Cockatiels, Feathers, Molting and Preening  
By Eleanor McCaffrey Copyright© Notice: No portion of this text or photos
may be copied or reproduced for redistribution without
permission from site owner.

Those glorious, dazzling feathers that give birds such instant eye appeal, are made of a protein based substance called keratin, similar to the keratin that composes human nails and hair. Feathers also make up 10% of a bird's body weight and they weigh 3 times as much as a bird's skeleton.  It's not a surprise, considering that birds have many hollow bones that are filled with air. Although the number of feathers covering a bird is relative to body size, even a small bird like a  parakeet has between 2000-3000 feathers. Birds have several types of feathers, each one with a different function. In addition to giving birds color and beauty, some types of feathers insulate a bird's body, helping them to maintain a very high body temperature of between 104-112°F.  Other feathers  waterproof and protect a bird's skin. Birds even have feathers that can be used to gain a psychological advantage when interacting with other birds. During courtship rituals, feathers are displayed and used to impress and attract a mate. When there are threats of aggression, feathers are displayed as a defense mechanism. A small bird can puff out feathers and look much larger to predator.  

Types of Feathers: Did you ever wonder how your cockatiel is able to raise his crest up and down or puff out feathers when threatened? Feather movement is controlled by  contour feathers, the external feathers that cover and outline a bird's body, including the wings and tail. Most of the feathers on a bird's body are contour feathers and they  have  erector muscles that can raise and lower feathers to trap air for regulating a bird's body temperature. The same muscles are used for moving feathers during courtship rituals and aggression. Contour feathers can be divided into 2 categories, coverts (body feathers), and flight feathers. Flight feathers are the longer feathers that are  found in the wings and tail.  Parrots have 10 primary and 10 secondary flight feathers right next to each other on each wings. Flight feathers on wings are called remiges and they give birds lift when flying. They also control  steering, braking, and maneuvering. Most birds have 12 tail feathers, which are called retrices. Tail feathers control directional change when flying and they control speed when landing. They also help a bird to balance. Birds that break their tail feathers will be clumsy until new feathers grow in.

Small Feathers: Birds have different types of smaller feathers. Small bristle like feathers called hypopenns can be found around a bird's  eyes, nostrils and beak. These feathers are believed to have both a protective as well as a sensory function which can detect air movement. Other bristle like feathers which are found close to the follicle of contour feathers are called filoplumes. They respond to pressure when flying and they can be found on all feathers with the exception of wing and tail flight feathers. Down feathers are small, light and fluffy and they form an undercoat beneath covert feathers which insulates a bird's body by trapping air in-between feathers and skin. Semiplumes are another type of small insulating feather. The shaft of a semiplume is soft and flexible.  Birds also have small powder down feathers, which grow continuously. Instead of being molted out, powder down feathers disintegrate when a bird preens, forming a white powder made out of keratin that conditions and waterproofs feathers. Cockatiels produce an excessive amount of powder compared to other species. You'll find white powder inside of the cage and on objects near the cage.  Watch you bird shake out his/her feathers after preening and you may see a small cloud of dust. If you pet your bird with your chin or cheek, you may even get a light coating of white powder on your skin. 


Preening is how a bird cleans, waterproofs and conditions feathers for skin protection, warmth and flight. Most birds have a uropygial or preening gland and it is located on a bird's back near the base of the tail. The preening gland secretes an oil like substance through multiple ducts. A cluster of small down feathers surround the ducts and act like a wick, holding the secreted oil. By wiping their beaks on the wick, birds are able to  use the oil to clean, lubricate, condition and groom  individual feathers daily. Birds will also remove pieces of dry skin and loose keratin from the shafts of new feathers that are growing in when preening as well. They will also preen their feet, removing  dry skin, food or droppings that they may have stepped into.  In addition to grooming, preening serves another vital function. The oil used for preening contains precursors to vitamin D that are activated when exposed to direct sunlight or full spectrum lighting that contains both UVA and UVB lighting. Vitamin  D is ingested while preening and vitamin D is needed for the absorption of calcium in a bird's diet. This is why avian vets recommend that birds receive 15 minutes of full spectrum light from an avian light bulb , that contains both UVA and UVB rays each day. A cage near a sunny window has psychological benefits but the rays a bird needs can not penetrate through glass. 


Molting is the shedding (replacement) of old feathers with the simultaneous growth of new ones. A cockatiel's first molt occurs between 6-12 months of age. After the first molt, healthy cockatiels will have a  normal molt 2-3 times each year. It takes 7 to 10 days for a new feather, ( blood feather) to begin emerging after one was shed then an additional 6 to 8 weeks for the blood feather to grow in completely. The entire process from loss of a feathers to replacement of a fully grown, mature feather can take up to 10 weeks or longer depending on an individual bird. When your bird is molting you will find an abundance of small feathers on the bottom of the cage floor. You will also find little transparent flakes that resemble dandruff being shed as well. The flakes are part of the keratin sheath that encases and protects all new, growing feathers.  New feathers need protection because they contain an active blood vessel and they will bleed profusely if broken. All new feathers start growing as blood feathers and smaller feathers are referred to as pin feathers because they look like sharp little pins. Pin feathers are most noticeable on the top of your bird's head and around the neck area. Large blood feathers are found in the wings and tail. As blood within a feather shaft recedes, the keratin coating flakes off to expose the new feather.

Pin feathers and blood feathers are very uncomfortable for your bird and they can cause pain if moved the wrong way. When molting, birds will be less active, napping more often, and they will  be cranky. Your bird will appreciate bathing or water misting baths to help soften and loosen the hard keratin coating on new feathers.  Birds will also appreciate some gentle scratches from you on their heads, necks and crests because they are unable to reach these areas to preen off keratin. If your bird doesn't like to be pet, you may notice her rubbing her head up against toys or using her foot to scratch these areas. Molting is a stressful time for your bird and stress can impair the immune system, making it easier for your bird to get sick. Serve your bird nutritious foods that are high in vitamin A,  like sweet potatoes and carrots, to enhance the immune system. Birds also have a greater need for calcium and protein when molting. Dairy products are not the best foods for birds because birds lack the enzyme needed to digest them. Supplement your cockatiel's diet with leafy dark green vegetables that are high in calcium, such as kale, parsley, cilantro, beet greens, turnip greens, endive, chard, mustard greens,  watercress, broccoli leaves and stalks for calcium as well as scrambled eggs, cooked chicken and lean meats for protein. 

Research and Abnormal Molting

Although not noticeable, cockatiels  are actually in a continuous state of molt 12 months a year. Scientists at the University of California have based this on a pattern of losing specific wing feathers throughout the year. Regardless of species, birds do not lose all of their feathers at the exact same time during 1 single molt. If they did, they would be naked, cold, their skin would be unprotected and they would not be able to fly.  Wing and tail feathers are replaced gradually at various times of the year and heavier molting takes place 2-3 times a year,  when the weather is warmer, Spring and Autumn and after breeding.  Additional heavy molts and heavy molting all year long are all considered abnormal and they can be caused by stress, poor nutrition or medical problems. Delayed molting and failure to molt at least once a year are also abnormal conditions. These 2 types of molting problems have a medical basis that could stem from pituitary or thyroid gland problems and hormone deficiencies.  If your bird has any abnormal condition, please consult an avian vet.

Feather Colors: Last but not least, the brilliant colors of feathers that initially draw so many people to admire and love parrots are produced by feather structure, color pigments or a combination of both. Structural colors are produced by feathers that have certain types of cell and oil layers. These feathers are able to refract light from the color spectrum of light.  Color pigments produce other colors of feathers. Melanin is the color pigment that produces gray, brown and black feathers. A lack of melanin produces white feathers.  Lipochromes, produce the vibrant yellow, orange and red feathers of birds. 



Graphics Courtesy of
Graphic Garden
Cute Countryside Graphics

Page Contents, Layout and Design Copyright© Cockatiel Cottage,
All Graphics Copyrighted by Credited Artists and are Not Public Domain
Special thanks to all who have shared photos of their birds with us.