At its most basic all you need are a pair of birds of appropriate age who are suitably pair-bonded.
It seems that changes in day length and daytime temperature are major factors in the onset of breeding and some cockatiel owners get home to find one or more shiny white eggs have been laid on the cage floor.
However breeding cockatiels properly takes considerably more effort. The purpose of breeding cockatiels should aim to maximize the health and wellness of your adult birds, as well as ensuring that the youngsters hatch and are reared as seamlessly as possible.
Put another way, while the purpose of breeding cockatiels is of course to produce young birds, the caring cockatiel owner will aim to temper this with a number of policies that will ensure this does not occur at the detriment to his or her birds.
What follows are some basic guidelines for breeding cockatiels. By following these tried-and-tested techniques you can feel confident of maximizing the chances of breeding success while minimizing any risk to the health of either the parent birds or the chicks.
Preparing Cockatiels for Breeding
As stated, at its simplest you will need a male bird (cock) and a female (hen).
Sexing most commonly-kept cockatiel colour form is relatively simple, and there are three factors to consider:
Tail Barring – Adult females and juveniles of both sexes typically have yellow barring present on the underside of the side. This is minimal or non-existent in adult males, where the underside of the tail is typically a uniform grey colour.
Facial Colour – Most adult males develop a bright and very obvious yellow head. In female and juveniles this is far more subtle and muted, often with just a few sparse pale yellow feathers on an otherwise grey background.
Facial Spots – One characteristic of cockatiels is that they have a distinct orange spot on the cheek. This is normally much paler in juveniles and adult females than it is in a mature male.
Note, however, that many immature birds meet the definition of an adult female, so you will want to also ensure that your birds are of an appropriate age before you can trust these indicators. Put another way, adult males are reasonably easy to sex. In contrast, a “female” could just as likely be an immature male.
Age for Breeding
Selecting correctly-aged birds is also critical for a number of other reasons. Firstly, while cockatiels may be able to successfully breed from just 4-6 months of age, reproduction takes a lot out of adult birds – especially the females. Holding off breeding cockatiels until the birds are older tends to lead to healthier parents and better long-term results.
Lastly, note that egg-binding – a potentially fatal impact of breeding – is far more common among particularly young or old birds.
In general, most authorities recommend holding off breeding cockatiels until they reach 18-24 months of age. They should generally be retired from breeding activities by 8-10 years of age, after which time their fertility declines considerably.
One final topic for consideration is how healthy your birds are to begin with. Birds which are in poor condition – or alternatively obese – often do not breed successfully. The process of producing and rearing chicks can also cause further declines in their physical wellbeing.
To summarise, the first thing you’ll need are a sexed pair of cockatiels, ideally aged over 18 months, with both parents in perfect health. Assuming you can successfully tick this off your list, what is next?
The Right Environment for Cockatiel Breeding
Once you are confident you have two suitable birds, the next step in breeding cockatiels is providing them with the correct environment that will encourage nesting and support their breeding behaviour. There are a number of factors here which should be considered…
While some cockatiels will breed in normal cockatiel cages, the more space that the pair have, the more successful their attempts will likely be. Many breeders transfer their pairs into large flight cages or even aviaries in order to provide this environment.
It is also important to appreciate that birds that are breeding will be particularly sensitive to external stimuli. From a spell of cold weather, through to noise and interruptions from children or other household pets, it is critical to allow your birds not just space – but also peace and quiet during the breeding season.
While a breeding pair of cockatiels may still lay eggs on the floor of their cage, the provision of a nest box should be considered critical. Next boxes have a number of benefits…
Firstly, as with all birds, after laying eggs your parent cockatiels will want to incubate them. This means one of the two parents will likely spend most of its time sitting on the nest. A nest box therefore provides some privacy for the incubating bird. It also reduces the chances of them being startled by anything, which can result in eggs or chicks being damaged as the adult bird scrabbles to leave the nest box in a hurry.
When eggs are carefully laid in a nest box, on a bed of soft wood flakes, the eggs and subsequent chicks are properly protected from the environment. Not only do they stand less chance of being physically damaged by birds moving around the cage/aviary, but they will also take longer to chill thanks to the insulative purposes of the nest box.
A final reason to use a proper cockatiel nest box is that the physical presence of a suitable breeding site can itself be a source of encouragement to the adult birds to breed. It is not uncommon for the male to spend considerable time getting the nest box “just right” – such as by nibbling around the entry hole and/or rearranging the nesting material. All this activity around the nesting chamber helps to signal to the parent birds that now might be a suitable time to pair up and produce eggs.
In the wild, cockatiels nest most commonly in holes in trees, so attempting to replicate this in captivity makes sense. This means that most appropriate nest boxes are at least 30 deep, with the hole at the top. Typical dimensions for the width and depth are 20-30cm in both directions.
These days plywood cockatiel nesting boxes can be easily bought from most good pet shops.
The final consideration when providing the right environment for breeding is that your birds should be well fed with a wide range of nutritious foods. This wealth of food can not only be an encouragement to breed in itself, but also ensure the birds have all the critical vitamins and minerals necessary to produce a healthy clutch of eggs.
As a result, while standard cockatiel seed should be present at all times, you should consider supplementing the diet regularly with items such as fresh greens, sprouted seeds, EMP egg food or gently soaked multigrain bread.
The female in particular must have suitable levels of calcium, without which eggs laid often have weak shells. Additionally, low calcium levels in the female can lead to egg binding. Ensuring that at least one cuttlefish bone is present will help to provide supplementary calcium, as well as providing entertainment for your birds.
Breeding & Rearing
If you have ticked off all the above points then you should be in an ideal position to breed cockatiels. Some days or weeks later you will hopefully find your birds displaying to one another, and you may even observe the breeding act itself.
When the birds start disappearing into the nest box for long periods of time you can feel reasonably certain that eggs have been laid. If you want to confirm this for certain, wait until both birds are out of the box (to prevent startling them) and gently lift the lid to observe the eggs.
Cockatiel eggs normally hatch in around 18-21 days, though they can hatch a few days earlier or later.
From then on you’ll want to increase the volume of food provided to the parent birds so they have a glut of nutriment while rearing the chicks. Cockatiel chicks normally fledge at about four weeks of age, but are not fully weaned by the parent birds for another 4-6 weeks after this period.
Only when you are confident that the young birds are feeding themselves should you consider taking them away to give the parents a rest.
As a final note, cockatiels should not be allowed to breed repeatedly each year. Every breeding takes a toll on the parent birds so they should be limited to no more than two breeding experiences per season, with plenty of “time off” and balanced nutrition in between, in order to replenish themselves for another (hopefully) successful attempt in the future.