How (Not to) Sex Cockatiels

Cockatiels are dimorphic, which means males and females look different. They’re pretty easy to sex IF you know what to look for. Unfortunately, there’s a plethora of misinformation online. When it comes to sexing cockatiels, mutations matter, and most people simply don’t have the expertise to do it accurately. This is because certain rules of sexing are conditional, and if you don’t know the conditions under which the rule applies, you’re going to be wrong.

Let me give you an example. Pretend you’re an alien studying life on Earth, and one of your fellow aliens tells you that humans are easy to sex. All you have to do is follow two simple rules: Males are tall and have short hair. Females are short and have long hair.

The problem with this blanket statement should be obvious, but in case it’s not:

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Likewise, there are a lot of incorrect generalities when it comes to sexing cockatiels. This has led to a lot of well-intentioned people repeating things they’ve heard without any concept of why they’re applying the information incorrectly:

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Cheek Patch Intensity/Color

Cheek patch color/intensity is one I see commonly, so we’ll tackle that first. Cockatiels have been bred in captivity for a long time, and while this rule might apply to wild cockatiels, it’s useless for sexing pets, which are likely to carry a number of color mutations and are very far removed from their wild counterparts.

All the examples I give here are adult birds. Scroll slowly if you’d like to test yourself.

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I’d like to point that while both birds are normal, each carries the gene for pied. Again, captive birds are not wild-type!

Above we have two normal colored birds. Male on the left, female on the right. The rule seems to apply, right?

sexing7 cheekOkay now what about these two? The bird on the left has a very nice orange patch, just like the male above. The bird on the right doesn’t even have a cheek patch.

The problem here is that these birds have obvious mutations. The right is a pearl; left is whiteface. Whiteface birds can’t produce any yellow/orange color, so they don’t have a cheek patch. To someone inexperienced, it might even look like the bird on the left has a facial mask. There’s yellow there, right? Nope.

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This is why knowing the mutation matters. Females keep their pearls into adulthood. Males don’t (unless they’re pied–another rule broken!).

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Progression of a pearl male. Baby, 6 months, a year. You can see how he gains a facial mask and loses many of the pearl markings. He will continue to lose more.

sexing3 cheek colorOkay now what about these two? The bird on the left has a much brighter cheek patch than the bird on the right.

I hate to break it to you, but that nice orange patch belongs to a lutino pearl hen. The male on the right has the yellow cheek mutation. There are several mutations that alter the cheek patch color like this. Pastelface is another one.

sexing4 cheek color“No problem,” someone says. “I can just look for the facial mask!”

Facial Mask

Go ahead and try sexing the birds below.

sexing5 facial maskOn the left we’re missing the distinct facial mask and the cheek patch is dull. The bird on the right is lutino, so it’s difficult to see if there’s a mask there, but the cheek patch is bright. Which one is male and which one is female?

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Lutinos are really difficult to sex visually, because a lot of their identifying characteristics, like the mask and tail barring, are hard to see. It’s even more difficult if they’re pied lutino, which you may not even know from looking at them.

I cannot tell you how often I see people claim that a pied bird must be male because it has yellow/white on its head. Mutations matter! 

Petrie, the male on the left, is what’s called a dirty-faced pied–he has melanin on his face. Pied males do not get a facial mask, and pied females can have yellow heads. They cannot be sexed visually. Pearl pied males may lose their pearls, but they can also keep them. Pieds should really be sexed by behavior or DNA. Just to give you an idea:

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Pearl Pied Female

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Pearl Pied Male

So, how do you sex your cockatiel?

There are a few methods. If you’re impatient and want to know now, or if you have a pied or lutino, I recommend DNA sexing. It’s important to note that lutino is a sex-linked gene, and it is statistically far more likely to be female.

The other method is to wait until the bird is at least nine months old and has gone through a molt. Males will have begun to show their standard characteristics by then (except for pieds!). At this point you can use my guide to sexing or ask an expert. If you post in a general Facebook forum, you’re going to get a lot of inexperienced people giving you their incorrect opinions about head/cheek color, which is why I’m recommending a professional forum.

For more about how sex-linked genes work, see my article on Genetics.

© 2019 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Starter Pets: What makes a good beginner pet?

I’m tired of people acting like starter pets aren’t a thing. Cockatiels and budgies do well in just about every household. Cockatoos and lories absolutely do not. Would you recommend a macaw as a first bird? I didn’t think so.

Starter does NOT mean disposable. It means easy to for beginners to keep. Starter pets are your most laid back, your most versatile. They’re the chill animals who go with the flow while their owner learns the ropes, and they’re an essential entry point for budding bird people. So stop acting like “starter pet” is an insult. Starter pets are AWESOME. That’s what makes them starter pets.

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What makes an animal a good starter pet?

  • hardy
  • easy care
  • few behavior problems
  • good with children
  • inexpensive
  • (relatively) short lifespan

Hardy

People are going to make mistakes, even if they are trying their best. No one starts out an expert. Some knowledge is gained best through experience than reading (bird body language for one). Researching everything prior to purchase can still leave someone with conflicting advice, thanks in part to the many armchair experts that give misleading information online.

Starter pets are physically hardy. They’re able to withstand mistakes here and there. Budgies and cockatiels are native to the Australian outback. Their bodies are designed to deal with food and water shortages, and greater temperature extremes. They’re tough, unlike kakarikis, who can pass out or have a heart attack if stressed.

Easy Care

All animals have a baseline of care, but for some, this baseline is higher than others. Starter pets are at the lowest possible bar. If an animal has a specialized diet (lories, eclectus) or needs heavy-duty equipment (macaw), then it’s not a starter pet.

Few Behavior Problems

Why are cockatiels starter pets but cockatoos are not? Because cockatoos turn into a neurotic mess if handled wrong.

Some animals are more likely to develop behavior problems if incorrectly handled. Perhaps they are nippy, flighty, or tend to attach to one person. Maybe they don’t take commands easily and need a person who can handle their strong will appropriately. Such animals do not make starter pets. Behavior issues are not the fault of the animal, but simply a byproduct of an inexperienced owner reacting inappropriately to certain innate behaviors.

Good with Children

This quality is important if the pet is intended for a family with children or access to grandchildren. Starter pets should be reasonably tolerant of handling, especially as children tend to be overzealous even when coached. You want to avoid species which are nippy when excited (green cheek conures) or bite hard when their personal space is invaded (Indian ringnecks).

Inexpensive

Budget absolutely matters. Not all families can afford expensive pets. There’s a vast difference between setting up a budgie vs a macaw. Larger birds have larger long-term costs as well. Working within your means is not a crime. It’s sensible.

Short Lifespan

This one is hard, as outside of rodents, you’re going to have a starter pet for at least ten years. Some people may find that birds are not for them, and in this case rehoming is best. A longer lived pet is more likely to run into the problem of major life changes. What happens when a child grows up and moves to college? Gets married? Has kids of their own? Moves? What happens if your job changes and you have less time to spend with your pet? What if your bird outlives you?

The longer a pet lives, the more likely it will encounter situations like these and the more likely it will be rehomed. We can’t always plan for the future, but lifespan should definitely be taken into account when acquiring a pet, especially if there’s a good change it might outlive you.

What a starter pet is NOT.

Disposable.

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Any time you purchase an animal, even if it is a starter pet, you need to consider your life situation and do your research. While starter pets are a good way to find out if a particular type of pet is good for you, that doesn’t mean they should be discarded the moment you feel like you can move on to something better. This is an animal that is bonded with you and your family. It isn’t going to understand why it is being cast aside, and few pets are rehomed just once. Pets, even starter pets, should be purchased with the intent to keep them for the long term.

© 2019 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Green Cheek Conure Growth Guide

These are several different babies. They don’t magically change color from day to day. Remember when looking at weight that these are averages and that a full/empty crop influences weight.

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© 2018 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Visual Growth Guide: Budgie

The purpose of this guide is to give beginning breeders and general idea of where their chicks should be at a certain age. It is important to notice stunting early so that it can be rectified before the chick falls too far behind.

All images are © 2004 by Karen Trinkaus unless otherwise noted and may not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Our Facility

Birds are usually housed in group aviaries or flight cages during the off season. California has nice weather which allows us to keep birds outdoors year-round where they get plenty of fresh air and sunshine.

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Cockatiels may be bred in group aviaries or individual cages. Ringneck and conure pairs are set up in separate cages.

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A good diet is fed to maintain fitness and provide enrichment. The base diet is pellets and seed. Fresh foods are provided daily, with extra soft foods available during breeding.

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Chicks are left with their parents for two to three weeks, if possible, before being pulled for handfeeding. If a pair is not taking care of their eggs/chicks, I attempt to foster under another pair first if that is an option. My incubators are an R-com 20 and a styrofoam style which doubles as a day 1-7 brooder. My brooder is a Brinsea TLC-50 Eco.

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Weaning Cages start out with low perches, boxes for hiding, and a flat surface for babies to stand on. Once babies can perch consistently well they are moved to a typical cage set up.

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Babies are socialized in my home.

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For the most up to date pictures of our facility and babies, please follow us on Facebook.

The Best Enrichment: A Flock

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One of the things I typically ask potential customers is “do you have any birds now?” If they do not, I try to convince them to get two. Wild psittacines live together in large flocks or small family groups. They are not mentally designed to live alone and when you have a single bird, even if you spend a lot of time with it, there are going to be times when you’re not around- work, school, weddings, vacations, running errands. When you make yourself your parrot’s only source of social interaction, you unintentionally set it up to have a stressful life. Toys can keep birds busy, but they only do so much and they don’t satisfy any of the bird’s social needs. When a bird has to rely on humans to be its only flock, it will scream when they are out of the room (contact calling, a bird version of “where are you?!”) and can develop stereotypies (purposeless, repetitive behaviors like pacing or plucking). Stereotypies are an indicator of poor animal welfare.

I have kept birds for 27 years. In my professional opinion, a bird housed in a large aviary with a flock of its own kind is far more psychologically healthy than a single bird kept in a pet cage with a zillion toys. Aviary birds have the benefit of exercise, flight, and socialization. The research agrees with me. A UC Davis study found that: “Paired parrots used their enrichments more, and spent less time screaming, less time preening, and less time inactive than singly housed parrots. . . . Isosexual pair housing resulted in a more active and diverse behavioral repertoire, eliminated the development of stereotypy and reduced fear responses to novel objects without imparting significant risk of illness and injury or jeopardizing the ability of parrots to relate positively with humans. Thus, it appears that pair housing can significantly improve environmental quality and positively affect the welfare of captive parrots.”

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Access to conspecifics, flight, and foraging are all excellent methods of enrichment.

Many people are concerned that if they have more than one bird their bird won’t love them anymore, or that they won’t have as deep a bond. The latter is true, but context is important. When humans speak of bonding to their parrots or being chosen by their parrots, they think of their parrot as their “baby” and themselves as a parent or caretaker. That is not how the parrot sees it. When a parrot bonds to a person they see the human as a mate. This can lead to all kinds of behavior problems when the parrot’s sexual advances are rebuffed or intentionally squashed. It can lead to aggression when the human prefers their spouse, or shows affection to their child. It definitely leads to stress, as mates are typically not apart during the day unless one is incubating eggs. It’s not a psychologically healthy relationship and it’s unfair to the bird. However, if the bird has a mate (same sex is fine!) you won’t see the same issues. (Please note: a mirror is NOT a substitute for a real bird and can be detrimental).

Will the bird still be tame once it has a companion? Yes! Birds still enjoy interacting with humans even if they have a buddy. You can see evidence of this every time I walk into my aviary:

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Vita and her mate.

The relationship won’t be less, it will just be different. You will be someone they enjoy spending time with. Do people stop loving their parents or siblings every time they enter a romantic relationship? Do they love their spouse less because they had a child? Their child less because they had another? No. Love is not a finite resource. People (and birds) can have multiple healthy, loving relationships that are all somewhat different. Each relationship has its own dynamic and fulfills various needs.

To me the ideal is that birds be raised and housed with their own kind from the start- if you’re buying a baby bird, get two. If you do not wish to breed I recommend a same sex pair. Even a mature solo bird that prefers humans can benefit from having a buddy. They don’t have to be housed together, be the same species, or even particularly like one another. They just have to be kept in the same room within sight of one another. My pets ten years ago were my Goffin cockatoo, Loki, and a mitred conure, Verde. They disliked one another. When I first started having children I had little time for my birds. I’m sure Loki and Verde missed me, but they never developed any psychological issues from lack of human contact. In fact, over time I saw their poop piles move towards each other’s cages. When Verde passed away Loki immediately began to scream more. I gave her as much attention as I could but it didn’t really die down until I got her a replacement buddy (my pionus, Lando).

This is something very serious to consider: Birds are long-lived and regardless of how much time you have now, there will always be a point (or more likely, many points) in your life when you just won’t have as much time as you’d like to spend with your birds. These periods are temporary, yet many people rehome their birds anyway, mistakenly believing it is the best interest of their bird. A bird with a companion is easily able to weather these patches of reduced attention, where a solo bird will feel isolated and forgotten and start to show it by screaming, plucking, or otherwise acting out.

If you are on the fence about getting a second bird, know that your concern is quite common, but the best thing for birds in the long run is to have access to other feathered friends. It will reduce their stress, frustration, contact calls, and help alleviate boredom. It will also reduce your urge to rehome unnecessarily when you find you suddenly have a life event that takes a majority of your time.

Copyright 2018 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted without author’s permission.

Bringing Home Baby

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Congratulations on your new baby bird!

Things to do before bringing a bird home:

  • research the species to ensure that it will be a good fit for your home
  • set up cage with food, water, and toys
  • research local avian veterinarians
  • have a talk with other family members about what to expect, and any changes that need to be made to accommodate a bird regarding smoking, other pets, etc.

Handling

One of the things I see touted a lot is that you should leave birds alone for a few days to let them adjust. If a bird is a handfed baby, this is terrible advice. Think of it this way. You adopt a young child. You show them to their room. Then you spend the next few days ignoring them so they can “adjust.” No! Birds, like humans, need to feel like part of the family. Your baby is already used to humans. That’s the whole point of handfeeding. Talk to it frequently.  Make it feel welcome!

You can start handling your bird on the second day, or the first day if it seems open to the idea. Keep in mind that while the baby is tame, it doesn’t know YOU. Cockatiels are usually accepting of petting immediately, but other species may want you to earn their trust first. If you go in right away for a head scratch you may be rebuffed or even nipped. It’s like meeting someone right away and asking to hug them, hold their hand, or kiss them. Listen to your bird’s body language and respect its body autonomy. Go slowly and work up to it. Your goal is to create a solid relationship built on trust, not to bully your bird into submission.

Set Boundaries

Set boundaries and use commands to help your bird know what to expect. If you don’t want a bird constantly sitting on your head and pooping in your hair, then don’t allow it to do that. If you want your bird to stay on a play stand while out, return it to the stand whenever it flies out of bounds. Say “step up” whenever you want the bird to step up. Be consistent.

Babies explore with their mouths. They use their beak like a hand and will apply pressure to get a feel for things. Some species, like green cheek conures, will play fight and nip during play. It is important that you do not allow them to mouth fingers, hands, earlobes, moles, etc. Move the target item out of their way, cover it, or distract them with something else (though be careful not to reward inappropriate nibbling). I like to have a bird-friendly snack available when I sit with my birds. It helps with flock bonding because we are sharing a food, and it gives the birds a more appropriate thing to nibble.

Routine, Routine, Routine!

Set up routines as quickly as possible. Birds, like children, love routine as it lets them know what to expect and when. Feed at the time you normally plan on feeding. Let them out when you normally plan on it. This is especially important to reduce the odds of screaming/contact calls. Birds who know when they are normally let out are less likely to scream to be let out at other times.

If your bird has a sleep cage or if you plan on covering the cage at night, you can start doing that from the first day. Birds need 10-12 hours of sleep. If their cage is in a high traffic area like the living room, a sleep cage in a quieter area is a good idea. They can’t sleep well if you’re up late watching television loudly, even if the cage is covered.

Noise

Parrots do not normally live alone. They are always with their flock, family, or mate. When isolated, it is very common for birds to do a contact call. This call basically means “Where are you? I can’t see you!” Some people rapidly get irritated with contact calls and do things that can easily slip into animal abuse, like screaming at the bird or covering it during the day. My pet pionus spent years covered and under a back porch, probably because its former owner was frustrated with the noise and kept escalating “solutions.” Contact calls are NORMAL and birds should not be punished for them.

There are a few things you can do to help mitigate contact calls:

The easiest is to have two or more birds. That way part of the flock is always there and they feel less alone. This is best done when the birds are young so that they grow up together and you don’t have to worry about introductions later.

You can make a noise back. Especially if your bird makes an annoying call (like my pionus), you can try to get them to make a different noise. When my pionus yells I either ignore it or answer back with a whistle, which starts him whistling instead.

Ignore it. This takes far more mental strength. If you have a set routine, your bird will eventually learn when you are around and when you are not, and when it can reasonably expect to have time out of the cage with you. When we first moved to this house my Goffin was calling ALL THE TIME. It took maybe two months for her to get used to the new routine, but eventually she stopped calling all the time. Now she only calls periodically when she knows I’m around and should be available.

Give them plenty to do while they’re in the cage. They do need to learn to play by themselves. It won’t solve the problem completely, because the point is that they want to be able to see/hear you. Having them out on a play stand in a common area is another solution.

If You Have Other Birds

Introductions should be slow. Time outside the cage should always be supervised, especially if either species is known for aggression. It is generally recommended that all new birds be quarantined for 30-45 days to ensure they do not bring any diseases into your flock. If you purchase a bird from a breeder with a closed aviary system then you’re probably okay, but quarantine is never a bad idea.

Health

If you can find a good avian veterinarian in your area, I recommend making an appointment. This allows the vet to see your bird when it is healthy and get a baseline for things like weight. It gives the vet something to compare to if/when the bird ever gets sick. The vet can also answer any further questions you have about avian health.

Here are some external links you may find helpful:

 

© 2017 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Care Sheet: Indian Ringneck

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Personality: Playful, inquisitive, intelligent, independent

Experience level required: Moderate

Approximate Lifespan: 30 years

Puberty: 12-18mo

Sexing: Dimorphic. Males develop a ring anywhere from 18mo-3 years. If you want to know before that you must DNA sex your bird. Some colors, like albino, never get a ring.

Vocalizations: They can be loud (see video below).

That said, they usually do not make noise all day every day. Vocalizations are typical in the early morning/late afternoon, if the bird feels separated from the flock, or if it is frightened.

Talking ability: Good. Both sexes talk.

Diet: Standard

Minimum recommended cage size: Ringnecks have long tails that are easily damaged in cages that are too small or cluttered. They need large cages with plenty of clearance for their tails.

Cautions: Ringnecks do not form the same strong pair bonds seen in other species. Most parrots will pair off with a buddy or mate. Ringnecks generally don’t do this outside of the mating season. This can make them seem standoffish. Do not buy a ringneck expecting a cuddly, sociable bird!

After weaning, ringnecks go through a bluffing phase in which they bite and show aggression. It is critical that the owner NOT react to the bites. The first year is critical to ringneck development. They go wild very easily if not consistently and amicably handled during the first year.

Don’t get me wrong, ringnecks make wonderful pets, they just aren’t for everyone. I’ve had to steer many potential clients over to conures because they had unrealistic expectations of what ringnecks are like. They are playful, highly intelligent, and curious. They enjoy spending time with people but can also play well by themselves. The best ambassador bird I ever had- the one I could trust to be pet by children and adults alike- was an Indian ringneck. They require an owner who understands their behavior and is willing to give them a lot of time that first year. With ringnecks, you get out what you put in.

Care Sheet: Green Cheek Conure

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Personality: Curious, playful, feisty, cuddly

Experience level required: Intermediate

Approximate Lifespan: 30 years

Puberty: One year

Sexing: DNA test

Vocalizations: Shrieks, but volume is low compared to most parrots. Suitable for apartment.

Talking ability: Low

Diet: Standard

Cautions: Can be aggressive toward unfamiliar birds. Will attack birds many times their own size. Prone to become one-person birds. Can be nippy. Not recommended for children.

Minimum recommended cage size: 24″L x 20″W x 24″H. BIGGER IS ALWAYS BETTER. Keep in mind that birds utilize the space at the top of the cage the most. Tall, skinny cages contain mostly dead space. Width and depth are far more important than height.