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1/04/2006

Egg-Laying Behavior in Cockatiels

Many cockatiel owners have written me asking me how to deal with cockatiels who lay eggs. It's more common in cockatiels than other species, and usually the happiest and most well-cared for cockatiels are the ones who lay. While it's a compliment to your caregiving skills, egg-laying should be discouraged.

Some uninformed bird owners have suggested that giving them a mate will stop this from happening - or at least give them real babies instead of unfertilized eggs. This is both irresponsible and ineffective as a preventative. It's the equivalent to letting a teenager have unprotected sex because they're sexually charged!

Egg laying in single birds is not healthy and can deplete them of calcium, which can cause them to become eggbound and die. Being eggbound means that they become too tired or unable to pass an egg, and it stays inside them too long, or worse - the egg can break and cause an infection in their abdomen and bloodstream. Either can quickly lead to death and should be dealt with as soon as you can see symptoms of illness - fluffed up, lethargic, on the bottom of the cage, sometimes favoring a foot/leg or being unable to use one or both feet.

If your tiel has already started laying eggs, your best bet is to let her see it through. It is difficult to stop egg-laying once it's started, but you can prevent future eggs. For now, though, let her go ahead and incubate her eggs.

DO NOT REMOVE THE EGGS! This is important, because cockatiels will replace a lost egg as soon as they can, and this depletes their calcium reserves. Provide her with a box and let her lay a clutch - 4-6 eggs - and incubate them. The box should be about 10-12 inches square with a hole cut in one side. She'll sit on them for about 3 weeks, and when they don't hatch, she'll give up on them.

During this time, you won't see much of her, and she may turn into a pretty protective, nasty bird until she's done. This is normal and just requires patience until it's over. Just give her peace and quiet and leave her alone until she's given up on the eggs.

Be sure to provide her plenty of calcium. This is paramount to their health and survival. Place a cuttlebone and her food and water close to the opening of the box so she doesn't have to go far to eat. Some birds - like mine - refuse to eat while they have eggs, and have to be forcibly removed from the box (and the box removed from her view) before they will eat. If you don't see her come out and eat at least once a day, you may have to resort to this.

You can also increase her calcium by providing crushed eggshells mixed with her regular food. If you are feeding her just seed, you'll need to convert her over to pellets after this is over, but don't start now. Seed does not contain enough nutrients to keep them alive long, and reduces the normal average lifespan of a pet cockatiel from 20-25 years to only 6, according to my vet.

You can also offer her well-cooked eggs but do this sparingly. Soft food is good for laying birds, but given outside the laying period, it will actually induce them to lay! Anyway, eggs are perfect, especially if the shells are mixed in, because they contain protein and calcium. Don't salt them, either. Birds can't metabolize salt like we can.

Once the egg-laying cycle is done, you'll need to work on preventing egg-laying behavior, though. Chronic laying is not healthy for them, and it makes for a poor pet. So, learn the signs that predict egg-laying, and take action.

To understand why they lay, you need to understand their breeding in the wild. Cockatiels are opportunistic breeders, which mean they can breed any time of year as long as the conditions are right. When the conditions are optimal, they will begin to get "nesty" and show signs that they are starting the breeding cycle. This can be aborted well before they start laying eggs.

The most common conditions that cause cockatiels to lay are:

  1. Safety and security. Laying eggs is a compliment to your caregiving skills, but even so, it should be discouraged.
  2. Abundance of food and water and soft foods. If you are giving her a full bowl of food every day and providing plenty of bathing opportunities, she may interpret this as perfect laying conditions. If you are providing her with soft foods like applesauce, eggs, or oatmeal, stop.
  3. Abundance of fatty and/or sugary/carbohydrate-heavy foods. Seeds and junk food will provoke laying in many cockatiels. Mine cannot eat seed except as a rare treat, because it causes them to get nesty immediately!
  4. Too much physical contact on the bird's back and wings. This is interpreted as a sexual overture, and you should avoid touching their back at any time. Stick to scratching the back of the head only.
  5. Lots of sunlight or indoor light. If your bird is not getting at least 14 hours of darkness, it could be provoking her to lay.
Signs of Imminent Egg-Laying
If you pay attention, you'll notice your cockatiel's nesty behavior.

First, she may start looking for a nesting spot. That's our first indication. If you find her burrowing into dark, hidden areas of the house, that's what she's looking for. Remove her from these areas and don't allow her to stake a claim on them or become protective and defensive of them.

Second, excessively shredding paper, cardboard, or wood. Most cockatiels love to do this anyway, but a sharp increase indicates a need to groom the opening of a nestbox. Keep her away from shredded paper to help reduce this behavior.

Third, cockatiels in this state may actually masturbate or "advertise" their wares to a nonexistent male. My two have two different methods. One of them masturbates on her food bowl - it's impossible to interpret it as anything else, so you'll know it if you see it. You may see hens rubbing their tails on things, but that's more common in males. Other hens might lower their heads, raise their tails in the air, and shake their wings slightly. This is courting behavior. Ignore both completely and do not respond to them except by removing them from your presence until they stop.

The last - and most effective - thing you can do is to make them uncomfortable. This combats the safety/security aspect of the breeding conditions. I know it sounds mean, and if you're used to spending a lot of time with your bird, you won't like this, but it's VERY important to make them uncomfortable. An uncomfortable bird does NOT lay eggs.

You may try a few things to throw them off balance:

  1. Move the cage to a new room, rearrange the cage, remove favorite toys, cover the cage for more than 10-12 hours a day to reduce light.
  2. Spend less time interacting physically with her for a while.
  3. Don't offer as many bathing opportunities.
  4. Instead of filling her bowl completely, give her only 2 tablespoons of food a day - she doesn't need more than that.
  5. Reduce or eliminate the seeds from her diet - when she's just starting to get nesty, this is a perfect time to start converting to pellets, because it stops the intake of fat and sugar and throws her off balance by changing her food source.

It all seems unkind, but it's necessary. If you can avoid most of the breeding conditions altogether, you won't even have to do these things to stop her from being nesty.

In general, the way we maintain our two cockatiels' non-nesty status is:

  1. By not offering seed except as a treat from an occasional spray of millet. They eat only Zupreem cockatiel pellets and a small amount of human food like whole wheat bread, wild rice, or veggies.
  2. By ensuring that they get a full night's sleep. This means 12-14 hours of full dark, even if we have to cover the cage to get it.
  3. By not petting them on the back very often.

We don't have to be "mean" regularly. I will tell you that the most potent trigger is the seeds. If someone in the house gives them a bowl of seed (as my husband does because he knows they love it and he feels sorry for them), within a day they are looking for nesting spots and being nasty. If I stop the seed immediately, they'll quit, but sometimes we have to rearrange their cage or move it for them to quit entirely.

Overall, they're happier, healthier birds when they're not preoccupied with infertile eggs all the time. It's worth a little prevention to keep them healthy!