varieties with striking red, orange, and gold coloration.

Cockatoo cichlids earned their name from their huge erect dorsal fins that they fan rather like the popular pet bird.

Male cockatoo cichlids grow larger than females and can sometimes reach 3.5 inches in length.

Color Variations

Since the 1950s when these fish first hit the aquarium scene, people have been breeding new strains with especially vivid color variations.

The results are some spectacular-looking forms including double yellow, double orange, double red, and triple red types. Gold, white gold, orange flash, and ‘albino’ forms are also on the market.

Cockatoo Cichlid Care Guide

Tank Size

Cockatoo cichlids are intelligent, interactive fish that should never be kept alone. At the same time, males should never be kept together because they can fight to the death.

The most popular way to keep cockatoo cichlids is either as a single male-female pair or one male with several females. Because they’re highly territorial fish, they need a large enough tank to live together in harmony.

A single pair could conceivably be kept in a species-only 30-gallon tank. They do better, however, when kept with schooling fish that help them to feel safe and come out into the open. This sort of community tank should be at least 55 gallons to prevent aggression issues.

One male kept with several females deserves at least a 75-gallon aquarium with plenty of hiding places.

Tank Environment

Cockatoo cichlids will be happiest when you replicate their natural habitat within your fish tank.

Most people opt to keep cockatoo cichlids in a well-planted tank with plenty of rocky caves for them to hide in.

Because these fish like to dig in the substrate, aquarium plants need to be tough, vigorous species that don’t mind occasional disturbance. Java fern, Java moss, Amazon Sword, Anacharis, Anubias, Crypts, and Vallisneria are all easy plants that should survive the ravages of most cockatoo cichlids!

Floating plants like Amazon frogbit and Water sprite won’t be affected by the digging habits of these ‘earth eaters’ and will also provide some welcome dappled shade that will benefit this rainforest species.


Cockatoo cichlids can be kept with either a sand or gravel substrate, and there are pros and cons of each.

Advanced aquarists often prefer a sand substrate because it closely resembles the cockatoo cichlid’s natural habitat. It makes digging much easier for these fish who would naturally feed by sifting mud and sand through their gills to pick out pieces of food.

On the other hand, sand is more difficult to clean, can get stuck in aquarium filters, and is less conducive to vigorous plant root growth.

For many fish keepers, fine gravel may be a good compromise, as it’s easier to maintain while still small enough to allow the fish to dig somewhat.

Water Temperature

There is a lot of contrasting information about the proper water temperature for cockatoo cichlids.

These adaptable fish seem to be able to tolerate an amazingly wide range of temperatures, but experienced cockatoo cichlid specialists suggest they prefer cooler temperatures and may not even require an aquarium heater!

This is surprising advice for any South American cichlid species, so I would still advise keeping them with a reliable aquarium heater at between 72-74°F.

Although they’re often kept in warmer water, some experts suggest that this could limit their lifespan.

Water Parameters

As mentioned earlier, cockatoo cichlids can handle a remarkable range of water parameters and are one of the few cichlids from South America that can tolerate hard water as well as soft water (as opposed to African cichlids which prefer alkaline conditions).

A pH of between 5.5 – 8 and a dGH between 5-28 dGH should be well within the acceptable range for this fish.


Cockatoo cichlids need clean water with a low level of organic solids to remain healthy, so an efficient aquarium filter is essential.

Hang-on-back filters and internal power filters are good options for small and medium-sized tanks, but for larger aquariums of more than 70-80 gallons in volume, consider a canister filter.

Because they come from slow-moving rivers, cockatoo cichlids can get stressed by strong filter output. To reduce the water current without compromising the filter’s efficiency, I recommend using an aquarium spray bar, or lily pipe.


While a few people have reported their cockatoo cichlids are fussy eaters and will only eat live or frozen foods, most fish keepers feed them on commercially dried foods without difficulty.

But because they’re primarily carnivorous fish in the wild, dried fish foods should always be supplemented with high-protein fresh and frozen foods such as bloodworms, tubifex worms, daphnia, brine shrimp, and mosquito larvae. Occasional helpings of vegetable foods like blanched spinach, dandelion leaves, nori flakes, or spirulina wafers may also be appreciated.

As usual, feed your fish twice a day, with no more than they can eat in 2 minutes to avoid water quality issues and health problems.


Cockatoo cichlids are small but fairly aggressive cichlids that are highly territorial towards one another and other bottom-dwelling fish. Compared to other popular apistogrammas, cockatoo cichlids are generally more aggressive than E.borellii, but more peaceful fish than E.agassiz.

The larger males are particularly feisty fish and have been known to kill one another when kept in the same aquarium. Females are also highly aggressive fish at breeding time and may even expel the male from her territory after mating. Females, however, tend to guard a much smaller territory than males.

Different Tank Setups and Tank Mates

Cockatoo Cichlids in a Pair

Cockatoo Cichlids

If it’s your first time keeping cockatoo cichlids, I’d highly recommend starting with a single male-female pair to avoid the trouble with aggression that can happen in a group.

When kept as a pair, cockatoos will normally mate and spawn. The female will then become extremely protective of the eggs and young, and attack any fish that come near her cave.

Some robust schooling fish in the middle to upper layers of the water, however, can help these cichlids feel safer and less aggressive towards one another.

Cockatoo Cichlids in a Group

Advanced cichlid specialists sometimes keep cockatoo cichlids in a group with one male and several females. Unlike many other cichlids, these fish are not monogamous and a single male may mate with several females.

Multiple broods can sometimes work in a large aquarium, as long as each female is given at least one cave and one foot of tank length to raise her fry. Each situation is unique, however, so you need to have a spare tank on hand to move any troublesome females and fry if aggressive fights begin to break out.

Compatible Tank Mates

The best tank mates for cockatoo cichlids are mid-upper layer dither fish.

Robust tetras, barbs, danios, livebearers, and rasboras make good choices but think carefully. While swordtails, platies, and black skirt tetra are large enough to fend for themselves, more fragile fish like guppies and ember tetra may get targeted by cichlids that are in a bad mood.

Other dwarf cichlid species can be problematic when kept alongside cockatoos as the different species vie for similar territories.

Likewise, bottom dwellers like corydoras catfish, plecos, and loaches may receive severe reprimands from cockatoo cichlids when they enter their territory, so are best avoided.

If you’re looking for an algae eater to help keep the tank clean, robust aquarium snails like nerite snails are probably the best choice. Aquarium shrimp species such as cherry shrimp will simply get eaten!

Health and Disease

Cockatoo cichlids demand excellent water quality and may develop health problems and diseases if water conditions deteriorate or they become stressed.

Ich, velvet, and flukes are all common parasitic diseases that can lie dormant in an aquarium for years until a weakened fish or very poor water quality offers them a chance to strike.

Similarly, bacterial and fungal infections like columnaris and water molds only tend to affect fish that are already in a vulnerable state.

Keeping cockatoo cichlids in a large enough tank, with plenty of hiding places and clean water, is the best defense against stress and unnecessary diseases.

Sexual Dimorphism

While sexually mature cockatoo cichlids are easy to tell apart, young fish can be easily mixed up. It’s not unusual for hobbyists to be sold a ‘male-female pair’ only to later discover that both fish are either male or female.

As they mature males grow larger than females, with larger and more pointed multi-colored fins. The smaller female fish tend to have bright lemon-yellow bodies and a horizontal black band that becomes more pronounced at breeding time.


Cockatoo cichlids generally need little encouragement to breed in captivity, so you need to be prepared for spawning and the aggressive behavior that will ensue!

  • Cockatoo cichlids are cave spawners so appropriate caves need to be formed before courtship commences.
  • When approaching breeding condition, both males and females display bright colors.
  • The male may chase the female around prior to mating, but once the eggs are fertilized, the female may turn the tables and attack the male if he approaches her cave.
  • Eggs hatch in 3-4 days and the female will lead the fry out of the cave in a further 4-5 days.
  • The fry should be raised on baby brine shrimp and microworms.
  • The female will continue to defend her young vigilantly until they’re independent, at which point she may actively chase them away from her territory!
  • If your pair of cockatoo cichlids is showing little interest in breeding, you can try conditioning them on live foods.
  • To learn more about breeding these fascinating fish, check out this video which goes into greater depth.


Cockatoo cichlids typically live for between 3-5 years in captivity, but even 10 years may be attainable by advanced aquarists with some prior experience in keeping similar cichlids.

For them to reach their maximum lifespan, their diet, water quality, and quality of care must be of the highest order.

Tank Maintenance

Some top tips for keeping your Cockatoo Cichlid in tip-top condition!

Buying Guide

Cockatoo cichlids are becoming increasingly popular but are not yet found in every pet store. Larger aquarium stores and online outlets are good places to find these specialist fish.

If you’re buying your fish from a store, only choose active individuals, with bright colors, shiny eyes, and healthy-looking fins. If you’re buying online, always check reviews to ensure the site’s integrity.

Cockatoo cichlids typically sell for between $15-$50 each in 2023, depending on their size and coloration.

Final Thoughts

Cockatoo cichlids are some of the most fascinating and beautiful dwarf cichlids in the world.

Even so, their care requirements and aggressive behavior mean they should only be kept by intermediate to advanced hobbyists who already have some experience with keeping cichlids.

If you’ve never kept cichlids before, I’d recommend trying easier species like kribensis or Bolivian ram cichlids before attempting any member of the Apistogramma family.

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