Humans have been fascinated by birds for centuries, with a variety of species kept as companion animals in cultures around the world. They can make wonderful additions to households, especially if there is limited space or family members are allergic to other animals.
What are you looking for in a bird? Your choice of bird will be affected by your preferences for appearance, personality, companionship or ability to talk.
Pet birds come in many sizes and colors — ranging from finches with a wing span of just a few inches, to macaws whose wing span can be up to four feet. Bird feather hues range from natural greys, yellows, reds, and greens to unusual color combinations resulting from selective breeding.
Personality traits vary widely among birds. Parakeets are friendly and relatively easy to tame if obtained when young. Cockatiels are usually active and cheerful birds. Small- to medium-sized parrots such as conures and large parrots such as Amazons, African Greys, macaws, and cockatoos have unique personalities that require more time and effort by their owners to ensure their social and behavioral needs are met. Young, weaned birds are frequently easily tamed and trained.
Some people suggest that if a person is interested in a large parrot, he/she should get a smaller parrot as a “starter bird” to learn about their needs and behavior. However, a responsible bird owner should never assume that these smaller birds will require less skill, knowledge, and commitment.
Birds can make wonderful companions. Birds are beautiful to look at, and many species have a remarkable ability for song and speech. They can be entertaining companions for play and other activities. However, most species of companion birds are not domesticated; therefore, they are not adapted to continuous physical contact, such as prolonged stroking or petting or being allowed on a person’s shoulder or lap for prolonged periods. This type of contact may encourage inappropriate hormonal behaviors in birds and may lead to undesired behaviors and activities such as regurgitation, self-stimulation, aggression, and excessive egg laying. If you are looking for a lap pet, a companion bird may not be the best pet for you.
Having just one bird increases the odds that it will bond with, and be responsive to, its owner. Some individual birds appear to do best when kept singly. Other birds, such as finches, are happiest living in small groups. Parakeets make excellent pet birds as they can be kept singly, in pairs, or in small groups in a flight cage.
Life span of pet birds
When considering a bird as a pet, remember that the life spans of birds vary widely. Parakeets live an average of six years, but can live as long as 18 years. Cockatiels live 16 years on average, but many have lived for more than 30 years. Finches live an average of four to five years, but life spans of three times that have been documented. Even canaries, which live an average of eight years, have been reported to live for 20 years. Recorded life spans for larger birds (e.g., parrots, conures, macaws, cockatoos) range from 20 years to more than 100 years! Remember that whenever you choose a pet, you are making a commitment to care for that animal for its entire life.
Preparing for your bird
All species of birds need a balanced diet (a diet consisting entirely or predominantly of seeds and nuts is not balanced), clean water, suitable caging, appropriate light, proper sanitation, and regular veterinary check-ups. If you are considering a pet bird, consult a veterinarian for guidance on selecting and caring for your pet bird.
Here are some general tips for proper housing of your pet bird:
All new birds should be kept separate from birds already living in the household until they have been quarantined for an appropriate length of time. This includes a separate air supply and separate equipment and utensils. Consult with your veterinarian about the recommended quarantine period, which should include a veterinary exam prior to its completion.
The cage should be set up with appropriate food and water in advance of bringing the bird home. Initially, feed your bird the same food that was fed by the seller. Any food changes should be made gradually. Speak with an avian veterinarian about ways to safely convert a bird to a healthy diet if they are on an unbalanced diet.
Birds should be kept in cages that allow space for them to climb, walk around, and ideally fly. Because most cages restrict a bird’s ability to fly, you should provide supervised access to an adequately sized exercise area, outside of the cage, for several hours each day.
The cage should be designed for easy removal of dishes and droppings and be free from hazards such as cleaning fumes or cooking odors, which can sicken a bird.
Cages should be placed away from drafts and at eye level or higher so your bird will feel more secure.
Perches should allow maximum horizontal flight, be sized appropriately for the bird’s feet, and provide good footing.
Finding a pet bird
Pet shops that specialize in birds and non-profit organizations that rehome pet birds are often good sources and can offer you guidance on the care of your new bird. Birds may also be available from local shelters, rescue groups, and directly from former owners; however, potential owners should carefully question the caretakers of these birds to determine why they were relinquished. If you have the necessary skills and experience, you might consider adopting a bird with special medical or behavioral needs. The best source for a large parrot is most often a reputable breeder or non-profit parrot rehoming organization. Local companion bird clubs, other non-profit organizations, and avian veterinarians are also good sources of recommendations. Be aware that there is significant risk involved when purchasing a bird sight unseen (e.g., from the Internet). Wherever you purchase your pet bird, the seller should allow its return within a reasonable period of time if it is not a good fit for your household.
There are some physical features that you should look at when deciding whether or not to purchase a particular bird. For example: the bird’s eyes should be bright and clear and there should be no discharges from the eyes or nostrils; its feathers should be in good condition, clean (free of droppings), and never remain ruffled or puffed up; and legs, feet, and toes should not be excessively scaly. Watch the bird’s behavior; it should not be tail bobbing (tail feathers moving up and down in a pumping action with breathing). Adult birds that keep their eyes closed with people in the room should be avoided, as this may indicate illness. Adult birds should always be on the alert with people around, but healthy baby birds will sometimes fall asleep despite activity.
Caring for your bird and its environment
Although a caged bird may appear to be a low-maintenance pet, this is definitely not the case — all birds need regular care and attention. If cleanliness is a priority for you, a bird may not make a good pet. Birds will drop feathers, dust, and food from their cages, and generally cannot be housetrained. If you live in an apartment, a caged bird might make noises that could bother your neighbors. Some species of birds are noisier than others. Most birds do not respond well to being left alone for long periods of time, and finding someone to care for your bird when you travel could pose a challenge. Finally, consider that birds with long life spans could outlive you.
Training a pet bird to talk
Prospective bird owners are often interested in birds that can learn to talk, but choosing a bird solely on that basis may not be realistic, as some birds may not respond to your efforts at training. With patience, however, some pet birds learn to speak a variety of words and phrases. Some parakeets (budgies) and cockatiels will learn to talk, while other birds such as African Grey and Yellow-naped Amazon parrots can potentially develop an extended vocabulary.
Veterinary care for your bird
Pet birds have special veterinary needs, and your veterinarian plays an important role in keeping your pet bird healthy throughout its life. The Association of Avian Veterinarians provides veterinary resources for bird owners, including information on basic pet bird care, bird health exams, and a search function to help you find an avian veterinarian.
The best reason for obtaining a pet bird is a desire to bring an intelligent, sensitive, and beautiful animal into your household. Once you have prepared yourself and your home for a companion bird, you are on your way to enjoying an amazing relationship.