PET BIRD CARE
Complete Care System For Cockatiels
By Dr Rob Marshall & Tailai O'Brien
This section has been compiled especially for our clients and looks at the daily life and behaviour of cockatiels in the wild. From this information you will gain a better understanding of the needs and true potential of your pet cockatiel. A detailed account of our recommended daily and weekly routines for cockatiels is also included in a chart format that you can download for easy reference. These routines give your bird the best possible opportunity to remain happy, healthy and develop its true personality as a companion pet.
Before reading this section you may like to look at the following introductory articles attached to this web page: Diet & Foraging Behaviour of Parrots in Nature and Daily Routine for Pet Birds - Introduction.
An understanding of the behaviour and daily routines of wild cockatiels described in this section will allow you to better understand their needs in captivity. Their small size and loving nature makes cockatiels an ideal family pet. As pets they should be provided with a daily routine and opportunities that encourage the development of their natural characteristics and true personality.
Cockatiels in Nature
Daily Routine of Wild Cockatiels
Characteristics of & Special Instructions for Pet Cockatiels
Common Cockatiel Problems
Daily Routine for Pet Cockatiels
Weekly Health & Nutritional Programme
Annual Health Check-up
Cockatiels in Nature
Cockatiels are native to Australia and inhabit dry inland areas where grasslands dominate their natural environment. They are hardy birds relying upon grass seeds as their staple food.
These handsome parrots are open country birds that follow a similar daily foraging routine to budgerigars and rely upon strong flying ability and foraging skills to survive. They are also opportunistic breeders developing strong bonds with their mates and remaining together as pairs or small family groups outside the breeding season. Their very affectionate behaviour is similar to the cockatoo family of parrots to which they belong.
Daily Routine of Wild Cockatiels
An understanding of the daily routine of cockatiels and their social behaviour in Nature will help explain their needs as pets. Cockatiels share the same nomadic behaviour and daily foraging routine as budgerigars and as pets should also follow a similar daily routine.
Cockatiels are primarily ground foragers and grass seed eaters. They are a larger bird than budgerigars and being derived from cockatoos will eat the seeds and berries of some trees.
Cockatiels have a far greater need for water than budgerigars and at night will roost in trees situated near water. At daylight each morning they leave their roosting trees as a group and travel to feeding grounds. Towards the end of a good breeding season they may be seen foraging as a large flock but usually they forage on the ground in pairs or small flocks. Whilst eating on the ground they remain silent and may be completely overlooked as their grey plumage camouflages them perfectly amongst the shadows of trees and long grass. They search the ground for fallen grass and Acacia seeds and chew on herbaceous plants as the grass dies from the cold of winter or is burnt off by the heat of summer. They also climb branches of Acacia trees towards the end of spring to eat seeds from Acacia pods.
During the middle of the day when it is too hot to forage they move into trees. Here they rest and occupy themselves chewing on branches. In the cool of late afternoon they return to the ground in search of food before returning to roosting trees before dusk.
The hunger of wild cockatiels is usually satisfied before the heat of the day when they move to the cover of trees. Here they rest and entertain themselves for many hours as their crops are full and they are not hungry. Therefore, foraging-type behavioural problems (e.g. feather plucking and self mutilation) are uncommon in pet cockatiels as they have a natural capacity to entertain themselves especially when provided with tree or bush foliage during the day. However, companion cockatiels are susceptible to breeding-type behavioural problems (feather picking, aggression and excessive egg laying problems) due to their natural opportunistic breeding behaviour.
Like budgerigars they are nomadic and move around in response to the availability of food and water. However, they do not venture into desert regions because they are more dependent upon water than budgerigars. This means they do not possess the same memory-based intellect of budgerigars and as pets lack a budgerigar's ability to learn human words and talk in context. However, they can mimic words and are very good whistlers copying other birds songs, telephone rings etc.
Characteristics of & Special Instructions for Pet Cockatiels
Highly Adaptable - adjust to most daily routines
Strong Flying Ability - free-flight required
Fast Eaters - ration feeding unnecessary
Seed Eaters - food supplements necessary
Social Behaviour - loving pet bird
Playful Nature - games & toys for occupation, learning & happiness
Common Cockatiel Problems
Highly Adaptable - Cockatiels adjust quickly to most daily routines.
Cockatiels are very adaptable because as wild birds they have learnt to survive in a harsh and unpredictable environment. As pets they will quickly learn to adjust to your own daily routines. However, they must receive adequate rest. Like humans, the rest they need varies from one bird to the next according to metabolism, diet and daily activities.
At nightfall pet cockatiels will want to sleep, as they do in Nature, but if allowed they will stay awake and socialise with their owners. Cockatiels can be kept up late at night as long as they are given an opportunity to rest during the day. During their night time interaction with owners they enjoy to rest on the shoulder.
There are no hard and fast rules regarding the number of hours that cockatiels need for sleep but it is important to allow your bird to rest at the first signs of over-tiredness. When deprived of sleep cockatiels become irritable, want to bite and are prone to illness. Cockatiels will fluff up, lift one leg up and grinding their beak noisily when overtired. In order to prevent illness an overtired cockatiel should be allowed to sleep following nightfall. Providing Quick gel in the drinking water for two consecutive days will accelerate recovery from tiredness.
Strong Flying Ability - Daily exercise is enjoyed by cockatiels.
Strong flight is an important part of foraging behaviour for wild cockatiels, as they must fly long distances each day in search of seeding grasses.
Supervised flight outside the cage is encouraged for pet cockatiels, as strong flight is beneficial to their health and happiness. They should be permitted to fly prior to the morning and evening mealtimes as this is a time when wild cockatiels fly to their feeding grounds and when pet cockatiels are most energetic. This period of freedom outside the cage is a natural time for learning and discovery (i.e. searching for food in the wild) and an ideal time to encourage pet cockatiels to play and learn tricks. Pet birds should be called into their cage for their meal. Between mealtimes they should remain in their cage (or an inside or outside flight aviary) and not be permitted unsupervised free flight in order to avoid injury or contamination.
It is imperative that pet birds are caged when there is no human supervision available as a home setting is a danger zone for free ranging pet birds. Cockatiels are especially prone to ingestion of harmful materials and objects as they are naturally inquisitive birds and also ground feeders so that they fly to the floor to forage and fly to roost in high places. Here they will inhale or ingest potentially life threatening items (e.g. contaminated dust, carpet fibres, metal fragments, lacquered wood etc.). The cage is the very best place for your bird when it is not flying, climbing on the cage or interacting directly with you. It will remain safe and be happier inside a well-organized cage than outside it.
Fast Eaters - Ration feeding is helpful for cockatiels.
Cockatiels eat their food very quickly because of a scarcity of food supply across their natural range.
As pets, they also eat quickly and entirely focus on de-husking and consuming seeds as rapidly as possible. The intricate process of eating is an important and essential part of their happiness in captivity and a major reason why processed pelleted food is unsuitable for cockatiels. This natural characteristic should be encouraged in pet cockatiels by providing them with a set morning and evening period when they eat their fill. A restricted type feeding routine is helpful in training cockatiels but not a necessity, as they are less prone to obesity compared to budgerigars. Native tussock grasses such as Newcastle Grass and Mitchell Grass may be grown in your garden and seasonally fed when ripe with seeds or frozen and provided as a treat throughout the entire year. The seeds of these grasses are small and cockatiels enjoy the time taken to eat them. Other local grasses may also be fed during the day.
Seed Diet - Food supplements are needed for occupation & food value.
Seeds are essential and must be provided to cockatiels. Pelleted food is not suitable.
A mixture of millet seeds (Panicum spp, Setaria, Ecchinochloa spp), plain canary (Philaris canariensis), oats (Avena sativa), wheat (Triticum aestivum) and other small seeds provides a good seed mix for pet birds. However, the commercially grown agricultural seed mixes available for pet cockatiels are not as nutritious as native seeds and are lacking vital nutrients necessary for health. Because seeds are lacking in many vitamins and minerals essential to the health of cockatiels, it is necessary to mix food supplements into a seed mix to improve its food value. In order to provide the correct nutrient balance these supplements are given as part of a Weekly Nutritional and Health Programme. This Programme is seasonally adjusted during summer - from November into March - to support the annual moult period and during spring to nutritionally support the egg laying process in female cockatiels and the courtship process in male birds.
Food preparation should take place whilst your cockatiel is free flying and involves cage cleaning, mixing the supplements into the seed and drinking water, refreshing millet sprays and other foraging items in the cage. Millet or native seeding grass sprays may be hung in the cage to provide daytime foraging opportunities. As ground feeders it is best to place the seed dish on the grid floor inside the cage or on a flat feeding station outside the cage.
Cockatiels love to chew. Soft fresh branches preferably from Acacia trees that are bearing fruit pods are ideal for cockatiels and should be provided together with millet sprays during the day.
Your cockatiel is naturally inquisitive and should be encouraged to join in the food preparations and play during this time.
Wild cockatiels forage as small family units. This behaviour strengthens family and flock unity. Sharing meal times with your pet bird initiates the same bond that wild birds have with their flock members and is used to strengthen the trust your pet bird has with you and your family.
Cockatiels rarely accept soft fleshy fruits or vegetables as they live in a very dry environment where their natural foods contain little moisture. Millet sprays are readily devoured although they will accept more fibrous grains (corn), fruits (apples) and vegetables (sliced carrot, celery or long beans) (photo). Fruits, vegetables and seeding grass sprays may be given as a training aid, lunch time treat or foraging items. They must be given every day when replacing food supplements as a reliable source of vitamin A.
All food and foraging items should be removed from the cage following the evening meal to maintain good hygiene and to prevent foraging opportunities prior to the next morning's mealtime.
Social Behaviour - Cockatiels make very loving pets but females can be susceptible to egg laying problems.
As pets the emotional needs of cockatiels are different from budgerigars and other grass parrots, as they possess strong cockatoo characteristics. Our recommendations for the care of pet cockatiels take into account their similarities and differences.
Although cockatiels share a similar foraging routine to budgerigars they are socially different. As wild birds cockatiels they spend a lot of their time allopreening (i.e. kissing each other). This natural behaviour makes them good pets because they enjoy similar petting and physical contact with their human carers. This type of behaviour means that a pet cockatiel behaves and responds in similar ways as a pet dog or cat.
Their social behaviour is closely aligned to the Yellow-tailed Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus), its closest relative, which means they are likely to develop very strong pair bonding tendencies as pets. Coupled with this type of affection they possess an opportunistic breeding behaviour so that cockatiels are more focused upon breeding opportunities and less on survival when compared to budgerigars. Consequently, their personality is very affectionate and more emotionally dependent upon human contact than budgerigars.
Cockatiels are prolific breeders taking opportunity to breed following heavy seasonal rains. They choose the hollows of dead trees as nesting holes. Their nest sites are situated near to or alongside river courses or water holes with nearby Mitchell & Flinders grass plains providing them with their main source of food.
The size of cockatiel flocks varies throughout the year depending upon food supply and breeding activity. At the height of a good breeding season they gather and forage together as large flocks. A flock of 100 birds is considered large. This degree of congregation occurs following a good breeding season around June following autumn breeding or November after spring breeding. Most flocks are much smaller in size. Flocks disperse into smaller family groups soon after a breeding season as their food supply often falters quickly across their dry environment.
The combination of strong foraging skills and survival instincts coupled with a very loving nature and opportunistic breeding behaviour renders female pet cockatiels particularly susceptible to excessive egg laying problems during their spring and autumn breeding seasons.
Cockatiels use a high-pitched contact call to confirm flock security whilst flying and when out of visual contact with their family members. This is a behavioural feature that occurs commonly with pet cockatiels when they are separated visually from their cage mate or owner.
The contact (or isolation call) is used mostly during flight and whilst foraging to maintain flock cohesion. The contact call is the basis of parrot-type birds' great capacity for mimicry. Male cockatiels have a better reputation for copying sounds compared to females as they make a whistling sound naturally as part of their courtship display. Male cockatiels can be taught to whistle a specific tune quite readily. The female cockatiels are less inclined to talk or whistle tunes.
You may have noticed that your cockatiel will start to eat when you start your own meal, as this is an instinctual reaction associated with flock cohesion and security. Sharing mealtimes with your cockatiel is important for its happiness and will improve its ability and desire to interact with you.
Cockatiels have a high need for affection and close physical contact with its human flock. They make very good pets, as it is possible and desirable to keep multiple cockatiels together who may even pair up and lay eggs without affecting a strong existing human bond that will return immediately following a breeding cycle.
Playful Nature - Toys will make your cockatiel happier.
Cockatiels are not naturally playful although they can be taught to and enjoy playing games with mirrors, bells and balls. Play sessions may be initiated at any time but are best encouraged prior to feed times when cockatiels are naturally most energetic.
Most cockatiels will become startled when new toys and branches are moved directly into the cage. New items - including perches, perch coverings, new foods, toys, branches etc. - should be introduced by the owner prior to moving them into the cage as they will be accepted by your bird when they are not seen as dangerous by other flock members (i.e. you - the owner). For example, you should hold a toy and encourage your bird to play with it before placing it in the cage. New tree branch foliage or seed sprays can be placed on the outside of the cage for a few days before moving them into the cage.
Cockatiels produce feather dust - known as dander - that may cause allergies and breathing problems in sensitive individuals. Misting misting your cockatiel with warm water using a spray bottle, sharing a shower with yourself or provide a shallow dish of water for bathing is enjoyed by and benefits cockatiels. Showers are best during the heat of the day and to prevent chilling should be avoided on cold days.
As mentioned, cockatiels do like to explore the ground. Do supervise your cockatiel if he or she is allowed to roam the house. They can damage wood trim and electrical cords if left unsupervised. They can also accidentally end up underfoot.
Common Cockatiel Problems
Egg Laying Problems: excessive egg laying, cystic ovary, egg binding, prolapses
Eye Problems: conjunctivitis, red eye & swollen eyelids
Sinus Problems: sneezing, red nostrils, feather staining above the nostrils
Watery Droppings: Giardia infection, bowel impactions
Vomiting: heavy metal poisoning, sour crop, crop impaction
Bleeding: tongue, toe, wing, keel & perineum injuries
Noisy Repetitive Contact Calling & Excessive Screeching
Night Fright: anxiety
Egg Laying Problems
Egg laying problems are very common in female cockatiels. Egg-laying problems occur from late winter and throughout spring. Problems are lessened by providing a spring egg-laying programme and by making the home environment less inducive to breeding behaviour by preventing nesting activities, decreasing the temperature and by moving the cage to different parts of the home. Desexing is recommended for uncontrolled egg laying behaviour to avert potentially fatal egg binding and other breeding problems.
Discharge from eye
Feather loss around the eye
The eye reveals a lot of information about the health and happiness of cockatiels. With experience and keen observation skills it is possible to identify a cockatiel that is unwell, in pain or dehydrated by looking at its eyes.
Red eye is a common condition of cockatiels that starts as a painful conjunctivitis, has several underlying causes and is symptomatic of self-inflicted trauma. Eye problems of any type should receive immediate attention and e viewed with great caution, as they may be the only indication of contagious diseases such as Psittacosis and Mycoplasma infections. Wetness, discharge, swollen eyelids or feather loss around the eye is a result of a cockatiel that is rubbing at painful sinuses. Culture tests and Psittacosis tests are required to identify the exact cause of your cockatiel's sinus and eye problem.
Staining above the nostrils
Sneezing is a common complaint in cockatiels and indicates irritation, inflammation or infection of the nasal passages and infra-orbital sinuses. Early detection of the cause of sneezing is recommended to avoid more serious complications. The underlying cause of sneezing is identified by culture tests taken from the choana. The choana is an area situated on the roof of the mouth where the nasal passages and sinuses meet.
Red nostrils are often visible in cockatiels and indicate an irritated or infected nasal passage. Culture tests of the choana are required to identify the cause of red nostrils.
In healthy birds, the feathers above the nostril are dry and clean. Staining of the feathers above the nostrils occurs in cockatiels with longstanding health problems although there may be few other outward signs of illness. This symptom appears with conditions that suppress immunity such as vitamin A deficiency, female sex hormone imbalances, Chlamydophila (Psittacosis) infection, yeast and fungal infections. Secondary infections are often involved such as Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Enterobacter and fungal infections.
A visit to a bird veterinarian is required to identify the exact cause of this problem. Microscopic examination of droppings, dropping and choana cultures, Psittacosis and other tests may be required to identify the exact cause of this problem.
Your cockatiel should see a bird veterinarian as soon as possible when there is a sudden onset of watery droppings because early intervention is needed to ensure a successful and rapid cure.
Microscopic and culture testing of the droppings, and Xrays may be required to identify the exact cause of watery droppings. Bowel impaction and Giardia infections are the two most common causes of excessively watery droppings although there are several other conditions that also cause watery droppings.
Foreign body impactions of the crop, stomach (proventriculus) or gizzard initiate extreme thirst resulting in the sudden appearance of watery droppings. Cockatiels that like to chew paper, cardboard or rope are prone to a sudden impaction that produces increased thirst and watery droppings. Early intervention is a critical part of a successful treatment and prevents the need for the surgical removal of any foreign material.
Giardia infection is also a common cause of watery droppings in cockatiels and especially of white, yellow or pale coloured mutation birds. The immune system of these colour types is inherently weak against Giardia infection. Nutritional imbalances and town or city drinking water contaminated with Giardia predispose certain individual birds to Giardia infections.
Giardia infections are often difficult to diagnose. However, diagnosis is relatively straightforward when routine dropping tests are performed at the onset of the condition. Special microscopic dropping tests or a response to a treatment trial may be required to diagnose Giardia when the condition has existed for a long period of time.
Additional tests are often required to detect secondary infections when a Giardia infection has been established for a time.
Early intervention against Giardia infections is paramount to a successful cure. Delayed treatment prolongs recovery and predisposes to recurrent infections with some birds requiring ongoing courses of treatment to prevent recurrence of symptoms.
Heavy metal poisoning
It may not be obvious that a cockatiel has been vomiting unless it is actually seen vomiting. There are tell-tale signs of vomiting that include wetness around the mouth, wet sticky head feathers, seeds and slime that remain adhered to the beak, mouth or mask feathers. Snake-like regurgative movements of the neck are another sign of vomiting.
Vomiting is a serious symptom that requires immediate veterinary attention. A delay in diagnosis and treatment significantly reduces the likelihood of a rapid and full recovery.
Heavy metal poisoning, sour crop (infection of crop associated with ingestion of contaminated food stuff) and crop impaction (ingestion and blockage of crop or proventriculus with foreign material such as rope, paper cardboard etc) are the most common causes of vomiting in cockatiels.
Injuries with blood loss are commonly encountered in cockatiels. Veterinary assistance is required when there is more than 1ml of blood loss.
Night fright is a condition of cockatiels that commonly results in flight feather injury and blood loss associated with a blood quill rupture. When the bleeding continues this type of injury may result in loss of life. Toe injuries are common and may also cause massive blood loss.
Removing the blood quill and applying pressure to the point of hemorrhage should control bleeding.
Split keel and split perineum are concussion bleeding injuries sustained when juvenile cockatiels with clipped wings fall heavily onto a hard surface and split the skin over the keel bone or the perineum when they fall onto their tail butt region. These lacerated injuries become painful and need suturing (stitching up) as soon as possible.
Noisy Repetitive Contact Calls & Excessive Screeching
Cockatiels will instinctively call out repeatedly (contact call) when they are alone and out of visual contact with another bird or their owner. This behaviour may also be related to anxiety and illness or become habitual. Acquiring a second bird or visit to a bird veterinarian is recommended when this behavioural problem persists.
Excessive screeching may be an indication of an underlying disease or parasite, a behavioural problem or a combination of both. A complete health check is recommended to see if the screeching is disease related. A behavioural cause of screeching is diagnosed when the diagnostic tests return as normal. When a behavioural problem has been diagnosed, a consultation with our resident bird behaviouralist Tailai O'Brien is recommended.
Cockatiels are especially prone to night fright when disturbed by a moving shadow or noise in the darkness of night. During a night fright episode a cockatiel will thrash and flap frantically within the cage and sometimes bleeding occurs when the wings are caught in the cage bars. This behaviour reflects a bird with a heightened level of anxiety. The anxiety may be a natural part of its personality or be induced by an illness of some kind. A health check is recommended by a bird veterinarian following a night fright episode to identify the nature of anxiety and other underlying causes. Serious injuries involving loss of feathers, wing injuries and bleeding are the usual consequence of night fright. A night-light and moving your bird away from windows can be used to lessen the problem of night fright.
Daily Routine Pet Cockatiels
Click here to view our daily routine for pet cockatiels.
Weekly Health & Nutritional Programme for Pet Cockatiels
Breeding & Egg Laying Programme for Pet Cockatiels
Click here to view the Breeding & Egg Laying Health Programme for pet cockatiels.
This programme is for female cockatiels with a history of egg laying or breeding related problems. It should commence at the first sign of breeding behavior when you bird goes down to the floor of the cage in preparation for nest making. Any eggs that are laid should be left for 21 days to complete the natural breeding cycle. When egg laying behavior is seen in cockatiels Dr Marshall may recommend to desex the bird to avoid long term breeding related problems.
A Complete Guide to Pro-Active Health Care for Cockatiels
Click here to view our complete guide to pro-active health care for pet cockatiels.
Pet Cockatiel Annual Health Check-up
We believe an annual health check is an integral part of developing your bird's innate potential as a companion pet, because without good health your bird is unable to respond fully to your affection or concentrate during training sessions. Microscopic testing of droppings (and sometimes other tests) are required as part of this health examination since birds are masters of hiding their illness. As part of the examination, Dr Marshall and Tailai will also assess your daily routines and the progress of your bird's intellect. This is a most important part of the annual health examination as it allows us to tailor a programme specific to your bird's individual needs.
During your bird's health check Dr Marshall will examine the progress of your bird's annual moult. This gives a good indication of your bird's overall health as the moult may be delayed or interrupted when an underlying health problem or nutritional deficiency is present. Adjustments to your bird's weekly health programme may be recommended based on your bird's individual needs.
The best time for a health check varies between bird species and sex. There is a greater likelihood of illness when a bird experiences stress and it is at these critical times that a health check is most valuable. An annual health check may also co-ordinated with the end to the annual moult period for cockatiels who are taken outdoors and need wing clipping.
Cockatiels: February - March is a good time for an annual health check for cockatiels as this corresponds with the end of the moult period. The wings need only be trimmed once a year when done at this time of the year.
Female Cockatiels: June -September. Female cockatiels are most likely to experience health problems during these months of their breeding season.
Male Cockatiels: October - February. Male cockatiels experience most problems when breeding activity continues into the moult period. At this time male cockatiels start abnormal chewing behaviour that often results in crop and stomach blockages.
Dr Rob Marshall and bird trainer, Tailai O'Brien have developed a complete system of care that ensures health and happiness in your pet bird.
Going on holidays? At Carlingford Animal Hospital, we understand the needs of your much loved pet bird and will cater for these during its stay with us.
Dr Marshall and Tailai O'Brien have developed a culture tested bean mix for larger parrots, to provide them with variety and a low Glycaemic Index (GI) food.