Companion birds come in all sizes, shapes, colours and personalities. They range from the diminutive finches with their soft beeping calls, to the Hyacinth Macaws, the largest and one of the loudest of the Parrot family. Interactions with companion birds can range from a friendship-from-a-distance with a canary, to a literally in-your-face relationship with a Parrot.
However divergent as these animals are, there are some universal truths when it comes to bird ownership. Being aware of them can make all the difference in having a long and happy life with a creature with feathers.
#1: Do find a good avian veterinarian and get your bird checked out completely.
I would not take my cats to a bird veterinarian, and I certainly would not take my Parrot to a dog and cat veterinarian. People assume that veterinarians graduate from school with knowledge about all animals, but this is far from true.
Most veterinary schools teach their students only about the domesticated animals: horses, cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, cats … and an occasional chicken. Many veterinary schools do not even see birds as patients, so their students graduate with no avian experience.
As a result, many veterinarians have little or no knowledge about avian medicine, and this can be life threatening when a bird needs medical care. Even basic grooming procedures like flight feather clipping and nail trims can cause horrific problems if done incorrectly. Veterinarians who claim to know nothing about birds, will often agree to do such procedures – often with disastrous results.
#2: Do get avian veterinary check-ups annually.
As prey animals, companion bird species are vulnerable to predation. To protect themselves, they instinctively hide signs of weakness. This ability to disguise the signs of illness until they are too sick to hide them any more is a successful survival strategy in the wild, but it works against companion bird survival.
Avian veterinarians are often told that a bird was “fine this morning” and he “just got sick” when in fact, the bird has been ill for weeks. The more advanced the problem, the more difficult the recovery. With annual check-ups including blood work, avian veterinarians are more likely to identify a problem very early, maximizing the potential for a full recovery.
Find the nearest avian vet to you here.
#3: If you are purchasing a new bird, DO support the best breeders and/or pet stores.
Please spend your money to support the people who do a good job. The very best breeders and retailers are often more expensive, as well they should be. Doing right by the birds is costly, and you get exactly what you pay for. Those of us who love birds should do all we can to keep the good bird businesses solvent. Vote with your dollars to show retailers that we only support the businesses that care enough about birds to do it right.
There are things to look for, when visiting bird retailers. Be it a private home or a store, the environment should be clean and odour-free. Within reason (as birds can trash a cage rather quickly), the cages should be clean, with clean food and water dishes. Cages should also be large enough for birds to spread their wings, with suitable toys with which to play. The environment should be well lit, with play areas for the birds to come out and socialise.
The diet should be varied, including pellets, vegetables and small amounts of fruit. You should be required to wash and disinfect your hands prior to handling a bird, and your handling of a bird should be supervised, to make certain you know what you are doing.
The breeder or store employee should obviously LIKE birds, be knowledgeable about each one, and be willing to handle them without nets or gloves. They should be educated about diet and behaviour, recommend books for you to read, and offer a written (not just verbal) health guarantee of a minimum of 72 hours.
The birds should be bright, interested, active and in decent feather. Baby Parrots often damage their tail feathers while playing madly, so tail feathers may be frayed, bent or missing – but bald spots or damaged feathers on other parts of the body would not be normal. Young Parrots should be pleased to see you, eager to come to you, and not run away. Adult birds will probably be more reserved with you, but they should not be disinterested in your presence.
#4: If adding another bird, consider adopting an older Parrot that needs a home.
Talk with your avian veterinarian and local bird clubs about the best re-homing (or “rescue”) organisations in your area. Investigate them. Visit or phone them and ask lots of questions. Ask for several references of people who have adopted birds from the group. Are they pleased with the bird they adopted, and was it the right bird for them?
One “rescuer” in my area placed an aggressive sexually mature male Umbrella Cockatoo with an apartment dweller that had never owned a Parrot before – and this was NOT a good match for either bird or human.
If a re-homing organisation is concerned about what kind of owner you would be, that is a good sign. They should be concerned about a bird’s future with you, so they should ask you lots of questions. Find out as much as possible about a specific bird you are considering. Why did it lose its previous home? Does the bird exhibit behaviour problems like excessive screaming or aggression? If there are problem behaviours, ask if the organisation will work with you to help resolve them.
Take your time making a decision and don’t take on more bird than you are able to handle. Many of the larger Parrot species can be quite a handful for someone unaccustomed to living with Parrots. However, many re-homed birds develop into extraordinary companions. My favourite example is Sam, my own Blue and Gold Macaw, whom I purchased from her previous owners of twelve years. That was thirty years ago, and while we had some rough spots in the beginning, Sam has become my oldest and deepest friend, and my priceless companion.
Find advice on choosing an older bird here.
#5: DO make certain your bird is eating a good diet – it’s a matter of life and death.
Years ago, pet birds were thought to be “fragile and susceptible to drafts.” However, the true reason for their fragility was malnutrition caused by an all-seed diet. Appalling as it may seem, malnutrition is STILL the primary underlying cause of illness in companion birds. If a bird is not consuming adequate nutrition, its immune system will be unable to defend against disease.
While none of the species of birds on the US pet market are strict seedeaters, the myth continues that “birds should only eat seed,” and birds continue to die because of it. Even Finches and Canaries benefit tremendously when you add fresh greens and vegetables to their diets, and psittacines have an even greater need for a wide range of foods.
With the exception of specialised feeders like Hyacinth Macaws, Lories, and Lorikeets, experienced avian veterinarians generally recommend a diet of 50% good quality pellets, 40% high nutrition vegetables, and 10% seeds, nuts, nutritious fruits, and small amounts of treat foods like pasta. When consuming a good diet, birds are far from frail. On the contrary, birds are nature’s athletes. With a potential life expectancy of 18-20 years, even the tiny Canary is capable of outliving most of our pet dogs and cats.
Find the perfect food for your Parrot here.
#6: DO get your bird a sufficiently large cage.
Too many people keep their birds in small cages, and this is unacceptable. Think of a 5-year-old child confined for life to a small box. Those narrow but tall cages so frequently marketed are the avian equivalent of a walk-in closet that’s three stories high. Horizontal space is what birds really need, so they can spread their wings and move around. As long as the cage bars are a safe width for the size of bird, the bigger the cage, the better.
#7: DO place that huge cage in an optimum location.
While many birds enjoy looking out a window, being caged entirely in front of a window can be stressful, since they have nowhere to hide. Hiding places help alleviate these natural fears, and even a sheet draped over one end of a cage can make a vast difference to a bird’s comfort level. Cages are best located against solid walls across from doorways, so people abruptly popping into view do not constantly startle the caged inhabitants. Locate the cage away from heavy traffic areas, so territorial Parrots are not stimulated to lunge and snap at people and animals passing too close to their turf.
Get the perfect cage for your Parrot here.
#8: DO keep small children and other pets at a safe distance.
Most birds are afraid of children, and most Parrots adopt an “attack is the best form of defence” approach to threats. Frightened Parrots can bite fast and hard. Other pets can also terrorise companion birds.
Dogs and cats are predators, and should never be allowed close to birds. Even if your pet lives happily with the bird, sudden flight from a startled bird can stimulate sudden instinctive pursuit from a cat or dog, and tragedy may result. It is unconscionable to expect dogs and cats not to protect themselves from a bird, especially with Parrots that bite them.
#9: DO provide psittacines with foraging and enrichment opportunities.
Parrots are extremely intelligent. They need stimulation and challenges to satisfy their curiosity and boredom is not good for them. In the wild, it is estimated that psittacines spend 50-75% of their waking hours foraging for food; sticking a food bowl under their noses makes life mind-numbingly monotonous.
Teach your Parrot to forage for food, hiding tasty morsels around the cage for them to find. Once accustomed to the concept that there might be food in there even if it’s not visible, companion Parrots can spend many happy hours rummaging about their cages, searching for hidden treats.
The perfect foraging toy for your Parrot is here.
#10: DO keep reading and DO keep learning about companion birds.
There is a constant influx of information about birds, and only by constant updating, can we be certain that our knowledge is current. Subscribe to and read reputable magazines about birds. I’ve been working as a Parrot behaviour consultant for 15 years, yet no matter how much I might think I’ve learned about companion birds, I can be certain I do not know enough. Join and get active with your local bird clubs. Help them bring in educational speakers. If possible, attend at least one bird-oriented conference a year.
To find an avian vet near you click here.
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