Breeding & Genetics
Nestboxes and Nestbox Litter
Note: this article was written specifically for cockatiels. It may or may not be
applicable to other species
A typical cockatiel nestbox is a plywood box measuring 10 to 12 inches
(25-30 cm) on each side. A circular hole approximately 3 inches (8 cm) in
diameter on the front end of the box is the doorway for the birds, and a
hinged lid or sliding door on another side of the box provides access for
humans. The lowest point of the bird door is about 5 inches (13 cm) above
the nestbox floor. There is frequently a concave area in the floor to help
keep the eggs from rolling too far, but this is unimportant for cockatiels.
A cockatiel nest needs to have 2½ to 3 inches of appropriate nest litter in
the bottom, and the male will make a “dish” in the litter to hold the eggs.
The importance of nest litter is discussed later in this article.
There are two primary types of nestbox: one that is designed to hang on the
outside of the cage, and one that is designed to hang inside the cage. The
“inside” type is most appropriate for walk-in aviaries, and the holes for
hanging the nestbox are on the back side. The “outside” type is the easiest
to use with a cage, but there has to be an opening on the cage that can be
aligned with the nestbox door so the birds can pass in and out of the nest.
This type of nestbox has the holes for hanging on the front end of the box
(the same side as the bird doorway). Other variations are possible, for
example attachment holes on the side of the box. Before you buy a nestbox
you need to see how it attaches and determine whether this will work with
The hanging holes are designed to be used with screws and large flat
washers, but if the design of the cage doesn’t accommodate this hanging
method you can pass thin rope or other suitable material through the hanging
holes to tie the nestbox to the cage. Whatever hanging method you use,
always try to eliminate potential hazards to the birds (like getting poked
by a pointy screw end or getting tangled in rope). If additional support for
the nestbox is desired, you can install a flat perch or some other form of
support underneath the box to help carry the weight.
Most manufactured nests have a small perch sticking through the box below
the door, but this is often useless for cockatiels because the parent birds
will destroy it. A regular perch placed across the front side of the nest
close to the door is a better way to make it easy for the birds to get in
and out. They don’t need a perch inside the nest.
Many owners have had success with improvised nests such as cardboard boxes,
plastic boxes, and baskets. Improvised nests should be about the same size
as a standard manufactured nestbox, and should be securely attached to the
cage (if hanging) or stable enough that it is unlikely to tip over (if it’s
on the floor). Be careful about door placement in an improvised nest – the
parents should be able to get in and out without difficulty, and the babies
should not be able to fall out before they are ready to fly.
Ideally the nestbox should be placed as high in the cage as possible to make
the parents feel secure. Many breeder birds will also feel more secure box
if the nestbox entry hole faces the door to the room so they can see what is
coming, instead of being able to hear something but not see it. Parent birds
that feel secure are less prone to panicking in the nestbox. An adult that
flees the nest in a panic may scatter or break the eggs, and injure the
babies by trampling them or even accidentally dragging a tiny baby out of
A properly designed nestbox in a high place is safe for the babies because
they will not be physically capable of leaving the box until they are old
enough to fly. If they fall out of the nest at that point they will
instinctively flap their wings to avoid a hard landing.
If the parents originally started nesting on the floor or some other
unsuitable location, they will usually adapt quickly if the eggs are placed
in a nestbox. But a minority will not accept the nestbox and will only be
happy with the unsuitable location and/or an open nest. Giving them what
they want will probably be the only way to save the clutch.
It is essential to have 2 ½ to 3 inches of appropriate litter in the bottom
of the nest to provide warmth and protection for the eggs and babies. The
nest litter has several important functions. It is a cushion under the eggs
that retains both heat and moisture in the developing eggs. The bedding’s
ability to retain heat lets the parents go out of the nestbox for short
periods of time without fear that the eggs will immediately chill. The
parents bring moisture into the box when they bathe or dip into the water
bowl before entering the nest. The bedding will absorb and retain this
moisture which is needed the last week prior to hatch. The moisture is also
beneficial for the first week after hatch for additional hydration (skin
aborbs moisture) and feather growth for the emerging pinfeathers. Nest
litter also prevents the babies from developing splay leg, a preventable
deformity caused by the babies sitting on a surface that is too hard for
them. Splay leg is curable if it is treated early, so take action
immediately if you notice that your babies’ legs are always at an abnormal
The choice of bedding can sometimes mean the difference between success and
failure in the nest. Wood shavings are the most common and problem-free nest
litter. Aspen and pine are fine for birds, but do NOT use cedar because it
is too aromatic. This type of litter is easily available at pet shops,
usually in the small animal (rodent) department. Avoid brands that contain a
lot of dust because the dust is an inhalation/ingestion problem, and can
irritate eyes and sinuses. Kaytee is a nice clean brand. If you have a dusty
brand, you can put some bedding in a colander and sift out the dust.
Bedding should not be wet or have a moldy smell. You can tell if it was wet
in the past by looking at the pieces/chips, which should have a uniform
surface color. If there are black/grey specks or stripes on the pieces the
bedding may be contaminated with mold spores, which are a health risk to the
birds and/or eggs. If the bedding definitely looks contaminated, throw it
out. If in doubt, you can bake the bedding in the oven at a low temperature
or spread it on a flat tray or surface and put it in direct sunlight for an
hour. The sun acts as a natural disinfectant.
Do NOT use sawdust or corncob bedding as nest litter since these materials
are hazardous. Long coconut fibers and other materials sold as nesting hair
should not be used with cockatiels due to the risk that the babies will get
tangled in it. Some people have used Carefresh bedding with good results,
but it is generally not recommended for cockatiels because it is an
ingestion hazard and can rob moisture from eggs, contributing to DIS eggs.
Peat moss is also a moisture-stealer. Straw should be used only as a last
resort because the sharp ends can puncture the babies’ skin, and in addition
there can be mold problems if the straw gets damp. Paper towels, shredded
newspaper, and cloth are poor nesting materials.
Some parent birds seem determined to nest on the bare floor of the nestbox,
and will throw out the litter until they reach the bottom of the box. In
cases like this it is useful to put something under the litter that will
prevent them from digging all the way down, and when they reach this
material they will usually give up on trying to get rid of the litter. A
piece of cardboard will serve this purpose – tear off one side to expose the
corrugated inner layer, place the cardboard on the bottom of the box with
the corrugations facing up, and cover with litter. Other materials that can
be used for this purpose are AstroTurf and coconut fiber mats normally used
to line plant baskets. Straw mats are used for many purposes in some countries,
and a piece of straw mat would probably work very well for this.
Cleaning the nestbox
Don't do any cleaning or litter-changing during the incubation phase. The
parents normally don't poop in the nestbox so it's not getting dirty. After
the babies hatch you don't have to do any cleaning unless you want to -
after all, cockatiel parents don't clean the nest. It's natural and normal
for the babies to grow up surrounded by their own droppings, and this
appears to boost their immune systems. But it's OK to periodically replace
the dirty litter with clean litter if you want to, and maybe scrape some of
the excess poop off the sides of the box. There's no need to wash the inside
of the box, which would introduce extra moisture that might encourage the
growth of unwanted microorganisms. You should thoroughly clean the nestbox
when breeding is finished and you remove the nestbox from the cage.
Mites in the nestbox
Mites are rarely a problem for indoor birds but they can cause problems in
outdoor aviaries, weakening or even killing the babies by sucking their
blood. To get rid of mites, throw out the old bedding, sprinkle a small
handful of Sevin 5% dust insect killer all over the bottom of the nestbox,
then put 2-3" of fresh bedding in and fluff it up to mix a little of the
dust into the bedding. The Sevin dust will not harm the birds.