What should I feed my Cockatiel?

Mary Beth Voelker, Online Pet Consultant
November 1997
All Rights Reserved

Diet may well be the most critical factor in keeping your
bird healthy. In the last couple decades we’ve learned a great deal about birds’ nutritional needs and a great deal about the way that a captive bird’s needs differ from a wild one’s. It has been proven that seed alone is definitely not a complete diet for a parrot. It is very high in fat and deficient in many vitamins — especially vitamin A. A diet of seed plus vegetables is better but is still high in fat and
can be very difficult to provide consistently.

Feed manufactures have responded to our growing knowledge by offering various fortified seed mixes which include dried fruits and vegetables, vitamins, and little nuggets of concentrated food supplements. This is better than the grocery store seeds and easier to use than seed plus vegetables but is still not as good as the manufacturers’ other offering — pellets. Bird pellets, like dog or cat foods, are formulated to provided all of the nutrition a bird needs in an easy to handle form that doesn’t permit a bird to pick and choose only its favorite foods at the expense of good nutrition.

Regardless of the manufacturers’ recommendations most owners feel that a pellet and water diet is too dull and may not actually contain everything that a natural diet does since research may not be complete. Current diet recommendations for cockatiels usually suggest that half the diet consist of pellets, and that the other half consist of things such as bird bread, bean mix, healthy people food, and not more than 10% seed. Babies who are weaned to this type of diet take to it readily but older birds have to be converted from their unhealthy, seed only habits. The benefits to be gained include better overall health, improved resistance to infection, and stronger, lovelier feathers, to name only a few. I do not know if their have been any definite studies on the last advantage that I’ll mention but I’ll mention it anyway — in older, pre-pellet books the average life span of a cockatiel is given as 10-12 years, in newer material the expected life span is given as 18 – 20 years and there are quite a few reports of tiels living into their early 30’s. Converting a stubborn bird to a better diet takes time, commitment, more stubbornness than the bird has, and the willingness to be a little hard-hearted for the bird’s greater good but there is a lot to be gained.

I’ve done this 3 times now and have come up with a sort of a system and a few guiding principles. First principle, a bird who is so abundantly fed that it is not at least a little hungry will only pick what it likes best out of the available food. You must begin by feeding a seed junkie only as much food as it will eat in one day with no leftovers. It may take a week or so to figure this out, but 2 of those blue scoops that come with the Kaytee pellets per day is a good starting point. During this figuring out time I put a small portion of pellets, on top of each dish of seed so that the bird can get used to the look and smell of pellets and begin to associate them with the food dish.

Next I very slightly cut down the amount of seed to a bit less than the bird has been eating so that the bird will be a little hungry. NOT starving, just a little hungry. I leave a dish with a generous amount of pellets in the cage at all times and I continue to put a layer of pellets on top of the seed. It may help if all of the dishes you use are identical so that the bird has a strong image to associate with food. I also offer dishes of bean mix or bird bread at convenient times during the day (beware spoilage!). If a slightly hungry bird begins eating the non-seed foods at all I start the serious conversion phase, if not I go to the next step of temporarily making the bird even hungrier.

During this phase I remove the seed dish at bedtime and don’t feed seed again until at least an hour later than normal in the morning. Birds are hungriest in the morning and thus are more likely to try something new. I leave the pellets in the cage at all times and offer a dish of either the bird bread or the bean mix. This is when you need to harden your heart a bit for the bird’s long-term good. At first the bird, a smart little thing who knows just how to bend you heart, will spend the entire hour begging for seed. Leave the room. If necessary leave the house so that you won’t be tempted to yield. Birds, like toddlers, are master manipulators and distance is the best defense. Without an audience the bird may just stop begging and eat the good food. When you put the seed back do it without making any fuss. After a week give the seed 2 hours later and cut the amount just a bit more. At some point you will find evidence that the bird has at least tasted the pellets. Once this happens you move to serious conversion.

Serious conversion time involves slowly reducing the amount of seed while still offering the other foods generously. My personal goal is to offer 1 tsp. of seed per bird each day and only 3-4 inches of spray millet once a week. For my own convenience I offer this seed at our dinnertime but any time of the day is fine. The second principle and a key point to remember during this time is that any bird who will eat pellets at all (not the ones who don’t recognize them as food — that’s what the previous steps have been teaching), will eat enough pellets to be healthy and well fed if bird junk food is not available. No normal creature will starve itself when food is available provided that it recognizes that what is available IS food.

My third principle is that this program takes time. Don’t give up. One of my birds took 2 weeks. He was a rescue case who had always had to fight for his share of the food in his overcrowded cage. Once he realized that there was a food source available without competition he dove right in and never looked back. Another took 2 months. He was VERY suspicious of anything that wasn’t seed but now has been introduced to all the good stuff and is the only 1 of my 5 who will eat chopped greens. I’d suspect that the other, who converted in about 1 month, is the typical case. I have personally worked only with younger birds, not much over a year. Chances are that older ones would take longer to convert but they will benefit just as much.

The hardest part is to not give in and give a little more seed because the bird seems hungry. They beg so convincingly that you’d think they’d never been fed in their entire lives. As I suggested, you sometimes just have to leave so you can’t see their act or you will weaken. If we didn’t love them we wouldn’t go to all the trouble. Think of it as being the same as teaching a small child to eat something other than cookies and candy. You have to be firm about not substituting garbage when they won’t eat the good stuff. If you are truly concerned that your bird is starving try weighing it weekly but don’t mistake a healthy slimming down from obesity for starvation. Your reward for all this work and self- restraint is a healthy happy bird who may be with you for 20 or 30 years.

38 thoughts on “What should I feed my Cockatiel?”

  1. My old cockatiel was diagnosed yesterday with fatty liver disease. I have to introduce pellets. Today he has a scooped teaspoon of seeds and pellets. I have been watching him closely. He has scratched around in the pellets, but not eaten any. He has eaten the seed he wants but keeps looking for more. He doesn’t eat fruit and veg so I am a bit worried about him. Can he survive on a teaspoon of seed a day while I try the conversion? He’s 22yrs old.

  2. Hi Mary Beth. My Cockatiel is 22yrs old. On Tuesday I took him to an Avian vet for the first time in his life, as I was concerned his beak was growing too long. The vet was lovely but after examination told me he had a fatty liver, due to his seed only diet. I am an animal lover and am distraught that unintentionally I have done this to this sweet boy. So he got a vitamin injection, some liver support tonic and new food – pellets. So we started the conversion on Tues. He ate the heaped teaspoon of food I was told to give him per day and just scratched around in the pellets as he doesnt know that’s food even though it is in his regular seed bowl. Come last evening he was frantically looking for seed. I had a smorgasboard of fruit & veg in there too, but he was scratching through the pellets desparately looking for seed. I also crushed some pellets just in case to try that. I was trying to hold out with his cries for food but I had my husband in my ear saying I was being cruel, he’s lived this long just give him the damn seed, so I eventually gave him a bit of seed. I am giving him tonic once a day which I have to manhandle him to do, and today thurs its mid day and he’s not been down to eat. I am a mess, keep crying and feel Im going to kilk him sooner by ultimately trying to help him. He wont whistle, just preens himself and then puts his head in his wing for another nap. One side if me says “persevere he could have a few more years” and the other says “just let him be”. I just dont know, I feel so sad today I feel ike I’ve lost him already, because he’s so sad too. What should I do? Sorry this is so long, rambled a bit. Thanks. Take care. Jenny

  3. Ooops… will try again. My boy is eating some pellets! I have had a terrible time with him. The first week he lost 7gms and I was advised to increase his seed. He probably gets about 1 1/2 tspns of mixed cockatiel seed a day but only takes what he wants and I throw away a fair bit, so I don’t think he has a lot in the scheme of things, He is eating a lot more veg, but he chooses to eat sprouts, baby spinach leaves, beetroot leaves, snow pea sprouts, bit of carrot, corn and peas. So I think a bit of everything is better than what he was having before and that’s got to be a good thing. Not into fruit yet but I’ll keep trying. Took him about 3 weeks to even try pellets. I crushed them, I powdered them, I pasted them, tried everything and then one day I put a small round mirror in his dish with pellets on it and that enticed him into the pellets. He played with the mirror, turning it upside down, but I’d turn it upright and place a few crushed pellets on it and one day I caught him eating them. Yay!!! I feel happier and I think he is too. He whistles again and is a bit more sprightly. I would never have believed he’d change, but he has and I’m so proud of this old boy. I don’t know if he’ll convert to pellets completely but I feel his diet is much healthier now then ever before and that is a BIG plus.

  4. HI I’M LITTLE BIT WORRIED OF MY 2 MONTH BABY COCKATIEL HE OR SHE LIKE RICE BEANS AND EGGS DONT LIKE FRUIT AND VEG ITS NORMAL OR YOU CAN SUGGEST ME MORE OPTION THANKS

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