Gentle, quiet and affectionate, the cockatiel makes an easy-going feathered pet for those who are starting out with their first parrot, or stepping up from caring for budgies.
Because of its sweet nature, modest size and colourful head and crest, this is a very popular pet around the world. And, unlike its cockatoo cousin, it is not noisy or inclined to sonic-screaming and nasty finger biting. Hardy and adaptable, they can be left alone for long periods, and their intelligence and inquisitiveness makes them easy to train. Cockatiels (particularly males) can learn up to 200 words, and love whistling long, complicated tunes they pick up around the house, including phone ring tones.
The natural colour of a cockatiel is grey with a yellow head and orange cheek patches. Similar to the cockatoo, they have the same characteristic grey-and-yellow crest, which they raise when excited, annoyed or curious. Having been bred in captivity for a long time, there are now many colour variations. Lutinos, first bred in the 1950s, have a yellow body with a darker yellow head and bright-orange cheek patches. Pearls originated in Belgium in the 1960s and have light-grey body feathers outlined in white. Cinnamons have a very light-brown body, and pied cockatiels have white or yellow bodies with grey wings. A cockatiel in New Zealand will cost between $60 and $160, depending on its colour.
At 30 - 33cm in length, this parrot is comparatively small, but you should buy the biggest cage you can afford. Your pet needs room to spread its wings and climb around without damaging its very long tail. Fit out the cage with perches of different diameters so they can exercise their feet. Do not use smooth doweling for bird perches – use branches from live trees such as apple, willow and citrus, and keep the bark on them. Place non-glossy paper on the bottom of the cage and clean it out daily. Intelligent birds such as cockatiels need a variety of toys to keep them amused. Those toys with mirrors, open bells and chewable items are perfect, but they must be safe – don’t give a bird a toy that you wouldn’t give a child - and rotate them on a regular basis.
Cockatiels are fussy eaters and must have a varied diet of seeds, pellets, vegetables and fruit. They also like crackers and pasta, and will try to grab anything they see you eating. Buy only quality seeds (preferably produced in New Zealand and not heat-treated) and pellets made especially for cockatiels. Don’t feed them sunflower seeds, which are quite addictive and will make them fat. Apple slices and greens such as broccoli heads, snow peas, bok choy, sprouts, celery, thistle, milkweed, strips of beans and millet sprays clipped between wires are good. But never, ever feed a bird avocado!
Essentially a hardy parrot, cockatiels are susceptible to worm infestations and feather mites, and require worming about every six to eight months. Your bird specialist or vet can advise you on suitable treatments.
If your pet is scratching a lot, then it probably has mites. You might find evidence of this in the elbow bend of the wing – where the mites chew the inner feathers. Use a reputable anti-mite spray every three months for prevention, and also spray the cage after washing it out with vinegar and water.
Young birds are prone to breaking their tail feathers, and unless you want your young pet to end up looking more like a quail you need to strengthen its feathers with Calcium-Sandos supplement available from pet stores. If your pet does lose some tail feathers, don’t be alarmed, a bird specialist or vet can remove the remaining feathers so they all grow back evenly.
Cockatiels that are kept in the house often have their wings clipped. It would be heartbreaking to lose your pet through an open window or door and, as flock birds, they will not survive alone in the wild. Have the clipping done professionally so it can still fly short distances and it will be barely noticeable to the eye.
With good care and a healthy diet, your pet cockatiel will live to around 15 years or much longer – into its late 20s in many cases. With help from your vet and a bird specialist you can expect to enjoy one of the most sweet-natured parrots kept in captivity.