COCKATIELS - ALWAYS FAVORITES

by Linda Greeson

Except for the Budgerigar, the Cockatiel is generally rated as the most popular and widely kept of the approximately 340 species of the order of psittacine birds. They are a hardier bird than their rival for this position, the Budgie, and have a life span of 15 to 20 years versus the Budgies 7 to 8 years.

Cockatiels are gentle and sociable by nature and have pert, bright personalities. They are generally cheerful, happy birds rapidly becoming devoted to the owner who cares for them. They pick up words and phrases quickly and especially love to whistle. Their speech may not be as clear as that of the larger birds, but they are by comparison much less expensive to buy and to maintain. Cockatiels make ideal first time pets, for both children and adults.

For the breeder, especially for those just starting this experience, the choice of Cockatiels is an excellent one. Even though for many years we have bred large numbers of the more impressive exotic birds in our aviaries, our prolific Cockatiels can always be depended on to pay the feed bills.

More important than the financial return, I have found that the study involved each year in making the right decisions in setting up breeding pairs to be all absorbing. When the choices I have made result in larger and more perfect birds this hobby almost becomes an addiction. Having one of your own baby birds grow up to make the top bench at a bird show is thrilling beyond words. Each win inspires one to greater concentration on producing even better specimens each following year.

GENERAL INFORMATION

The Cockatiel has been well established in European aviaries for well over 100 years and can now be found in every country where birds are bred. It is not known exactly when they were first imported but they are recorded as first being bred in captivity as long ago as 1845. It is said that they became popular as pets about forty years after this.

The name "Cockatiel" is thought to be an English adaptation of a Dutch sailor's pronunciation of the Portuguese word "Cacatitho", meaning a little cockatoo. The scientific name, Nymphicus hollandicus has been in general use since the 1950's. In Australia they are called Quarrion. Although the original breeding was done in Europe, at present there are a larger number of Cockatiel fanciers here in the United States. Birds from American aviaries are considered far superior to the Europeans' in both size and health. The first mutations were developed in our country, so we really can take credit for the superior Cockatiel of today.

Some Orthinologists believe that the Cockatiel is really a Cockatoo which in the process of evolution remained behind in size and came to look more like a parakeet than a "true parrot". It also shows some characteristics of the Rosella species although in its living habits it more strongly resembles the Cockatoo.

In Australia where these birds are very numerous in the wild they are found in almost the entire continent excepting those areas nearest the coast. Here they usually live in pairs or in small groups of four to twelve birds. Only rarely have large groups of several hundred been noted. They often migrate from one feeding ground to another. It is only when the ripening grasses offer them sufficient food to signal the start of their breeding season that they remain in one area for any length of time. In the arid outback of Australia the availability of water often determines their wandering pattern.

Their nests are usually found in a hole or hollow in a thick, moldy branch or trunk of a dead tree. They are clever about strategically placing their nests to provide a position with a good lookout for possible predators. They are often found nesting in the same trees with Budgies and Cockatoos. They lay their eggs on a bed of decayed wood or wood chips placed in the bottom of their saucer shaped nesting hole. In the wild they eat seeds, leaves, bark, fruits and berries.

It is interesting to observe the instincts from the wild state still apparent in our domesticated birds. In my Mother's cockatiel aviary only one pair of birds had their breeding cage located so they could see her approaching the aviary across the lawn. This pair invariably signaled the rest of the birds of her approach with loud cries. Before she reached the door to the aviary the whole flock was calling out to her, knowing that she was the bearer of food.

After a rainy season the grasses in Australia grow quite tall. The movement of the grasses caused by the birds feeding on the ground is a signal of their presence to their enemies. Because of this as a defense they routinely fly upward in a quick flight. They are easily the fastest flyers of all the Australian parrots. The torpedo shaped body and the long, slim, well muscled wings makes rapid flight possible. When the wild bird decides to return to the ground his descent is rapid and in a perpendicular line. He seems to fall to the ground like a stone. Only when a few yards from the ground does he spread his tail and wings, using them like the flaps on an airplane. We notice that in the large walk in flights where our resting birds are housed these flight habits still persist.

Because of this remarkable flying ability it is important for the owner of a pet cockatiel to keep the wings well clipped. Failure to do so can result in serious injury or even loss of your bird. Inside they may crash into windows, mirrors, or fans. Outside they well may have flown completely out of sight before you can take any action. They cannot be depended on to return to the owner, no matter how tame.

COMMON COLOR MUTATIONS

NORMAL GRAY- The normal gray is the forefather of all the many mutations which have been developed. As in all color mutations, there are three shades of the basic color. In the gray the range is from almost black, through medium gray, to a very pale gray. All normals and mutations except the Whiteface and the new Yellow Face have deep orange cheek patches, the males developing a yellow face at maturity. The crest in the male is entirely yellow, tipped with gray. In the mature female it is usually all gray. Both sexes have a narrow band of white along each wing. Normal gray is dominant over most of the mutation colors. Many birds who appear normal are "split" for one or many mutation colors and may produce offspring from any of the mutations whose genes it carries.

CINNAMON - Is similar to the normal with gray areas replaced by tan to cinnamon brown color.

LUTINO - has a yellow face and crest and orange cheek patches. The remainder of the plumage is white with some underlying of a pale or deep yellow.

FALLOW - The body color is a very pale cinnamon with a heavy yellow wash, the face yellow, and the eyes red.

RECESSIVE SILVER - The plumage is a light, silvery gray, the eyes red. The females are darker, almost a cinnamon color, and also have red eyes.

WHITE-FACED - Resembles the normal very dark gray with lighter gray and white markings. There are no orange cheek patches and no yellow appears in the plumage. All of the Pearl Cinnamon, and Pied mutations are found in the Whiteface. NORMAL PIED - This bird is a striking combination of yellow or white with light or dark gray. The amounts and placement of the colors varies widely. Even, symmetrical markings are desirable.

CINNAMON PIED - A combination of cinnamon brown and yellow, again varying in intensity of color and placement of markings.

PEARL - There are many variations of the Pearl mutation. In the normal the pearled feathers are yellow or white, edged with gray, with a small area of gray in the center of each feather. This gives an attractive, scalloped or lacey effect. The areas of plumage most effected are the neck, mantel, and wings, sometimes the upper breast but usually not on the tail.

CINNAMON PEARL - The pearled feathers are yellow, edged with the various shades of cinnamon.

LUTINO PEARL - The plumage is white with yellow pearling. PEARL PIED - The colors are the same as the pied with the pearling only on portions of the wings. The bird is clear yellow or white with areas of gray over the rest of the body. CINNAMON PEARL PIED - Similar to the Pearl Pieds with cinnamon brown over areas that would otherwise be gray.

The production of Cockatiel mutations is really still in its infancy. Many new mutations are now in the process of being developed. The Yellow Faced cock with yellow cheek patches and retaining all the other yellow coloration of the normal gray is an established new mutation. I have seen an orange crested cock with the deep orange gold of the cheek patch extending into the face and crest. The expectation of producing yet another and more beautiful mutation is one of the things that makes breeding Cockatiels an even more exciting hobby.

Because selective breeding is being practiced by so many Cockatiel enthusiasts the average size of this bird has changed. Five to six years ago I was excited when one of my best birds tipped the scale at 125 Grams. Now I consider this size pet quality, although the average pet store bird averages only 90 to 100 Grams. Show quality is now considered to be in the 130 to 150 Gram range. Some of my better birds exceed 200 Grams. This is not the weight of a fat bird. These birds are large, broad chested, long birds, not fat birds. Big birds are bred, not fed.

The American Cockatiel Society standard for length is 18 inches, but we have not yet met this ideal. The average show bird is now 14 to 15 inches in length, and the pet quality bird an inch or two shorter.

COCKATIELS AS PETS

The Cockatiel is an ideal selection for the first time pet owner. In comparison to other exotic birds the initial investment is small and the return in satisfaction is large.

They are characteristically cheerful, happy birds, never moody or demanding. Their whistle is soft and their gentle, sensitive natures make them a good choice for youngsters.

In order to be readily tamed the cockatiel should be taken into the home situation when very young. A hand fed baby, just weaned, will rapidly adjust to its new surroundings and be completely relaxed with the new owner in a matter of days. Hopefully, in the hand feeding and weaning process the bird has been taught to sample a variety of foods and has been sufficiently handled by humans to develop trust and confidence.

The minimum size cage for a Cockatiel who has the opportunity for frequent exercise outside his cage is 18 inches x 18 inches x 18 inches. This allows room for flapping of the wings and moving about. If the bird is to be generally confined to the cage a minimum of 36 inches in length, 18 inches in width, and 24 inches in height allows sufficient room for more exercise. For the bird's safety the bars should be no more than three quarters of an inch apart. They should run horizontally across the front and back for ease in climbing. Bars on curved portions of a cage should not converge. At the narrowest point there should be adequate space to prevent trapping of toes or beak. Add a swing and a few brightly colored toys and your bird will have a happy home.

DIET

Good nutrition is an all important factor in maintaining your bird's health. We rely mainly on pelleted foods. With these we know that with each morsel of food the bird consumes there is a perfect balance of all the nutrients, vitamins. and minerals that he requires. Some pet owners and breeders prefer to feed various seed mixtures formulated for Cockatiels. These have the disadvantage of allowing the bird to select his favorites, resulting in the daily discarding of a good portion of the food that is required for a balanced diet.

If you elect to feed seed check the label to be sure  that it contains a variety of seeds including millet, hemp, oats, safflower, canary, and sunflower. Buy fresh seed and store in a moisture proof container, preferably in the refrigerator. With a seed diet additional foods should be added daily. Most Cockatiels will not eat new foods offered them at first, but persistence pays off. One inch pieces of corn on the cob, raw spinach, endive, small pieces of carrot, halved grapes, small pieces of apple, all provide good nutrition.

Our birds enjoy frequent treats - greens in all acceptable forms, corn muffins, whole wheat bread, etc. Canned kernel type corn is a special favorite and a spray of millet is always pounced on with joy.

Actually, a cockatiel can eat almost anything its humans do, and the foods that supply good nutrition are basically the same for both. Any food containing salt, sugar, or fat should be limited to very tiny portions at rare intervals. Alcohol and caffeine wreck havoc with your birds rapid metabolic rate. It is advisable not to share your morning coffee or your evening glass of wine. Chocolate is especially to be avoided and avocado in any amount can be poisonous.

Fresh clean water must be available at all times. Keep drinking containers clean and change water frequently.

Because the Exact pelleted food we use to supply 90% or more of our birds' diet supplies optimum amounts of minerals and vitamins, we use no supplements or additives. When an exclusive pelleted diet is fully supplemented when it is manufactured, the addition of additives can be considered an overdose and can be harmful.

When the diet consists of only a small portion of pellets and the rest seeds and various vegetables and fruits, a proportionate amount of additives is indicated. The dosage can be determined by considering the portion of the diet which is not pelleted food. Use care not to over dose - read labels and compute amounts carefully. The type of additive which is sprinkled on top of fruits, vegetables, and sprouts is preferred. Adding liquids which are usually sweetened to the drinking water results in increased bacterial growth and contamination of the water. Having cuttlebone and a mineral block available will provide calcium and minerals and a needed workout for the beak. Grit is no longer generally used and limited to the water soluble type in small amounts if it is.

BREEDING COCKATIELS

For the novice breeder, embarking on a new hobby, there is no better way to start than with a few pairs of Cockatiels. With only an occasional exception, given sufficient time together, they will readily accept new mates. Given satisfactory breeding conditions they are quite prolific. Although there is considerable variation an average for one pair is eight young yearly. We limit our birds to two clutches followed by a long rest period.

We set our breeding birds up in cages 24 inches wide, 48 inches deep, and 36 inches high. We build these ourselves. Resting and maturing birds are housed in three feet by three feet by six feet flight cages. We use standard Cockatiel nest boxes, 12 x 12 x 12 inches, the bottom covered by a two to three inch layer of pine shavings mixed with a small amount of 5% Sevin powder to discourage mites and insects.

We use shallow, flat water dishes in the breeding cages as moisture is all important in incubating the eggs. You will observe your sitting birds squatting in the water dishes, soaking their breast feathers before returning to the nest.

MATING

Prior to mating the cock is very vocal. He will fly back and forth in the cage, persistently repeating a high pitched, loud call. He will perch before the female with wings pulled away from his body, his crest lowered, twisting his head from side to side. Every now and then he will give a little jump as he calls, following his prospective mate closely.

The hen solicits mating by lowering herself on the perch with her tail elevated. She does this as the male courts her with song and as he then steps directly on to her back. The actual pairing takes some time, the male's tail tucked under the female's as they rub their vents together. The female utters a continual "chittering" noise as long as copulation is taking place.

Mating usually precedes egg production by one week and often continues at intervals while the eggs are being laid. One mating is sufficient however to fertilize the hen's eggs for thirty days. Stable and steady perches must be provided for successful copulation to take place. The number of matings has no effect on the number of eggs laid.

The cock usually spends considerable time going in and out of the nest box prior to the hen's entering, presumably to ensure her safety. When he is satisfied that all is well he invites his mate into the box. The hen then starts a process known as brooding - spending a great deal of time in the box for three to four days before laying her first egg.

The usual pattern is for an egg to be produced every other day for a total of five to six eggs. There can be a great variation in this number. Some pairs consistently lay only two or three; others keep on putting out eggs like little machines for a total of twelve or more. Egg production is heavily influenced by both diet and heredity.

As soon as the first chicks start hatching we keep the parents supplied with soft foods in addition to their regular diet. Most Cockatiels make devoted parents. They work very hard to keep the babies' crops full, sharing the work equally. Young birds, having their first experience in parenting are sometimes dismayingly negligent in sitting or more frequently in feeding the young. Patience, giving them a second or even a third chance usually pays off. With experience they usually settle down and perform well.

The usual routine is for the cock to sit on the eggs during the day and the hen at night. The reason for this is that the hen has a fatty pad on her breast which allows her to produce more heat required during the cooler night temperatures. Often you will find both the hen and the cock in the nest box together, sharing their duties. On these occasions they carefully divide the eggs into equal numbers for each to incubate. I am convinced that they can count.

At sunset, time for changing of the guard, the cock will emerge from the box and attack his food voraciously while the well fed hen replaces him in the box for the night. He then spends the night just outside the nest box, guarding his mate and their eggs.

As part of the incubation process the parents turn the eggs regularly, usually hourly during the first half of the incubation period. This movement of the egg changes the embryo to a different position inside the egg for better use of food sources. It provides for more even distribution of heat from the parents and the chance of the developing chick sticking to the membrane is reduced. During the last days of incubation the eggs due to hatch first are pushed to one side for a period of time each day as they no longer require turning. When you peek into the nest box and see one or two eggs off to one side, do not assume that this is a careless mistake.

Around the 18th to the 21st day of incubation the chick can be heard faintly chirping inside the egg. With the aide of a temporary small protrusion on the upper side of the beak, called an egg tooth, the chick actually carefully cuts his way out of the shell. If you are fortunate enough to be present when this is happening (an exciting experience!), resist your instinctive wish to help the chick out. Interference by humans, except by those most skilled, invariably damages the emerging chick.

THE NEW CHICK

The newly hatched chicks are frail looking creatures indeed. They are hardly capable of holding up their big heads. Their eyes are sealed closed, giving them the general appearance of an embryo. A faint yellow down scarcely covers their bodies. At this stage only a mother bird could love them.

A healthy bird will start crying for food within the hour, and the parents will start feedings within two hours. The parent bird feeds the baby by taking its bill firmly into its own with a slightly pinching motion. This stimulates the chick to bob its head vigorously. The feeding parent then

pushes regurgitated food into the sides of the chick's beak with its tongue. The chick's crop rapidly enlarges and is kept round and full by the faithful parents. At times the crop appears larger than the frail little body.

During the first few days this regurgitated food is reported to contain a milky substance called "crop milk." This is a protein substance produced by the parents which is a great aide in the rapid growth of the chick.

The newly hatched chick cannot maintain its body temperature. The parent birds brood the chicks, following a built in time clock, to about the tenth day when the pin feathers start to appear. The parent birds unfortunately do not have a built in thermostat. They will fail to change this pattern even when a sharp drop in temperature occurs, resulting in loss of the chilled little ones unless they are rescued by the breeder. Their brooding schedule is based on time, not temperature.

The chick grows so rapidly it is often more than doubles in size in the first few days. After all the eggs have hatched and are no longer available for the little ones to use as head rests, they form a circle, each one's head resting on the neck of another. By about eight days they become stronger, their eyes start to open a little, and feather tracts become visible..

The babies shuffle themselves backward, out of the huddle, to deposit their droppings in a ring about an inch or two away. As they grow and move around in the nest box, they are not as neat. A change of shavings is usually required to keep the area clean and well tolerated by the parents.

As they grow, the cheeping sound of the chicks changes to a more strident demand for food. They rock back and forth, making a hissing noise, raising their tiny starting crests, and setting up quite a din.

BANDING

At seven to ten days we band all our chicks with American Cockatiel Society closed bands. There are many advantages to this practice. It provides positive identification for accurate breeding records and medical histories and for the pet bird owner. A closed band is a requirement for championship points in showing.

HAND FEEDING AND WEANING

For the prospective pet owner, with no plans to enter a breeding program, some understanding of the hand feeding and weaning process is still of value. The care given by the breeder, the patience shown to the bird during the weaning process, and the socialization of the baby during this important stage of its growth, have long lasting effects on its personality. The term "hand fed" can mean anything from a syringe of food being forced into a baby in a matter of seconds to a caring breeder who handles and talks to the growing birds sufficiently that they form a strong bond to humans.

It is not always possible for the prospective pet owner to observe how this stage is handled, although there is no substitute for this in making your choice. Whenever possible, visit your prospective baby at the breeder's. With help and instruction you will find it possible to complete the last stages of feeding and weaning yourself.

We "pull" our baby cockatiels (bird breeders jargon for removing the chick from the nest) at 12 to 14 days. The younger the baby bird is made accustomed to human handling the easier it is to tame. We also find that pulling the chicks at this early age makes them easier to introduce to hand feeding. If the parents are doing a good job it is a temptation to leave the chicks in the nest an extra week, but the extra work involved in pulling early pays off. When not removed for hand feeding the parents will continue feeding until the chicks are about eight weeks of age.

Many excellent hand feeding formulas are now available and are a great convenience as well as being satisfactory in providing good nutrition. The very young chicks ( under five days) are fed a mixture about like heavy cream. The amount of water is decreased as the chick grows until the mixture is about like cake batter. There is no nutrition in water, and no point in spending your time and energy filling your chick's crop with water. Four times daily feedings are required for twelve to fourteen days. The amounts given at each feeding are gradually increased and the number of feedings are gradually decreased. By six weeks of age the babies should be getting along on two feedings a day and starting to wean. As they are observed to be filling their crops on their own, reduce the hand feedings to one in the evening until it is finally refused by the weaned chick.

If you have never undertaken the feeding of a chick from day one - just out of the incubator - be prepared to feed every one to two hours for twenty four hours a day - this for the first seven days. After the first three days the length of time at night without feeding may be extended. Possibly the last feeding at 1AM and again at 6AM will be sufficient. Having once done this you will develop great respect for the parent birds and leave this chore to them whenever possible.

We have found that a very early start on weaning is helpful in accomplishing this often frustrating task. As soon as the chicks start moving around in their brooder box we suspend a spray of millet from the cover for them to pick on. Little is really ingested but the idea is presented that those beaks are intended for something other than to be held open to beg.

As soon as the chicks are promoted to life in a cage, usually at four weeks of age, even though hand feeding is still being done at regular intervals, efforts to wean are started. Spray millet, soft whole wheat bread, oats, cooked corn, sprouts, crumbled corn muffins, and the pelleted food they will eventually be fed -are all offered in low shallow dishes at various times. Our objective in keeping a variety of foods before them is that as adults they will readily accept and enjoy many foods. Constant attention must be given to remove uneaten foods before they have a chance to spoil.

At an early age the birds experience a "slimming down" period. At this stage in their development instinct tells them that in order to fly it is necessary for them to shrink their crops and lose some weight. The faster they become convinced that they are able to use their wings for flight, the faster they get down to the business of eating. During this time, observing the drastic reduction in the amount of feedings the bird will accept, even the experienced breeder tends to become anxious. We find it best not to force feedings. If the bird seems to be becoming too thin, we offer small feedings more frequently. They will usually accept a few cc's before their determination to stick to the diet reasserts itself.

In weaning a group we found it helpful to put an older bird in the cage with the youngsters to act as a teacher. Select a hen for this purpose - a male may decide to teach them more than how to eat! The teacher bird has a tendency to become too fat feasting on all the goodies offered the babies and needs to be replaced frequently.

It is not possible to establish a rigid schedule to decide when weaning should be completed. Cockatiels of the same age, often from the same clutch, can vary widely. As a general rule, they are weaned at eight or nine weeks, but exceptions either way are the norm. Close observation of the birds is necessary. Begging noisily at the sight of the accustomed feeder will continue even though the crops are full and round. Some determination needs to be made whether the food missing from the dish has been eaten or merely scattered about the cage. A newly purchased baby, officially weaned by the breeder, may in the stress of the change revert to a need for supplementary feedings for a short time. We make a final check on the fullness of the crops of our weaning birds in the late evening. If necessary, we continue one feeding at this time for some weeks until a plump, healthy bird is the result of this extra effort.

SEXING

Determining the sex of a young cockatiel is not always easy; it often consists of a educated guess. The males and females of the normal grays and cinnamons are identical while young. They show little or no yellow on the face and both have large spots under the wings on the long flight feathers. As the males approach maturity and molt into their adult plumage - usually at six months to a year - they lose their under wing spots and the facial area becomes mostly yellow. The orange cheek patch stands out clearly against the light colored head. The females continue to look just like the young birds after molting. They retain their under wing spots and have very little yellow in the facial areas. They have the orange cheek patches but against the darkness of the surrounding plumage it is less outstanding.

The pearl males lose their pearling with the first molt but the females retain the pearling for life. As immature birds they are identical. The pieds are the most difficult to sex. Both male and female pieds retain the same under wing markings in maturity.

In all cockatiels the males are more vocal. When the mating song is heard, you can be sure that your bird is a cock. Palpation of the space between the pelvic bones is another method of determining the sex of the bird. The bones of the male are more pointed and closer together while the females' are rounded, dull, and further apart. The females are usually wider across the chest and the males longer and slimmer. The male often has a larger and fuller crest. None of these are completely reliable indicators but help make those educated guesses which after all have a fifty percent chance of being right.

There is a simple method of determining sex in the babies which although not infallible has proved to be surprisingly accurate. In the Grays, Cinnamons, and Pearls the under wing spots or bars extend only half way up the extended wing in the males. In the hens these extend up the full length of the wing to the body of the bird.

If you are considering breeding cockatiels your enjoyment and satisfaction will be multiplied many times by not limiting your goal to just the production of numbers of birds. By learning the characteristics of a good specimen and making educated choices in setting up your breeding pairs you need not necessarily eliminate the profit motive. With a reputation for providing high quality, healthy, well socialized birds well established, you will find an unlimited market.

Whether you choose this species as a companion pet bird or for a breeding program you will not be disappointed. You will find that the Cockatiels long lasting popularity is well deserved.

 

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Last Updated:  April 26, 2013

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