Cockatiels are easy to recognize, with their long tails, slim bodies, and expressive crests. When most people picture a cockatiel in their mind, they see a bird with orange cheek patches.
Even though this is one of the cockatiel’s most recognizable traits, interestingly, not all cockatiels have orange cheek patches.
In this article, we will explain exactly what creates those signature round spots of orange “blush” on either side of a cockatiel’s face. We will also review why not all cockatiels grow up to sport orange circles on their cheeks.
Why Do Cockatiels Have Orange Cheeks
As Pittwater Animal Hospital explains, there are two main genetic pathways that determine a cockatiel’s coloration.
Lipochromes are responsible for the orange color that produces the orange cheek patches as well as the yellow coloration many cockatiels display.
Learn About Different Cockatiel Color Mutations
In this short YouTube video, you can see different cockatiel color patterns, which in breeder terminology are called “color mutations” or simply “mutations.”
The word mutations simply refer to how the genes combine to create different colors on different parts of a cockatiel’s face and body.
As you may have noticed, not all the cockatiels you saw in this video have orange cheek patches! Read on to learn more about why this occurs.
Cockatiel Color Genetics
Vetstreet explains that wild cockatiels generally have a grey, white and yellow coloration with orange cheek patches. This is called “normal grey.”
This is the main reason why most people think of orange cheek patches when they picture a cockatiel.
However, breeding cockatiels for the pet trade has opened the door for cockatiel breeders to learn more about genetics and develop new color patterns, or mutations.
Two Main Cockatiel Color Pigments
As we briefly mentioned earlier in this article, there are two main color pigments that create the full-color palette cockatiels can display.
This can sound pretty amazing until you realize that there are many other genes that can act on these two pigments to produce the great variety of cockatiel colors and patterns you see today.
The two-color pigments are melanin and lipochromes.
Melanin is the dominant color pigment. As such, it can influence feather color and also beak, eye, and feet coloration.
Lipochromes control for the yellow-orange-red spectrum of color (their counterpart in canine colors is phaeomelanin).
About the Three Main Cockatiel Mutations
As Cockatiel Mutations explains, the normal grey mutation is the most common mutation for cockatiels.
This is because the normal grey mutation is considered to be a “dominant” mutation. This means only one parent cockatiel has to contribute the correct genes in order for a baby to grow up with the normal grey color pattern.
But what happens if a cockatiel grows up and doesn’t have any yellow, or is missing the orange cheek patches, or has a bald spot behind the crest, or has red eyes, or exhibits any of a myriad of other color departures from the normal grey of the wild cockatiel?
There are two other main cockatiel color mutations that are responsible for many of these less common patterns: sex-linked and recessive.
The sex-linked color mutation requires that both parent cockatiels must have a particular coloration in order for the babies to grow up to have that coloration as well.
Examples of sex-linked color mutations include cinnamon, pearl, lutino, platinum, and yellow-cheek (instead of orange cheek) cockatiels.
The recessive mutation means that both parent birds must contribute a specific gene in order for a baby cockatiel to grow up to display that color.
Examples of recessive color mutations include the whiteface, pied, fallow, and emerald cockatiels.
Which Cockatiel Mutations Will Produce the Orange Cheek Patches?
Another thing that many new cockatiel owners find confusing is that even cockatiels that have very different colorations elsewhere on their bodies might have orange cheeks.
What causes this?
Because it is the lipochromes pigment that produces the yellow-orange-red color spectrum, it is possible to breed a cockatiel that completely lacks melanin but still has lipochromes. The lutino is the most common color mutation that fits this description.
In contrast, there are cockatiels that do not have any cheek patches – orange, yellow, or otherwise.
These cockatiels lack lipochromes, which means they will not grow up to display cheek patches in the yellow-orange-red color spectrum.
Understanding Cockatiel Genetics for Breeding
As Takoda Aviary explains, beyond the three most common mutations you have already learned about in an earlier section here, there are an additional eight relatively common color mutations.
All but one of these 11 mutations has been developed through the study and application of cockatiel genetics.
The normal grey is the color mutation that wild cockatiels display.
These are the other 10 cockatiel color mutations that have become relatively common and easy to breed for, providing you have the right parent birds and a basic understanding of cockatiel color genetics.
Pearl cockatiels have a distinctive dotted color pattern that males will lose at maturity and females will retain.
Whiteface cockatiels have no lipochromes and cannot produce any colors in the yellow-orange-red spectrum.
Male adult whiteface cockatiels display the true snow white cheek patches. Females retain grey on the cheek patches.
Fallow cockatiels have a very pale brown-grey coloration. Often these birds also display red eyes and pale beaks and feet.
The easiest way to describe cinnamon cockatiels is to picture the normal grey coloration and lighten it to more of a brown hue.
Silver cockatiels are distinctive in that they have a slightly lighter color pattern than the normal grey wild cockatiel, but they also have red eyes and pale beak and claws.
A true albino animal lacks all color pigment. This is quite rare no matter the species.
Cockatiels that appear to be albinos are actually not true albinos. They lack lipochromes, which is why their eyes are pink and they have pale beaks and claws.
The pastel face looks very similar to the yellow cheek, but the genes required are different.
The yellow cheek cockatiel looks identical to the normal grey in every way except for the cheek patches, which are yellow instead of orange.
Lutino cockatiels will have red eyes but display lipochrome head and body color in the yellow-orange-white spectrum.
A pied cockatiel also looks a lot like the normal grey cockatiel except a lighter version.
How to Tell If An Orange Cheek Cockatiel Is Male or Female
Not all cockatiel color mutations are sexually dimorphic. As Mickaboo points out, this means the males and the females look different in adulthood.
These gender differences can extend beyond an adult bird’s colors or patterns. For example, male birds might be more vocal or more expressive, which is often the case with cockatiels.
In the case of orange cheek cockatiels, both female and male adult birds will display the orange cheek patches that are characteristic of the normal grey cockatiel coloration.
However, where the male cockatiel will have bright orange cheeks set against a yellow or yellow-white head coloration, the female cockatiel will have something different.
For a female orange cheek cockatiel, the surrounding facial and cheek color will be predominantly grey. This can make it harder to see the orange cheeks in an adult female cockatiel.