Some months ago, I had something very nice (and unexpected) happen; my daughter-in-law, Charlene Bolton, decided that she would like to breed cockatiels. I had despaired, before this, of ever getting anyone in my family to even understand my involvement, much less want to participate!
To help her out, I gave her four pairs of cockatiels, loaned her a 4-unit breeding cage and nestboxes, and copied everything I had ever written about breeding cockatiels for her to read. Regardless of all the reading material, we were in phone contact almost every day when she first she got the birds. Usually it was questions, but I get to share good news, too; two nests with eggs within 2 weeks of setting up (very good) and, now, two nests with babies! Because of this experience, all this is pretty fresh in my mind and I decided to write an article summing up some basic information about cockatiel breeding.
First of all, make sure you have a true pair! That sounds obvious, but it really isn’t if you are starting with new, immature stock. Usually, only the male will “sing” or vocalize more than just the short one-note call that both sexes use for a contact call (“here I am, where are you?”). If the birds are mature cinnamons, pearls, normals, etc. you can tell by appearance, as the males develop a white face on which the orange cheek patch contrasts brilliantly. Females keep the same coloring that they start with as babies. With pieds, it’s much harder to know that you have a true pair. If the bird has some normally colored tail feathers, those will show bars across if the bird is a female and will be a solid color if a male. These bars are also present in a lutino female’s tail feathers, but will be yellow on a white background. I usually have to take the bird to a door or window to be able to see this.
Make sure your birds are old enough to breed. If not, wait a bit and the birds will be healthier for it. Cock birds can fertilize eggs after about 8 months of age, but it’s questionable that they’d be good papas at this age. You would definitely want to pair a cock bird this young with an experienced female. Your female breeders should be 18 months old before they lay eggs for the first time. If bred before that age, there is a greater risk of egg binding, which can cause death or loss of the bird as a breeder.
Give the birds as large a cage as you have room for. Cockatiels will breed in an 18” pet cage, but they can’t stay in that size cage all the time and continue to be healthy. So the options in order to have healthy birds is either to make your breeding cages large, at least 2’ deep x3’ long x 2’ high, or use smaller cages for breeding, then “flock” the birds in large flights when they are not breeding. Some breeders separate their males and females when the birds are put into flights and I’m sure this makes them much more eager to breed with whomever you select to be their mate. Because I have some established pairs that really seem to be devoted to one another, I don’t separate my pairs when I place them into a flight for their rest and recuperation period. I do have two cock birds that are hostile to all other males that cannot be put into the flights; they stay in their breeding cages all year with the nestbox closed in the off-season.
Make sure that your lighting and ventilation are adequate. You can’t have too much fresh air unless it is frigidly cold outside. Cockatiels produce lots of dust and neither they nor you needs to breathe air saturated with that dust. Cockatiels will breed when the days are short but they need at least 14 hours of light for the best breeding results. They also need these hours of light later on in order to feed their chicks enough for them to grow big and strong. Babies seem to do better when the temperature in your breeding room doesn’t get under 50 degrees F.
I usually suggest waiting about a week after pairing the birds to put up the nestbox, as sometimes the pairs will get in such a hurry that they forget an essential part of the process and the hen lays clear eggs. Do give the pair a cuttlebone immediately, as the hen will need to build up calcium reserves before laying eggs. Nestboxes need to be at least as large as 12” x 12” x 12” and they need to have an inspection door. Pine shavings or aspen shavings make good nestbox bedding; place a layer about 2” deep. I usually push all the shavings toward the back of the box when I put them in; that way, I know when the birds start to go in the box, as they will rearrange and flatten the bedding. Keep an eye on that cuttlebone at this stage, as sometimes the hens will demolish one in a few days. This means eggs are imminent.
Cockatiels lay their eggs every two days. They usually won’t sit until after the third one has been laid. Usually, the hen sits at night and the cock during the day. BUT, you can have all sorts of variations on that. Sometimes the birds will sit from day 1. Sometimes they will both sit all the time, maybe dividing up the eggs. Sometimes, the cock bird won’t do his part and participate in the sitting of the eggs. Some females will put up with this and others seem to say “Okay, if you aren’t going to do your part, we won’t have these babies”, and they will also abandon the eggs. Counting from the day the bird(s) start sitting the eggs, you will have babies in 18 to 19 days if the eggs are fertile. To candle the eggs, place a penlight into the nestbox and shine it near the eggs after they have been sat for a week to ten days. You will see a reddish color and should be able to see blood veins. There is no red color in a clear egg; it looks clear.
If you haven’t already been doing it, you will need to give your birds soft foods to feed to their babies. This makes sense when you realize that the parents have to eat the food, then regurgitate it for the babies. The soft foods such as cooked grain mixes, veggies, brown bread, corn on the cob, etc. are simply easier for them to stuff down in a hurry. After they get used to the routine, you will find some pairs pacing impatiently as they wait for their special breakfast to arrive each morning. Some of my pairs won’t start feeding their chicks until this soft food arrives! Most people leave babies with their parents for about ten days, then pull them for handfeeding. If left longer, the babies can be hard to handfeed. It is when the chicks are resisting feeding, instead of “begging” for it, that most aspiration deaths occur. Some people feel that they can leave their babies with the parents and get them out and play with them while they are weaning and that they will be as sweet as a handfed baby. I don’t think this works all the time, but they would probably be nice enough if put into a cage alone and played with every day after the parents wean them.
A word about colony breeding. It is possible with cockatiels, but not advisable if you are raising birds that might be sold as breeders, as you will not know for sure who the parents are. I have a friend who raises babies just to handfeed and sell and she has set her birds up in a colony and it is working for her. She has them in a large cage and put in more nestboxes than pairs. The birds have split into some unlikely groups; for instance, two females sitting eggs in one nest, presumably breeding with the same male. If setting cockatiels up to colony breed, you would have to either know your birds very well or watch them very closely at first. If you had one or more super-aggressive males in the group, you would have some bloodied, if not dead, males after a few hours.
Now, a word about mortality. If you have live birds (or animals of any kind), you will have deaths, too. The very young chicks are especially vulnerable and there are so many ways they could come to grief. The parents could fail to feed and/or brood the chicks, you could inadvertently let the chicks get chilled after pulling them, you could aspirate the little chicks (that is when liquid goes into the trachea and/or lungs instead of into the esophagus and crop), etc., etc. Please don’t let this cause you to give up. I’ve been doing this over twelve years and I often still cry when I lose a chick, but I don’t let it keep me down for long. Here is what I tell myself – also my friends when the same thing happens to them: the parent birds in the wild don’t successfully raise as many of the chicks to weaning as we do. Because of food scarcity, predators, disease and other factors, generally 50% or less of chicks hatched in the wild survive to weaning. I believe it’s about 25% that survive for at least a year.
When I say not to punish yourself too hard, that is not to say you have no responsibility; indeed you do – we all do when we take on the job of breeding and raising these birds. We have the responsibility to do the best we can and we can only do that if we educate ourselves. Read everything you can get your hands on, talk to other breeders, join local and national clubs, go to bird shows and fairs, etc. Being a member of ACS (or any bird club) is a great start!