It should be stated from the outset that no stranger can tell you what kind of Parrot would work out best in your household. Only you can do that. However, in this article I will offer some of insights into various psittacine species, based on my own experience, what I have learned from my esteemed colleagues (both Parrot behaviour consultants and aviculturists) and my rarely unbiased opinions.
As a bit of background if you don’t know me, I’ve lived with Parrots for about 45 years.
During that time I worked for 20 years as a veterinary technician specialized in the handling and nursing of birds (and other exotic animals). I also boarded Parrots in my home for over a decade, and additionally worked for 20 years as a Parrot behaviour consultant.
Species vs. Breeds
I would like to clear something up first. Many people completely misunderstand the concept of different species, and specifically the various species of Parrots. For example, they have an Amazon and an African Grey and they are astonished at how completely different the two Parrots are. But of course, I say, they are different – they are not even same species! So they are not at all like the more familiar breedsof dogs. (More on dogs in a moment.)
On the other hand, according to the Free Dictionary (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/breed), a breed is “a group of organisms having common ancestors and certain distinguishable characteristics, especially a group within a species developed by artificial selection and maintained by controlled propagation.” [Italics mine]
So species are created by nature and breeds are created by humans via genetic manipulation. According to Wikipedia, there are almost 500 breeds of dog, but all of those variant breeds are all one species – Canis familiaris. So despite their obvious physical differences, a tiny Chihuahua is the same species as a huge Great Dane.
Sharing the genus Canis with the domesticated dog are the wolf (C. lupus), the fox (C. vulpine), and the coyote (C. latrans). And while the members of the genus Canis have their similarities – all are omnivorous four-legged mammals with (mostly) 42 teeth in similar patterns – we certainly do not expect them to all behave like each other.
There are no breeds of Parrots, only species. So according to Juniper and Parr’s PARROTS, a Blue-Fronted Amazon (Amazona aestiva) is a different species from a Yellow-Naped Amazon (Amazona auropalliata) – though they are obviously related because they are both in the genus Amazona . So just as a coyote isn’t identical to a domesticated dog, various Parrots in the order of Psittaciformes species have their differences.
(As an aside, I am always flummoxed by people who think their budgies and cockatiels are not Parrots. Indeed, they are members of the Psittaciformes and therefore are Parrots, just like the more obvious Macaws, Cockatoos and Amazons.)
And as a warning, I intend to state mostly negative things about the groups I mention, so I will attempt to equally offend owners of every category of Parrots! Each species, after all, has its drawbacks and without knowing what they are, no one can make an educated decision about which species will best fit into one’s environment.
It goes without saying that each species has its positive aspects as well, but those tend to be more obvious. That information is also much more readily accessible.
Let it also be said that within each family of Parrots there is a wide range of individual differences. So while one family might be known to be loud, an individual from that family might be relatively quiet.
My brother is not only the same species as I, but he had the same parents and only one year apart, grew up in pretty much the same environment. However, I defy you to identify him as my brother... other than by our filial resemblance. We are that different. (And don’t get us started on the subject of politics!)
I have no personal agenda regarding which species of Parrot someone chooses. My only motivation is to minimize the potential for mistakes that cost a Parrot its home in the future. And since I do not intend to write a book here, I will stick to the more common species of Parrots seen here in the USA, as those are the ones with which I have the most experience.
Please also keep in mind that I will discuss adults of each species I address, not babies (which often – like children vs. adult humans – can become quite different when they mature).
THE BIG GUYS
So let’s address the really showy species of Parrots first: the large Macaws and the large Cockatoos. No members of either family are considered to be good “beginner birds” in the world of Parrots, as they can be quite a handful, even for experienced owners.
Macaws are LOUD. When they choose to be, they are loud in a window-shattering, psychosis-inducing sort of way. They don’t generally scream all the time (unless humans accidentally teach them to), but they often produce little spurts of horrific racket off-and-on throughout the day.
Macaws are also capable of extraordinary and even meticulous destruction. My Blue and Yellow Macaw snatched a (fortunately cheap) watch years ago and in the matter of seconds, she had it in seven pieces – not counting the watch band. She’d removed the stem and the crystal and the hands and the numbers ... Fastidious, precise, total destruction.
Macaws are also capable of intimidation. That is a rather large beak, after all. Macaws are therefore not for the faint at heart. If you are afraid of that beak, please don’t get one.
Cockatoos – Moluccans and Umbrellas
Several excellent Cockatoo breeders I know no longer breed the large white Cockatoos - Moluccans and Umbrellas – despite these species being ‘bread and butter’ birds that provide a steady income.
Their reason? They are too much for most people. Indeed, from my experience, the Cockatoo family is the most problematic of the companion Parrot groups; hence I will give them more space in this article.
Cockatoos are extremely intelligent and demanding creatures, with an unfortunate tendency to over-dependencies unless this is actively discouraged. Unfortunately, the person most drawn to a Cockatoo is often attracted for that reason – that apparent neediness. If so, this tendency is encouraged which usually leads to extremely difficult behaviours emerging a couple of years later as the birds mature.
Many a human has been appalled with the creature their “sweet baby” grows into and as a result, the world of Parrots is filling up with unwanted Cockatoos with few homes in which to place them. (Indeed, I have known several male umbrellas under the age of five years that have already been through seven homes.)
As with extremely intelligent children, the Cockatoo’s high intelligence means humans need to work constantly at providing interesting tasks to keep that incredible brain busy in positive ways.
Just as intelligent children are prone to getting into trouble when bored, Cockatoos need constant challenges to keep them from developing problems. In fact, their chronic boredom makes them prone to stereotypical behaviours rather like lions in the zoo that pace and pace and pace. They are also prone to feather destruction.
Just like Macaws, large Cockatoos can also be extremely loud, usually in the morning and evening. (We joke about Cockatoos making daily long distance calls to Indonesia – without a phone.) In addition, the males are capable of a rather terrifying level of aggression. For example, in breeding situations they are famous for killing their mates, even after years of successful cohabitation.
For the needy people who are drawn to the clinginess of a Cockatoo, I fervently recommend you get a lap dog instead; your relationship will likely be much happier for everyone involved. Indeed, it has been my experience that the very best Cockatoo owners are often those who really don’t want a Cockatoo but are pressured into adopting one. Unlike many who are attracted to Cockatoos, these people do not want an overly dependent Parrot, so they don’t encourage such behaviours. Instead, they reinforce independent play so they end up with a wonderfully sane creature that is quite capable of amusing itself without human intervention.
This group includes multiple groups of Parrots, but I will only address some of the smaller Cockatoos, Amazons, and Greys.
The most common smaller Cockatoos in the USA are the Goffin’s and the Roseate or Galah. Like Moluccans and Umbrella Cockatoos, the Goffin’s is an Indonesian species. They are not as inherently problematic as their larger cousins but they are capable of a lot of noise and destruction. Clownish and intelligent, they need a lot of stimulation.
This is also true of their Australian cousin, the Galah. There is a difference in the way they are raised in the wild, as they spend most of their younger years in crèche situations with others of their age. This can cause serious problems in captivity with overly dependent humans who want their Galahs to be clingy like their larger white cousins, as that is not who they are.
There is a wide variety of species in the Amazon family but most are known for their gregarious natures and their talking and singing abilities. Most are highly food-motivated like the Macaws, so like the Macaws, they are excellent candidates for trick-training. The males are also well known for their potential for seasonal aggression, so perhaps females would work better with humans who seek milder personalities.
The (African) Grey Parrots
There are two forms of Grey Parrots – the so-called Congo and the smaller Timneh. Timnehs have long been considered a subspecies of the Congo, but scientists are reconsidering that, and will perhaps choose in the near future to identify the Timneh a separate species.
Here in the USA as well as in the UK, the Congo Grey is more popular, but they are prone to more psychological problems than the Timneh. Unless raised by excellent breeders who foster their self-confidence via such things as allowing normal fledging, Congos tend to be emotionally fragile and prone to self injurious behaviours such as phobias and feather destruction.
They bond tightly to their humans and if said humans tend to mood swings, the Greys will suffer as they ride the same rollercoaster. Steadier people make for steadier and happier Greys, from my experience.
The Timneh appears to be a bit more bomb proof than its larger cousin. While Timmies still form strong bonds with humans, they seem much calmer and less prone to emotional problems. Either species of Grey are capable of being excellent talkers.
THE SMALLER GUYS – Budgies and Tiels
Budgerigars (“Budgies”) and Cockatiels (“tiels”) are the most popular of the smaller psittacine species. Indeed, they are the two most popular species of all companion Parrots – with good reason. Inexpensive compared to their larger cousins and requiring smaller cages and therefore less room, they can provide humans with the amazing presence of a Parrot without many of the drawbacks.
Despite their small size, they are capable of longer life spans than many dogs and cats. It isn’t unusual for budgies to live into their teens, and tiels often live into their twenties and above. While they develop favourites in the human household, they don’t tend to be as aggressive to non-favourites, forming happy relationships with all those around them.
They are capable of behaviour problems such as excessive vocalizations, but on a much smaller scale. For instance, I consider a friend’s tiel incredibly noisy. While in my care, he often produces shrill ‘weep weep weep’ noises for hours on end. However, even this irritation does not measure up against, for instance, the continuous screams of a large Cockatoo.
Generally speaking, these two species are intelligent and lively little animals that can fit right into the ‘average’ human household, providing years of excellent company.
For those of you, who are inspired to write me to say that YOUR bird does not fit my cookie-cutter description of their particular species, please save your energy! I do not know YOUR bird, so there is no way I can address that creature’s stellar attributes. As previously stated, individuals are often different from the norm. I have, for instance, met a couple of large white male Cockatoos who were not aggressive, and I’ve met several Greys who did not indulge in feather destruction!