From mating to chicks
When you have found a suitable pair and you have set the diet right, confirmed that you are not breeding relatives and that your birds are healthy it’s finally time to give the nest box! If the pair is bonded they will soon start mating. But there are still many stages before you actually have chicks in the nest.
Investigating the nest box
The male is usually the first to investigate the box after it has been attached to the cage. In the beginning investigating may only comprise of the male peeking inside the box from the perch, and later on, it may enter the box. Subsequently, the male tosses the chips around and treads on them, only to rearrange the chips again, making it seem as if the male is doing some serious decorating before presenting the box to the female. Later on, the male attracts the female to the box by singing, and the female does some reorganizing, which may result in some of the chips flying out of the box.
The investigation state may take a few days – and for the first-timers even longer. But an experienced breeding bird may just jump in, do a quick decoration and after that move to the next state: mating.
The courtship rituals begin with the cock singing to and harassing the hen by coming close enough for them to touch each other. The cock continues to sing while forming the shape of a heart with his wings. He may hop up and down, rap any available surface and make an effort to appear as mighty as possible. Even though the hen might not react at first, if she is willing to mate, she will begin trotting along the perch, appearing anxious, and might even give slight bows. Finally, the hen bends over offering her back, the crest against the neck.
The male mounts the female, and both of them move their tails slightly. Next, the male leans backward and begins to wiggle his tail from side to side. The birds join their cloacal areas (an act also known as the “cloacal kiss”), and the sperm is transferred from the anus of the male to the anus of the female.
Similar to other avian species (excluding the ostrich and certain species of ducks), the cockatiel does not possess any external sexual organs.
“How about, babe?” A cockatiel male showing a proposal behavior to a bow-down female.
Egg laying and brooding
The cockatiel typically lays between four and seven eggs, and both parents look after them. It is common for the hen to lay the eggs early in the morning. The cock broods mainly during the day and the hen during the night. While the bird is in the box, it does not empty its bowels, which might result in slightly smelly feces.
All of the eggs are not laid at the same time, meaning that they appear at intervals of 1-3 days, but not all of them have been fertilized. The brooding time for each egg is around twenty days, usually even less. The chicks hatch out at varying times because the eggs have been laid during different days.
The birds should be disturbed as little as possible while they are brooding. Feeding and cleaning should happen at regular times in order to let the birds know when they will be disturbed. You should never peek inside the box unless it is absolutely necessary, particularly if the parents are inside. Doing so stresses the parents out, and prompts them to hiss and rock themselves in a threatening matter while they sit at the bottom of the box. In a worst-case scenario, disturbing the parents may lead to them killing the chicks.
Caution! It is a problem of particularly the young females and those laying eggs for the first time that an egg might get stuck. If this happens, the bird usually exits the box and sits at the bottom of the cage ruffling its feathers, seeming to be in great pain. The first action should be to direct a lamp towards the cage in order to raise the temperature to 33 degrees Celsius, which should start a spasm. If the egg is not removed, the bird will die. An even more lethal case is if the egg breaks while still inside the female. If you suspect that this might have happened, consult a veterinary surgeon immediately!
When the eggs have been brooded around four days, you can see whether they have been fertilized. Presented here is a brief explanation of how to determine it.
You will need:
- a bright lamp
Cut a hole in the cardboard the size of a fingertip or slightly smaller. Attach the cardboard to the lamp so that the light comes only through the hole.
Remove an egg from the box while the parents are away and bring it to the hole. If you are able to spot any visible veins, the egg has been fertilized; if the egg glows with a yellow light, it has not. As the egg becomes older, more veins appear until they form a single lump and it is impossible to distinguish between separate veins. Eventually, a chick shall develop inside the egg. This is why the egg should be examined at the earliest possible stage.
The first picture shows an egg at the age of one day. It’s quite transparent and you cannot tell if it’s fertilized or not. If the egg looks like this even after 3-5 days it probably isn’t fertile. The second picture shows an egg at the age of four days. You can now clearly see the veins. This egg is fertile!
When you can hear a soft, silent chirping from the egg you know that the chick is about to hatch. The chicks hatch in the order that they are laid. Because of the difference in the egg-laying times, also the ages vary among the clutch. If you have a lot of chicks in one clutch, the difference between the oldest and the youngest baby cockatiel can be seen very clearly.
A just hatched cockatiel chick weighs about 5 grams, is completely blind, and their down is still wet. In a few hours, as the chick dries, the baby downturns to fluffy, soft and yellow. In psittacine altering mutations, the baby down is lighter, for example, whiteface chicks have fully white baby down.
After a few days, you can somewhat see the color of the chick. This is because the developing feathers and their pigments are partially seen through the skin. For example a pied can be recognized for the upper part of the wing is gray, but in the wing tip among the future primaries, you can see parts that lack the melanin. Lutinos and other red-eyed colors can be recognized immediately after hatching since they have pink eyes – the color can be seen through the eyelids. The chicks are starting to open their eyes at the age of about eight days and the eyes should be fully opened usually around at the age of ten days. At this stage, the feathers are already starting to protrude as waxy looking spikes. About at the age of a couple of weeks, the feathers have clearly begun to hatch from the protective spikes. Three weeks old chicks look almost like adults, even though part of the spikes are still there. Chicks also have shorter tails and crests and their body structure isn’t as sleek as adults have.
When the chicks are about four weeks, they come out of the nest. They often spend a couple of days in the bottom of the cage before they climb to the perches. You may want to put a couple perches on a lower level for the babies. I’ve also noticed that ladders are a pleasant place to practice perching in safe heights. After the whole clutch has landed to the breeding cage you can remove the nest box.
Chicks are fed by the parents for some time even after they have left the nest. Sometimes for more than two months of age. When the chicks are able to eat and preen themselves and are independent of their parents, they can be transferred to their own premises or dispose of their new homes.
Cockatiel babies: Grey (right) and lutino (left).
Handling the chicks
There are a few different perspectives on the juvenile treatment. One view is that the chicks should be started to deal with early on, about ten days of age. The method is based on the fact that the chicks would get used to humans. On the other hand, if you are using so-called positive reinforcement, in which actions are based on voluntary action, the idea is that the chicks are not handled except in necessary cases. This way they won’t have bad experiences of a human. My own experience on this subject is the following: chicks, which are dealt with from an early age, initially get tame really quickly. However, after learning to fly they lost their tameness more easily and they were sensitive to even small mistakes and started to be shyer. Untreated chicks, on the other hand, have been at first timid and retiring, but soon they started to show interest to human and seek attention from a human. I recommend, therefore, giving a full peace to the nesting family.
If you are handling the chicks, do not put them directly on the table, because the surface may be too chill! Put the chicks on a warm towel so that they can get a grip on their feet and support their position. Always treat the babies very carefully! The younger the chick, the more vulnerable it is. Keep your hands clean and always warm. Wash them with warm water and dry thoroughly.
It should be taken into consideration that both the parents and the chicks are affected physically and mentally during the breeding. It is important not to stress the parents out, because any disturbance during the breeding may result in them picking the feathers of the chicks. On one hand, the parents may have very peculiar needs: they may beg for strange types of food or express unusually tame or hostile behavior. On the other hand, the chicks enter the world and grow extremely fast, which results in them showing enormous curiosity and hunger for knowledge.
It is both fascinating and worth noting that the cheek patch of the parents begins to spread during breeding, and hence small red spots start appearing on different parts of the face. This phenomenon is caused by the hormones and is not a matter to be worried about. The red spots will disappear during the next molt.
Feeding and handfeeding
The parents regurgitate food which includes “crop milk” in order to feed the chicks. A healthy chick lifts its head while cheeping for food. A small bag, which may occasionally grow remarkably, is located on top of the chick’s chest. This bag is the crop, which is part of the bird’s digestive system. The crop is extremely sensitive and should be taken with care while handling the chick. .
“If the parents do not feed the chicks properly, could I do something about it? Would it not be nice to have a readily tamed bird that I have fed by myself? Why are there so many warnings about handfeeding?”
Having already been said, the crop is extremely fragile. On closer inspection, the surface is as thin as that of a blister, and too hot food may even burn a hole in it. If the food is too cold, the crop may not work properly or stop working at all. On top of this, chick food cools down very fast. It is also vital that no more food is offered to the chick until it has swallowed everything. No food should also be given if the crop has not yet emptied. All in all, the crop (which is actually an extension of the esophagus and a part of the digestive system) may cause several different problems due to which it may be necessary to massage the chick or make it vomit and so forth. It may be that in the beginning, the chick does not even want to open its beak.
It is important to consider the consistency and the temperature of the food in addition to the manner of preparing it. The problem with some of the chick food bought from shops is that the powder often sinks to the bottom of the mixture. If the food has not been prepared right, it may occur that there is powder on the bottom of the crop with water on top of it.
Some people feed the chicks with a bent spoon, but a syringe would be a better instrument because the food will not cool down and it is easier to apportion the food. From the chick’s point of view, the food is given from slightly to the left of the beak. It is also vital to keep handfed chicks warm all the time.
These even fatal problems are not the only things why you may want to consider carefully if the handfeeding is necessary. Recent studies have shown that parrots that are raised by humans experience sexual behavior problems and are not socially as skilled as parent raised. To quote my friend: “Well, the human can’t teach how to use the cheek feathers in communication”.
I would not recommend handfeeding to anyone who has not collected information from breeders, from books, and on the internet. Most of the material available is in English, but in any case, it is not possible to learn how to handfeed by reading a couple of pages here and there. It is most important to find the information at the earliest possible stage before the breeding if it is desired to handfeed some of the chicks from the brood. Considerable expenses might also come as a surprise. These expenses include: measuring instruments, chick food, an incubator, hot water bottles, and syringes. If you decide to handfeed, you will effectively be stuck with the chicks for at least the next one and half months. You are fully responsible for the chicks, and partying, working or studying simply cannot be more important than the chicks.
If you nevertheless decide to handfeed chicks, gather as much information as possible on the subject! I prefer not to write detailed descriptions on the subject because too many people could resort to this description only and think falsely that they would be capable of handfeeding by just reading my instructions. That is the reason why I will not write too much about handfeeding on my homepage.
What do do with the cockatiel chicks?
When selling or giving a chick to someone, make sure that they end up in a good home. A pet shop is the last resort and should only be considered if you are not able to sell the chicks to anyone else.
A chick is ready to be given away when it can fly and is able to eat and take care of its feathers without help. Some might be able to do this at the age of two months, some at the age of three months, and others may be even slower to develop these skills. Hence, you should use your own judgment. The bird must be able to survive by itself. Still, do not give them away until they are at least eight weeks old!
A chick could be given to an acquaintance who is interested in birds. You can also seek for new homes among some local bird association members.
… And of course, you might also keep one of the chicks yourself. Just make sure that the chicks won’t start to have a crush on their parents or siblings! And remember: you can’t keep them all, no matter how much you love them. Pick the One Chick To Rule Them All and make sure the rest of the clutch will get good homes.
Another important topic is that you, as a breeder, are responsible for making sure that the home is good enough. You are not obligated to sell a baby bird or any animal to a person who doesn’t feel right. Trust your instincts.
Stock-photos: Shutterstock / Eric Isselee, MarinaJay