By Tony Silva
The worldwide obsession is for a large parrot. Everyone, including a beginner with no experience, wants a large parrot. They are certainly gaudy, intelligent and can make a good pet if you have some experience in handling larger parrots. That these individuals overlook the Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandicus is unfortunate, for it is almost the perfect pet, being quiet, gentle, beautiful, capable of whistling and some of talking and is readily available at a price that suits every pocket. Its ubiquity has resulted in them often being neglected. Breeders often feed them poorly or offer them conditions that doom the chicks they produce. In this article I would like to address some basic care information that will result in the full potential of the Cockatiel as a pet or aviary bird being reached.
The Cockatiel was one of the first parrots I bred. They taught me many lessons about the importance of nest hygiene, diet and hand-rearing. That foundation persists with me today, more than 40 years after I acquired my first pair. I have always liked the species and recently began to keep them again. This renewed interest came about when I walked into a feed store and saw a group that were doomed to die. They were suffering from bacterial and fungal infections. I bought them and placed them in our quarantine room. Cultures were performed, revealing a severe bacterial infection. They were also suffering from yeast—a problem that is incipient in this species.
Because the Cockatiel is inexpensive and breeds readily many breeders believe they require no effort. They feed millet seeds, occasionally some oats and if the birds are lucky wheat or husked rice. When they breed, the chicks quickly begin to show signs of malnutrition: stunted sizes, poor weight gains and illness—their eyes become shrunken, they show dehydration, they lose condition and they die. I have in recent decades seen Cockatiels that because of this neglect were no bigger than an English Budgerigars Melopsittacus undulatus. The situation is aggravated when the breeders use pots for nesting purposes. These ceramic receptacles are nothing more than a death trap unless they are cleaned continuously. Most breeders do not understand this. When I ask to see chicks from such nests their nails are often covered in globules of dried fecal matter. I have even seen pots in which maggots proliferated. Breeders that use pots need to understand the harm that they are causing their birds unless they are cleaned daily. I invariably get very angry when I see pots in use because I know that only a handful will keep them clean. A wooden nesting box is a much healthier alternative. The pair can chew slivers of wood from the walls to help maintain hygiene. The wood is more porous and will absorb some of the liquid in the droppings. It is also easier to clean, which I recommend occur at least once weekly while chicks are being reared. In slightly deep wooden nests one can add shavings to make the nest more sanitary. These shavings can be changed weekly.
The other common mistake with Cockatiels is diet. In birds you get back what you put into them. You cannot expect robust, healthy young from a poor diet. There is no other reality.
Cockatiels can be kept on either a pelleted or seed mix. I prefer non-coloured pellets, as I believe the dyes used to colour the pellets irritate the gut and make the birds vulnerable to yeast infection. If pellets are not available, then a seed mix is recommended. I would mix 2-3 types of millets, oats, wheat, milo, barley, buckwheat, and a little hemp, small sunflower or safflower, the latter three especially if they are nesting. This seed diet alone is not nutritious and must be supplemented with other items. Whole grain bread, greens (kale, Moringa leaves, collard greens, endive, carrot and beet tops, spinach, the pads of Opuntia cactus, and more), vegetables (steamed carrot, pumpkin and broccoli and raw peas) and some eggfood. In tropical areas, Moringa (called Drumstick tree in India) is an incredible food, the birds eating the pods, leaves and bark. Moringa contains 9 essential amino acids, is rich in plant-based iron and fiber, as well as vitamins A and K, protein, calcium, magnesium and antioxidants. The plant can be fed fresh or the leaves can be dried, crushed and the powder added to the eggfood. In addition the plant is super fast growing and does not require much attention. I do not favour feeding fresh corn or fruits, as the sugar content in these can augment a yeast infection; only field corn that is not sweet can be used and then it should be offered fresh.
The eggfood is made from boiled egg, grated carrot, endive, wheat germ and whole grain bread, all put through a food processor and made into a crumbly mixture. This mix can be stored in the refrigerator for use over no more than three days. I do not normally recommend feeding eggfood to parrots but for Cockatiels, lovebirds and Budgerigars it is a means of providing a nutritious food. The eggfood should not be fed throughout the year but only to induce breeding and to provide a rich, digestible food for rearing young. One Indian breeder who used this food produced young that on average were 18% heavier simply by augmenting a totally deficient seed diet with eggfood.
When feeding eggfood it is important to ensure that it does not spoil or that the fallen bits do not sit in a cage, where the birds can eat them later. Hygiene is always important but even slight negligence when feeding eggfood can result in dead birds.
Pet birds can be fed the above diet minus the eggfood.
A vitamin/mineral supplement can be added to the steamed vegetables or eggfood. I do not subscribe to the use of water-soluble vitamins. Normally the birds have to drink such a large volume to obtain any benefit that it makes little or no difference. Moreover, in a warm climate the vitamins and minerals deteriorate quickly once in water. Finally if this supplement has some sweetener added to make it more palatable, the risk of yeast infection is increased. When birds are fed a balanced diet there is no need for a vitamin/mineral supplement.
Hand-rearing Cockatiels is not an easy task. I often point out in my lectures to beginners that if you can master the art of hand-rearing the Cockatiel you can hand-rear any parrot species. This is because they are vulnerable to yeast and bacterial infection.
The keys to success in hand-rearing Cockatiels are the following:
- Maintain strict hygiene. The bedding should be changed at least twice daily and they should be kept in a well-ventilated brooder. Condensation and poor hygiene contribute to yeast infection. These birds come from dry areas and do poorly when the humidity in the brooder is high.
- The tools used for hand-rearing needs to be washed with soapy water, disinfected and then allowed to dry between feedings. The soap removes the fat in hand-rearing formulas and organic matter, which would otherwise affect the cleaning capabilities of the disinfectant. Allowing the tools to dry is an added step to ensure that the tools are clean.
- Feed a low fat formula. Cockatiels evolved to feed on foods low in fat. High fat formulas appear to augment the risk of yeast infection, as the transit time through the gut is slowed.
- Never overfeed. Feed just enough so that the crop is almost empty before the next feed. Over feeding can cause digestive disruptions and slowed crop. The ideal target is feeding 10% of the body weight.
- Feed formula that is on the warm side (105°F, 40.5°C) as chilled formula can contribute to digestion problems.
- If the crop slows, place the chick on an antifungal or use an apple cider vinegar mix (4 ml/liter or 1.25 ml per 250 ml of water) when preparing the formula. Removing soured food from a slowed crop is important in addressing the problem. If food is removed, a cumin water mix (1 teaspoon of cumin seeds boiled in 250 ml of water) will help in washing the crop and deter a yeast bloom.
- Introduce seeds, millet sprays or pellets when the chicks are mainly feathered. Giving large pieces of greens often induces the chicks to explore and experiment on chewing.
- Starvation will not assist in weaning. Take the process slow and ensure that the chick is healthy, as an ill chick can complicate weaning.
Because Cockatiels can breed the entire year if given the opportunity, pairs should be separated after the second or third clutch has been produced and placed in a flight cage to regain their condition; allowing them to continuously breed will sap their stamina and produce small, weak young that will likely die from bacterial and fungal infections. The pair can be allowed to interact in a group of same sex individuals until the next breeding season.
When properly reared, the Cockatiel is an awesome pet that can prove long-lived. As an aviary bird it will give tremendous joy. For both the pet owner and breeder adhering to a good diet and strict hygiene are keys to success.
Normal Grey Cockatiels. Photograph by Danielle Bamforth/www.daneyephotography.com
Normal Grey cock bird. Photograph by Danielle Bamforth/www.daneyephotography.com