Cockatiels just love the breeding season, so make sure you can keep them all happy, advises PAULINE JAMES
So join in the party and add to their joy by offering them some tasty treats. Pull up whole, young and tender dandelion plants and offer them roots and all, or dig up a clod of fresh grass for them to pick over. They will make a feast of freshly picked budding twigs from willow, fruit or nut trees, and love to gnaw at the branches. (Avoid cherry and chestnut trees, though.)
Chickweed, cow parsley, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, water cress, spinach, carrot and beetroot tops are all relished. Greenery is high in chlorophyll, essential minerals and vitamins and provides a huge energy boost, and as the birds’ stamina levels peak and they begin to exercise more, so they will rapidly come into full breeding condition.
Eggfood should be supplied daily in the week or two before breeding kicks off, and soaked and sprouted seeds should be offered regularly too, plush a good supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, and a variety of dried mixed seeds. Eggfood and soaked and sprouted seed will also be used as rearing foods, along with fruit and veg.
The songsters in the flight are the males as they begin to display to their hens. Their enthusiastic whistling and warbling will quickly be followed by the male animatedly hopping and bowing and jangling the perches, to keep her attention.
Once the nest-boxes are in place you’ll find that all this euphoria reaches a peak. Things only begin to quieten down when each pair has picked their nest-box and settled busily down to fashioning their nests and preparing to lay.
Although cockatiels are generally prolific breeders and make devoted parents, they do at times need a helping hand to be completely successful. That’s why you need to place the boxes where they can be accessed easily. You should also incorporate an inspection door about 10cm (4in) up from the bottom of the box into the design.
A little moist peat and clean wood shavings in the bottom of the box, or several layers of kitchen paper with a few pieces of softwood placed on top for the birds to gnaw at and make their own nesting base are recommended. But don’t be tempted to put in too much, or eggs can get buried; 8-10cm (3-4in) is fine.
As soon as the boxes are in place, it is essential to begin routinely opening them up briefly twice a day. Do this first thing in the morning and last thing at night, irrespective of whether its occupants have begun nesting. It is important that the adults get used to the routine, so that they will tolerate the intrusion when they have begun laying or have young in the nest.
Candle at five days
Even before the chicks hatch it is important to keep an eye on the eggs. Once they are about five days old you can candle them to find out whether they are all fertile.
Simply hold a bright light behind the eggs one at a time in a darkened place and check the contents. An infertile egg will look completely clear and the shells will appear translucent. Nonetheless, if any eggs do look clear at this stage, give them a few more days and check them again, before you discard them.
The shell of a fertile egg will be more opaque in appearance to the naked eye. When illuminated, the inside will reveal tiny red blood vessels with a dark spot right in the centre. The air sac will also show up as a small white area at one end. As the chick grows, so the dark mass will grow larger and larger and the air space will get bigger. At full term the entire egg becomes visibly darker, except for the part where the air sac is.
While the female is incubating the eggs, she will know instinctively if the humidity levels are not high enough in the nest, and will compensate for low humidity by dipping her abdomen feathers in the bathing water and then sit back on the eggs, humidifying them with her damp feathers.
If too much wetness is applied to the eggs, the chicks would drown, yet she appears to know, without having to learn, just how much moisture is needed, and applies exactly the right level. It’s an amazing piece of behaviour.
Cockatiels turn their eggs approximately once every hour during the day and some pairs turn them regularly during the night too. This practice prevents the embryo from sticking to the membrane or the inside of the shell and helps the internal organs to develop properly. It also helps to maintain an even distribution of heat to the egg.
During the last 4-5 days of incubation, the eggs no longer require turning, and one by one they are pushed aside by the parents for a period of time each day. A day or two before the chicks are due to hatch, the adults will be able to hear the chick faintly chirping from inside the egg.
At this stage, the chick will jerk its head upwards and penetrate the air sac to breathe air for the first time. This shot of oxygen supplies it with the extra stamina that it needs to break out of the shell.
The chick makes a hole in the shell with its egg tooth, a small temporary protrusion on the upper side of the hatchling’s beak. Then, within an hour or two, the new youngster will have fully chipped its way out – and another cockatiel will have entered the world!
When to foster
■ If a hen lays more than five eggs, consider fostering out the surplus eggs to another hen who’s got a smaller clutch and who laid her eggs at about the same time.
If you do this gently, when the eggs are still warm, most foster hens will readily accept the extra eggs as their own. A pair of cockatiels generally copes well with up to five eggs, but if a larger clutch is produced, the pair may well run into problems. The “extra” eggs will frequently not be incubated properly and will usually be lost.
■ All eggs taken from their natural nest should be identified with a marker pen. This means that later you can easily establish the parentage of the chicks and fit each one correctly with its coloured family plastic split-ring.
Pauline James has successfully kept and bred many psittacines, especially cockatiels and lovebirds.