Cockatiels are considered to be medium size parrots. While cockatiels share some features with all hookbill parrot species, they are actually in a genetic family with only one other parrot species, the cockatoo.
Cockatoos are routinely observed to use their feet like humans use their hands. But do cockatiels do the same? Can you ever expect your cockatiel to eat with their feet, for example?
This is a more complicated question than you might expect. In fact, even scientists are still not able to answer this question fully. Read on to learn what we know and what we don’t know about cockatiels who eat with their feet.
Do Cockatiels Eat With Their Feet
Some cockatiels eat with their feet and some cockatiels never eat with their feet.
Talk Cockatiels explains that scientists do not know whether this behavior is genetic (instinctive) or learned.
Watch a Cockatiel Eat With Their Feet
In this adorable YouTube video, you can watch a cockatiel eating by holding the food in one foot.
While this is a behavior that many cockatiel keepers have observed, it does not always happen. Some cockatiels will readily exhibit the behavior while others never do it even once.
Why Do Cockatiels Eat With Their Feet
As Animal Diversity explains, cockatiels have relatively large feet for their overall size.
Their four toes are zygodactylous. This means two toes face forward and two toes face backward. This makes cockatiel feet very mobile and multi-purpose – they can be used to curl around perches, walk on flat surfaces, and grasp foods and nesting materials.
According to Biology Dictionary, cockatiels have a varied diet in a wild setting. Cockatiels have been observed to feed on grains, seeds, grasses, fruits, and even farmer’s crops.
Foraging cockatiels may use their feet to grasp and hold a food source, especially if they are trying to use their beak to pick off tasty seeds or grains.
This is one reason researchers are still unclear about what prompts cockatiels to start using their feet to eat. If it is a learned behavior, the cockatiel may learn by experimentation or by observing other birds do the same behavior.
For the same reason, many researchers believe it is less likely to be a genetic or instinctive behavior simply because some cockatiels never even attempt to eat with their feet.
This may be because they never find themselves in a situation where they might need to use their feet to make use of available food sources. Or it may be that they never have the opportunity to watch another cockatiel using their feet to hold their food.
Survey Results About Do Cockatiels Do Eat With Their Feet
Avian Avenue surveyed their community of cockatiel keepers to find out what percentage of cockatiels eat with their feet or use their feet to grasp objects.
Interestingly, the survey results were split.
About one-quarter of survey respondents stated that some of their pet cockatiels used their feet to eat while others did not.
Just over 30 percent of survey respondents said that all of their cockatiels used their feet to eat with or grasp their food.
And about 42 percent said that none of their pet cockatiels used their feet to grasp food or to eat.
While this is very intriguing data on its own, it certainly does not help researchers to break the tie as far as whether using feet to eat is a genetic/instinctive or learned behavior!
Other Ways That Cockatiels Use Their Feet Like Tools
Cockatiel Cottage reports on an interesting behavior observed in male cockatiels.
Male cockatiels have been seen to lift up one foot as a sign that they are feeling threatened. They may do it with a rival male when competing for the right to breed with a female. They may also do it to ward off predation by using the foot as a weapon.
Cockatiels are also commonly observed carefully preening and grooming their feet and using their feet to preen and groom their feathers. This is especially important to help the bird reach the feathers on the head and neck and around the eyes.
So while not every cockatiel may ever choose to use their feet to grasp food or eat, there is ample evidence that cockatiels do use their feet as tools for many other purposes.
Cockatiels may use their feet to rearrange nesting materials, to distribute keratin powder as feather conditioning during preening, to help remove hard keratin sheaths from pin feathers during molting, and to grasp onto a mate during breeding.
A Cockatiels Feet Serve A Very Specific Evolutionary Purpose
As Scientific American points out, every bird species has the feet they have for specific adaptive and evolutionary reasons.
Cockatiels don’t have webbed feet like ducks. They don’t have three toes facing forward and only one toe facing back like house sparrows. And they don’t have powerful clawed feet as chickens do.
Cockatiels have what is known as climbing feet – two toes facing forward and two toes facing back allow cockatiels to easily climb around tree branches and use their feet to adapt tree hollows effectively for nesting season.
So cockatiel feet are not particularly powerful but they are flexible to adapt to changing surfaces and widths.
While scientists do not know if cockatiel feet have specifically adapted to help these birds grasp food and feed more effectively as well, it is certainly something that cockatiels can learn how to do. And some cockatiels do learn it.
Some cockatiels also exhibit the behavior so early in life that the only way they could have learned by observation is if one or both parent cockatiels demonstrated the behavior to them.
Cockatiel Feet Problems and What to Watch For
As Mornington Veterinary Clinic explains, cockatiel feet can be very sensitive.
One of the most common foot health issues that cockatiels deal with is called bumblefoot.
This inflammatory disease causes the feet to become swollen and painful. A cockatiel suffering from bumblefoot may exhibit signs of lameness, standing on only one foot at a time or sitting at the bottom of the cage in an attempt to take the pressure off the feet.
Cockatiels may also chew or pick at their feet when they are suffering from gout, a buildup of uric acid that is typically caused by improper nutrition, or arthritis, which tends to plague senior birds.
Cockatiels that do not feel well or are in pain may neglect personal hygiene in an attempt to limit discomfort.
This is why it is so important to get in the habit of examining your cockatiel’s feet regularly. Make sure the skin on your bird’s feet is supple and healthy and the nails are appropriately trimmed and filed.
If you do not feel comfortable trimming the nails yourself, you will need to find a qualified avian veterinarian who can provide this service for your bird. Allowing the nails to become overgrown or rough can cause gripping and movement issues for your bird.
Why Would a Cockatiel Eat With Their Feet
Because not all cockatiels use their feet to hold food or eat their food, it is important to consider why a cockatiel would start exhibiting this behavior.
If your bird is having trouble grasping their food, they may start using their feet.
Be sure you are feeding your cockatiel a suitable diet for your bird’s age, life stage, and size.