Cockatiel

A Very Popular Pet Bird That Enjoys Mimicry

Girl holding cockatiel
Steve Weinrebe/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Cockatiels are among the most popular pet birds. Small parrots with a variety of color patterns and a crest, they are attractive as well as friendly and easy to tame.

Due to their small size, cockatiel care and taming are easier than many other parrot species. They are capable of mimicking speech, although they can be difficult to understand. However, they are quite good at whistling and can often be taught to whistle tunes.

Common Name

Cockatiel, Tiel, Quarrion, Weiro

Scientific Name

Nymphicus hollandicus

Origin and History

In their native Australia, cockatiels are known as quarrions or weiros and they primarily live in the outback. They were discovered in 1770 and are members of the cockatoo family because they exhibit many of the same features and habits as the larger bird. In the wild, they live in large flocks. 

Cockatiels became popular as pets in the 1900s. They are easy to breed in captivity and their docile, friendly personalities make them a natural fit for home life. These birds, along with all native animals, can no longer be trapped and exported from Australia.

Size

The smallest cockatoo, cockatiels grow to just 12 or 13 inches from their head to tail. A healthy weight is between two and four ounces.

Average Lifespan

Cockatiels regularly live 15 to 20 years with proper care. Some people have reported birds that lived as long as 30 years, though this is rare.

Temperament

These little birds have a reputation as a gentle and docile bird. They are very affectionate and often like to be petted and held, though they're not necessarily fond of cuddling. Instead, they simply want to be near their owner and will be very happy to see you.

You will also find cockatiels to be playful and active.

While they vocalize and whistle they are not as loud as some other parrots. The males are thought to be better at mimicking speech and whistles. Female cockatiels are quite good at mimicry, though. Either sex may pick up and repeat sounds from your house, including alarm clocks, phones, and even wild birds outside.

Though they're generally friendly, an untamed cockatiel can nip. This behavior can be prevented at an early age by ignoring the bad behavior. Never scold the bird because this can cause him to become too timid around people. They aim to please, so reward good behavior and disregard the bad.

Cockatiel Colors and Markings

The wild cockatiel has a gray body with a yellow face and crest and orange cheek patch. The colors on the face are brighter and more vivid in the male, and the female has bars on the underside of the tail feathers.

Since they are bred in captivity for pets, a number of color mutations have been established over the years. The most common established variation include:

  • Albino: A lack of feather pigmentation.
  • Lutino: A white bird with a yellow mask, orange cheeks, and red eyes.
  • Pied: The colors typical of a wild cockatiel are replaced with a yellow or off-white color.
  • Pearl, Laced, or Opaline: A spotting of various colors that creates tiny "pearls" along the feathers.
  • Cinnamon, Fawn, or Isabelle: The grey feathers have more of a brown or warm tan color.
  • Silver: There is both a recessive silver and dominant silver cockatiel mutation. In the recessive, the feathers have a cool gray color and the birds have red eyes. Dominant silver cockatiels will have a warmer tone and dark eyes.

Other mutations include emerald, creamface, pastelface, whiteface, and yellow cheek cockatiels. The differences between males and females vary in the different color variations. They can sometimes be hard to distinguish, especially in young birds.

Caring for Cockatiels

Pairs of birds make good company for each other but they usually will not bond as well with their owners or mimic speech and sounds.

A single bird is fine as long as you spend a significant amount of time interacting with the cockatiel on a daily basis. If your lifestyle doesn't allow this, a pair of birds will prevent loneliness and self-harming behavior.

These birds are naturally messy and they naturally produce a powder on their feathers. It is used in grooming and may leave a powdery coating on cages and accessories. Regular cleaning is necessary and many cockatiel cages come with a removable bottom tray to make the task easier.

Cockatiels are active and playful and should have a large cage. Opinions on the minimum size vary, but a good rule of thumb is at least 20 inches square and 26 inches tall.

The spacing on the cage bars should be no more than 3/4-inch because any larger will create a safety hazard. Horizontal cage bars offer the best opportunity for the bird to climb and much-needed exercise. There should be space to place at least a couple of perches at different levels with enough space to comfortably move between them.

You will want to clip your cockatiel's wings and nails at least twice a year. It's very important that you learn to do it properly because these small birds can bleed to death. If you're uncomfortable with this, an aviary veterinarian or breeder can do it for you.

Cockatiels are subject to a few household dangers. Avoid placing the bird's cage in drafty areas or where he can be exposed to cooking fumes like that from Teflon cookware. Both of these are known to make cockatiels sick.

Feeding Cockatiels

Variety is the key to a healthy diet for any parrot, including the cockatiel. Seeds can be a nutritious part of the diet but they are high in fat so should only make up a portion of the diet. Some experts recommend no more than about 30 percent of the bird's diet should be seed.

Pelleted diets are often a good choice for birds as they are nutritionally balanced and birds can't pick out their favorite seeds and leave the rest. However, with both seeds and pellets, a wide variety of other foods should complement the diet.

To keep your cockatiel healthy, offer a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit. Persistence might be needed before your bird will try new foods, particularly if they are accustomed to an all-seed diet. Proteins such as hard-boiled egg, legumes, and cooked meats can be offered in moderation. Sprouted seeds are also an excellent way to add variety to your bird's diet.

With any bird, avoid avocados, chocolate, coffee, and salt because they can be toxic.

Exercise

As with any parrot, exercise is going to make a cockatiel happy and help maintain his physical and mental health. If your bird will spend most of the time in a cage, be sure it's large enough to fly in and has plenty of stimulation to let him play. Perches, ladders, and toys should be plentiful while leaving him room to move.

Though not as important as with other birds, it's best to give your cockatiel a good amount of time outside the cage as well. This is important for socialization and allows him to stretch his wings.

Cockatiels can learn a variety of tricks over time. From waving and whistling to bell ringing, they're smart little birds that will enjoy a new challenge. Many cockatiels will even keep themselves occupied for hours talking to the "other bird" in a mirror.

Adoption

When choosing a bird, it is best to choose a hand-fed baby or at least a young bird that has been handled regularly. Prices will vary with color and you can expect to pay a bit more from a conscientious breeder. A well-handled young bird is worth any extra cost.

Cockatiels are widely available at pet stores, but these birds may have an unknown history. As a result, they may be older, not used to being handled, and harder to tame.

Look for a bird that is bright, alert, and active. A bird sitting quietly with puffed feathers might be ill and is best to be avoided.

The bird's feathers should be smooth and shiny and lay down flat on the body. The feathers around the vent/cloaca should be clean, dry, and free of fecal matter. The scales on the feet should be smooth, the nails in good condition, the beak smooth and well-shaped, and the nostrils clear and clean.

More Pet Bird Species and Further Research

If you’re interested in similar species, check out:

Otherwise, check out all of our other small talking bird species profiles.