Understanding Cockatiel





Most new bird owners have high expectations for developing a loving relationship with their pet.

The goal is to nurture a relationship with your cockatiel that will result in a bird who will interact well with people, be pleasant company, and show few signs of aggressiveness (such as screaming). Sometimes, however, we forget that birds in captivity are not in their natural surroundings and can’t always live up to our expectations. Knowing about, understanding, and respectng your cockatiel’s natural behavior will help you both have a trusting and happy relationship.

Common Cockatiel Behaviors


The following common avian behaviors are listed in alphabetical order to help you better understand your new, feathered friend.

Attention Getting


As your cockatiel becomes more settled in your home, don’t be surprised if you hear subtle little fluffs coming from under the cage cover first thing in the morning. It’s as if your bird is saying “I hear that you’re up. I’m up too! Don’t forget to uncover my cage and play with me.” Other attention-getting behaviors include gently shaking toys, sneezing, and soft vocalizations.

Beak Grinding


If you hear your bird making odd little grinding noises as he’s drifting off to sleep, don’t be alarmed. Beak grinding is a sign of a contented pet bird, and it’s commonly heard as a bird settles in for the night.

Beak Wiping


After a meal, it’s common for a cockatiel to wipe his beak against a perch or on the cage floor to clean it.

Birdie Aerobics


This is how I describe a sudden bout of stretching that all parrots seem prone to. An otherwise calm bird will suddenly grab the cage bars and stretch the wing and leg muscles on one side of his body, or he will raise both wings in imitation of an eagle.

Eye Pinning


This is what happens when your cockatiel sees something that excites him. His pupils will become large, then contract, then get large again.

Birds will pin their eyes when they see a favorite food, a favored person, another bird, or a special toy. In larger parrots, this can also be a sign of confused emotions that can leave an owner vulnerable to a nasty bite.

Your parakeet may also bite when he’s in “emotional overload,” so watch out!




 

Feather Picking


Feather picking often results from physical problems, such as a dietary imbalance, a hormonal change, a thyroid problem, or an infection of the skin or feathers. Cockatiels who suddenly begin picking their feathers, especially the feather under the wings, may have an intestinal parasite called giardia.

It can also be caused by emotional upset, such as a change in the owner’s appearance, a change in the bird’s routine, another pet being added to the home, a new baby in the home, or a number of other stressors. Although it looks painful to us, some birds find the routine of pulling out their feathers emotionally soothing.

Once a bird starts feather picking, it may be difficult to get him to stop. If you notice that your bird suddenly starts pulling his feathers out, contact your avian veterinarian for an evaluation.

Fluffing


This is often a prelude to preening or a tension releaser. If your bird fluffs up, stays fluffed, and resembles a little feathered pinecone, however, contact your avian veterinarian for an appointment because fluffed feathers can be a sign of illness.

Hissing


If your cockatiel hisses, it’s because he’s frightened of something in his environment and he’s trying to scare it away by hissing.

Mutual Preening


This is part of the preening behavior described on page 101, and it can take place between birds or between birds and their owners. Mutual preening is a sign of affection reserved for best friends or mates, so consider it an honor if your cockatiel wants to preen your eyebrows, hair, mustache, or beard, or your arms and hands.

Napping


You will probably catch your cockatiel taking a little birdnap during the day.
These active little birds seem to be either going full-tilt, playing and eating, or catching a few zzzz’s. As long as you see no other indications of illness, such as a loss of appetite or a fluffed-up appearance, there is no need to worry if your pet sleeps during the day.

Pair Bonding


Mated pairs bond, but so do best bird buddies of the same sex. Buddy pairs will demonstrate some of the same behavior as mated pairs, including sitting close to each other, preening each other, and mimicking one another’s actions, such as stretching or scratching, often at the same time.




 

Possessiveness


Cockatiels can become overly attached to one person in the household, especially if that person is the one who is primarily responsible for the bird’s care.

Indications of a possessive cockatiel can include hissing and other threatening gestures made toward other family members, and pair bonding behavior with the chosen family member. You can keep your cockatiel from becoming possessive by having all members of the family spend time with him from the time you first bring him home. Encourage different members of the family to feed the bird and clean his cage, and make sure all family members play with the bird and socialize with him while he’s out of his cage.

Preening


This is part of a cockatiel’s normal routine. You will see your bird ruffling and straightening his feathers each day. He will also take oil from the uropygial or preen gland at the base of his tail and put it on the rest of his feathers, so don’t be concerned if you see your pet seeming to peck or bite at his tail. If, during molting, your bird seems to remove whole feathers, don’t panic! Old, worn feathers are pushed out by incoming new ones, which make the old feathers loose and easy to remove.

Regurgitating


If you see that your bird is pinning his eyes, bobbing his head, and pumping his neck and crop muscles, he is about to regurgitate some food for you. Birds regurgitate to their mates during breeding season and to their young while raising chicks. It is a mark of great affection to have your bird regurgitate his dinner for you, so try not to be too disgusted if your pet starts bringing up his latest meal.

Resting on One Foot


Do not be alarmed if you see your cockatiel occasionally resting on only one foot. This is normal behav- ior (the resting foot is often drawn up into the belly feathers). If you see your bird always using both feet to perch, please contact your avian veterinarian because this can indicate a health problem.

Screaming


Well-cared-for cockatiels will vocalize quietly, but birds who feel neglected and have little attention paid to them may become screamers. Once a bird becomes a screamer, it can be a difficult habit to break, particularly since the bird feels rewarded with your negative attention every time he screams. You may not think that yelling angrily at your bird is a reward, but at least the bird gets to see you and to hear from you as you tell him (often in a loud, dramatic way) to be quiet.

Remember to give your bird regular, consistent attention (at least thirty minutes a day), provide him with an interesting environment, including a variety of toys, feed him a well-balanced diet, and leave a radio or television on when you’re away to provide background noise, and your bird shouldn’t become a screamer.

Sneezing


In pet birds, sneezes are classified as either nonproductive or productive.
Nonproductive sneezes clear a bird’s nares (what we think of as nostrils) and are nothing to worry about. Some birds even stick a claw into their nares to induce a sneeze from time to time, much as a snuff dipper takes a pinch to produce the same effect. Productive sneezes, on the other hand, produce a discharge and are a cause for concern. If your bird sneezes frequently and you see a discharge from his nares or notice that the area around his nares is wet, contact your avian veterinarian immediately to set up an appointment to have your bird’s health checked.

Tasting/Testing Things with the Beak


Birds use their beaks and mouths to explore their world, in much the same way people use their hands. For example, don’t be surprised if your cockatiel reaches out to tentatively taste or bite your hand before stepping onto it the first time.

Your bird isn’t biting you to be mean; he’s merely investigating his world and testing the strength of a new perch using the tools he has available.

Thrashing


Cockatiels, particularly lutinos, seem prone to a condition that is described as “night frights,” “cockatiel thrashing syndrome,” or “earthquake syndrome.”

Birds who have thrashing episodes will be startled from sleep by loud noises or vibrations that cause them to awaken suddenly and try to take flight. In the case of caged pet birds, the thrasher may injure his wing tips, feet, chest, or abdomen on toys or cage bars when he tries to flee from the perceived danger.

Bird owners can help protect their pets from harm by installing a small night-light near the bird’s cage to help the bird see where he is during a thrashing episode, by placing an air cleaner in the bird’s room to provide white noise that will drown out some potentially frightening background noises, or by placing the bird in a small sleeping cage at night that is free of toys and other items that could harm a frightened bird.

Threats


If your cockatiel wants to threaten a cagemate, another pet in the home, or one of his human companions, he will stand as tall as he can with his crest raised halfway and his mouth open. He will also try to bite the object of his threats.

Vocalization


Many parrots vocalize around sunrise and sunset, which I believe hearkens back to flock behavior in the wild when parrots call to each other to start and end their days. You may notice that your pet cockatiel calls to you when you are out of the room. This may mean he feels lonely or that he needs some reassurance from you. Call back to him from the other room to tell him he’s fine and that he’s being a good bird, and he should settle down and begin playing or eating. If he continues to call to you, however, you may want to check on him to make sure everything is all right in his world.

Stress


This can show itself in many ways in your bird’s behavior, including shaking, diarrhea, rapid breathing, wing and tail fanning, screaming, feather picking, poor sleeping habits, and loss of appetite. Over a period of time, stress can harm your parakeet’s health.

To prevent your bird from becoming stressed, try to provide him with as normal and regular a routine as possible. Parrots are, for the most part, creatures of habit, and they don’t always adapt well to sudden changes in their environment or schedule. If you do have to change something, talk to your parrot about it first. I know it seems crazy, but telling your bird what you’re going to do before you do it may actually help reduce his stress. I received this advice from avian behaviorist Christine Davis, and now I explain what I’m doing every time I rearrange the living room or leave my bird at the vet’s office for boarding during business trips. If you’re going to be away on vacation, tell your bird how long you’ll be gone and count the days out on your fingers in front of the bird or show him a calendar.
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