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Choosing a Cockatiel

By: Dr. Susan Clubb

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Cockatiels, with their sweet dispositions, soft voices and graceful appearance, make ideal pets for people of all ages. These birds have been domesticated for more than 100 years. They have been carefully selected over many generations for qualities that make them exceptional companion animals. They are an ideal size for a companion bird: 11 to 12 inches long.

They can be taught to speak in soft, squeaky voices, but their main vocal talent is whistling and they quickly learn to mimic tunes. Males have a courtship song they sing while doing a shuffling dance to win their chosen hen.

While they are often thought of as miniature cockatoos, cockatiels are actually the only representative of a distinct genus. They range widely throughout Australia and are commonly found in large flocks, mostly in arid and semi-arid areas. They are nomadic and seasonal, following rains and the availability of food in flocks of up to 1,000 birds and feeding primarily on grass and tree seeds; occasionally they are crop pests.

Cockatiels, known by the scientific name Nymphicus hollandicus, are readily available and are usually modestly priced – about $45 – although some color mutations may be quite expensive. Cockatiels occasionally live to 20 years, but the typical life span is around 15.

Appearance

When buying a cockatiel, make sure you buy a young bird. They will have dark, almost black eyes but the eye color of normal adults is dark brown also. In young birds, the orange cheek patch will be less prominent and they are usually a little smaller than those that are fully-grown.

The wild type of gray cockatiel is a sleek, elegant bird with a stately posture, erect crest – which is raised even higher when the bird is alert – and long, tapered tail. They are a soft, powdery gray. Both sexes have a round orange ear patch, but males also have a large bright yellow cheek patch edged in white that covers the face and extends up into the crest. Both sexes also have a white wing bar visible in flight. The beak is gray and the eyes are brown.

Color Varieties

  • Lutino. A mostly white bird with a bright yellow cast. This mutation retains the orange cheek patch of the wild gray type and has black eyes. Lutinos often have an inherited bald spot. They are also prone to night fright and fatty liver syndrome.

  • Albino. A true albino is totally white and has red eyes. These birds tend to be less hardy than gray cockatiels. In order to keep offspring strong, albinos should not be bred together.

  • Cinnamon. The body color is a soft cinnamon color, but otherwise the bird is colored like a gray. A similar mutation called fallow is a lighter beige color; these birds, like albinos, have red eyes.

  • White face. This mutation has lost the yellow and orange coloration on the face as well as the yellowish cast to the body feathers.

  • Pied. Pied cockatiels have lost pigmentation in blotches scattered around the body.

  • Pearl. The covert feathers of the wings each have a spot which makes the bird appear to be spotted. Both sexes will be spotted as juveniles, but males will resemble normal grays after they molt into their adult plumage.

    Grooming

    Cockatiels are skilled fliers and need to have more feathers clipped than do heavier-bodied birds. Clip all the primary feathers (outside 10 flight feathers) and two to three secondary flight feathers (10 flight feathers closest to the body). Do not clip the inner secondary feathers closest to the body. For best results, both wings should be clipped evenly.

    Many people keep their bird full-flighted; if you choose to do so, keep in mind the possibility of accidents (often associated with ceiling fans, pots on the stove, etc.) and escapes.

    Cockatiels have special feathers, called powder down, that produce a powder that cleans the feathers. This may be a problem for people with allergies. Bathing the bird frequently will help to control it. The birds enjoy baths and should be bathed twice weekly to maintain excellent plumage.

    Overgrown nails can be a hazard; clip them with fingernail clippers, watching for the quick (vein) inside the nail. Most cockatiels' nails are white and the vein can be seen easily.

    Feeding

    Cockatiels can live on a seed diet alone but will eventually develop nutritional deficiencies, especially if breeding. Feeding only a pelleted diet to cockatiels often results in kidney problems as the bird ages. The best way to feed cockatiels is to mix a pelleted food made for cockatiels, half and half, with a good clean cockatiel seed mix, which is relatively low in sunflower.

    Cockatiels are reluctant to accept new foods and will accept few fruits and vegetables. They do tend to enjoy whole wheat bread, grated carrots, boiled eggs and shredded greens, and these items are an excellent supplement for breeding birds. They will often eat apples and love broccoli. However broccoli should not be fed daily because of its oxalic acid content, which can lead to kidney and calcium metabolism problems. Grit should not be offered. Vitamins and minerals should be supplemented if more than 50 percent of the diet is seed.

    Housing

    Cockatiels should be given plenty of room to move. Cage size should be at least 20 to 24 inches square. They should have at least two perches far enough apart to jump or fly between. Natural branches make ideal perches as well as chewing material. Don't use sandpaper perch covers as they are very abrasive to the feet. A small rope perch is also fun. Toys should be supplied to keep the cockatiel busy.

    The cage should be placed so it is not directly below an air conditioning vent, or in direct sunlight, but it should be in an area of the house where there is much activity. Cockatiels are very social and like to be the center of attention. If you keep your cockatiel in the kitchen, always be aware of the dangers of Teflon poisoning (from overheating), cleaning chemicals and oven cleaners.

    Breeding

    Cockatiels can breed when 1 1/2 years old. They will breed almost year-round but should be made to rest so they do not become exhausted. If they are bred outdoors, they should rest in the summer because the chicks don't tolerate heat well and will have health problems, especially the weaker mutations.

    The breeding cage for a pair can be 2 feet by 2 feet by 3 feet long with a nest box hung on the outside. The nest box should be approximately 8 inches by 8 inches by 10 inches tall and should have approximately 2 inches of pine shaving as bedding. The hen can lay three to eight eggs but usually four to five. Incubation period is 21 days.

    Both parents share in caring for the young and they are ready to fledge (emerge from the box) when they are 6 weeks old.

    If you have several pairs you can reduce the burden on a single hen by moving eggs or chicks between nests. It is best to have a hen raise only four chicks. Chicks fledge at 4 to 5 weeks and if allowed will stay with the parents for another month. When hand-fed, chicks wean at 6 to 7 weeks. If you choose to hand-feed your chicks, it's best to leave them with the parents until they are about 3 weeks old. At that age they can be fed hand-rearing formula three to four times daily.

    Common Diseases and Disorders

    Cockatiels are relatively healthy birds but are susceptible to the following:

  • Psittacosis or parrot fever
  • Polyoma virus
  • Psittacine beak and feather disease
  • Protozoal
  • Liver disease
  • Bacterial infections
  • Bordetella avium
  • Yeast
  • Internal parasites
  • Excessive egg laying
  • Calcium deficiency
  • Traumatic accidents and accidental poisonings

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