Written by Shannon Fujimoto Nakaya, DVM
Disclaimer: The information provided on this page is not intended to be a substitute for veterinary care.
So you think you want an avian companion?
Birds can be wonderful pets and companions. They are visually entrancing. They can be gregarious and entertaining. They can sing, they can whistle, they can talk. They can be life-long loyal companions.
Pet birds can also be high maintenance, moody, and demanding companions. Their social and intelligent nature means that they will require attention everyday, day after day, week after week, year after year, kind of like a human toddler, but potentially for decades. Without adequate social and environmental enrichment, birds can become deviant, aggressive, destructive and/or depressed. Even in what might appear to be a perfect home, birds can become temperamental and moody. They can screech loudly enough to cause headaches and hearing loss. They can bite – little birds can break skin, big birds can break bones. Their food, feathers, dander and droppings can mean endless cleanup. They can rearrange your desk, remodel your furniture, and round off those sharp edges of your walls and doors.
There are more than 9000 species of birds on the planet. And there is a lot of species and individual variation. Birds can potentially be wonderful life-long companions. But they are not for everyone. So please, for your own well-being and for the long-term well-being of that cute baby bird in the pet store, please do your homework first.
Practical Consideration: Noise
While birds seem like great pets for people without a lot of living space, their calls can ricochet off walls at decibels known to cause hearing loss. This can also lead to bad feelings between neighbors, especially in apartments or condominiums where walls are shared. Most people won't have a problem with the quieter chirps of cockatiels, parakeets, or canaries; but tend to be less tolerant of the more loud and raucous calls of a lovebird, lory, conure or 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" hour after hour. 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.
Some communities have a ban against roosters. Male peacocks can have an equally persistent wail. These are just tidbits good to know before you bring it home.
Practical Consideration: Mess
While birds themselves may be aesthetically 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 onto the floor and/or stick on the walls. Birds wipe food off of their beak by rubbing it against perches or cage bars or whatever happens to be conveniently nearby. Parakeets produce 30-50 droppings per day. Bigger birds produce fewer, but larger droppings. There is a good reason why chickens, ducks, peafowl, and turkeys live outdoors! Birds can spend hours each day preening (ie. fixing their feathers), dropping dander and bird dust the whole time. And toys that are indestructible are not nearly as interesting a those that can be taken apart and shredded. Keeping you bird's living space clean of crumbs, food particles, bird droppings, the insects attracted to their messes, feathers, dander, and shredded toys is a chore that should be done daily to ensure the health of your bird.
Practical Consideration: Time
Once you get into a routine, providing for the physical needs of a pet bird will usually take no more than 20 minutes each day. This includes housekeeping, changing food and water, and checking for signs of good health and well-being. If you have a couple of small birds 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 grey parrots, 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 like family yet recognized as avian – alien children that will age and mature, but always remain dependents. This could be 30 years for a cockatiel or a conure and 60 years or more for a larger parrot.
People are often enamored by the cool parrot they saw while on vacation in the tropics, or in a show, or on television. Keep in mind that someone invested a lot of time in discovering and nurturing that bird's character and talents. You will get as much out of your human-bird relationship as you put into it.
Practical Consideration: Financial Responsibility
While you can get a bird for free, there are other costs in providing a pet bird a good and safe home. I encourage people to buy the biggest cage they can afford because it will be a place where the bird spends a lot of time. Even if, like my birds, they spend all day outside of their cages (adventuring and pooping in our "shared" space), their cage is still the space set aside just for them. It is where they can go for snacks, quiet, and security. And like chickens going home to roost, they reliably put themselves away most evenings. A decent size "starter" 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 greater expense. 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. You may also need to factor in costs for experienced bird-sitting when you go away on business trips or vacations.
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