The bird we’ve been seeing most often at PAH over the past few years has been the cockatiel. If our experience is any indication, their popularity has eclipsed that of the budgie, at least in this area. And no, it’s not a case of cockatiels having more need for medical attention. They’re actually hardier than budgies and have a life span of 15 to 20 years versus seven to eight for budgies.
The reasons cockatiels have gained such favour are pretty straightforward. Both males and females have pert, bright personalities, they like attention and handling, and they are remarkably docile and friendly to both people and other birds. They also have a soft whistle and quickly pick up words and phrases, and while their speech may not be as clear as that of the larger parrots, they don’t cost anywhere near as much either.
Australian natives – We probably don’t have to tell you that cockatiels are native to this country (and nowhere else), but you might not know they are found in very large numbers over most of the continent. The reason their prevalence may have escaped your attention is that the the one area cockatiels choose to avoid is the coast. (They’re otherwise quite intelligent.)
Within their range cockatiels tend to migrate from one feeding ground to another, only stopping for extended periods when they find enough ripening grasses and water for them to start their breeding season. Cockatiels live in pairs or small groups of four to 12 birds, though they will flock in the hundreds after breeding season and where food is plentiful. Their natural sociability means you can house them among other small birds of the non-parrot family with little or no trauma.
Their torpedo-shaped body and the long, slim, well-muscled wings help make cockatiels the fastest flyers of the Australian parrots. By far. Their descents would make them stars of any air show. Cockatiels plummet rapidly from on high in a perpendicular line not unlike a dropped stone. Then, only a few metres from solid earth, they spread their tails and wings, using them like the flaps on an airplane to soften their landing. Even generations of domesticity haven’t diminished the flying ability of cockatiels.
Like a number of our other natives, cockatiels were widely adopted as pets overseas long before the Australian government allowed its citizens to properly appreciate their attributes. In Europe records indicate cockatiels were first bred in captivity as long ago as 1845, achieving true popularity as pets some 40 years later. The origins of the name cockatielare a bit roundabout. Supposedly it is an English adaptation of a Dutch sailor’s pronunciation of the Portugese word cacatitho, meaning a little cockatoo. (In this country they were called quarrions for many years.) The scientific name Nymphicus hollandicus has been in general use since the 1950s.
Some orthinologists speculate that the cockatiel is really a cockatoo which at some point during its evolution decided it had grown large enough and took on an appearance more akin to a parakeet rather than a true parrot. And while their living habits strongly resemble those of the cockatoo, cockatiels also share some characteristics of the rosella species.
Colouration – Because cockatiels are so easy to breed in capitivity and people have been experimenting for some 160 years, ensuing mutations mean you now have quite a choice of colour combinations. The many variations are due to just two pigments: melanin and lipochromes. Besides influencing the prevalent grey colour of the feathers in the original cockatiels, melanin is also present in the eyes, beak and feet.
Lipochromes provide the orange of the cheek patch along with the yellow on the face and tail. As males mature, the melanin pigments in the face seem to become diluted, allowing the lipochromes to assume more prominence. At the same time the melanin increases in the tail resulting in a more solid colour. Of the two, melanin is the stronger pigment and overrides lipochromes when both are present.
There are three types of mutations: sex-linked, dominant and recessive. Sex-linked cockatiels include the cinnamon, lutino, pearl, yellow-cheek and platinum. All this means is that both parents must be sex-linked to produce sex-linked babies.
Dominant mutations, on the other hand, are unique in that it only takes one parent to produce the mutation in their offspring. For example, if you have a dominant yellow-cheek hen, you will get a percentage of either male and/or female dominant yellow-cheek chicks. Normal greys are dominant, and both the silver and yellow-cheek cockatiels have dominant versions as well.
Recessive mutations occur when both parents have the mutation. Pied, (recessive) silver, whiteface, fallow, pastel and emerald are recessive mutations.)
In the wild cockatiels are seen with plummage described by breeders as normal grey. (Any mutations that occur naturally usually don’t live very long, simply because their predators can single them out so easily.) The male normal grey, shown to the right, has dark grey feathers over his entire body, excluding the white wing bars, yellow face and bright orange cheek patches. The females, as well as mature normal greys of both sexes, have grey faces and dull orange cheek patches, and their tail feathers have a white or yellow barring on the underside. If you see a few white or yellow feathers on the back of your normal grey cockatiel’s neck and head, it means that your bird is carrying one gene for the recessive pied mutation.
Here are brief descriptions of the most common sex-linked mutations:
Platinum – This Australian mutation tends to have a light, smoky-grey back, flights and tail. Occasionally the flights will appear almost grey-brown and the chest an off-white colour. Flights and tails will typically be a darker colour than other feathers. In mature cocks the underside of their tail feathers is usually a brown or chocolate colour, the feet and beak light coloured.
Here are some common examples of recessive mutations:
Pied – This mutation comes about when the standard body colours are replaced with yellow or white in varying degrees determined by different levels of melanin. Pieds are also known to have thicker feathering over the body which becomes noticeable in young birds as they feather up. There are three distinct pied types: light, heavy and clear.
Light-pied cockatiels will be mainly grey or cinnamon with some yellow areas (white in whiteface pieds). The heavy-pied is mostly a yellow or white bird with grey or cinnamon visable on some of the chest and back. (Some people refer to cockatiels with very little grey or cinnamon as reverse pieds.) With its plummage ranging from yellow to white, the clear-pied looks much like the lutino but has dark or normally coloured eyes and feet. Once in a while you’ll see one or two dark feathers on the back. Less common than lutinos, they also don’t have that mutation’s bald spot. It is impossible to visually sex a pied cockatiel.
Emerald – Also called olive, spangled or suffused yellow, these birds aren’t really ’emerald’ or ‘olive’ because, as we’ve seen, they don’t carry any green pigmentation. However, in the right light, the combinations of mottled yellows and greys in the feathers make these birds sometimes look green.
Then there are all the cross-mutations, among them: the lutino-whiteface or albino, the cinnamon-pearl, the cinnamon-pied-pearl, the cinnamon-pearl-whiteface, the dominant silver-whiteface, the pastel face-lutino, the pastel face-pearl, the pearl-pied…you get the idea.
When to buy – If you want to tame your cockatiel, teach it tricks and perhaps to talk, the best thing to do is introduce it to your home when it’s quite young. (Though not quite so young as one to the left.) A just-weaned chick that has been hand fed should adjust to its new surroundings and become completely relaxed with you in just a matter of days. That’s because the proper weaning and hand-feeding process will have introduced your bird to a variety of foods and provided sufficient handling by humans for it to develop trust and confidence.
One downside to getting a young cockatiel is accurately determining its sex; even breeders resort to educated guesses. As indicated above, the males and females of the normal greys and cinnamons look identical when young. Things get easier as they mature and moult into adult plumage, usually at six months to a year. As with most birds, the male’s colours tend to be noticeably brighter and more vibrant.
If you can’t wait, you could try feeling the pelvic bones and the space between them. The bones of the male are pointed and close together while the female’s are dull, rounded and farther apart. Also, the male often has a larger and fuller crest while females are usually wider across the chest. However, none of these indicators is guaranteed. In fact, with pieds you might not know for sure until you hear a mating song; that would be a pretty good sign that you have a male.
Housing – Because of their love of climbing, flapping their wings and and just generally mucking around, cockatiels need a nice, roomy cage. It must be at least wide enough for your bird to spread out its wings without touching the sides; we recommend it be larger than budgie and canary cages, at least 45 cm high by 60 cm wide by 45 cm deep. If you intend to keep your bird mostly confined to its cage, then it will need additional room to fly back and forth. In which case the cage should be larger still, no less than 90 cm in length, 45 cm in width, and 60 cm in height. The cage pictured is higher than need be and there should be perches at either end that run front to back.
Another consideration: Because cockatiels occasionally experience night-frights (a startled awakening in the middle of the night usually caused by odd noises, movements or lights), they need extra room or they risk severely damaging their wings. To help your pet see during such an episode, place the cage near an electrical outlet and plug in a night light, leaving the cage cover slightly higher on that side of the cage.
The placement of the cage is also important. It should be in an area free of drafts and sudden temperature changes. Birds also feel safer being able to look down on things, so placing the cage at eye level or higher will increase its comfort zone, as will covering the cage at night.
As with any member of the parrot family, a chew-resistant metal cage is the way to go. Cockatiels make short work of wooden cages. The bars should be no more than two centimetres apart for safety’s sake and should run horizontally across the front and back for ease in climbing. Furnishings should include one or two perches about two centimetres in diameter and containers (not plastic) hanging from the side for feed, water and grit. Try to position the perches so that droppings can’t fall into food and water containers. You can cover the cage bottom with paper, sand, gravel or a corn-cob litter. Using a cage skirt or fine screen around the bottom of the sides will help reduce the times you have to get out the vacuum.
You should clean the water and food dishes and change paper bottoms daily. Replace litter coverings every two to three days. Clean and disinfect the cage on a weekly basis. And wash and completely dry the perches and toys whenever they become soiled.
Cockatiels need toys that will challenge their minds and their bodies. Swings, ladders, bells and mirrors will all help to keep them occupied and fit. (Bright, shiny plastic toys are for budgies, not cockatiels; rubber toys are just plain dangerous.) Tree branches and wooden chews provide excellent exercise and keep the beak trim at the same time. It’s important not to spoil your pet with so many toys and accessories in the cage that you inhibit its ability to move about. Just put some diversions outside the cage. A playpen equipped with ladders, perches, swings and hanging toys will provides hours of exercise and fun.
On the subject of greater freedom, cockatiels are nomadic by nature and their sleek physiques the result of generations of flying over much of our continent. So if you’re able to, providing a roomy outdoor aviary should make your birds feel even more at home. A warning: while they can be housed with some finches and canaries, cockatiels should not be enclosed with lovebirds, which can be very aggressive. Sand floors in aviaries should be renewed annually.
Feeding – In the wild cockatiels will eat a wide variety of foods to naturally balance their diets. To compensate, some breeders strongly recommend commercially produced pelleted foods formulated to provide all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals cockatiels need. They believe these products are an improvement over seed mixtures which allow birds to pick out their favourites, resulting in the daily discarding of some foods necessary for a balanced diet.
Whichever way you go, it’s a very good idea to supplement your cockatiel’s diet with a wide variety of other foods. Here are some suggestions:
- Dark green vegetables like broccoli, kale, spinach, dandelion greens, collard greens, mustard greens;
- Vegetables high in carotene, such as sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, capsicums;
- Other vegetables: turnips, green beans, peas, corn, tomatoes, legumes (like chick peas and kidney beans), hot peppers;
- Fruits (no pits or cores): apples, grapes, bananas, oranges, melons, apricots, peaches, plums, oranges, tangerines, pomegranates, watermelon, kiwi;
- Table scraps: cheese, hard-boiled eggs, pasta, rice, potatoes, wheat bread;
- Meat: tear it into small enough pieces so that your bird won’t choke on it.
Place these supplementary foods in containers other than those used for their regular food and remove after a few hours, especially in the heat of summer. And don’t be surprised if your bird’s droppings become looser and more watery after eating fruits and vegetables.
Foods to avoid include avocado; caffeine; chocolate; rhubarb leaves; anything high in sugar, fat or salt; and alcohol. Milk is also a no-no because birds lack the enzyme necessary to digest lactose and may develop diarrhoea. However, because of the way they are processed, cheese and yogurt can be fed without a problem. Normally, it is not necessary to add vitamins to your bird’s diet as long as it’s eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. However, birds on an all-seed diet will need vitamin and mineral supplements during moulting or laying. We do not recommend adding vitamins to the water; they waste no time in attracting bacteria.
Training – As we mentioned above, if you have a young, hand-fed bird, about 12 to 14 weeks old, you should be able to train it quite quickly. If you have more than one bird, it’s best to train them one at a time. Don’t take this personally, but they will prefer the company of each other to you. For best results during this initial period, you might want to have your cockatiel’s wings trimmed to keep it from suddenly cutting class. To keep the student focused, conduct lessons in a small room with few distractions. To avoid confusion, limit the faculty to one instructor. (But to keep it from becoming a one-person bird, introduce your cockatiel to other people when class is not in session.)
Successful training relies on establishing acceptance and trust between you and your cockatiel. Speak softly to calm your bird, always move slowly and approach from the side rather than head on…preferably with a treat held between two fingers. Begin by coaxing your pet onto your hand. If it tries to fly off, you may have to repeat this several times. Once on your hand, let it step up to your other hand, then back and forth, gradually moving it to your index fingers. If your bird is inclined to bite the hand that feeds it, use a stick rather than your finger. If it bites hard and persistently, say No! in a loud, firm voice. Then repeat the exercise. You should conduct these hand-taming lessons several times a day, but only for short stretches, say about 20 minutes a session. Before you know it, you’ll have a new appendage riding around on your shoulder. (That’s how about half the cockatiels that come to us arrive.)
If you want to train your cockatiel to do tricks such as climbing ladders and ringing bells, encourage him or her with food rewards. By the way, cockatiels are more adept at learning beak tricks than claw tricks. When teaching your cockatiel to speak, it’s probably best that the instruction come from a child or woman with good enunciation and lots of patience. As a general rule of thumb, males are more vocal but this trait varies from individual to individual.
Health – Overall, the cockatiel is a very hardy bird, though somewhat prone to giardia, a parasitic infection that causes itching and plucking. Among the other illnesses and injuries we see from time to time are broken wings or legs, cuts and open wounds, overgrown beaks and nails, lameness or sore feet, feather picking, feather cysts, weight loss, heat stroke, shock, concussions, egg binding, indigestion, eye disease, mites, watery eyes, colds, tumours, psittacosis, coccidiosis, French moult, goiter, E. coli, aspergillosis, conjunctivitis, constipation, diarrhoea, arthritis and rheumatism.
Signs of illness to look out for are a lack of activity, ruffled feathers and/or weight loss, which can happen quickly and lead to death. If the symptoms have just begun and seem relatively mild, set up a hospital cage where you cover all but the front of the cage. Add a light bulb or heating pad to keep the interior at a temperature of 28¡C. Finally, remove all perches and put food and water dishes on the floor of the cage. If you don’t see improvements within a few hours, bring your bird to us for diagnosis and treatment.