Cockatoo cichlid care guide

The cockatoo cichlid (lat. Apistogramma cacatuoides) is one of the easiest dwarf cichlids to keep, however it’s not the most spread one among the aquarists. It’s difficult to tell why it happened so, – possibly it’s the order of the day now or it’s about the fact that this fish is higher priced. But it is likely to be about the fry color which is inconspicuous and which doesn’t hit the eye considering all the motley of the market.

Habitat in the wild

Apistogramma cacatuoides was first mentioned and described in 1951. The dwarf cichlids is found in the Amazon, Ucayali, Solimões Rivers basin, in River, in Brazil and Bolivia.

The cockatoo cichlid prefers small shallow streams or lagoon-like waters mainly in Amazon River tributaries. These can be different backwaters, springs and the bottom of these waters is covered with thick layer of leaves.

Depending on the season the water parameters may differ sufficiently, since the fallen leaves when rotting make the it more acidic and soft. Apistogramma cacatuoides are polygamous fish and live in harems which consist of alpha male and several females.

Scientific NameApistogramma cacatuoides
Common NamesCockatoo cichlid, cockatoo dwarf cichlid, cockatoo fish
Ease of keepingMedium
Lifespan5 years and more
Tank size200 liters (52 gallons) and more
Tank typeCommunity of fishes
Temperature75–81 °F (24–27 °C)
Water hardness9–20 dGH
SizeUp to 4 inches (10 cm)


A small bright fish with the body typical for dwarf cichlids. The cockatoo cichlid male is larger in size (up to 10 cm or 4 in) and the female is significantly smaller (reaching only 5 cm or 2 in). Cockatoo cichlid lifespan is about 5 years.

The male’s several first lines on the dorsal are longer then the others and they resemble a cockatoo’s crest that’s how cichlid got its name.

Color even in the wild can differ depending on the water where it lives, not to mention the fish that lives in aquarium. Now there are a lot of new cockatoo cichlid colors, for instance cockatoo cichlid double red. However, a picture is worth a thousand words.

One should mention that fish wild color is not that bright, but due to selective breeding the colors morfs are now much more pronounced. For example, there are:

  1. double full red
  2. red
  3. triple red
  4. orange

Difficulties in keeping

On the assumption that the aquarium has stable conditions they are good even for beginners. This fish adapts well and it eats different feed. Besides they are rather peaceful and not aggressive.

Just like all dwarf cichlids the cockatoo cichlid is good for community tank. The fish is small in size and it’s not an aggressive one so it even can be kept together with small tetras (Characinidae). Then again it’s a cichlid after all and still it will hunt fry and small prawns, therefore it’s better not to keep them together.

Care and keeping in a tank

Aquarium with capacity about 50 gallons is quite enough for this purpose. Fish prefer water with high content of dissolved oxygen and moderate flow. To create such conditions it’s necessary to use a filter rather an external one since the fish is sensitive to the level of ammonia in the water.

Not to mention a regular water change and aquarium bottom siphonage which are obligatory. Optimal maintenance parameters are: water temperature 75–81 °F (24–27 °C), ph: 6.0-7.8 , 5 – 19 dGH.

As for the décor it should be mentioned that dwarf cichlid look better on a dark background and it’s better to use send as a bottom.

Cockatoo cichlid prefers an aquarium tightly covered with plants, with scattered and not bright light. Lots of caves are necessary. Fish will protect them from the other aquarium inhabitants. It’s important to control water parameters and purity, since fish is very sensitive to the presence of ammonia and nitrates in the water.

It’s a must to add different kind of shelters into the aquarium – one for each cichlid female, plus they should be in different spots of aquarium for each female to have its own territory. They like aquarium with high number of plants, soft light and small amount of dry leaves in it.

Divide the aquarium into sections so that each would have its own shelter and belong to one female.


Cockatoo cichlid is omnivorous and in the wild it feeds with different insects that in a plenty live on the waters bottom in the fallen leaves. In the tank the fish eats all types of live, frozen and artificial feed. As for me, I use several different types of food, and change them from time to time.

Tank mates

Cockatoo cichlids are good to keep in a community tank. Not aggressive fish of equal size can be good tank mates. They can be kept both in pairs and in harems that consist of one male and 5-6 females. Note that it’s possible to have more then one male only in case when tank is rather spacious.

Characin species like the cardinal tetras and the black skirt tetra, Oto catfish and Corydoras like the pygmy cory, neon tetra, rummy-nose tetra, congo tetra, and discus, angelfish are acceptable tank mates.

Can feed on small prawns and fry since it’s still a cichlid even though a dwarf one.

Gender differences: male vs female

Cockatoo cichlid male are larger in size, they have first several rays of the dorsal fin extending and have a brighter coloring. The females are yellow and a bit pale in coloring.


Cockatoo cichlid are polygamous fish and live in harems which consist of alpha male and several females. Such a harem protects its area from everyone except alpha male.

They generally spawn up to 80 eggs. Since cichlids breed in caves they stick their eggs to the ceiling of a cave. After that the female takes care of the eggs whilst the male guards the territory.

So it’s important to put several types of covers — flowerpots, coconuts, bogwood are quite good for this purpose. The water in spawning pond does need to have a pH under 7.5 for the eggs to hatch.

Ideal conditions are pH of 6.8 to 7.2 or less, hardness of 10 or less and temperature of 78° to 84° F (26 to 29 °C). As a rule the more acidic and soft is the water, the more prolific they are.

To find a good cockatoo cichlid match we offer to buy 6 juveniles so they’ll grow together. During interbreeding process many species become sterile or have some spinal problems, so you’ll get one pair out of 6 fish or a harem if you are lucky.

While spawning the male will approach the female, curve his body, and display hos best colors to catch her attention.

Then the female lays up to 80 reddish eggs on the walls of her cave. The male fertilizes them. After that he leaves this cave to keep an eye on the outside area.

The female is left to care for the eggs. If there is a harem, the male will come to the “cave” of another female and fertilize her eggs.

It’s funny, that if there are several females they will tend to steal each others fry and add it to their school!

Depending on the water temperature it takes from 3 to 4 days for the eggs to hatch. Several days later the fry will be swimming. It was noticed, that if the water temperature is lower then 21°C most of the fry will be females, if it’s higher then 29° C, the majority will be males.

To a much less extent pH also plays a role in the gender of the fry. For successful fry growth it’s necessary for the tank parameters to be stable during the first three weeks.

The juveniles grow quickly and in a few weeks time they can be fed with nauplii, although powder, Vinegar eels and egg yolk are used as start feeding.