Rosemary Low tells us which species you should choose.
When you start with Parrots, don’t think big! Many first-time Parrot buyers start too ambitiously with birds that they literally cannot handle.
Unfortunately I know of many sad cases in which the new owner does not allow the Parrot out of the cage because they are frightened of the potential for injury in that big beak! This is so regrettable because it condemns the Parrot to a poor quality of life.
Small Parrots, on the other hand, are approached with much more confidence. They embrace varied groups that have little in common apart from their size. Compared with the larger species, they have a number of advantages from the aspect of the pet bird keeper. They do not need large and high-priced accommodation and they are relatively inexpensive to feed.
The wise newcomer to Parrot-keeping will chose a species from this group. Most are readily available at a low or reasonable price; this indicates that, generally speaking, they are easy to breed. A number are extremely beautiful and several are available in a range of colour mutations. In short, they can be the ideal introduction to Parrot keeping.
Because these Parrots are small, it does not mean that they do not appreciate human companionship or that of their own species. In fact, most small Parrots are highly sociable. Whether or not they are tame, they will appreciate a companion of their own kind – preferably purchased at the same time or soon after.
A Parrot’s behaviour is usually more interesting to observe when it can interact with others. To me, there is no sadder sight than a single Lovebird or Parrotlet, left alone for long hours, unless it has a close bond with its human carer.
So, if you agree that starting off with a Macaw is not the sensible thing to do, and that starting small makes sense, which species are suitable? Please refer to my articles on the following species, then decide which one (or a pair) would fit best into your household:
Or, if you have built an outdoor aviary:
Ringneck Parakeet or one of several species of Rosella.
One or two?
Should you buy a single bird or two? Only the purchaser of a hand-reared bird, who can spend much time with it daily, should consider buying a single pet. If you buy a pair, will you want to breed from them? Some owners are not happy with the idea of having to part with the young, especially if the market for that species is already saturated.
Many small Parrots are inexpensive and prolific; when their value is low it might be difficult to find homes where their quality of life will not be in doubt. In most species two males will live happily together – and, in most species, more males are available as fewer females are bred.
Two females might be compatible unless the species is a female-dominant one, such as a Lovebird or a Poicephalus Parrot such as a Senegal or Meyer’s.
Celestial or Pacific Parrotets (Forpus coelestis) can be ideal pets for those who are short of space. Easy to sex by their plumage, they are smaller than a Lovebird, and bold, curious and fearless when hand-reared (see Parrotlets). They can become very good mimics and they bond strongly with their human companion, they’re also very entertaining when playing with their toys.
Acquiring new birds
If you decide on a second bird, it should be carefully planned – not the subject of impulse-buying. Remember that any new bird that enters your house brings with it the risk of disease. Moving to a new home is a stressful experience for most birds. If they have an underlying disease problem, this is the time when it will become apparent, thus it is wise to maintain a period of isolation and observation.
Many newcomers to birdkeeping do not understand that Parrots of all sizes are highly territorial and possessive regarding their cages. If you acquire a second bird, on no account place it in the cage of your established pet. Serious injury or death or, at the least, stress will result.
The third factor to consider is that many a wonderful relationship between Parrot and owner has been destroyed by the acquisition of a second bird. Jealousy is rife! However, there can be many benefits in an avian companion for your bird. Much depends on the circumstances and species.
On reaching maturity some small Parrots cease to be good pets and seem to need a mate. For others, their human is their substitute mate. There are no hard and fast rules. Observation and understanding are the key requisites of the Parrot owner.
Male or female
If you have a male and a female of a prolific species such as the Peach-faced Lovebird, Bourke’s Parakeet or Lineolated Parakeet, sooner or later they are likely to produce young, given the basic requirements for breeding.
To start with, you might find it difficult to part with the young from the sentimental point of view – but there is a limit to the number you can care for in a manner that meets a good standard. Therefore, you must be clear from the start what your purpose is.
Sexing some species is almost impossible by outward appearance and even by behaviour. All Parrots in aviculture can be sexed using DNA technology, by sending a few feathers or a drop of blood to an avian diagnostic laboratory.
With species of low monetary value sexing might cost nearly as much as the bird, thus purchasers of, for example, two Lovebirds, might take a chance on their gender.
Although certain species are recommended, the most important factors are obtaining a young bird and developing a kind and loving relationship with it which requires a lot of patience.
Refer to the species guides if you are looking for a single companion bird of a small or medium size: Green-cheeked (and other Pyrrhura conures such as the Maroon-bellied, also called Red-bellied), and Mitred and Nanday Conures, Hahn’s Macaw and Senegal Parrot. Also consider the Quaker Parakeet, a bird with plenty of character.
It is unusual for the small Conures to learn to mimic; in contrast Quakers can be excellent “talkers”. They also have loud voices! Many hand-reared Quakers that receive lots of attention do not exceed a noise level that is tolerable.
Remember, however, that unless you keep the little Parrotlets and Lineolateds, you can expect your Parrot to be loud at times and this can cause problems with other family members!
Some hand-reared Lovebirds make good pets but the potential of individuals is difficult to evaluate when they are young. Also, they must be handled daily to keep them tame.
Cockatiels can make super pets, and many males are talented mimics. Similar in body size, at about 10in (25cm) including the tail, and considerably more expensive, are the short-tailed true Parrots, Black-headed Caiques and Pionus Parrots.
Caiques are the clownish extroverts of the Parrot world, they’re endlessly amusing – and very strong willed. Pionus (see Blue-headed Pionus) such as Maximilian’s, are more laid-back. Caiques have quite piercing yaps and whistles whereas the Pionus are less shrill. Both kinds are capable of amusing themselves and are a lot less demanding than the larger Parrots.
For someone who is out of the house for hours every day, it is unfair and asking for trouble to obtain a more demanding Parrot such as a Grey or an Amazon. A Cockatoo or a Macaw should not even be considered. They need as much time as you would give to a child. (See Umbrella Cockatoo and Blue and Yellow Macaw.)
Africa has a genus of similar-sized short-tailed Parrots that can sometimes make good pets – the Poicephalus (see Senegal Parrot). The best known are the Senegal and the Meyer’s. Some make enchanting pets, especially when young. Others are quite difficult for anyone but the most experienced Parrot owners, needing much attention and frequent handling.
They can become very nippy for an extended period at about two years of age. They also have a tendency to attach themselves to one member of the household and to ward off others.
Unsuitable as pets
Inexperienced people are often persuaded to buy species that are not suited to cage life, usually by pet shop staff. The gorgeous colours of Rosellas attract many newcomers to Parrot keeping. Rosellas make wonderful aviary birds but they should not be kept in a cage. (See Golden-mantled Rosella.)
The energetic Kakarikis (New Zealand Parakeets) make entertaining aviary birds and are equally unsuited to cage life. The availability of mutations in the Red-fronted Kakariki has greatly added to its popularity — but think of them as aviary birds.
A spacious cage
(See Blue-fronted Amazon.) Whichever species you decide on, budget for the cage in advance as it can cost more than the bird. A common mistake is to buy one that is not large enough.
Active small Parrots need a larger cage in proportion to their size than large ones. This cage will be your bird’s home for many years to come, so do not economise.
Some small Parrots, especially Caiques, need large cages because they are so playful and active. There needs to be space for swings and ropes.
The most important measurement of the cage is its width. This should be at least four times the width of the bird when its wings are open – or larger for small species such as Lovebirds and Parrotlets. The depth should be at least twice the bird’s length when its wings are fully open.
The height is less important than width and length as exercise is gained by flying from perch to perch, assuming that the perches are as widely spaced as possible. Cylindrical cages must be avoided.
I would recommend buying a large cage on castors. This allows you to move the cage easily from one room to another. Just think how boring it must be for a Parrot to always have the same view from its cage!
Even assuming that your Parrot will be allowed out at least once daily, a small cage is not acceptable. Your bird will feel more confident if its own space is reasonably large. Cramped quarters can result in Parrots being quite aggressive – out of fear or territoriality. They have nowhere to retreat to and feel threatened.
Get the right cage for you here.
Many Conures and Caiques love to retreat to a little cloth bag or a small wooden nest-box. They feel safe in a dark cosy corner. Failing that, many will try to make a bed under the newspaper on the cage floor. Some small species, such as Lovebirds, Parrotlets and Lineolated Parakeets, feel more secure in box cages, that is, a cage that is open only at the front.
Perches and wood for gnawing
Natural wood perches are recommended for all species. In cages purchased with plastic perches, at least one should be removed and replaced with a dowel or a length of branch from an apple or pear tree.
Different perches are available here.
Willow is excellent for Lovebirds who will make their nest with it. All Parrots enjoy gnawing the bark but willow wood is soft and, if used for perching, will need to be replaced regularly.
Given a choice, many Parrots opt for surprisingly thin perches. Constantly gripping a perch of the same circumference is not good for their feet. Perches should be replaced when they become shiny and uncomfortable. They must also be washed frequently.
Finding a supply of wood for gnawing – highly beneficial for all members of the Parrot family – can be a major problem for some urban dwellers. Those with gardens can plant a quick-growing eucalypt, such as Eucalyptus gunni, plus apple or pear trees.
More challenging species
In my opinion, Grey Parrots are among the most difficult to keep in a pet situation (see African Grey) because they are very sensitive birds. Stress often results in feather plucking. Because they are highly intelligent, they succeed in dominating their human companions if not kindly disciplined.
Among the smaller Parrots feather plucking is not common, except in the case of lovebirds and Poicephalus species such as the Senegal. However, almost any Parrot might pluck itself if it is in a permanently stressful situation.
Caiques, which are not strong flyers and can entertain themselves very well when out of the cage, probably do not have their quality of life greatly curtailed by wing-clipping however I am strongly against this practice under normal circumstances. To deprive a bird of the joy of flight is cruel, in my opinion.
If your family cannot cope with a winged pet, it would be better to obtain a rabbit or a guinea pig. If Parrots are to remain in good health over their full life-span (20-30 years in most small Parrots), they need to fly for their muscles and heart to remain in good condition. Many wing-clipped birds become overweight. (See African Grey.)
Any bird, full-winged or clipped, must be closely supervised when allowed out of its cage. There are so many hazards. A play stand, with toys, ropes and swings, should be the focus of the bird’s attention outside the cage, to divert it from other areas where it might get into trouble. Without this it is likely to climb on the curtains, perch on the top of a door or nibble at the spines of books.
Many great stands are available here.
I would recommend all Parrot owners to put some kind of screen at their back door or that which is most frequently used. Aluminium chain screens are quite expensive but very attractive and well worth the outlay. Such a screen can save your bird’s life.
Learn more about Parrots in Rosemary Low’s species guides here.