Cockatiel Breeding Basics

Breeding is not a decision to be made lightly. If you haven’t read the article about deciding whether you should breed yet please do, otherwise, read on.

Cockatiel breeding is not especially difficult but it will require time, commitment, and thought. First of all you need a pair of suitable birds, a male and a female. Don’t laugh — its amazing how easy it can be to accidentally set up a same sex pair, especially with mutations such as pied and whiteface-lutino which can’t be visually sexed. It could well happen to me this spring as I am only 90% sure that my young lutino-pearl is actually male.

The next requirement is that the birds be mature. Tiels are usually physically able to breed between nine and twelve months. BUT they are not necessarily any more ready to breed at this age than a pair of 15-year-old humans. You get the same kinds of trouble from them as you do with human teenage pregnancy. They may not sit properly or care for their babies, the hen may suffer egg-binding (often fatal), or lay abnormal eggs because her system isn’t ready yet, and they are very likely to compromise their health because they devote their energy and strength to laying eggs and raising and caring for babies rather then finishing their own growth.

Many cockatiels, especially larger ones, are still growing until 15 or even 18 months and I strongly believe that no animal should be bred until its own growth is complete no matter how excellent the nutrition and care. Most reponsible breeders prefer not to breed a hen who is younger than 18 months. There is a wider range of opinion about the males though. I think they should not be bred until 15-18 months but many other responsible breeders believe that a 12 month old male is sufficiently matured since the physical demands on the males are not as high. Whichever position you agree with you will avoid unecessary problems by delaying breeding until your birds have matured both physically and mentally.

I also strongly believe that only good stock should be bred. There are many desirable qualities in pet birds, some of these are reflected in the show standards, others, such as friendliness and talking potential, of necessity can’t be. Each breeder must responsibly choose which birds to breed and which traits in his or her stock should be passed on. It is always a temptation to breed for visual manifestation of color mutations but it is not always wise. Many times your purposes will be better served by creating splits and waiting another generation for the desired mutation to appear visually.

It isn’t necessary for every hobby breeder to have an in depth knowledge of genetics but you should have a basic familiarity with the common mutations and the basic inheritance patterns (dominant, recessive and sex linked).

The recommended breeding setup for one pair consists of a large (18″W x 18″H x 48″L), breeding cage and a (12″ x 12″) nestbox. There are quite a lot of nestbox types and sizes but this size allows room for 2 parents and 5 babies without problems related to the box size. Cockatiels aren’t fussy. I have a large one, 12″ square, because they are reputedly less likely to pluck their babies in an ample sized nest. These boxes are easily constructed out of plywood or thin planks by anyone with even the most modest woodworking skills. The box usually mounts to the outside of the cage to save interior space for the birds. The wood needn’t be excessively heavy but shouldn’t be too thin either lest they chew their way out. Some breeding cages have precut openings with sliding doors, others require you to cut the wire. This is less convenient but allows you to choose where on the cage it bests suits you to hang the box.

Cockatiels are opportunistic breeders who will breed at any time of year given favorable conditions. They want 10-12 hours of daylight or bright artificial light, abundant water for drinking and bathing, an abundant supply of food including the soft foods and fresh foods necessary for feeding to their babies, and a suitable nesting site. I offer a water bottle for drinking, as well as a bath dish each day, daily rations of soft food, supplemental lighting (a timer is convenient), and extra calcium. I have not had any trouble getting my pair to go to nest. Other helpful additions to the diet might be foods high in Vitamins A and E.

Once you create the favorable conditions you may want to wait until they have mated a few times before actually opening the nest box to them. Some kind of barrier that you can slide between the box and the cage bars is a good thing to have since you will occasionally need to block off the nest for a time. Sometimes a hen will get carried away and begin laying even though the pair hasn’t mated.

I fill the box with several inches of pine shavings (the larger the wood chips the better so the parents don’t feed it to the babies). Others use shredded paper or a wooden insert with a concavity that keeps the eggs from rolling around. The birds will probably feel the need to make alterations such as chewing on the perch or doorway, throwing out some of the bedding, etc. I also help them to feel more secure and block off cool weather drafts by partially covering the nest box side and part of the cage top. Once you’ve opened the box the cock will probably enter it first. Then he will begin his woodpecker imitation as he raps on the box, cage sides or the nearest perch to call the hen’s attention to the home he’s providing for them.

Sometime after you’ve set the birds up — usually 1 to 3 weeks later — the hen will begin laying. The usual clutch is 4-6 eggs laid every other day. You can check the nest box a few times each day without unduly disturbing the birds. In fact, it’s one way to assure the birds are used to having you check it. I use a sturdy magazine to gently herd the birds aside since mine are tame enough not to leave the box just because I tap on it but not so tame as to fail to vigorously defend their private territory. Even if you know that the birds won’t leave its a good idea to tap on the box and announce yourself lest you startle them and they break an egg. You can mark the eggs as they are laid with a non-toxic marker if you think that it will be useful for record keeping.

You can candle (hold them briefly to a small, strong light such as a penlight), the eggs about 7-10 days after they’ve begun to sit (often not until 3-4 eggs have been laid). The first sign of a developing chick is a “spiderweb” of tiny red/pink veins starting to become visible inside the shell. The eggs usually hatch in 19 – 21 days. As the hatch date approaches increase the amount of soft food given to the parents so that they will be accustomed to it when they need it for feeding the babies.

Babies can be either pulled for handfeeding or they can be raised by their parents and hand tamed by regular handling from the time they begin to feather out. Banding with closed traceable bands is a very good idea as these bands give the bird a unique permanent ID for your records and enable future owners to trace them back to you and find out their background. They also help in reuniting lost birds with their rightful owners. The NCS sells bands to members at a very low cost.

Weaning to solid foods usually takes place between 6 and 8 weeks and shouldn’t be rushed. You would want to start introducing a healthy variety of foods when the babies start picking at things around them (including each other). It is very desirable to wean to a variety of healthy foods including pellets and fresh fruits, vegetables and things of this sort so as to get the baby off on the right foot from the beginning. When you sell your babies you should include a supply of the baby’s normal food and some written care basics since many new owners will be too excited to remember what you told them verbally and too embarrassed to call. I know a breeder who includes with every baby a 2 week supply of food, a bottle of water (unfamiliar water can cause digestive problems during adjustment), a printed sheet of care instructions, a subscription card for “Bird Talk”, and an NCS membership form. This is the deluxe treatment but I think that she’s got a great idea.

So far I’m assuming that everything is going well. What can go wrong with breeding is another article.