The Healthy Cockatiel
By Malinda Pope
According to Avian Medicine: Principles and Applications (1), there are four factors that contribute to a bird’s health- Health Care, Nutritional Status, Management Practices, and Genetic Background. Nothing, other than selecting healthy stock, can be done to change the genetic background of a bird since that aspect is determined when the egg is initially fertilized. However, as cockatiel owners, we can do plenty to ensure the long-term health of our birds.
Health Care and Management Practices: It is our responsibility, as keepers of cockatiels, to educate ourselves as to their physical and psychological needs. This is not only true of the pet owner, but also the breeder. In fact, breeders of cockatiels have an increased responsibility since they have taken on the care of stock that will (with planning and a little luck) be producing strong, healthy chicks for the future. These same breeders must educate themselves so that they will be able to educate any future owners of their birds or their offspring.
Cockatiels have been known to live for over 30 years*. However, according to Avian Medicine (2), the average life expectancy of a companion cockatiel is only 5 years ! Certainly, this should not be so. Perhaps if we took a look at our overall health care practices, concerning our birds, we might be able to improve on this figure.
Begin your health care plan with the purchase of healthy stock obtained from a reputable source. Just because you see a cockatiel advertised for a "bargain price" does not mean that you are getting a good deal. It cost no more to take care of a healthy bird obtained from a respected breeder than it does that $20 bird bought from an unknown source.
When choosing your birds, be sure to look for a bird that is alert and responsive to his environment, has clear eyes and a clean vent area. Avoid "fluffed" birds that do not appear "normal", are not eating well, have soiled vents, or have abnormal droppings.
If you have birds at home, and are adding to your flock, be sure to quarantine any new additions for six to eight weeks. This period of isolation will allow time for any potential diseases to show up while preventing infection in your established birds. It is also a good idea to have any new cockatiels checked over by your avian veterinarian during the quarantine period.
Cockatiels should be housed in cages that provide enough room for the cockatiel to stretch his wings. Bars are best if they run horizontally so they provide a "ladder-like" climbing surface for your bird. If housing more than one bird per enclosure, be sure to take that into consideration and provide extra space. Although cockatiels enjoy sitting side-by-side, they do not enjoy being crowded together on a perch.
Cages should not be placed in direct sunlight, but cockatiels do benefit from natural sunlight coming into a room. If using artificial light, purchase full-spectrum bulbs. Natural light or full-spectrum artificial light are necessary for vitamin D to be utilized by the cockatiel. Fresh air is also a necessity for good health-avoid placing birds near areas that might contain fumes...this includes areas of heavy tobacco smoke. Air conditioners and ventilation systems should be cleaned regularly. Perches of different sizes will also be welcomed. If using natural branches, be sure that they have not been previously sprayed with any pesticides or harmful chemicals.
Cleanliness of your bird’s cage or aviary is a must ! If possible, a cage with a "drop-through" wire bottom will ensure that droppings do not accumulate where your bird can reach them. If your bird’s enclosure is a solid bottom, care must be taken to change the bottom paper often. Food and water containers must also be kept clean. Many birds will learn to use small-pet water bottles. These are especially good because the keep food and excrement out of the water. Always provide fresh food and water . Leaving moist foods for extended times will result in spoiled foods that can provide excellent habitats for disease-causing organisms.
The authors of Avian Medicine state that all disinfectants are toxic and should be used conservatively (read the labels!). When using disinfectants, be sure to first clean cages, bowls, etc. Of all debris. Chlorine bleach should be used only in well ventilated areas, and a 5% solution is effective for most uses. Some commonly used disinfectants are as follows (3):
1. Clorox bleach- kills most bacteria but is ineffective if organic debris is present. Clorox does not work against mycobacterium.
2. Roccal- kills most bacteria and is recommended for chlamydia disinfection, but ineffective if organic debris is present.
3. Nolvasan- does not work against Pseudomas bacteria or mycobacterium.
4. Phenol (One-Stroke)- kills most bacteria and is effective against candida.
Good management of cockatiels should also include care of the wings and feet. By this, I mean wing clipping and nail clipping. Most cockatiels are very muscular in their shoulders and have the capacity for strong flight. Because of this, any cockatiel kept as a pet should have their wings clipped. Rarely does this render the bird completely flightless, but it will prevent strong flight in an upward pattern. Cockatiels can be "spooked" for no apparent reason and, if unclipped, will be long gone before they realize that the are far from home. It is impossible for you to retrieve a lost bird once this happens. Also, once a cockatiel is clipped, it is not permanent. Be aware of new growth among the flight feathers and trim accordingly.
Nails should be clipped regularly. For cockatiels, human nail clippers are sufficient. Trim only a small amount of the nail at a time so that you do not accidentally cut directly into a blood vessel. If bleeding does occur, use a "quick stop" pencil or, in an emergency, some flour from the kitchen. (The "quick stop" works best !)
Nutrition affects bird health in both negative and positive ways; by causing disease because of deficiencies, toxocotoes, or imbalances or by improving a bird’s resistance against disease (4). Specific nutrient requirements of cockatiels may vary according to their physiological state (reproductive activities, growth, maintenance), environment, and health status.
Studies on the nutritional requirements of cockatiels are still hard to locate since cockatiels/exotic bird nutrition is a relatively new field. Many of the beliefs we have come from methods used by breeders that have produced long-lived birds that produce health offspring. New developments will surely result as interest in this field continues.
According to Dr. Jeanne Smith (5), growing cockatiels require a diet that is 20% protein. However, adults can be maintained on diets as low as 4% protein. In general, vitamin and mineral requirements are higher for growing birds than adults at maintenance. Protein is also an important part of the avian diet since a protein deficiency in a breeding hen will often result in decreased egg production.
It is well know that a deficiency in calcium will cause thin-shelled or soft-shelled eggs. But, did you know that it will also cause a weakening in the bones of laying hens as calcium needs are met by drawing it from the bones. Deficiencies in vitamins may cause reduced hatchability of fertile eggs. Deficiencies in riboflavin, biotin, folic acid and vitamin B12 may produce chicks with insufficient strength to complete the hatching process. If a hen shows signs of decreased egg production or there is increased embryo mortality (dead-in-shell) in your nestboxes near the end of breeding season, you might want to review your feeding program and check for signs of missing dietary requirements.
All this does not mean to "overdose" on any of the required nutrients. "More" is not necessarily "Better", especially when providing extra supplements (vitamins, minerals, etc.). Many of the requirements (including calcium and Vitamin D) can be toxic if given in excess. Always read vitamin labels for the proper dosage.
Basically, try to ensure a balanced diet by providing a variety of foods for your cockatiel. Seeds are fine since, in the wild, these birds exist on a diet of primarily seeds. However, seed diet must be supplemented with fresh foods. Pelleted diets are also being formulated with nutrition in mind. Greens (spinach, parsley, kale, and dandelion) are good sources of Vitamin A and Vitamin K. Sunflower and safflower seeds provide Vitamin E, Thiamin, Pyridoxine (B6), Niacin, Biotin, and Choline. Brewer’s yeast , as a supplement, provides Thiamin, Riboflavin, B6, Phosphorous, Magnesium, Potassium, Copper, and Selenium, as well as needed Amino Acids. This is by no means a complete list, but just serves to show the extent of involvement in just a few of the supplements. Remember, until a definitive answer to the question of nutritional needs has been derived, based on extensive nutritional studies conducted on captive birds, it is best to offer a variety of foods and consult an avian veterinarian when in doubt.
Ritchie, BW;Harrison, GJ; Harrison, LR. Avian Medicine: Principles and Applications.
Wings Publishing, Inc., Lake Worth, FL., 1994Ritchie, et al. Table 1.4, p30.Ritchie, et al. P 59.Smith, Jeanne.
Exotic Bird Report, Summer 1992.Ibid.
(*) Published average lifespan is 5-20 years as with any estimate factors such as diet and care will play a deciding final role in the lifespan of your cockatiel.