All About Cockatiels

PetMD Editorial
By PetMD Editorial on Jul. 5, 2016
All About Cockatiels

By Cheryl Lock

With their vibrant colors, Mohawk-like hair and cheeky personalities, cockatiels can certainly make wonderful pets — but do you know enough about this bird breed to take one home and care for it? Despite their small stature, these birds require a lot of attention and maintenance, so it’s important to do your research before bringing home a cockatiel of your own.  Here’s what need to know about these beautiful birds to give your cockatiel the best life possible.

Where Do Cockatiels Come From?

Cockatiels are native to the semi-arid regions of Australia, preferring open environments, where they can forage on the ground, to dense rainforests other birds (like parrots) prefer, according to Birdlife, Australia’s largest bird conservation organization.

The cockatiel’s popularity should come as no surprise, as they’ve actually been domesticated for years. “The trend in the parrot industry has gone from larger birds to smaller birds,” said Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice) of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics. Because of their smaller size—and quieter demeanor—cockatiels can often be boarded with more ease than other birds, potentially making them more appealing to pet parents with an interest in travel, Hess said.

Cockatiel Temperament and Characteristics

The temperament of the cockatiel may also contribute to its popularity as a pet.

“I recommend cockatiels as first birds for many families because they’re great starter birds,” said Hess. “They’re big enough to have interactive personalities, and they can say some words if you work with them, but they’re also very social and love to hang out with their family members. Plus, they’re not so big that they’re scary for smaller children.”

Cockatiels can also be described as playful and social, said, Dr. Kimberlee A. Buck, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Canine and Feline Practice), Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice). In general, these birds like to interact with people, but should be handled gently because of their smaller size, she said. Children in particular should be supervised around cockatiels and taught to handle them gently without compressing their chests so they can’t breathe.

Like most birds, cockatiels tend to have fairly long life expectancies and can live into their twenties, Hess said, so it’s important to keep in mind that your new feathered friend will be in your home for quite some time.

Additionally, if you already have another bird, you might want to think twice before bringing home a cockatiel, unless you plan to keep them living in separate cages. “You can’t really generalize that any bird will get along with another bird, unless you’ve raised them together from when they were young,” she said. “They can be introduced to other birds, but I wouldn’t recommend having them live in the same cage.”

Caring for Your Cockatiel

Before bringing home a cockatiel, consider some of the varying ways that you’ll need to care for your new pet, including the following:

Diet: While it used to be common convention to feed birds a diet of seeds alone, Hess said, these days, bird specialists generally will recommend cockatiels live on a diet consisting mostly of pellets. “They make pellets specifically for your type of bird, and they’re nutritionally complete, so about 70 percent of your cockatiel’s diet should be those pellets,” she said.

Outside of pellets, the other 30 percent of your cockatiel’s diet can be composed of fresh fruits and vegetables in small amounts, as well as seeds as treats (they have too much fat in them to be considered a regular food source). “Cockatiels have high vitamin-A requirements, so bell peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes and tomatoes are great to feed your bird in small quantities,” Hess said.

Steer clear of avocados and onions, which can be toxic to birds, as well as anything with salt, chocolate or caffeine. When in doubt, always ask your vet before feeding your bird something new. Remember also that your bird will likely graze throughout the day, which is fine, but at the end of the day, be sure to remove any fruits or vegetables that were left behind and could grow stale in the cage.

Grooming: In the wild, cockatiels are constantly wearing their nails down by jumping on branches and rocks, but in captivity, you’ll need to trim those nails yourself every couple of months. A small nail trimmer meant for a human infant can be used to safely trim their nails (if you stay away from the reddish-pink blood vessel running down the middle of the nail that can bleed if clipped) and an Emory board or Dremel drill can also be used to file down the nail tips. While wing trimming is somewhat controversial, Hess recommends it for birds who will be flying free in the house from time-to-time, since they could accidentally fly into windows and mirrors (or out of the door). It’s good to have some control over where your bird can fly if you are trying to train your bird to step up on your hand or on to a perch. Of course, whether or not you trim your bird’s wings is a matter of opinion, Hess said, and it’ll depend on each individual situation. Wing feathers that have been trimmed will grow back in a few months.

Medical conditions: According to Hess, cockatiel owners should be on the lookout for reproductive issues in their birds. “Cockatiels are reproductively active, and they are the most prolific egg layers we see, with the ability to lay eggs every 48 hours,” she said.

For domestic birds, this prolific egg-laying can lead to issues like egg binding (where the eggs get stuck in the reproductive tract) and other reproductive issues. These birds are also may develop other medical problems including bacterial infections, nutritional deficiencies, and kidney failure.

“Most people don’t bring their birds to the vet, but you should bring your cockatiel when you first get it and then annually,” Hess said. “The older they get, the more likely they are to develop issues like atherosclerosis, gout (or kidney failure) and other diseases associated with aging. Because these birds are prey animals, they often hide their signs until they’re really sick, so you might not even be able to tell something’s wrong until it’s too late. It’s important to stay ahead of medical problems.”

Habitat: While it’s okay to let your bird fly around from time-to-time (and you should!), your cockatiel will be safest when kept in a cage, preferably a wide one with a variety of perches of varying thickness, so they aren’t always putting pressure on the same spots on the bottom of their feet, Buck said.


In the wild, these birds are also usually doing some kind of “job,” like finding mates and looking for nesting sites, Hess said, so in captivity they should have toys to keep them mentally stimulated and engaged. Good options include things they can look under or lift up to find their food. “They’ll also need exposure to an ultraviolet light for several hours a day, which you’ll need to change every six months to help them make vitamin D in their skin, which is essential to enabling them to extract calcium from their food,” Hess added.

Some birds like to bathe, too, so consider putting dishes in their cage that they can jump into, or mist them daily with a spray bottle, or take them into the shower with you. Since these birds are social, leaving the radio or television on, especially when you’re not home, can further keep them stimulated, Hess said.

Fresh air and ventilation is important for your cockatiel, so your bird’s cage should never be placed in a kitchen. “Birds are sensitive to the fumes of Teflon pans, and if they’re in the kitchen, and you burn a non-stick pan, the bird could actually die of the fumes,” Hess said. Bird owners ideally should not use non-stick pans at all for this reason.

Keep in mind that it’s also not necessary to cover your bird’s cage with a towel or blanket at night — most cockatiels will understand the difference between night and day intuitively Buck said.

Where to Buy Cockatiel

Once you’re ready to bring one of these birds home, you’ll need to find a place to get your winged friend. While it will probably be easy to find a cockatiel in your local pet store, both Hess and Buck recommend first looking into either a small breeder or a rescue organization.

“Many of these birds are available for rescue, which is the best place to start,” Hess said. “If you want a young bird specifically, you can try a breeder, because birds tend to be healthier when raised in an individual’s home rather than exposed to many other birds of unknown health status in a store.”

Regardless of where you get your bird, one of your first trips should be to an avian veterinarian for a check-up. “Cockatiels can carry some diseases that are transmittable to people,” Hess said. “Your bird won’t necessarily have any signs of illness, you’re your bird will need some blood tests, a stool sample analysis, and a complete physical examination to check for underlying illness.”

Image: Africa Studio via Shutterstock 

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