Some animals like rabbits and hamsters regularly eat their own fecal pellets to absorb the nutrients contained in them, a behavior known as coprophagy.
Although coprophagy is not a common behavior in birds, it can occasionally show up in cockatiels as an indication of nutrient deficiency.
This could result from poor diet, illness, or stress in your bird’s life. Sometimes, a cockatiel may also eat his poop if he is bored or if he is trying to clean up himself.
This article will discuss each of these root causes and provide guidance on how you should approach the issue.
Malnutrition is one of the most commonly-encountered problems among pet parrots. Cockatiels are distinct among birds in that they may actually be able to sense if they are suffering from a nutritional deficiency.
Since some nutrients are lost through waste, a tiel may eat his poop to give them another chance to be absorbed. Although this isn’t the best idea for reasons we’ll discuss later, it’s actually pretty smart.
Nutrients contained in bird poop
One organic compound commonly found in bird droppings is choline, an essential nutrient that helps to build cells and metabolize fat. It’s also super important for a healthy nervous system and brain function.
Choline is commonly found in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A healthy bird’s body also creates a small amount of choline from other nutrients.
Your bird’s poop may also contain traces of important nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin B, and amino acids, which are essential to the development and maintenance of healthy feathers, muscles, bones, enzymes, and hormones.
A healthy bird on a well-rounded diet should be synthesizing and absorbing enough of these nutrients that it does not need to re-digest its poop, which is why coprophagy in your cockatiel is cause for concern.
Why your bird may have a nutritional deficiency
A cockatiel may have a nutritional deficiency because his diet is not well-balanced enough. This happens a lot in older cockatiels. While the understanding of psittacine dietary needs has greatly advanced in recent years, many commercially available mixes still fall short of meeting them.
It’s easy for certain vitamins and minerals to be lost in the process of turning whole foods into pellets. Many birds are also picky eaters and may not eat everything offered in a mixed formula.
One of the best ways to avoid cockatiel malnutrition is to feed a high-quality, science-based pellet-like TOPS, Harrisons, or Roudybush along with a variety of fresh vegetables, sprouts, whole grains, legumes, and a limited amount of fruit, seeds, and nuts.
However, deficiencies are not always the result of an inadequate diet. Sometimes stress, illness, a lack of natural light, or even a temporary vitamin or mineral imbalance can inhibit your bird’s absorption of the nutrients in their food.
Other symptoms of nutritional deficiency
Other symptoms that your bird has a nutritional deficiency may help you determine if this is why your bird’s poop-eating. These symptoms include:
- Poor feather quality
- Lack of energy
- Prone to illness
- Depression, anxiety, or aggression
- Feather picking
- Inability to reproduce
- Weakness, inability to fly
Should you give your bird supplements?
If your tiel seems to be eating his poop due to a nutritional deficiency, you may be able to offer dietary supplements. However, you should always check with your vet before doing so.
With birds, a nutritional imbalance can easily go the other way, and too much of a vitamin or mineral can cause serious health issues. The best ways to deal with a nutritional deficit are to:
- offer a varied diet that includes natural whole foods and a high-quality pellet and
- schedule a vet visit to be sure your bird is not suffering from an illness that could be hindering the absorption of nutrients.
Another reason a cockatiel may eat his poop is that he does not have adequate enrichment and foraging opportunities, especially if your cockatiel is living alone.
In their natural environment, cockatiels spend a lot of time flying from place to place and foraging for food.
In captivity, their food often comes to them in a dish, and eating their fill takes only a few minutes.
Desire to forage
Your cockatiel may eat his poop from the bottom of the cage to entertain himself and satisfy his desire to forage on the ground.
You can discourage this behavior by providing other outlets for your bird’s foraging instincts and upping the enrichment factor of his lifestyle.
Cockatiels especially enjoy foraging toys made of natural material that they can chew and shred. You can also try sprinkling seed or spreading leafy greens or shredded veggies on a clean piece of newspaper for your tiel to pick through.
Just be sure to remove them if they become soiled and before they can spoil. Another foraging outlet could be leafy greens, or millet spray clipped to the side of the cage.
Lack of enrichment
As intelligent animals, cockatiels will find ways to occupy themselves if they’re not provided with enrichment. Still, it can be negative, destructive, or have dangerous behaviors like screaming, plucking, and eating droppings. Male cockatiels are especially prone to this due to their often over-reacting behavior.
If your cockatiel is eating his poop due to boredom, providing foraging opportunities will give him something to do and make mealtime last longer. Also, ensure your bird has interesting toys and spends time out of the cage and with you.
A cockatiel may also eat or crumble dried poop in an effort to clean up its perch or cage area. In this case, the bird is usually just grabbing and crumbling any poop it finds stuck to the area it’s trying to clean up and dropping it on the floor rather than eating it.
A cockatiel not properly digesting its food may also consume its droppings because whole seeds have passed through. If you see undigested seeds in your bird’s droppings, it’s a good idea to schedule a vet visit.
Finally, stress can factor into every other reason a cockatiel eats its own poop. A bird that is nervous or stressed will often try to relieve its anxiety via atypical behaviors like picking at or crumbling droppings.
As we have seen, stress can also contribute to nutritional deficiencies that lead to poop eating. If your cockatiel has begun eating his own poop recently, step back and determine whether anything in your bird’s life changed during that time that could be causing your bird to be anxious.
The thing you understand (but your bird doesn’t) is that it’s unsafe for your bird to eat his own poop. While your bird is unlikely to immediately become ill from consuming his poop, droppings are a common carrier of bacteria, parasites, and disease.
In cockatiels, this is a behavior you should discourage. There are several ways you can do so.
Deal with the underlying issue.
First of all, it’s important to deal with any underlying issues and have your bird checked by an experienced avian vet to rule out nutritional deficiencies or illness.
Ensure you’re providing a balanced, nutrient-rich diet and watch for other signs that your bird may be bored or stressed.
Keep poop away from your bird.
You can also decrease the opportunities your bird has to eat his own poop by keeping it away from him as much as possible. Many bird cages come with a wire floor that allows your bird’s droppings to fall through to a tray below.
However, some droppings will get stuck to the wire, perches, and toys, so you may need to use a damp cloth or paper towel to regularly clean these surfaces.
Also, regularly clean the area around your bird’s play stand or other areas he frequents to keep him from getting his beak on the poop.
Foraging opportunities and enrichment
If your bird is eating its poop just for fun or because he is bored, giving him something else to gnaw and play with is the best way to deal with it.
Many cockatiels love to shred toys made of paper, wicker, cardboard, and other natural materials. You can also tuck treats into foraging toys to give your bird something yummy to work for.
Although eating poop is not immediately dangerous for your bird, it does present a greater risk of bacterial infection and the spread of disease and parasites.
More importantly, it is often a sign that your cockatiel has underlying issues like nutritional deficiencies, lack of enrichment, or stress.
While you can keep your tiel from eating his poop by installing a cage floor and cleaning his play area frequently, it’s also essential to deal with these underlying issues before they seriously affect your bird’s health and well-being.