The Meaning of a Cockatiel's Crest Position (Head Feathers)

The Meaning of a Cockatiel's Crest Position (Head Feathers)

I have tons of pets at home, and I have a special passion for birds. I love researching and finding good articles about parrot care.

How to Understand the Signs of Your Cockatiel's Crest

There are seven different things (for the most part) that cockatiels do with their crests to tell us how they are feeling and perhaps even what they want. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell what they mean when they move their crests back and forth, but this simple and easy guide will make sure your and your bird-friend have the best possible relationship!

7 Emotions Cockatiels Show With Their Feathers

The seven main emotions/feelings are:

  • Curiosity
  • Anger
  • Sleepiness
  • Cautiousness
  • Happiness
  • Contentedness
  • Excitement

1. Curiosity

When a bird is curious about something or someone (or maybe even just feels like exploring), the crest will go up as straight as possible, and usually there is an outstretched neck that follows this behavior. Though usually curiosity is positive, this is not always the case, and it can sometimes be confused with cautiousness.

2. Anger

When a bird is angry, usually the tell-tale sign is the lunging or open beak that goes along with the crest. When upset, the crest goes as flat against the head as possible, and even the curly point at the end (that not all cockatiels have) is as straight as possible. In this case, you or another pet are really making the bird upset, and it's best to back off before you get bit. A bird who is always upset like this is probably not living the best possible life it could be.

3. Sleepiness

When a cockatiel is tired, the crest goes midway up in a relaxed position. The end of the crest will usually be curled upward. The bird might be grooming before bed or having a little shut-eye during the day. When it is night-time, the bird should have its head tucked under its wing.

4. Cautiousness

A cautious bird's crest is up all the way, but not tensed. Usually, the crest is curved upward and not exactly straight. A cautious bird might be frightened, but this is not necessarily the case. It could just be that it sees something outside or is meeting a larger bird/animal for the first time.

5. Happiness

When a cockatiel is happy, they are always the cutest. Their crest is flat on the back of their heads, but relaxed and strongly curled upward. Happy birds tend to sing or chirp with a calm, content demeanor. Happiness is probably the easiest emotion to identify, because they're in such a darn happy little mood!

6. Contentedness

When a bird is content, you might be fooled. Not to be confused with a frightened or hissing bird, a content cockatiel will have their crest straight up—as straight as it can be. Usually, this emotion is identifiable by the calm attitude the bird has (rather than hissing or biting like an upset bird might).

7. Excitement

Excitement, in this case, is a positive attitude. Along with a raised but relaxed crest, an excited bird may fly around, raise their wings, chirp (or sing), and dance. This emotion may easily be confused with curiosity or cautiousness, but indeed it is very different. Usually, in a beginner's eye, it is easier to detect excitement by other movements, such as the ones mentioned earlier.

Seb on September 01, 2020:

That was so helpful

Sarah on August 16, 2020:

That was really helpful

Kate -- Owner of Sugar (Albino Cockatiel) on July 23, 2020:

Thank you! This is extremely helpful.

augh on January 21, 2020:


Jow on January 04, 2020:


Cockatiel lover on September 12, 2019:

MY sister and I have cockatiels , Lutino female & a normal or maybe a pearl female BTW thanks for the info!

Zahra on August 03, 2019:

I have a bird

This type

Ace on June 20, 2019:

That was helpful.

Mittu on April 06, 2019:

Why cocktail are getting angry

Liky on March 17, 2019:

That was helpful to understand what my cockatiel is thinking

Ashton on December 21, 2018:

Really helpfull

rockey on December 13, 2018:

very helpful thanks! :)

Maggie on October 26, 2018:

Thanks :)

HMC on August 11, 2018:


Oacha on May 07, 2017:


  • Wagging their tails – Like other pets, cockatiels too way their tails back and forth. This gesture usually signifies contentment and joy.
  • Moving towards you – If your cockatiel sees you and starts walking towards you, it means that your pet is happy to see you. It is, however, happy only if it comes to you with its head up.
  • Chirping happily – When cockatiels are content and happy, they like to sing to themselves or make low grinding noises with their beaks.
  • Dilated pupils – Always watch out for your cockatiels eyes. If you notice your cockatiel’s eyes dilate all of a sudden, it means that it is angry. Make sure to stop doing anything to it and let it be alone for a while.
  • Head down and ruffled feathers – A head bowed down and feathers puffed up are signs of aggressiveness. If it starts walking in your direction with this stance, move out of its way immediately.
  • Flipping upside-down – If you go near your cockatiel’s cage and it flips upside-down and spreads its wings, it means it is defending its territory and does not want you near it.
  • Snapping – Birds usually snap at you before biting. If you see your cockatiel lunging towards you or snapping at you, leave it alone for some time.

When the feathers atop your cockatiel's head are standing straight up, it's not necessarily a bad sign. Just as a dog raises his ears or tilts his head, a fully erect crest may just mean your cockatiel has heard or seen something he's curious about. Maybe a new visitor is acting in a way that makes him uncomfortable, or he's heard a new and unusual sound, or he's never seen a certain pet before. Simply act normally and remain calm around your bird, and pay attention to any signs that demonstrate your bird's curious or upset.

Think of the angry cat flattens her ears back -- the same goes for an angry cockatiel. His crest will be completely flat to his head when he is upset, and he might even hiss at you to show his displeasure. Your cockatiel could be frightened or angry and begin biting or squawking -- both behaviors you should not condone. By paying attention to this sign, you can help calm a frightened bird or put an angry bird away safely in his cage to cool down perhaps he's uncomfortable with a visiting pet or child.


Common name: Cockatiel
Genus & Species: Nymphicus hollandicus

Each issue of the Holistic Bird Newsletter will profile a species of bird commonly, or uncommonly, kept as a pet. This column is not intended to be a thorough investigation of each species rather it will attempt to give an overview, including the positives and negatives of adopting such a bird. Each species has something “special” about it and we hope to show you what you can expect when you bring your bird home.

In this, our inaugural Bird of the Month profile the Holistic Bird Newsletter staff decided to begin with one of the sweetest and best known of all caged birds – the Cockatiel. Next to the budgie (Budgerigar, or parakeet) the cockatiel is the member of the parrot species most frequently kept as a caged bird. The only member of its genus, it is in the same Family as the many of the cockatoos – which are, in all probability, the cockatiel’s closest avian relative. From its origins in Australia, the cockatiel can now be found in homes throughout the world.

Why are cockatiels so popular? Is it the relatively small size or the normally sweet and affectionate disposition? Could it be the relative “quietness” of the sweet whistle. The low cost of purchasing this small parrot or possibly its disposition? Probably all of the above reasons and more – each person that has a cockatiel as a pet will tell his or her own story about how special these loving little birds can be. Cockatiels or “tiels” as they are more commonly known amongst aficionados remain some of the most gentle and sweet birds of all parrot species. Smaller birds such as Lovebirds and budgies have been known to pick on cockatiels when uninformed owners have caged them or allowed them to play together since cockatiels are not generally aggressive.

One feature of cockatiels which biologists point to as an indicator of this bird’s relationship to the cockatoos is the erectile crest on its head. Boy, can that crest tell you a lot about how your little “tiel” is feeling at the moment. The crest is normally held softly erect indicating curiosity and satisfaction with life in general. Should the crest of your cockatiel be in an almost horizontal position she in deep in thought – while a crest laid right down on the head with the tips quivering can demonstrate extreme agitation. A raised rigid crest with the tips pointed slightly forward means this little girl is alert and ready to react to whatever “threat” she perceives at the moment. Watch your new pet when you offer a new toy or food. Frequently, she will look suspiciously at any new object in her environment. The crest will be erected with the tips slightly pointed forward. She will pull herself up to her full height and then make the decision about whether or not this object is a threat after all. If she immediately lowers her crest straight back on her head with the tips nearly straight out and very tense and quivering, she’s terrified and about to take flight. Yes, cockatiels can be very expressive birds – if you know what to look for.

Coloration and Mutations: The normal cockatiel is a bird of varying shades of gray with white wing patches, a yellow face with bright orange spots on each cheek.The tail takes up approximately half of the length of this slender, approximately 12 to 14-inch bird. Over the years breeders have developed many mutations of the original gray cockatiel some of which are the Lutino, Cinnamon, Fallow, Pied, Pearl, Whiteface, Yellowface, Platinum and Silver. In many mutations an experienced breeder can do sexing of cockatiels visually however, visual sexing of the some of the newer mutations is more difficult.

Personality traits: Cockatiels are generally thought to be sweet, affectionate birds with a pleasing gentle personality. Both male and female can learn to whistle tunes and can speak although, it is generally the males, which learn a few words. On the whole, cockatiels are not noted for being great talkers. The previous two statements should only be taken as a guideline since each bird is an individual and it does not mean that only the males of the species talk. This bird with the gentle loving personality makes a fine pet for a youngster who has been taught the basics of bird care, feeding, handling and respect for one of nature’s flying creatures.

Unfortunately, in many cases the cockatiel is thought of as a “starter bird” for a person wishing to have a parrot and is purchased on impulse without careful thought being given to the housing, welfare and medical considerations.

Life span in captivity: most references cite anywhere between a ten to 20 year life span although, the author is aware of several cockatiels that are in their 20’s and a web search of Australian sites may even turn up a bird that is 33 years old at last posting. The improved longevity in recent years may be a direct result of access to a greater variety of books, magazines, mailing lists, message boards, chat rooms and Internet sites. These produce more knowledgeable owners who educate themselves in areas of diet and nutrition, housing, and houseplant and environmental safety.

Diet and Exercise: Cockatiels, in the author’s opinion have an undeserved reputation as notorious “seed only” eaters. Over 30 years ago, the author had the good sense to learn from her first cockatiel that birds desire and want more than seed in their life. Green leafy vegetables, corn, carrots, sweet potatoes, pasta, rice, cooked beans, dandelion greens, plantain and some fruit will all be relished by your tiel once she learns to enjoy them. The author’s personal preference is to feed a diet similar to the one Pamela Clark (Avian Behaviorist and Holistic Bird contributor) recommends.

Approximately a scant 1/4-cup of the fresh portion of the diet is supplemented with cockatiel seed mix and pellets available for each bird. Nutritionally balanced pelleted diets without artificial chemical additives are now available from a number of sources to form part of your cockatiel’s diet.

[Cockatiels restricted to a pellet only diet will develop visceral gout from the excess D3/Calcium supplements in most commercial pellets. The feathers of cockatiels denied seeds become brittle and harsh. –Editor]

Cockatiels are skillful and adept flyers if left fully flighted. Being very proficient flyers and very slender bodied, it is generally recommended they have their wings clipped. Lots of toys and out of cage time on a play tree or exercise gym is a necessity.

Caging and Toys: The cage should be the biggest one you can afford that at least allows the cockatiel to spread it wings without touching the sides of the cage. Bar spacing should be no more than 3/4 inch with 5/8 inch being more ideal. The interior of the cage and any play towers need to be decorated with numerous toys, which allow your pet to exercise its beak by chewing. Many on-line stores sell toys suitable for cockatiels or you can make your own. Winged Wisdom has directions for a number of toys listed on their Internet e-zine site. (See links listed below.)

Up side of Cockatiel Ownership: Cockatiels are loving, genial and mischievous smaller parrots, that have a relatively quiet “voice” compared to a number of the other Parrot species. They are thought of as good apartment birds and good parrots for children. Tiels can be easily trained to “Step Up” and “Step Down”. Overall cockatiels tend to be very loving and gentle companions.

Down Side of Cockatiel Ownership: Some cockatiels have what are known as “night frights” where they can severely injure themselves thrashing around their cage. Installing a small night-light and covering the cage with dark material can generally prevent this from happening if your bird becomes frightened.

Some cockatiels have, a shrill whistle. The whistle is quite high pitched and single birds frequently use this for a contact call.

All cockatiels have a powder on their feathers, which they use to clean themselves. The powder will leave a fine white dust on areas around its cage. Frequent bathing or misting of the bird will reduce the powder as will a hepa filtered air cleaner installed close by.

Cockatiel Hens are occasionally prone to incessant egg laying. There is an excellent article about this problem located at The North American Cockatiel Society web site. [The HolisticBird website lists some natural ways to deal with this problem. – Editor]

The New Cockatiel Handbook Matthew M. Vriends
All About Your Cockatiel B. Bradley Viner
Complete Book of Cockatiels Diane Grindol -Hungry Minds, Inc.
Encyclopedia of Cockatiels George A. Smith

Bird Talk
Pet Bird Report
The Original Flying Machine

The Holistic Bird Website
Winged Wisdom
North American Cockatiel Society
Introduction to Taxonomy
Parrot Society of Australia, Inc
Cockatiels: How Long Do They Live?
Pacific Crest: The Cockatiel Resource

It is impossible to accurately determine the gender of a cockatiel until it's 9 months old. At this time, females will molt and grow in new feathers that identify them as different from their male clutch mates. Female cockatiels have spots or stripes, called bars, under the tail feathers and wings. Around this time, the male cockatiel's face will become a brighter shade of yellow than the female's, and the orange cheek spot will be more vibrant. In whiteface mutations, the white on the face becomes brighter, but there is an absence of a cheek spot in both genders.

A cockatiel's color can be determined as soon as the baby grows in its feathers. The standard color is gray, with the male having a yellow face and orange cheek spot that is brighter than the female's. Lutino cockatiels are completely yellow, or yellow with white on the wings, and have red eyes. Pearls are gray with a sprinkling of white or yellow spots on the body and wings. In males, the pearling will disappear as sexual maturity is reached, while females will retain their pearling. Pied cockatiels have a base of yellow, with gray splashes on the body or wings. Pearl pieds look similar to the basic pieds, but have the pearling on top of the gray areas of the body.

Watch the video: Backyard Science - Feathers