Communication And Social Behavior In Cockatiels

In the past five years, as I have continued to increase my knowledge about birds, and have become enriched by my contacts with other aviculturists, I have become fascinated with a subject which has rarely been addressed in the literature. That subject concerns how and why birds behave the way they do, and the ways in which they communicate. This interest has led me to spend more time with my birds – not just in my normal everyday interactions with them, but as a silent observer of their unique ways.

I would like to write a series of articles concerning the things my cockatiels have taught me about themselves — as individuals, in small groups, in community and as a species. These writings will be based on my own observations of, and interactions with the community of twelve cockatiels with whom I live. I do not presume that these observations are true for all communities, for as complex as they are, it is possible that each community has its own set of rules. Therefore it might be difficult to separate species characteristics from those of the community. Neither do I dare presume to possess the knowledge to present a complete picture. No one person could ever hope to attain this knowledge in a lifetime. Besides, each time a new individual or pair is added to the community, further changes take place which might alter or embellish conclusions already drawn. My conclusions are therefore admittedly open-ended and continually evolving.

Although I am very much a part of the community of birds about which I write, I will try to be as objective as possible. It may appear at times that I am anthropomorphizing. This is far from the case, however, as I am reluctant to insult my birds by assigning human qualities to them.

For any of this information to be useful, the following facts should be known about the environment in which my birds live.

  1. I do not hand-feed my babies, but prefer to allow parents the pleasure of rearing and teaching their own young. I handle chicks often, and help parents whenever necessary. As a result, babies learn to know me as part of the community. I have not as yet sold a youngster who was not as tame as any hand-fed chick I have seen. Those babies that I choose to keep maintain a close relationship with me, but at the same time, fit right into the social order with no confusion as to who they are.
  2. My birds are currently housed in an aviary on the second level. There are three large windows with perches, play-gyms, ladders and toys throughout the fairly large room which is also equipped with Vita-lites. About eighty percent of the time they are out free. The rest of the time they are housed in very large cages in which, during non breeding time, they are separated by friendship/family groups, rather than by sex.
  3. Birds are free to choose their own friends and mates with a little help from me as a matchmaker. If there are rivals for the same mate, they are allowed to work things out naturally. When it has been determined who wants to be with whom, I separate pairs into cages with nest boxes and leave them there until they’ve started working the box, nesting behavior, etc. Then the cage doors are opened and birds come and go as they please. This eliminates fighting over nest boxes. I guess this could be considered a modified form of colony breeding.
  4. I never break up members of a bonded pair unless it is their own choice to do so.
  5. Birds are given a varied diet of fortified cockatiel mix, conditioning food, millet spray, fresh greens daily and vitamin and mineral supplements. Other foods are also offered, such as brown rice and corn, sprouts, boiled eggs and whole wheat toast, eggs scrambled with cheese and wheat germ, etc.
  6. Each of my birds has a name and maintains a personal relationship with me. I hope to add a few more birds and begin working with a new species soon. However, I will always strive to keep the size of the community down for both my and the birds’ benefit.

The following are some of the topics I hope to address:

  • Communication between:
    • members of a bonded pair
    • one pair and another
    • parents and offspring
    • rivals for the same mate
    • friends and friendship groups
    • members of the same clutch who remain in community
    • new bird and assigned buddy (“the buddy system”)
    • birds and myself
  • The cock’s song and “The Meistersinger”
  • Community drumming (tapping)
  • Warning signals and the community watchman
  • The pecking order
  • The main clique – membership and excommunication
  • Other cliques or sub-groups
  • Breaking into the community
  • Teaching the young – what is and what is not tolerated
  • Father/daughter and mother/son relationships

I hope that these articles will serve as a catalyst for further observations and discussions among fellow aviculturists and other interested persons, so that together we may continue to advance in this ever challenging field of aviculture.

The Cock’s Song

In cockatiels, one of the most noticeable forms of audible communication is the cock’s song. This can vary from just a few notes to an elaborate succession of musical phrases which can be quiet complex, both melodically and rhythmically. Song is used not only to impress a desirable hen, but also to achieve higher rank in the community pecking order. A good song will win many cock admirers, and thus is a sure way for a new bird to gain respect in a short order.

The dynamics (softness or loudness) of the cock’s song vary according to its purpose. In the courting ritual, it can be quiet loud in the beginning, accompanied by all the other physical manifestations of breeding behavior. Later, when bonding has been actualized, the song may take on a softer, more romantic quality. When eggs or babies are present, it will become even softer and more irresistibly sweet.

The most impressive of songs is that of the cock asserting his macho self (cockiness) around other males. I have seen cocks with very good songs back off completely when a better songster is present. Quality is judged by loudness, variety and endurance. There is always a chief songster whom I call The Meistersinger. He not only has the best song, according to the other males, but he has all the other cocks’ songs mastered and can perform them better than the original composers can. He will create an elaborate composite of all the cocks’ songs, which will then become the community song. Another cock may initiate this song, but when The Meistersinger joins in, the first cock will oftentimes cease in order to listen to the Maestro.

The cock’s song is also used to hail the rising of the sun, or, in a more minor form, to express delight at such times as my coming home from work, or in answer of my effusive praises of their beauty or virility. When settling down for the evening, the community is led into the evening program by the “Pinehurst Cock Choir”. This usually begins with a short, sharp song/signal from The Meistersinger (or sometimes another good singer) that the community drumming is about to begin. There is no other purpose for that song/signal. Drumming (or tapping as it is usually called) occurs when the cock makes a rapid succession of beats with his beak against a cage bar, perch, food dish or whatever else is handy. Each cock will participate in turn. This can get very interesting indeed! This session may or may not be followed by a solo or two performed by The Meistersinger, or any cock who wishes to sing. Best of all is the performance of the entire cock choir singing in unison. You know I am totally hooked on these creatures when I prefer to hear them over a Bach cantata! The evening program ends with the contented sound of all cocks and hens grinding their beaks before settling down for the evening.

A baby cock will start to develop singing ability at approximately twelve weeks of age when he begins to mimic the songs of the other cocks. By the time he has gone through his first major molt and has obtained his adult coloring at about six months of age, his voice is usually pretty well developed.

A pet bird who is alone or with one other bird, i.e., not in a community situation, may develop a song similar to a human’s whistle, rather than the natural song which has a louder, throatier quality. I recently adopted a bonded pair who lived with the same people for five years, with no other birds ever present. The cock whistles Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the French National Anthem. He has not yet attempted to sing cockatiel-style, nor have my other cocks tried to imitate him. It has only been two months since I obtained the pair, so time will tell if those monuments of human civilization are ever incorporated into the community song. I have my doubts.

Although hens do express themselves vocally, for the most part they do no develop song. I came across one exception however. A young cinnamon who was about six months of age when I acquired her, learned to imitate the cocks’ songs very well indeed. So well, in fact, that I was sure she was a cock even though she failed to manifest any of the other male characteristics. As long as her singing continued, she was shunned by cock and hen alike. When she learned that her exceptional abilities were getting her nowhere, she silenced herself, and soon became accepted into the community. Then she found herself a mate! Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In the next article I will elaborate on other forms of oral and silent communication, as I have observed them in my community of cockatiels.