Is your cockatiel looking slightly… scruffy? Are you finding feathers on the bottom of the cage, and does the bird seem a bit on the cranky side? Don’t worry, your ‘tiel doesn’t hate you all of a sudden: it’s just molting. This process is recurring and natural but means a few weeks of discomfort for your bird.
Learn all about what it means when your cockatiel is molting and what you can do to make it feel better.
What is a molt?
Bird feathers are exposed to a lot on a daily basis and wild cockatiels are no exception. Dirt, preening and any damage that occurs would have them looking pretty ratty after a year or two if they didn’t replace their feathers on a regular basis. And that’s exactly what molting is: a time during which part of your cockatiel’s (or other parrot’s) feathers are traded for fresh new ones.
The first molt on a cockatiel usually occurs when the bird is nearing a year old. This is when they shed their baby feathers: before the initial molt, all wild type cockatiels are grey, whereas the males develop a yellow face once they become adults.
After this first molt, your cockatiel will continue to go through heavy shedding about twice a year (and very light molting throughout all months). You’ll know when it happens: you’ll find lots of feathers and flakes everywhere and see the bird preening itself more often. And it definitely won’t look its best, since a feather that falls out isn’t immediately replaced with a new one.
Rather than a fresh feather, a pinfeather will appear first. A pinfeather is basically a developing feather covered in a sheath of keratin (the material that feathers, beaks and nails are made from). This sheath offers protection, which comes in handy as developing feathers are directly connected to the cockatiels’ blood supply and can cause very serious bleeding when damaged.
Once the new feather has fully developed, the ‘pin’ falls off. A cockatiel can look pretty disturbing during a heavy molt if it has lots of pinfeathers, since they look almost wormy, but it’s completely natural!
Did you know? Many birds molt during springtime. This way they can look fresh during the nesting months and attract a mate with their lush new feather coat. It can also get rid of heavy down that species in colder areas develop for the cold months.
What happens to your cockatiel during molting?
A bird never molts all of its feathers at the same time. After all, that would render it unable to fly, which is the main defense mechanism for most species. Still, molting time is not exactly the best moment to be a bird.
- Feeling tired. Your cockatiel uses up a lot of nutrients and energy when its body is developing all those new feathers. It’ll probably want to sleep quite a bit more than normal and it might not feel energetic enough to sing or play as it normally would.
- Feeling vulnerable. Although it will almost always still be able to fly, your cockatiel won’t feel the safest during its molt. Using up all that energy depletes its system and makes it feel like it won’t be able to escape dangers that might occur; at least not as well as it normally would. You’ll find it retreating to dark areas more often and possibly trying to keep you at a distance, even if it’s normally very affectionate.
- Feeling uncomfortable. It’s not difficult to imagine that losing feathers and then being covered in keratin sheaths is not the best feeling. Pinfeathers make your bird incredibly itchy! You’ll probably see it preening, scratching itself or even rubbing its head on objects in an attempt to get rid of the pins. It might be in too much discomfort to want much to do with you. Don’t worry, though, as things will be back to normal soon.
Tip: Is your cockatiel always losing lots of feathers and looking bare? Or has it gone through more than two molts in less than a year? You might want to visit a vet just to make sure there’s nothing wrong.
What should you do when your cockatiel is molting?
As mentioned above, your cockatiel might not want much to do with your when it’s molting. You should respect that, as it’s understandable to wish to be left alone if you’re tired, itchy and feeling unsafe!
However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do for your cockatiel when it’s replacing its feathers.
- Diet. First and foremost, you should keep the nutrition on point. Plenty of food and water should be available along with a calcium block, since feather production uses up a lot of this. Give fresh veg and fruits as well as fresh quality pellets and seeds. Some parrot owners like to feed some egg whites for protein and calcium, though this is not a must.
- Head scratches. Your cockatiel is great at taking care of its own feather coat and the emerging pinfeathers, with one exception: its head and neck. It can’t reach those with its beak and all it can do is scratch them with its feet. If the bird allows it, you can help out by offering soft scratches. This eases the itch and helps loosen the keratin sheaths.
- Baths. Even if your cockatiel normally absolutely refuses to bathe, molting time might be an exception. Offer baths daily in the form of a dish filled with water or a gently misting with a spray spray bottle.
- Shelter. Although hiding huts and nests can cause unwanted nesting behavior in your cockatiel, you can still increase its feelings of safety and reduce stress during molting. Try covering a corner of the cage with a towel and avoid bright light shining onto the cage.
- Warmth. Although there’s no need to crank up the heating or place a heat lamp over the bird cage, it’s a good idea to avoid cold. Your bird simply doesn’t have all its feathers and it still needs to maintain its high body temperature! Move the cage away from drafty windows or blasting A/C units.
Did you know? The lifespan of a cockatiel is 20-25 years in captivity. This means your ‘tiel might molt more than 50 times during its life!
In conclusion, it’s normal to have to deal with a cranky and disheveled looking cockatiel for at least a few weeks every year. Just try to make the process as comfortable as possible and don’t stress: your bird will be back to its friendly self soon.
If you have any more questions about cockatiel molting or if you want to share your own experiences with these delightful Australian parrots, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!