Introduction

Birds can be wonderful pets and companions. They can sing. They can talk. They can be entertaining. They don't need to be walked on a leash in sub-zero temperatures. They are intelligent. They can be life-long loyal companions.

Pet birds can also be demanding. They can screech loud enough to make your hair stand on end. They can bite. They can throw tantrums and pluck all of their beautiful feathers out. They can destroy your house. Their food, feathers, dander and droppings can be endlessly messy.

Birds are truly amazing life forms. Parrots are generally highly intelligent creatures. They can put together puzzles matching colors and shapes. They can associate words to objects, and ask (or demand) to be let out of their cage, fed a certain treat, be given a hug, or whatever. Without adequate stiumulus, smart birds can become deviant, aggressive, destructive or depressed.

Birds are also intensely emotional creatures. Human babies recognize their parents, whereas baby birds imprint. (See the movie Fly Away Home?) Humans have relationships, whereas birds bond. Birds bonded to each other, eat together, sleep together, and watch out for each other all day, everyday, for years and years. Birds left alone for long periods of time day after day can become fearful, insecure, anxious, depressed, distrustful, or even self-destructive.

The point is that pet birds can potentially be wonderful companions, but they are not for everyone. Please, for your own well-being and the long-term well-being of that cute baby bird in the pet store, please do your homework first.

Basic needs and practical considerations.

Noise

While birds seem like great pets for people without a lot of living space, they can lead to bad feelings between neighbors intolerant to their inevitable outbursts, especially in apartments or condominiums where neighbors share walls. Most neighbors won't have a problem with the higher pitched sing-song chirps of cockatiels, parakeets, or canaries; but may be less tolerant of the more loud and raucous calls of a lovebird, lory, conure or large parrot. Even birds that talk or make non-birds sounds can pose problems. Not everyone will appreciate hearing a parrot loudly screeching or repeating "HELLO" for hours at a time. They can do perfect imitations of sirens, telephones, doorbells, pagers, answering machines, laughter, four-letter words, etc.-- not always at the appropriate volume or time. Sometimes, they only need to hear it once to learn the sound.

Mess

While birds themselves may be esthetically pleasing and beautiful, it takes continual effort to keep their surrounding environment clean and neat. In the course of eating their food, some of it will be thrown out of the cage to stick on the walls or fall to the floor. They also tend to clean food off of their beaks by rubbing them against perches or the cage bars. Parakeets produce 30-50 droppings per day. Bigger birds produce fewer, but larger droppings. They can spend hours each day preening (ie. fixing their feathers) dropping dander and bird dust the whole time. During molting season, you may think that a whole flock visits to drop feathers when you are out at work. Keeping the cage clean is a chore that should be done daily to ensure the health of your bird.

Cost

While you can purchase a parakeet for $15 or a cockatiel for $50, there are other costs in providing a pet bird a good and safe home. A decent size and quality of cage for a small bird will be approximately $100, and perches, dishes, food and toys will add up to another $50. Bigger birds, bigger cages, and more birds all equal larger costs. A recommended new bird examination and perhaps some laboratory tests to insure that your new companion is healthy and not carrying any infectious diseases (potentially communicable to yourself or your other birds) can run anywhere from $35 to $200 or more depending on the bird and your investment in it. Veterinary care for small birds is not necessarily cheaper than for larger animals. In many ways, they are more challenging to diagnose and treat because of their small size and high metabolism. If this is your first bird, you may want to consider bird school so you can be off to a good start with your life-long companion. You may also need to factor in costs for experienced bird-sitting when you go away on business trips or vacations.

Time

Providing for the physical needs of a pet bird will usually take no more than 15 minutes each day. This includes housekeeping, changing food and water, checking for signs of good health and well-being. If you have a pair of parakeets, lovebirds, canaries or finches sharing a large cage, they will most likely get adequate exercise and entertain themselves while you go about your life. Single birds, hand-raised birds, and birds bonded to people will require more time, energy, and commitment. Hand-raised cockatoos, african greys, amazons and macaws are like alien children. They are so intelligent and social that they really should not be thought of as simple caged pets. The happiest parrots are those that are treated as members of the family (ie. you are the flock); the special child that will never fully grow up. This could be 30 years for a cockatiel or conure, 60 years or more for a larger parrot.

What kind of bird would be best for me?

Big birds v. Medium-sized birds v. Small birds

Large parrots such as Amazons, Macaws, Cockatoos, African Greys and Eclectus Parrots almost always elicit a "wow" from people. They are strikingly beautiful and intelligent, and when they talk, dance, and cuddle with you, your friends just stare in amazement. Not to be deceived, not all big birds are like this. They become as pets what you put into them daily for training, attention, playtime, etc. In terms of noise, mess, cost and time (see above) -- they are the most demanding. They also have the biggest beaks and can potentially inflict a good bite if they so desire. People have ended up in the hospital with serious bite wounds from parrots; a macaw has the beak strength to easily amputate your finger. While you might earn your large parrot's trust and be confident that it will never injure you, you will still have the responsibility of making sure that your parrot feels safe enough in the company of other family members or visitors (especially children) not to defend itself against them and injuring them in the process. They can be long-lived.

Though not as dramatic in presentation as a scarlet macaw or a moluccan cocakatoo, the personality, charm, and pet potential of medium-sized and small birds should not be underestimated. Little and beautiful is not less special than big and beautiful in the bird world; that Mother Nature packaged so much personality and character in such tiny, beautiful forms that can do so much is just amazing. It is easier to have a pair or a small flock of smaller birds than big birds, and they can keep each other company while you are away. All psittacines can be taught to talk; even parakeets can have extensive vocabularies. We know canaries and finches that step up onto your finger on command. Caiques, conures, love birds and parrolets have daring and mischievious personalities -- they will provide you hours of entertainment and adventure.

In terms of the four basics: Noise is very variable depending on the specific type of bird. Conures and lories are loud and can be persistently noisy. The sound of an angry pionus or lovebird will also carry. Cockatiels love to whistle; they can be great talkers. Even parakeets can talk. Canaries have soothing songs. Finches peep quietly in the background.

All birds are messy. Lories are nectivores -- they eat lots of fruit which gets real messy real fast.

Cost is variable.

Time is also variable depending on whether your pet is a single bird or has bird company, whether your bird is hand-raised or parent-raised, whether or not your bird is bonded to you. A single lovebird that was hand-raised and bonds to you can demand as much time and attention as an African grey with similar background. A pair of finches bonded to each other will prefer that you feed, water, clean their cage, and observe them from a distance.

Wild caught v. Hand-raised

With the new laws strictly regulating the importation of birds, most birds that you currently purchase are domestically born. If you adopt an older bird (greater than 20 years old) that wears a leg band with an open seam, it may be that this bird was wild caught either as an adult or a baby. Their survival and adaptation to life in captivity is highly variable. Some become loyal and trusting companion animals; some became crazed caged birds; some became breeders; and others must have their own stories.

Most big birds and quite a few medium-sized birds in your local pet store were hand-raised. This means that they were taken from their bird parents and hand fed baby bird formula from a syringe by people parents until weaned and able to feed themselves. Hand-raised birds are usually very tame, irresistably adorable, and easily bond to their human owners. As we watch hand-raised birds grow up; however, we realize that it takes more than just hand feeding to produce an adult pet bird that is tame, well-adjusted and happy. Hand feeding simply puts baby birds on a path to blindly trusting humans, and obligates us to support their social, emotional and physical needs. We need to teach, nurture and support their self-confidence as we expect them to spend more time independently than they would as a flock member in the wild. We need to nurture and maintain some of their bird identity so that they don't become confused and frustrated when they reach puberty. We need to understand that adopting a hand-raised bird is analagous to adopting an alien child.

Studies at the University of California at Davis are looking at domestic born, parent-raised birds. These babies are fed and raised by their parents along with their clutchmates. For 15 minutes several times daily, they are removed from their nest, played with, and socialized to people in a positive way. These studies are showing that birds do not have to be hand-raised in order to be tame pets. There may very well be health and social benefits to parent-raised chick as well.

Weaned birds v. Pre-weaned bird

At one time, it was thought that the earlier you acquired a baby bird, the tamer it would be and better it would bond to its people. This is not true. In fact, there are risks and potential problems associated with buying and selling pre-weaned birds to unexperienced owners. Incorrect formula consistency, temperature and volume can lead to overfeeding, underfeeding, infections and injuries. Birds isolated from all other birds before they are fully feathered sometimes do not learn how to preen, an activity that occupies hours of a bird's life. It is also more difficult to detect illness in very young birds; unexperienced owners hand-raising a single bird might not recognize that it is not developing or thriving as it should be.

Recently, the Association of Avian Veterinarians formally adopted a policy that advises against and discourages the sale of unweaned psittacine birds to untrained individuals.