What to know when obtaining a pet parrot

Interest in aviculture is skyrocketing, this as more and more people discover parrots. To me this peaking interest is reaffirmed as I travel and lecture, in the number of messages I receive daily and in the sundry phone calls received each week. About half of the individuals looking to enter aviculture that contact me have no bird experience; they are attracted by the thought of having an exotic pet. The other half already own a pet bird and generally have a question about husbandry, diet, behavior or the acquisition of a second pet bird. This article is dedicated to the former group.

The acquisition of a pet bird can be from many sources: a rescue, a store or a breeder. Young birds are most often acquired from a pet store or breeder. They tend to be naïve and generally have no undesirable habits. They, however, can be favorably or unfavorably affected by the treatment they received during weaning and the months that followed. During this early childhood as I like to call it, allowing the bird to develop its natural behaviors—to fly, climb, explore and interact with other birds—is key to having a successful pet. Taking a chick home and spending every free moment with it is incorrect and will lead to an identity crisis: the bird will believe it is a feathered human, who is attached to its owner. Many of these individuals become possessive as they age; some turn aggressive, noisy or self-destruct—they chew their feathers or skin when they are ignored.  Ideally the bird should be handled and played with but also allowed to play by itself, to explore enrichment items and toys and to developing strong flying and climbing skills.

The second hand bird is generally adopted from an individual or rescue. These birds can come with behavioral problems—but they may also be fantastic pets that are poorly understood. In many cases their former owners responded to calling bouts with histrionics, which the bird found amusing, causing it to call even louder. This bird is thus labelled a “screamer”. The bird may also have been hormonally stimulated by providing it with a box to play inside. That box in its mind is analogous to a nest, which in nature the parrots protect from intruders. Reach inside or stick you face inside and an attack will likely ensue. I know many birds from rescues that are truly magnificent and that, when they find the proper owner, will become the absolute best pet imaginable.

Where to acquire that first pet bird should be cerebrated considerably. Never buy a pet bird on impulse, which in most cases will lead to problems in the future. Understand first exactly what bird ownership entails. It is a commitment that is comparable to adopting a child—except that this child will never grow beyond 5 years of age and has feathers, a destructive beak, can bite and has screaming abilities that can raise the roof on the house.

When the potential owner takes his or her time to find the proper bird, understands the responsibilities and that parrots evolved to explore, chew, interact and call, then the relationship can last a lifetime. I know of many pets that have lived for many decades in a home, providing the family with a great companion.

When acquiring a bird, always let the individual pick you rather you select it. I cannot stress this enough. The bird will find in you something that is attractive. In the wild, pairs do not occur spontaneously; rather the birds select each other from a group. I have owned numerable birds that found me. In one case, while walking around a bird store, a cockatoo climbed down from its perch, walked around the store and climbed up my pants. We had had brief contact when I walked by its playstand and I said “Hello”. That simple, passing interaction apparently sparked its interest. Needless to say, I bought it. We were the best of friends for decades. I have a pet Eclectus named “George” whose home I visited because it was biting and the owners wanted suggestions on how to reduce the biting. When I walked up to its cage, that bird instantly fell in love with me. He stared talking, displaying and following me around. The owners sold him to me. Today, many years later, he follows me like a puppy. I can turn him upside down, cuddle and play with him. He has never once bit, though the family that owned him was terrified of his beak—several had bite mark scars on their fingers. Every bird store, breeder or rescue will tell you that a bird that selects you will be a much happier pet than one you select, whose personality may not be in agreement with yours.

The above does not mean you should enter the bird ownership field with an open slate. Instead select a group that fits your lifestyle and then try to find a bird within that group. I state this for a reason that many today seem to ignore. Parrots can be divided into three categories according to pair bond.  There is the bonded group, which enjoys considerable physical contact. This group includes the macaws, cockatoos, amazons and conures, to mention just a few species. They crave physical contact, even across species.  They like to be preened, petted, held closely and fondled. Then there are the non-bonded parrots. This group includes most of the Asiatic species and the Eclectus Parrots. Physical contact is limited to the breeding season, when the males build up courage to approach the dominant females. These birds often become uncomfortable with long term physical contact. Finally there is an intermediate category. This includes many of the Australian species. They have limited contact and tend to be very independent. The males are dominant. The latter category tend to do best in a roomy cage and in the homes of a busy person who does not necessary want to cuddle with their bird. An Amazon, on the other hand, will do well in a busy, active household where it is much a part of the daily living environment.

Most parrots (especially males in the bonded category) tend to become quite aggressive when they are hormonal, which is the onset of sexual activity. In some species this is for a short period of time while for others it can be a prolonged affair. During this stage, the birds will become more vocal, bold and aggressive. Avoiding access to dark areas, feeding a monotonous diet that is low in protein, controlling photoperiod, and petting it in such a manner that sexually stimulating areas (cloaca, lower back and vent) are avoided can help deter the breeding urge. In extreme circumstances a hormonal implant may be necessary.

When entertaining the acquisition of a pet bird, do research, but be very wary as to the source of the information. In this modern world everyone can become an overnight expert. I have read comments, advice and suggestions that have been woefully wrong. They were written by people who become overnight experts after reading a few articles. As an example, I recently read that walnuts and almonds were great for amazon parrots (specifically a Green-cheeked Amazon Amazona viridigenalis), a species prone to obesity. In fact, Amazons should be given a diet heavy in vegetables and low in fatty foods. That same “expert” recommended feeding commercial pellets to Eclectus Parrots and suggested that the toe-tapping syndrome seen in Eclectus was a natural behavior—both were wrong answers. Eclectus should not be fed highly refined foods—their long gut evolved to digest plat fibers—and my field work in Indonesia and Australia, where I have seen many Eclectus Parrots in the wild, not once revealed toe tapping.

When seeking information, speak with an experienced person, veterinarian or seasoned bird owner. Verify their credentials. Do not simply take for gospel what you have read and understand that parrots, like humans, are individuals. That they can well lay outside the norm in terms of behavior, talking ability and pet potential.

When pet ownership is understood, a tremendous amount of enjoyment can be mutually derived: the bird will look forward to your company and you will look forward to seeing the bird. The aforementioned Eclectus Parrot looks forward to me getting home and I cannot wait to see him, let him out and play with him for a while. He understands that he is a bird and when I am not there he keeps busy with the enrichment that he receives continuously.

Pet ownership requires a responsibility. The key is understanding that responsibility and the fact that it will not be short lived but can last for many decades.