Dot Schwarz explains what to consider before buying a Parrot.
You are thinking of buying a Parrot or you have been offered a second-hand one. You are not sure yet if it’s a yes or a no. Is there any way of finding out whether a Parrot is the right choice for you?
Good news first or the bad news? So that I can end on an upbeat, let’s start with the bad news. Like a marriage or a love affair there’s no sure way of knowing the outcome until you have lived through the experience.
Now for some good news. Unlike marriage (or a love affair) there’s plenty of information and experts ready to share facts and opinions. This means that if you listen to everyone and read everything on offer, you won’t have time to acquire a Parrot; your time will be spent finding out about them and with 362 species to research that takes some time.
What comes next is unashamedly personal opinion directed to the first-time owner.
Which Parrot will you choose?
Out of the many species, almost every single one has been or is in captivity. This means there are dozens of species for a pet Parrot owner to choose from.
Please check that any bird is captive bred for in spite of laws forbidding taking from the wild, birds are still illegally captured and smuggled.
Small? Medium? Large?
The smaller breeds are a sensible option for many of us nowadays because many people live in flats or smaller accommodation.
There is more information on choosing Parrots here.
A pair of hand raised Cockatiels makes a good choice for new owners for the following reasons: you won’t need as big a cage; you don’t need so much space to allow them exercise out of cage time; when they fly around a house or flat, it’s fun for you to watch and good exercise; all costs (except vets’ bills) will be lower.
Why I recommend two (same sex if you don’t want babies as Cockatiels breed easily) is that you have no worries about leaving a flock animal alone for 8-10 hours when you’re out at work.
Cockatiels, related to the Cockatoo family, in spite of their diminutive size are clever and trainable. They don’t have the ear-splitting shrieks of their larger cousins. Among the smaller species are also the Parrotlets which are growing in popularity because of their good looks and ease of keeping.
Read more about Cockatiels here.
Among the medium sized birds, Conures can be amazing pets (amazingly loud too.)
The Patagonian Conure is not as noisy as some of the others and makes an affectionate pet, the Sun Conure is literally a ray of sunshine.
Most owners have their preferences. Parrots like Eclectus, Pionus, Jardines and Caiques all have their advocates.
I know that Ringnecks, Alexandrines and Rosellas are kept indoors but personally I think the longtailed Parakeets are better in aviaries.
And then we come onto Amazons and Greys. Amazons are beautiful birds, whichever species you favour. But they can cause problems at sexual maturity through becoming territorial and aggressive. Some carers learn how to manage the breeding season. Not everyone.
Greys are the most popular pet species. They are quiet (usually) amongst the best talkers of human language and well trained they make excellent pets in a single bird household or in a multi-bird one. However, they are super sensitive and if misunderstood may develop plucking and biting habits.
For more information about the different breeds, check out Rosemary Low’s species guides.
Timnehs, a sub species of the main one Erithacus erithacus, are becoming rarer in aviculture, which is a pity because smaller than Greys and less colourful they are just as clever and excellent talkers.
The larger species of Parrot, most Macaws and the Cockatoos, are film star glamourous indeed. But are they suitable for most people?
Rosemary Low has written movingly about the dangers for inexperienced buyers of young hand reared Cockatoos. “Breeders should speak to those few caring and dedicated people who rescue abused and abandoned Cockatoos and hear some of the terrible abuse and conditions suffered by these Cockatoos which in my opinion are too intelligent and too sentient to be in captivity. Their popularity is a tragedy for the species as a whole and for thousands of individuals.”
Macaws – apart from a few smaller species – weigh in at over 1 kg and 85 cm in length. They are costly to buy and to enable them to use their magnificent wings properly, they need a space of at least 5 – 10 metres for a couple of wing beats.
All these cages are available to buy here.
Knowing which species is right for you is not easy. Northern Parrot’s website can be a great help. Rosemary Low has written many species guides, although she hasn’t covered every species yet.
Where do you buy a bird?
Here is a personal DON’T. On line and sight unseen are dicey. I got caught myself some years back. I needed an Alexandrine hen. The seller assured me of her good health. I paid; he delivered. She was a hybrid Alexandrine/Ringneck.
Reliable sources are a breeder that you know or a hobby breeder. The best breeders will also let you meet and greet prospective young Parrot pets.
Barrett Watson in Suffolk allows prospective pet owners to visit the baby birds during weaning. I did that with my Greys, Artha and Casper and can never be too grateful to have received a pair of healthy, well-socialised babies.
The higher costs of going to a reputable breeder are justified because you are buying a reliable bird. It will have a closed ring and you can microchip as soon as the possible.
In the rare event that your bird is stolen or gets lost outside, the microchip ends any dispute.
If you live anywhere near a sanctuary or a zoo which keeps Parrots, getting to know various species and chatting to their handlers is invaluable.
The Parrot Society provides a valuable resource both for buying and selling. And their staff will give knowledgeable advice you if you telephone in office hours.
The avian vet
My USA Parrot friends have their birds checked annually with blood tests and examinations, etc. This is not customary procedure in UK.
A bird from a trusted, reliable breeder will generally be in good health but it is practical to take her to the vet when she first comes home so that he can meet her and know how she looks in good health.
Find the nearest avian vet to you here.
The following evidence is only anecdotal but it is worth repeating. My Greys have never been ill – whereas the rescue birds that I’ve accepted and taken into the aviary have frequently been ill and in many cases have inexplicably died.
In the case of dear Benson, a wild caught Grey of around 17 years, who mated with Casper (the eggs were infertile) a necropsy showed that her arteries were furred presumably from years of an unsuitable fatty diet before she came to me.
To feed a Parrot well won’t come cheap. No one completely agrees on the BEST diet for Parrots. E. B. Cravens has written, “The happiest and healthiest Parrots are those that receive cooked and soaked and sprouted and green foods every day, especially if you keep fresh food, rainforest species such as Eclectus, Pionus, Amazons and the like.
Health food store nourishment for every hookbill from Lories to Macaws is a near requirement should the keeper wish to optimize his bird’s wellbeing.”
Since we cannot precisely know or imitate the wild Parrots’ diet, the more we can diversify, the better.
It’s worthwhile to find out what’s known about a particular species diet in the wild and try to imitate some of that.
In my case it means giving Casper Grey clumps of grass; he loves fossicking. If you have a garden, consistent weeding of the dandelions, the milk thistles, the chick weed is good for you and the birds relish it.
Get the right diet for your Parrot here.
The size and construction of the cage must be based on the size of the bird(s) – the larger the better. It’s now illegal to put a bird in a cage where it cannot fully extend its wings. But toys and cages can provide sources of danger.
A Parakeet was kept in a good-sized homemade cage. The owner did not realize that the galvanised wire he used contained lead. The bird died of lead poisoning. A cheap imported plastic toy wounded a Cockatoo badly with a splinter.
I also believe most people can put up an aviary. Whether small or large this means the occupants can enjoy sunshine (Vitamin D is essential for birds) wind, sunshine, rain and the sight of wild birds.
Look at the choice of bird lights here.
A vital aspect of Parrot keeping is your training and that can be both fun, rewarding and useful.
How much do you and the Parrot need? The answer is that like with housing, where the larger is better, so with training the more the better. Young Parrots are like sponges and will soak up good training.
And should you take in a second-hand bird who may have many problems of trust and difficult or impossible to handle, with suitable training almost no bird is unsavable.
Sadly with some badly abused birds they can never relearn to trust humans again but the majority of second hand birds will and they will provide you with one of most rewarding results of Parrot keeping. The first moment, when after two years of daily sessions, my wild caught Timneh stepped up upon my hand was unforgettable.
Every pet bird should understand the basic request of step up. We need the step up to take the bird in and out of the cage for its outside time with its family.
Positive reinforcement training which is based on the well tested principles of behaviour science makes the best way forward. In the UK we do not yet have as many Parrot training classes as we have dog training but you can find good DVDs and books to help gain an understanding of the basic principles.
World Parrot Trust
The World Parrot Trust hold good workshops but Cornwall is a bit far for most of us. Regional bird clubs are worth joining for general advice but don’t provide much training.
There is advice on training and behaviour here.
How clever are Parrots?
The answer is extremely clever. They are not mammals. You cannot treat a Parrot like a dog or a cat. And they are super intelligent. Dr Irene Pepperburg demonstrated Alex Grey’s cognitive abilities.
The tool making abilities of Cockatoos have been tested and proved in university research and in the wild. Private Grey owners will tell how their birds have used language in correct context.
So it is not only for the ability of some species to communicate in human language but also for their problem solving abilities and their long term memories that Parrots perform at a similar level to chimpanzees, elephants and cetaceans like killer whales and dolphins.
They are still essentially wild animals. Apart from Cockatiels and Budgies, most species are only a few generations from the wild) and thus their intrinsic nature is nearer to their wild cousins than dogs are to wolves or cats to tigers.
And they can bite. I hope your Parrot will never bite you. But it‘s a risk that you need to factor in. Perdy LSC has bitten a few times in over ten years. I’d never call her a biter. She flew at me once when she was guarding a nest box. She bit once when I had to cut her free from a twisted rope perch.
Get advice on preventing biting and what causes it here.
Most Parrots will not die in the home of their first carer. This is because a Parrot can live for 20 years in the case of the smaller birds, up to 50 or 60 years in the case of Greys, Amazons, Cockatoos and Macaws.
Before acquiring a long-lived Parrot, are you sure you have someone to take care of it when you no longer can?
As an elderly Parrot keeper myself, I have made arrangements for my birds. So I trust if Artha and Casper’s prospective carers are reading this they are taking note.
Should you decide that the answer is yes and that you do want a Parrot (or two) do your research, choose the right species for your life style and adapt your home to accommodate the birds’ needs. Your life will be enriched a thousand fold.