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.

sexing2 normals

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!).

pearl progression

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?

sexing6 facial mask

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.

Sexing

If you want to know whether your bird is a male or female, there are a few different ways to go about sexing. Considering that hormonal behaviors can cause issues it can be important to know how your bird will react to certain stimuli.

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Eclectus parrots. Photo by Doug Janson.

Visual

The first thing to determine is if your bird is dimorphic- in which males and females do not look the same. The above Eclectus parrots are probably the most striking example of sexual dimorphism. In most species it isn’t quite so pronounced. Budgie males have a blue cere, while females’ can range from white to tan to crusty brown. In cockatiels the male has a yellow head and the female does not. Indian ringneck males have a ring around their neck. Kakariki males are about 15 grams heavier than hens, have a stockier body, and wider beak. Even if a bird is dimorphic, if it is not the wild type color then sexing may be difficult. For instance, in cockatiels you can rarely sex lutino, albino, or pied birds visually. Lutino ringnecks can still be sexed, but pieds cannot. You need to know not only the species but the color mutation in order to accurately sex your bird.

If a bird cannot be visually sexed, or if it is too young (most need to molt into adult coloration before sexing can be done), then you need to use one of the methods below.

DNA

DNA sexing is easy and non-intrusive. Avian Biotech is the company I use. You can go on their website and ask for a testing kit. There are a few different methods: blood, eggshell, and feather. I prefer blood collection, as you can easily do it while grooming and it doesn’t involve plucking (yes, plucking!) 5-7 feathers.

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A blood card for Avian Biotech.

All you need to do is restrain your bird as you would for grooming (see instructions here). Make sure you have Kwik Stop or flour on hand to stop the bleeding! When you clip a toenail, clip it a little further up than normal. You’re intentionally trying to clip the quick. When it starts to bleed, touch the nail to the circle on the blood card. You don’t need much. Mail it out, along with payment (currently about $25) and you’ll get your results back within a day or two after they receive the sample.

Surgical

This method is usually requested by breeders who want to know the actual health of the gonads and other organs. The bird is briefly anesthetized, a small incision is made and a scope is inserted into the body to allow a veterinarian to observe the internal organs. After the bird is sexed, a tattoo is placed on the wing corresponding with the sex. Males are tattooed on the right and females on the left.

Behavior

Sexing by behavior is not always accurate, especially if you are a pet owner with two birds of the same sex, in which case one may potentially exhibit more opposite sex characteristics. That said, I’ve found it very useful in sexing my own birds. Cockatiels and Indian ringnecks can usually be sexed long before they molt into their adult coloration. This is the Indian ringneck mating display. Both sexes demonstrate very specific body language and behaviors (in both videos the hen happens to be yellow). This is male cockatiel behavior. It takes experience though as you need to know what to look for in a particular species.