Cockatiel Owners' Advice Column
By Diane Grindol
How do I know when to feed more seed to my bird? The cup looks full.
The cup MAY look full, but your cockatiel could be starving! Cockatiels expertly hull seeds, leaving the chaff behind in the seed cup, around the cage, and anywhere it can be a nuisance. That seed cup which looks full may actually be only hulls!
It is a good idea to get in the habit of changing seed/feed every day. I don't like to take chances with growing harmful molds and bacteria. Every day I empty out what remains, then put in fresh. The fresh feed I scoop out of its bin with a cup. I don't dip the feed cup into the feed supply for the whole flock, minimizing the chance of spreading disease. I only put food into the bottom of the feed cup, not filling it to the top, since that will only be wasted and thrown out the next day. If you feed seed, you might get into the habit of gently blowing the hulls off the top of your cockatiel's feed cup when you walk by Show many days have I had chaff-dandruff!) or palling the top layer of hulls off with a mini-vac. The mini-vac takes some practice in order not to get everything up out of the cup!
What do I do if a wing or tail feather breaks off? What do I do if the broken feather bleeds?
These two situations are often related. Sometimes a bird will break a wing or tail feather when thrashing at night, when playing, or when landing awkwardly during free flight time out of its cage. It is not aesthetically displeasing to see your pet with a bent feather, and the feather may be a hazard as your bird goes about its business. There are two ways to deal with this situation: cut the feather below the break, or pull the feather out. When making this decision, consider the health of the bird first. If the feather is pulled out of the shaft, your bird will grow a new feather to replace it. If the feather is only cut, it will be replaced at the next molt I like my birds to look good, and usually pull errant feathers. This would not be a good idea, however, if a bird is stressed, breeding, ill or growing. It requires protein and calcium for a cockatiel to grow feathers, so is a stress on a bird's body. If a bird is already stressed, it would be better not to also ask it to grow feathers!
An exception is when a broken feather is a "blood feather." New feathers growing in are encased in a plastic-like keratin sheath. The base of the new feather has a blood supply and nerves. If such a new feather is broken, the bird experiences pain and blood usually flows from the feather. The best way to stop the bleeding is to pull the feather from the base. I pull tail feathers (tugging once, firmly) with my hands, but use a tweezers for wing feathers. I feel that birds are somewhat uncomfortable when molting. Their bodies are stressed by the act of growing feathers, incoming feathers are itchy or uncomfortable. My birds react to molting by looking somewhat depressed or by becoming irritable. They are also more prone to "night thrashing" at this time. Of course this is when the incoming, blood feathers are most likely to be injured. When you comfort your molting cockatiel(s) after an episode of "night thrashing," it would be wise to also make a visual inspection for broken blood feathers or other injury.
Can I feed my bird greens from outside?
I regularly feed my cockatiels the seeded heads of overgrown grasses. I take a few precautions, however. I harvest grasses from an area which has not been sprayed with pesticide, and which is not too close to a street. Fumes from car exhaust are not healthy for our sensitive tiels! Another step I take is to thoroughly rinse the grasses. Another treat for cockatiels is dandelion greens, which I also thoroughly wash. For a seasonal treat, go ahead and try greens from outside!
Do I need to cover my bird at night?
You do not absolutely need to cover your bird at night. However, if your bird is used to being covered, it will probably appreciate it if you continue the practice. Cockatiels can be conditioned to all kinds of routines, including being covered at night. The advantages are primarily to owners. With a cage cover, an owner may put a cockatiel to bed early, or entice it to sleep late. A cover may protect a cockatiel from drafts, though drafts are probably not as harmful to the bird as sudden changes in temperature.
What is the best way to give my bird a bath?
Rather than a "best way" there are several alternatives. Some people like to let their bird roll in leaves of lettuce soaked with water after they have been washed. I use a plant mister to spray my cockatiels until they are drenched. When I spray from above they open their wings, contort their bodies to get more of the spray and in general put on quite a display. I put luke warm water in the mister. The water cools in the air by the time it reaches the birds. They especially like this on hot days, or when traveling on moderately hot days. It is best to bathe your cockatiel where the spray will not get in its feed dish, so molds or bacteria don't start growing in the feed. On warm days cockatiel drip-dry nicely. If it is chilly, you may want to let them dry near a light bulb or other warm place in the house. Don't bathe a bird too near bedtime, since it won't have time to dry off. Young birds or ill birds may not know how to preen, or may neglect preening. A cockatiel which has air-dried but not preened is a funny sight!
Bathing a bird causes it to preen; it takes oil from a gland at the base of its tail, then spreads that oil on each feather. A well groomed, well nourished and healthy bird has strong, glossy feathers - water will run right off its back! That makes bathing a challenge, but a welcome one, when our care shows in the condition of our pet bird!
There are alternative methods of bathing a bird. My breeding birds like to get in a bowl of water and "swim." Some people train a pet bird to play in the shower, sink, or tub and bath in sprays from the faucet.
What should I do if my handfed bird gets cranky with me and won't come out of his cage or won't come off my shoulder to my hand?
Though pint-sized, a cockatiel IS a parrot. As it matures, it may try to establish dominance. It is essential to remember, in dealing with your cockatiel, that you are the boss, and your cockatiel should be willing to do what you say. Sometimes older birds which are beginning to have some flight ability after a recent molt will act a little stupid. It is an immense help to clip such a bird's wings. Prevention is a good idea for the cockatiel, which is protective of its cage or won't come off a shoulder. I teach my pet cockatiels to hop onto my finger at a certain command. That command is a cluck. You could use a certain whistle or a word such as "Up" or "Perch." Teach the bird this command early, and use it daily. Instead of allowing your cockatiel to come out of its cage on its own, use the cluck or command. Any time you ask your bird to step onto your finger, use the command. It is probably best not to allow your cockatiel to become shoulder-trained, nor to allow it to regularly perch in a dominant position above your head. Ideally it should have a perch about at shoulder or eye level. If it has such an absolute (must be obeyed) command, you should be able to get your cockatiel off your shoulder whenever YOU want.
If your cockatiel is already exhibiting "cage-bound" behavior and won't come out of its cage, you will need to do some more training with it. Physically catch it with a wash rag or towel, and take it to a place out of sight of its cage to work with it. Spend some time together watching T.V. or reading. Do some finger training, and use your cluck or command often. As you get acquainted or re-acquainted, practice putting your bird into its cage on your finger, and taking it back out again, so that this action becomes natural.
Can I put my bird in his cage outside on nice days?
You may put your bird outside in its cage on nice days, though you will need to be careful of several things. Since your bird is confined to its cage and can't escape (hopefully!) please don't put the cage in full sun. Perhaps a front porch or the shade of a tree or buildings appropriate. Second, you must be aware of predators outside. Cats, raccoons and hawks all view cockatiels as dinner. Can you be with your bird to supervise and ward off predators? Is your cage absolutely secure? Be sure a smart tiel does not know how to lift up a feed door or cannot wiggle through the bars of your cage. Notice if you have the kind of cage in which the pull-out drawer doubles as the bottom of the cage. If that accidentally fell out, would the cage be open? I did that once, so I'm writing from experience. Another consideration is your bird's health. Droppings from wild birds outside may cause psittacosis (also called parrot fever, or chlamydiosis) in your pet. That's another good reason for putting a cockatiel's cage on a porch. In this area, my birds which go outside contract bird lice. These little critters look like "pencil marks" on the birds' feathers, and are especially noticeable on my light colored birds. Bird lice eat feather dust and don't harm the bird at all, but they give me the creeps just being there. There are safe lice sprays available which work well. But I don't put my birds outside anymore here.
I often did in Monterey, when I could supervise the birds. My cockatiels enjoyed watching what went on, and would sing and carry on. Some passers-by were stopped m their tracks by a wolf whistle from one of my males, until they realized where it was coming from! A hummingbird used to buzz my tiels' cage occasionally, checking out the new neighbors.
Do be sure your cockatiel's wings are clipped so that you could retrieve it if it escaped. Dacey got out once and flew three doors down the street, even with clipped wings. She hadn't been able to gain altitude but could soar quite a distance. Luckily my husband Robert retrieved her from a bush before any neighborhood cats found her.
Can I put my new bird into a cage with another bird?
You can, but it may not be advisable.
(1) New additions to an avian household should be quarantined, or kept separate from the rest of the flock. Because I don't want to risk infection or disease transmission between the new bird and my established flock, I quarantine new birds for 45 days. At least 30 days is advisable. During that time, I treat the new bird as though it DOES have a transmissible disease. I clean its cage last, wash my hands between handling it and my other birds. Ideally I would put it in a separate building or separate room with a foot bath or spray disinfectant, and a separate smock or shoes. My situation is less than ideal (new birds are quarantined downstairs, the flock lives upstairs), so I do the best I can. During quarantine, I take the new bird in for a checkup at the vet. I have my vet check the newcomer for giardia (a parasite) and psittacosis, as well as do a visual check and a gram stain of the bird. These tests cover the infections most common to cockatiels. The stress of a change in the bird's life and adapting to a new home could very well make any latent infections surface during quarantine. That's the purpose.
When I first get a bird, it's not very close to my heart, and I've already spent a great deal of money on it. I feel the vet check and quarantine are very worthwhile, however. Better to spend $90 on the new bird than deal with an illness affecting ALL of my birds and their reproductive capacity. Those are the birds I cherish and whose health I am protecting.
(2) Personality conflicts and jealousy may surface between your current pet(s) and a new bird. Once quarantine is over, it is best to let cockatiels see each other from separate cages at first. Then let them play together outside their cages for a few days. Notice how they interact. Any combination of the sexes CAN work with cockatiels, depending on the individual. There will be the most sparring between two males, but even this is usually to establish dominance, not to cause harm. Try to put the OLD PET in the NEW PET's cage, or put both into neutral territory if you want them to be cage mates. And watch their interactions. It would be possible for a bossy, dominant cockatiel to keep a timid cage mate away from food and water. It's always better to have at least as many feed dishes as there are cockatiels in a cage, anyway. In time the two, or more, cockatiels will establish a pecking order. The dominant one will probably sleep on the highest perch at night, and will get his way most often.
Another problem is jealousy. If your present cockatiel is very attached to you, it might resent an intruder. Some hand fed cockatiels think they are "people" rather than birds and may not recognize another cockatiel as a member of the same species. When Dacey first encountered Clement, she thought he was just like that other cockatiel she knew, her reflection in the mirror. She pecked at him. Boy, was she surprised when he pecked back! Cockatiels may deal with jealousy by biting you, or by harassing the new bird and not allowing it near you for attention. Most often cockatiels, very social creatures, get along well with each other.
How long will my new bird live?
Life expectancy of a cockatiel is supposedly 15-20 years. My oldest cockatiel is 10 now, so I haven't had the opportunity to find out. Many cockatiels do not live up to their potential life span because of illness, accident, or lack of care.
If your bird looks ill, it should see a vet. Birds mask illness so a bird which looks ill is probably very ill! Provide the best care you can.
Keep the cage clean. Yes, change the cage papers every day so that mold or bacteria does not grow in discarded food or droppings. Disinfect dishes at least once a week by soaking them in a bleach solution (1/2 to 3/4 cup bleach per gallon of water) or running them through the dishwasher.
Feed your cockatiel either (a) A formulated diet with greens and treats, or (b) A soft food diet including vitamins or (c) A seed diet with table foods and supplemental vitamins. Whatever diet you choose, be aware that variety is important, and be sure to provide enough infection-fighting vitamin A and D3 to help your bird utilize calcium. Almost anything you SHOULD eat is good for your cockatiel. Stay away from foods high in fat, salt or sugar. Don't feed a cockatiel caffeine, alcohol or chocolate. Avocado IS poisonous. Good treats are those which are entertaining as well as nutritious. Broccoli, for example, offers lots of entertainment as a cockatiel picks at the buds. Plain cereals like Cheerios or shredded wheat, or unbuttered popcorn are fun for a tiel.
Your cockatiel's water should be so clean that you wouldn't mind drinking out of it. AND water is not the place for vitamins. They grow undesirable organisms, get on birds' feathers, and the water soluble vitamins are quickly lost anyway. Do remember to spray your cockatiel often with water. It will have a very sleek appearance when eating right and allowed to bathe often.
Accidents can happen. Be aware the nonstick surfaces (like Teflon pans) emit a poisonous gas when heated to over 530 degrees. The fumes can kill birds within seconds. Don't take chances, eliminate or use extreme care when using nonstick cookware, ironing pads, baking pans, irons, or stove drip pans. (I chose to eliminate these items from my house!) Other frequent causes of accidental death are plate glass windows and mirrors, which free-flying pets fly into. Put sheer curtains or shutters on your windows, and cover mirrors when your bird is out. Don't let your pet fly free while you are cooking in the kitchen. With these precautions, you are giving your cockatiel the best chance you can to live to old age!
Why does my bird make crying noises when he sees me?
I am going to assume that you have just bought a very young, hand fed cockatiel. Maybe it's seven or eight weeks old? Up to 12 weeks old? Hand fed cockatiels are strongly bonded to people as their providers of food and nurturing. Your cockatiel is still going through the weaning process. It has become used to begging for food from a person and getting some. Even though it is now eating on its own, it still craves attention and nurturing. Crying noises from an old-enough-to-be-weaned cockatiel are often calls for attention. Offering your bird attention it needs while not creating a spoiled brat is your next challenge.
If your bird is 10-12 weeks old and still not weaned, have it checked for a bacterial or fungal infection, or giardia. It is possible that it is struggling to grow up (hard enough to do at the rate cockatiel chicks grow!) while also fighting an infection or a parasite. Your vet can prescribe medicine or treatment for the conditions I mentioned.
Why does my bird climb all around his cage, instead of sitting on his perch when I come into the room?
Your bird likes you! When it sees you it wants to come out of its cage, share in your daily activities, be with you. Cockatiels aren't decorative birds. They like to be touched, played with, talked to and to be in the center of everything. While offering your bird time to be with you is essential to its happiness, do also teach it to play by itself on top of its cage. At times, offer it things to chew and play with, a playground or a perch, and let it entertain itself.
Why won't my hen talk like my male bird?
I don't know all of the scientific explanations, but I suspect that the reason is hormones and the natural process of courtship in cockatiels. Male cockatiels are very vocal, whether they use cockatiel chirps or human speech. When courting a female, they call loudly to her, leaning over to her and talking into her ear. The role of the female is to listen and accept or reject his advances. Many other birds also establish territories with their calls, or attract females. Since a male cockatiel is naturally more vocal, he is naturally more likely to vocalize in human speech than a female. There are exceptions. Some female cockatiels do learn to say words.
What is the best diet for my bird?
I don't think there's a "best" diet for your cockatiel. Though extensive research has been done regarding cockatiel nutrition, we still don't know what diet promotes the healthiest birds, longest life spans, and best reproductive capability. If you can, ask a few successful breeders, or pet owners with good looking birds, what diet they feed. Most likely it is a varied diet. Certainly it is not a diet of all seeds. I personally have good luck with Roudybush crumbles supplemented by fresh vegetables and occasional whole grain treats. I appreciate the fact that vitamins are contained in the crumbles, and that crumble powder is easier to clean up than seed hulls. I also have a personal bias towards Roudybush because I admire Tom Roudybush for the research conducted at U.C. Davis in the early 80's and know he is a dedicated bird nutrition researcher. You will need to check out what cockatiel owners and breeders in your area have found to be available and successful for them. P.S.: A bird club is a good place to do this. Besides, then you're surrounded by people who don't think you're crazy for talking "bird" for a whole evening!
My cockatiel's diet varies according to the time of year and condition of my birds as well. Breeding birds receive a breeder crumble, and supplements of high protein foods for egg production and to feed baby chicks. Molting birds require more protein and calcium than they do the rest of the year, so I try to provide it. MY way is definitely not the only way. Ask around, keep trying new foods, and come up with a diet which is practical for you!
Sincerely, Diane Grindol
Pet Care Advisor 1992
AMERICAN COCKATIEL SOCIETY...with special thanks to Dacey, Buzz, Mathilda and Sunshine