Cockatiels 101
By Eleanor McCaffrey,
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Cockatiels are intelligent, social, companion birds. They are the second most popular pet bird after the parakeet. These elegant and exotic looking birds are well known for their bright, pumpkin orange cheek patches, their regal yellow crests and their long sleek long tail feathers. Measuring between 10-14 inches in length from beak to the tip of the tail, cockatiels can weigh between 80-120 grams, with show birds weighing even more. Cockatiels are available in a wide variety of color mutations, in patterns of yellow, gray, cinnamon and white, including birds that are speckled, pure white or birds with white facial feathers. As pets, cockatiels are friendly, charming and captivating in their beauty. They will greet us with enthusiasm and affection each morning if we tend to both their physical and psychological needs. These delightful birds will also provide us with companionship and entertainment throughout the day if a bond of trust has been established. As a species, cockatiels are actually small parrots and only 1 of approximately 340 different species of parrots.  The name "cockatiel" is a derivative of the  Dutch word "Kakatielje" which means little cockatoo. DNA research (UC-Davis, 1997) has proven that cockatiels really do belong to one of the cockatoo families. The scientific name for cockatiels is Nymphicus, Hollandicus, "Goddess of New Holland", the name of Australia during 1700s-1800s. Australia is the native homeland of cockatiels. Our pet cockatiels are bred domestically because Australia banned exportation of all native birds years ago.
In the wild, cockatiels are predominantly gray, mother nature's way of helping to camouflage them from predators. Wild cockatiels also travel in pairs or small flocks and they are not birds living a solitary life. This is the main reasons that our pet birds need to be with and interact with people or other cockatiels during the day. In the wild, cockatiels whistle to alert other flock members of danger, food or of their locations. When our pet birds scream, they are vocalizing for the exact same reasons. In the wild, cockatiels will build their nests in tree hollows as high as 6 feet off the ground and near a source of water. So it's no surprise to find pet birds trying to nest on the top of a closet, in an open cabinet, an open bureau drawers, or any other small, dark, cozy space. The diet of wild cockatiels consists of fruits, berries, grains, seedlings, small insects and cultivated crops. In captivity, pet birds need a variety of foods to stay healthy as well. In Australia, many wild cockatiels are sadly destroyed because of damage to farm crops.

The average lifespan of a pet cockatiel is 15-20 years. According to Dr. Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., Diplomat, ABVP, Avian Practice, with advances in avian medicine and the better nutrition that cockatiels are now receiving, it's now possible for them to live well into their late twenties. With poor nutrition, inadequate cage cleaning, allowing a female to constantly lay eggs and lack of medical attention, a cockatiel's lifespan can be cut short to as little as 1-5 years. You can monitor your bird's health daily by keeping alert for little changes in appearance, behavior, eating habits and changes in your bird's droppings.  Taking your bird to an avian vet for a yearly check up which includes blood tests and a gram stain is also important. Cockatiels need medical care from veterinarians just like cats and dogs do. Preventative health care is an investment in your bird's future.
Cockatiels are very sociable birds. If approached in a non-aggressive, non-threatening manner, a cockatiel's disposition is very gentle, docile and sweet. Cockatiels need to be talked to, played with and touched. Cockatiels will solicit attention by climbing on cage bars, by chirping, singing, displaying feathers, by running back and forth on a perch, banging toys on cage bars and if ignored, by screaming. As sociable flocking birds, cockatiels enjoy eating when other family members are eating. Being affectionate birds, they like to be pet, bending their heads down to have their head, stroked. Cockatiels will often reciprocate by preening your hair or eyebrows. Cockatiels also bite less, they're smaller, cleaner and quieter than larger parrots. However, they require just as much of your time, if not more, than other species of parrots that can entertain themselves all day in your absence.  As for activity level, cockatiels have a moderate activity level compared to other species of parrots like conures and lovebirds.
Cockatiels provide human entertainment by their very nature. Birds are entertaining when they eat, bathe, preen, stretch their wings and play with toys. Some birds can learn to perform tricks like ringing a bell, walking up ladders and pulling toys as well. What most people think about when they think about parrots and entertainment, is a parrots amazing ability to talk.  Because of this ability to vocalize, some cockatiels can be taught to talk, to whistle tunes and to mimic sounds too. Although the sound of a cockatiel talking is more unclear and muffled when compared to the sound of larger parrots like an African gray, it's still incredibly entertaining to hear. An interesting aspect of talking is that the production of sound is influenced, in part, by the male hormone testosterone. This is one of the reasons males have more potential for talking than females. However, a small percentage of females can learn to talk as well. Another interesting aspect of talking is that cockatiels may prefer learning to talk and sing from a woman's higher pitched voice. 
Because of their intelligence, cockatiels need mental stimulation from you and from the environment. Bored or unhappy birds may start chewing and plucking out their own feathers, stripping themselves bare. Birds that are constantly ignored can also become cage bound, lonely or depressed. A depressed bird may refuse to eat and starve to death. It's important to keep your bird's cage filled with a  variety of colorful toys made out of different types of bird safe materials.  Cockatiels find toys that can be chewed on, shredded apart, moved, tossed around, pulled apart,  interesting . Toys should be rotated every week or so and they should be checked daily for signs of wear. Since cockatiels  are inquisitive, they enjoy exploring rooms. Exploring is done with their beaks and this also means chewing. Cockatiels will chew on paper, cloth, wood, rubber, metal and anything else that catches their attention. Chewing is instinctive behavior and has to be watched carefully. Plants, electrical cords, other household items and metals that contain zinc, lead or rust can kill your bird
Healthy cockatiels need proper nutrition and care. Birds are seed junkies and cockatiels that are on an all seed diet will become malnourished and get sick. With poor nutrition, cockatiels can die as young as 2-5 years of age.  Pellets are manufactured, little morsels of bird food. They contain virtually every nutrient a cockatiel needs to stay healthy. Cockatiels also need fresh vegetables and fruits everyday to supplement a pellet based diet. Table foods, which are nourishing for you are also nourishing for your bird. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, chicken, eggs, grains, cereals, and bread, help to keep pet birds healthy. Toxic foods will make pet bird sick. Toxic foods are listed on a page called Healthy Table Foods. To stay healthy, a cockatiel needs 10-12 hours of sleep each night. Tired birds will also become cranky and irritable or they will bite or scream. Proper bird care also includes changing food and water as well as cage papers every single day. Birds that live in a dirty environment will get sick. 
Cockatiels are afraid of loud noises, loud voices and sudden movements. A bird that is frightened will hiss, scream, bite, turn its back on you or hide on the bottom of their cage. Having a cage with corners this gives them a place to hide when they feel threatened. Placing the cage up against a wall and away from doorways and halls offers your bird even more security. Cockatiels are also prone to night frights. When something wakes a bird up during the night, they become startled and they start flapping their wings vigorously in an effort to fly. Night frights can be very dangerous because wings can hit cage bars, perches and toys,  breaking blood feathers. You should always keep a night light on for your bird and leave one corner of the cage uncovered to help prevent night frights. Cockatiels  are also moody birds that do not like changes.  Changes can be as minor as a pair of new curtains in a room or you wearing a new shirt. Some birds do not like strangers in the home and they will scream or bite, even after your quests leave. 
Cockatiels and other pet birds feel stress when their caretaker, daily routine or surroundings change. Stress impairs a bird's immune system increasing their susceptibility to getting infections and other illnesses. Pet birds that are stressed, unhealthy or malnourished can get sick  if their cage is in a drafty area. Why are drafts so dangerous? A draft is moving air,  creating different temperatures in different parts of a bird's cage. Since bird's can not withstand a 10-15F drop in temperature during a 24 hour period, your bird could get sick from a draft. According to my avian vet, drafts should not hurt a healthy and well nourished bird. However, you never know at any given time if your bird is getting sick or whether it is well nourished. To test for a draft hold a lighted candle in the area. If the flame flickers then there is a draft.
Female cockatiels can be more nervous than males, but they are usually more friendly and more cuddly than males.  Although not known to be talkers, females do chirp sweetly which is a delight to the ear. Females usually have smaller bodies and their feathers whick are usually less brilliantly colored than a male's. The most troubling  aspect of owning a female is that she can start laying unfertilized eggs, (eggs that will not hatch) even without a mate. This becomes  a life threatening situation if she is egg bound. Egg binding requires emergency medical treatment from an avian vet. Egg laying can also become chronic and this often requires medical attention too, to prevent health problems associated with excessive egg laying. Males can be more nippy and aggressive than females. They also display normal, male hormonal behaviors that are aggressive, even in the absence of a mate. However, males usually sing and talk more than females. Both single male and female cockatiels will bond strongly with its primary companion, considering him/her its mate. Your bird may even try to mate on your hand or regurgitate, since mates in the wild feed each other this way. 

If you are getting cockatiels for breeding, they should be 18 months old, even though they are capable of breeding as young as 5-6 months of age. Younger females can have physical complications, like egg binding. Males may  be infertile. Chicks may not be as strong or as healthy when young birds breed. If you want a pearl cockatiel, male pearls lose their pearl markings and revert to the normal gray after their first molt. To be absolutely certain of a young cockatiel's gender, a DNA blood test is needed. 

Cockatiels are known to be dusty birds because they have an excessive amount of powder down compared to other species. You'll find white powder all over the cage, on objects near the cage and on your cloths. Watch you bird shake out his/her feathers after preening and you may see a small cloud of white dust. If you pet your bird with your chin or cheek, you may even have a coating of white powder on your skin.  Excessive powder down from birds can aggravate a person's allergies or asthma. Although bathing or misting baths will help to remove some of the excess powder that is on your bird, if you have allergies or asthma, a cockatiel may not be the right bird for you. Talk to your doctor first before bringing a bird into your life. 

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