What to Know About the Cockatiel

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on December 10, 2022
4 min read

The cockatiel is one of the more popular companion birds. They originated from Australia but have also been found in Tasmania, where the cockatiel population is thought to be due to an accidental introduction. These birds are now commonly found in households and pet stores across the Americas and are said to have been introduced to American wildlife as escaped or intentionally released pets.

A cockatiel is a type of small parrot with a few unique traits. If you're thinking about purchasing a cockatiel, you might want to know how to tell the difference between males and females and how they behave. 

Cockatiel characteristics. Cockatiels are slender birds weighing around 80 grams. Adults can reach 13 inches long. These birds are the only crested parrot with pointed tails, which are slender and about as long as their body. When flying, their tail feathers fan out to control their altitude and stability. 

Pet cockatiels have been selectively bred for various colorations, especially between sexes. However, wild male and female cockatiels share similar physical characteristics. Males are typically dark brown to gray with white patches adorning the upper wings, and their cheeks have bright orange circles with white borders. Females are prominently gray and have similar orange cheeks, though they are darker and lack a white border. Their tail feathers have varying colors, and both males and females have dark brown irises and crests (feathers on top of the head) that are almost 2 inches long. These feathers are used to communicate a cockatiel's mood. 

Like all parrots, the cockatiel's beak is curved and pointed, with rounded nostrils sitting at the top of the beak. The bills and legs are dark gray, and they have two toes that face backward and two that face forward. 

There are several ways to tell captive male and female cockatiels apart: 

  • There are yellow stripes underneath young cockatiels' primary wing feathers. These stripes will extend to the elbow when they're male and to the body of females. Males lose these stripes at around 9 months old, while females keep these stripes permanently. 
  • Males generally have bright colors on their faces and cheeks, while females have duller colors. 
  • Males have melodious whistles, and females produce a monotonous chirp.

Cockatiel personality traits. Cockatiels are social birds who like to be in pairs, even in captivity. They form early bonds with each other and, in the wild, move and feed together in groups. Some cockatiel groups include several thousands of birds. 

As pets, cockatiels are quiet, nondestructive, and easy to care for. They're also known to be gentle, making them great pets for all types of families, including those with children. Cockatiels are entertaining pets who are playful and amused by even simple toys.

Like other pets, owning a cockatiel comes with unique care instructions. You should consider their habitat and enclosure environments, what to feed them to maintain a proper diet, and their trainability. 

Cockatiel habitat. A cockatiel's enclosure should have enough space for them to extend and flap their wings without hitting the sides of the enclosure. Ensure that the cage is tall and wide. Your cockatiel will enjoy resting on the highest part of the cage at night.

The enclosure should be placed in an area with no drafts because drafts can harm and potentially kill birds. The cage should also be out of reach of other animals, such as dogs or cats.

Sunlight helps cockatiels stay healthy by providing them with vitamin D to maintain strong bones and muscles. To give your cockatiel sun exposure, you can place their cage near a window and allow them to absorb the natural sunlight for a few hours a day. Another way you can provide them with beneficial light is by using a full-spectrum light bulb. 

Cockatiels love to chew, so they must have nontoxic chew toys. Be sure to avoid toys that have hooks, sharp objects, or choking hazards. You can also include tree branches — just make sure they come from a nontoxic and pesticide-free source. 

Cockatiel diet. In the wild, cockatiels feed on plants, animal matter, and their favorite food: seeds. In captivity, a cockatiel's diet can consist of various foods, including seeds, fruits, brown rice, scrambled eggs, corn, peas, peppers, and other vegetables. 

Other considerations. Cockatiels should be allowed daily exercise, with one hour-long morning flight and one hour-long afternoon flight recommended. 

Wing clipping is recommended for tame cockatiels since they are often allowed free range of their owner's homes. Wing clipping is not meant to keep birds from flying altogether. It's to prevent rapid flight that can lead to escape and to keep them away from indoor hazards.

They are highly intelligent birds and can also be trained to talk, whistle, and ride around on your shoulder. Due to their inquisitive nature, it's important to keep doors and windows locked to avoid your bird escaping and keep dangerous objects out of your bird's reach.

When you own a cockatiel or any type of bird, it's important that you find a veterinarian that specializes in bird care.

There are several health issues that cockatiels are prone to, including: 

  • Obesity
  • Sneezing and breathing issues
  • Eye issues 
  • Zinc or lead poisoning
  • Incoordination
  • Intestinal parasites 

Cockatiels are also prone to malnutrition. 

Despite these health concerns, cockatiels can live a long time. In the wild, the average cockatiel lifespan is around 10-14 years. Captive cockatiels can live to be 30 years old, though the average is about 15-25 years. 

However, cockatiels with different color mutations resulting from inbreeding often have shorter than average life spans and birth defects. 

A healthy cockatiel will exhibit certain qualities, including: 

  • Dry and open nares
  • Smooth beak
  • Eyes that are clear and bright and have no discharge 
  • Erect and alert posture 
  • Smooth and bright feathers, unaffected by color breaks or ragged edges 
  • No lumps or bumps on the skin
  • Feet with even reptilian patterns
  • Nails that are the appropriate length