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Cockatiel Husbandry: Breeding Programs for Y2K
by Linda S. Rubin
Aviculturists have been accustomed to working with cockatiels in captivity for many decades as their "bread and butter" birds, offering handfed tame babies, breeding pairs, and top exhibition stock for sale, all of which has led to an increased popularity of the species over time. Today, the cockatiel is the number two pet bird in over 6 million US households. Interestingly, not everyone who attempts to raise cockatiels can successfully reproduce them and newcomers especially have difficulty. What is responsible for the cockatiel's continued popularity ranges from new breeding techniques learned over the years, to the dramatic appearance of fascinating new color mutations which has sparked a collective interest in both newcomers and seasoned breeders alike. Husbandry techniques gathered from avian research studies have benefited cockatiel breeders by directly improving their breeding studs or increasing their rate of reproduction. In addition, newer manufactured products ranging from prepared handfeeding formulas suitable to the cockatiel's sensitive digestive system, to brooders and other equipment, have been of tremendous aid to breeding success.
Rarer color mutations such as the Yellow-cheek, Pastel-face, Dominant Silvers, and the new Silver Suffused Yellows and their myriad combinations are impacting Cockatiel circles both on and off the show-bench at a challenging rate. The formerly known 'rares' of yesterday are now increasingly spotted at bird fairs, formally inscribed within show classifications, and currently rooted throughout classified advertisements, with a new list of contemporary mutations that continue to escalate. No longer are breeders confined to a world of a few simple sex-linked or autosomal recessive mutations. Now, the art of producing and combining such color combinations requires deliberate forethought and planning, and a better understanding of color genetics and color pigmentation to properly identify and classify new colors.
Controlled versus Colony Breeding
If the object is to produce a quantity of young during the breeding season, without concern for superior quality of individuals, or for specific color mutations, then colony breeding is a good method of producing an abundance of offspring. Experienced cockatiels make good parents and have been known to feed their own and even other pairs' young. Eager parents, both cocks and hens, have been seen diving into their own or their neighbors' nest boxes to satisfy the hungry cries of chicks that have been left temporarily unattended. While one explanation to attending to others' young might include the increased levels of certain hormones, learned behavior through trial and error to establish good parenting skills must also be credited. Additionally, some pairs seem to be better parents even on a first nest, and so possibly a genetic component has been inherited as well, whether they are merely feeding out their own or another pairs' young. To plan a successful colony, it is best to expose birds to prospective mates prior to the breeding season in order to enhance the formation of pair bonds, or else additional time must be factored in for birds to pair off at the start of the season. Any extra birds that remain unmated should be removed in order to maintain harmony within the group. Pairs that are introduced prior to the breeding season will more easily reestablish their bonds and require less time to go to nest and produce eggs. Although most pairs do form strong bonds, it is not outside the realm of possibility for a chance indiscretion to occur which the aviculturist may, or may never, witness. Therefore, it is impossible to guarantee a pedigree card when using the colony system even if the breeder is convinced of a pair's "faithfulness."
When using the colony system, it is essential to provide enough space so pairs won't be overcrowded in the flight. Ample room should prevent squabbling over nest boxes, perch space, or other established territories. The aviculturist should plan ahead, calculating how much extra room will be necessary to include the number of offspring produced who will eventually fly the nest.
A number of additional nest boxes should be provided over the number of cockatiels paired. This will offer birds some choice and keep fighting over boxes at a minimum. If the boxes are attached inside the flight, the top flat surface can become a good mating stand allowing the hen to maintain her balance while the cock is standing on her back. Nest boxes hung outside of the aviary provides the advantage of easy nest inspection without intrusion or disruption to the colony. Whether nest boxes are hung inside or outside the flight, all perches must be securely fastened for firm footholds so that effective fertilization takes place.
Nest boxes should be removed after two rounds of young are raised or no more than ten to twelve chicks per pair. If pairs continue to have access to nest boxes they will continue to breed and produce additional clutches of eggs, often to the detriment of the hen who will be robbed of important calcium stores. Continuous breeding and egg production will only rob pairs of their breeding stamina, making them ineffective parents, and burning them out as breeders at a premature age. Finally, as young chicks mature, they will be encouraged to start breeding before they are developmentally prepared to do so or ready to effectively raise their own young.
Controlled breeding, housing one pair of cockatiels per aviary or pen, is the preferred method of raising cockatiels if the aviculturist is intent on raising quality over quantity; when breeding for specific color mutations; and when attempting to produce birds for exhibition. Controlled breeding is an absolute necessity to guaranteeing proof of parentage and pedigree cards for offspring produced. Other advantages include the ability to document important data or information on specific individuals or pairs, and more control over the breeding cycle such as accurate record keeping and banding of offspring from known parentage. The major disadvantage to individual cage breeding is the increased maintenance time in servicing additional aviaries or the need for extra space required to house additional aviaries or individual pens.
Smaller collections utilizing controlled breeding methods may permanently house established pairs together. However, the majority of breeders with larger flocks maintain their birds in large resting flights, and possibly adolescent and nursery flights for younger birds so they need not compete with adults over food and territory. In the United States, aviculturists predominantly separate the sexes by housing cocks and hens in separate resting flights. The aim is to maintain control over birds so they may be repaired to mates of the aviculturist's choosing, rather than to previous bonded mates. However, sometimes bonds are so strong between a pair that a new mate will not always be accepted, although this is in the minority, especially when the original mate is within site or earshot of its call. Cockatiel pair bonds will often strengthen when they are permitted to live together in resting flights. Therefore, in order to encourage an individual to be more receptive to a new partner, established pairs are split up during the resting season then eventually repaired to new partners at the commencement of breeding season. The author has tried housing established pairs together in resting flights and found older pairs which have already raised young together to maintain exceptionally strong pair bonds as evidenced by mutual preening (allopreening), perching and sitting together, and sometimes feeding together, even in large spacious flights. In general, cockatiels in a controlled breeding environment will pair with a new partner and produce eggs within two to three weeks of introduction, provided all the necessary elements for the commencement of breeding are provided.
Most breeders have their own preferences or favorite foods that they provide for their flock. However, today, a number of manufacturers have increased their product lines to include brands suited for cockatiels based on their own nutritional research studies. Many breeders are also aware that cockatiels live longer on a low-fat diet and therefore offer a basic diet that keep fats to a minimum.
Feed: Obtain a high grade, well-cleaned cockatiel mix that contains canary seed, and white millet, with a variety of other seeds in moderation, and fortified with additional vitamins and minerals. Select a brand that is low in fat for resting birds, preferably near 4-5% fat. Breeding pairs, however, need to be offered a diet higher in both fat and protein content for the required nutrients to form eggs, develop embryos, and nourish chicks as they grow.
If available, it may be preferable to select a pelleted or extruded diet instead of seed. Pelleted products are an excellent, optimum method of feeding for both breeding and resting birds. Each pellet contains complete nutrients, there are no seed husks remaining, and pellets and extruded diets are thought to be the most nutritionally complete diets as "best known at this time."
It is important to introduce pellets according to the manufacturer's directions, as instructions do vary. There are two methods that are the most common. The first method of converting cockatiels to a pelleted or extruded diet involves mixing the pellets 50/50 with the existing seed mix, and increasing the amount of pellets over the next two weeks until only pellets remain. The second method is to offer only the pellets during the day, but replacing the seed in the evening for birds to feed so they won't go to sleep hungry. Each day the pellets are offered in this manner (some instructions do vary). It is important in both instances, however, to keep a close eye on birds so that they do not starve to death. Cockatiels are stubborn birds and creatures of habit and will often times literally starve to death rather than attempt something new or unfamiliar. Therefore, use common sense, monitor birds (ideally weigh them each morning) to see they are not losing too much weight in the process. If necessary, return to the bird's normal food and try again another time once weight has stabilized.
Another point to be aware of when feeding pelleted or extruded diets is the change in the color of the birds' droppings. Also, because there is little moisture in the pellets, birds tend to drink more water than if on an otherwise all-seed diet. One initial research study at a well-known university found that breeding cockatiels flourished with a pellet containing 20% protein, producing healthy, robust chicks. It was also learned that resting cockatiels required a lower protein level e.g., 15% when not breeding, as too high a protein level could cause damage to certain organs.
Millet Spray, Seed Treats: All cockatiels adore spray millet and the author feeds it to breeders and young daily, and resting birds each week. Millet spray is especially tempting to sick birds that often won't eat anything else, and it is a great advantage when weaning young chicks onto hard seed, pellets, or other foods. Spray millet is especially useful for new birds who, when acquired as pets, are often too frightened to move for three days, let alone eat! Just hang a spray within easy reach for positive results. There are also many other treat type foods on the market that can be fed in moderation. If such foods are packing on extra weight, cut back until birds are back to normal.
Vitamins and Minerals: If one chooses not to feed fortified products, vitamins should be added to the diet. During the breeding season, a daily offering of soft food such as a cooked corn/rice/bean mix, or egg food (provided it is replaced or removed after several hours), should be lightly salted with a powdered avian multi-vitamin/mineral supplement containing vitamins A and D3. Breeders require vitamins on a daily basis and resting birds several times each week. Cuttlebone or mineral block, a vital source of calcium for both resting and egg-laying birds, must also be provided. Breeders also sometimes provide soluble oyster shell, or chicken egg shells roasted at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Be certain to wash the shells before baking to remove any possible Salmonella bacteria.
Water: Provide clean, fresh water, on a DAILY basis, in clean, disinfected vessels. Water is vital to the metabolism of nutrients and necessary to maintain good health. Be certain to thoroughly disinfect the water vessels using only clean sanitary instruments not used for other birds. The author uses paper towels and dishwashing liquid each day to clean and rinse the vessels; and replaces all vessels every week with an alternate clean set while used vessels are scrubbed, disinfected, then run through the dishwasher and stored for future use. Interestingly, a research study entitled Cockatiel Research at the University of California at Davis (Roudybush, 1985) found that fledgling cockatiels required the provision of water in order to be successfully weaned, otherwise weaning was delayed.
Fresh Produce: A variety of fresh vegetables should be offered two to three times per week minimum, and daily to breeding, weaning, and young birds to keep them trained in the habit of eating a variety of produce. Dark green, leafy vegetables supply necessary carotene (converted by the liver into vitamin A) for example: dandelion greens (and flower), collard greens, carrot tops, and kale, rank highest in vitamin A. Other vegetables containing a variety of vitamins and minerals include: broccoli, mustard greens, fresh peas, string beans, chicory, parsley, and watercress, are all favored. Lettuce and the cabbage family contain little food value and are next to useless. Yellow/orange vegetables high in carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) include: raw carrots, and cooked vegetables such as yams, squash, sweet potato, and pumpkin. In a pinch frozen vegetables (e.g., corn, peas, carrots, and beans), can be served cooked. As with other parrots, avoid avocado and eggplant which are toxic. Fresh fruit, such as apple, orange, cut grapes, banana, and especially berries in season such as cranberries and blueberries, and pomegranates, etc. are well accepted provided birds are exposed to all these foods while young. Cherry pits are toxic and should never be fed. Cockatiels, unlike other members of the parrot family are not big fruit eaters, instead preferring fresh greens and other vegetables. Yet, fruit can become an additional part of the diet if birds are patiently trained to eat them while young.
Table Foods: Breeders with smaller collections or just a few birds may be able to provide some occasional table foods. Simple carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables, or complex carbohydrates if fed in moderation including: pastas, noodles, macaroni, brown rice, spaghetti, etc. are good when offered without the sauce. Whole grain foods such as oatmeal, sugarless cereals, pancakes, and similar breakfast foods are all good. Proteins such as cheese, scrambled or 20-minute hard-boiled eggs, small pieces of well cooked chicken or meat, can all boost the diet. As a rule of thumb, think of your cockatiel as a health food nut, never offer foods containing high fats, sugar, chocolate (it's toxic to birds), alcohol, or caffeine, all of which can cause harm or toxicity. Cockatiels must be exposed to dietary items on a regular basis to develop good eating habits. This means feeding such foods from as early an age as possible and never giving up until your bird(s) accept these foods. In time, they will. Never give up!
Breeding/Environmental Conditions: Breeding cockatiels require five prerequisites for reproduction: 1) optimum nutrition; 2) increased daylight (photolight period); 3) increased humidity; 4) an acceptable mate; and 5) an adequate nesting site. Increased or normal room temperatures can mimic the breeding season, although many breeders have been successful with lower temperatures as long as they remain constant and without fluctuation. Increased humidity via open water drinking bowls, or spray baths, signal the onset of the rainy season which wild pairs rely upon to provide the "milky stage" seeds with which they feed their young. Increased temperature and humidity for birds raised in outdoor aviaries will signal the start of the breeding season. Breeders who raise their birds indoors have an advantage of being able to control the environment, and hence the breeding season, through the provision of artificial light and extra humidity. As non seasonal breeders, cockatiels can be bred anytime of the year, as long as conditions such as the number of daylight hours are met. The photolight period may be aided by installing an automatic light timer and dimmer to indoor aviaries to provide a few extra hours of added light for parents to finish feeding hungry babies. Lights during the breeding season in the author's indoor aviary are not extended beyond 10:00 PM at night.
Humidity levels are critical to hatching eggs. If humidity is too low, chicks stick to the egg membrane and cannot rotate inside the egg to pip their way out. Conversely, too much humidity can drown a chick inside the egg. Cockatiels generally control humidity levels by sitting in an open water bowl, or bath, and returning dripping wet to the nest to sit the eggs days prior to their hatching. When necessary, either spray misting with clean water that is room temperature, in an atomizer used only for that purpose, or the provision of a humidifier may be helpful.
Pair Bonding: Cockatiels should never be set up to breed unless they are in breeding condition, which equates to top, physical health. Most reputable breeders will not set up a pair of birds until they are a minimum of twelve months old, more often at 18 months or more to allow for full maturity and good parenting skills. Breeding birds are healthy, filled with energy and vitality, and usually engage in behaviors such as chewing or burrowing under cage floor newspaper or other materials. Other behaviors include seeking suitable nesting sites, and actively courting a mate. Hens will emit a soft repetitive warble while crouching low on the perch. Cocks will engage in ritual behaviors e.g., mutual preening, possible courtship feeding, and attempt to mount the hen. While most cockatiels will accept a mate of your choosing, on rare occasion a bird may reject a prospective partner and even behave aggressively, especially if it is already pair-bonded to another bird that is within sight and sound. It is best to re-pair such birds or allow them to rest until they return to breeding condition. In recent years, breeders who raise birds for exhibition and wish their birds to pair with specific mates have found that, if they housed the pair of birds together for six to eight weeks while young, the pair would go to nest more readily when re-paired at the commencement of the breeding season. Assuming all five requirements are met as listed above, including satisfactory diet (e.g., a daily soft food mix such as corn/rice/beans dusted with vitamins, plenty of green food, and a nutritious daily breeder diet); extended photo light period; proper humidity levels; and an accepted mate; all that is required is to provide an adequate nesting site.
Breeding Pens and Nest Boxes: Cockatiels are known to reproduce quite well in pens measuring as little as four foot in length, by two and a half foot high, and two feet deep, providing pairs are rested in larger accommodations following the breeding season. Although some fanciers have had success utilizing smaller enclosures, increased problems such as feather picking, squabbling over space, etc. can result. If one has the space, ideally, individual flights should be provided housing one pair per flight for optimum results. However, care must be taken that in long flights, birds do not fly at break neck speed against a wall which could have devastating results.
Many fanciers, including the author, still utilize the twelve inch square nest box, although certainly smaller sizes can be used. The advantage of a larger box allows more space when raising young, especially if five or six chicks hatch out. Large boxes have the disadvantage of allowing eggs to roll off or chicks to wander away, especially with inexperienced parents. Some breeders may wish to use concave blocks for this purpose which will allow pairs to keep the babies together more easily. However, many breeders add an inch or two of white pine shavings and allow the hens to eliminate what they do not use. Extra care must be taken that chicks do not become lost in a mass of shavings unable to return or be retrieved by a parent, especially by an inexperienced one. Most pairs usually accept a two to two and a half inch nest entrance hole.
Nest boxes should be thoroughly disinfected at the conclusion of the breeding season and stored in a clean, dry, area. Breeders utilizing the traditional plywood, pine, or other wooden boxes should consider replacing them at the end of the season as wood is porous and cannot be completely disinfected. The author now solely uses aluminum nest boxes that can be completely disinfected and stored at the end of the breeding season.
Breeding Cycle: Provided all elements are in place (including the prerequisites of extended light and increased humidity), most pairs will go to nest and produce eggs on an average of ten to fourteen days after being placed in a breeding pen with an acceptable mate, nest box, and conditioning diet. Eggs hatch between 18 and 21 days, depending upon when the hen first begins to sit the clutch. Virgin hens, in particular, may not sit until the appearance of the second or third egg. DO NOT PREMATURELY OPEN THE EGGS. Allow the hen an extra week to sit, unless you hear constant peeping and have to provide assistance. If necessary, seek an experienced breeder to help if you have never assisted a hatching before. Both cocks and hens share the duties of incubation, feeding and sitting the chicks. In pairs with especially strong pair bonds, cocks and hens may sit simultaneously, especially through the night. Otherwise, cocks perch as sentry guard outside the nest box at night.
Chicks hatch out with a sparse covering of yellow down, or in the Whiteface mutations and their crosses with white down, with eyes closed. Depending upon bloodlines, chicks may be closed banded between ten days and two weeks of age on average, around the time the eye slits are opening. Very large exhibition size chicks may have to be banded earlier while smaller pet quality chicks may have to be banded later. Check the chicks each morning to be certain the band remains on the leg. The chicks will generally fledge at four to five weeks of age when they leave the nest box to investigate the pen. They are fully feathered except for their short tails and are still entirely dependent upon their parents for food. They will learn from their parents to sample, play with, and pick up food, and attempt to return to the box at night to sleep until they are fully weaned.
Chicks wean from seven to ten weeks, eight being average, when parent-reared. Handfed chicks may require from eight to ten weeks, with some individuals weaning later. Always remember each chick is an individual and will wean, as some research has shown us, when they are developmentally ready to do so, and not before. Chicks that continue to beg for food and do not have a full crop should continue to be fed until they fill their crops on their own at night.
As a general rule, no more than two full clutches, or ten to twelve chicks total, should be allowed per pair per breeding season. The only exception is the farming out of an additional clutch to foster parents or assisting pairs by handfeeding young. The conclusion of the breeding cycle should be followed by a minimum of a six month break in a long resting flight. Encouraging further nesting will only overburden pairs in the long run, exhausting or prematurely limiting their reproductive life span. Exceptions might include pulling young for handfeeding or fostering eggs to other under-accomplished pairs, provided all birds are healthy. However, it should be realized that an enormous amount of energy and nutrition go into forming each individual egg and pairs should not be purposely overtaxed, or such birds and their offspring will pay the price.
While many breeders prefer to handfeed young to obtain tame chicks to resell, it must be stated that such pairs should be allowed to raise at least one nest of chicks each season, so that the instinct to feed their young and perform good parenting is preserved and passed on to their offspring. These youngsters in turn, will mature into good parents who are also capable parents. If we continue to deny our birds the opportunity to raise their own young, we will eventually create large gene pools of cockatiels that aren't capable of raising a nest of chicks on their own.
The genetics of cockatiel color mutations is becoming interesting as it starts to pick up in both the number of rising new mutations, additional modes of inheritance, as well as developing a new understanding of color pigmentation. Many of us are now aware that the Tyndall Effect, or Rayleigh Light Scattering as it is commonly called, may not apply to parrots, including cockatiels. Groups in Europe and America are starting to re-examine color pigments by looking at feathers under the microscope. While the average aviculturist does not wish to learn such terms as eumelanin pigment, schizochroism or argue about the true definition of "dilution," it is important that we do agree upon terms which have a scientific basis, while being understandable to breeders. Unfortunately, at this time our newest mutation is being called either "emerald," or "olive," which is in the author's opinion, most disheartening. For the moment, I believe Silver Suffused Yellow might be a more accurate description although there is still more that remains to understand this mutation and its unique appearance.
While most of us who work with the new mutation agree that it is an autosomal recessive, it is still not clear whether the Silver is the same autosomal Silver we have been working with, a cross with the Dominant Silver (owing to an appearance of a skullcap in some individuals), or even if Fallow has combined as a cross-mutation resulting in the yellow suffusion which permeates the heavier marked individuals. The question is which pigments are involved (e.g., eumelanin brown, psittacines, xanthophylls, schizochroic gray)? Undoubtedly, the future will provide more answers.
A final concern is one that our friends in the Budgerigar Fancy faced some years ago when attempting to save their pure homozygous Normal Greens which carried no other mutations. It is now becoming increasingly difficult to find a pure, homozygous Normal Grey cockatiel that is not split to at least one or more mutations. Why is this important? Because one day we may discover that pure Normals not only help produce other colors (a treatise could be written of this subject alone), but that pure Normals, or our original wild type cockatiel, can help to invigorate our remaining mutation stock. If you have any pure Normal Greys, or can produce a small group, it would be to your best interest to do so as many exhibitors today are attempting to locate such Normal stock. You could eventually be one of the few with such birds.
Roudybush, Dr. Tom, (1985), American Federation of Aviculture national convention.
Rubin, Linda S. (1997), Cockatiels: Breeding Smart, self-published by Aves Communications, Boston, MA, USA
Rubin, Linda S. (2000), "Cockatiel Husbandry: Progressive Breeding Programs in Y2K," a talk presented at the American Federation of Aviculture 26th national convention in Los Angeles, California, USA.
Linda Rubin (USA)
Ms. Rubin established Tangowood Aviary in 1975, producing exhibition quality cockatiels and other parrots. Her columns and articles have appeared in Bird Times, Bird Talk, Australian Birdkeeper, Cage & Aviary Birds, and others. A Panel Judge for the North American Parrot Society and the National Cockatiel Society, Ms. Rubin is a popular speaker on all aspects of cockatiel husbandry.