Choosing a Cockatiel

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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.

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