Old World Aviaries

Selecting a pet bird

by Darrel K. Styles, DVM

Many people ask me what kinds of birds they should get for pets. The answer, of course, depends on the experience level of the pet owner and the requirements the owner has for the bird.

It is probably unwise to start a neophyte owner with an expensive bird before the owner has had the chance to learn the care and responsibility a bird demands. Let’s start with children. Doves or pigeons are good starting birds for very young children. These gentle creatures are easily cared for, quiet, beautiful, and safe from the standpoint of injury from biting. Even in the untoward event that the child exercises excessive affection and injures the bird, the economic loss will not be as great as it would if an expensive parrot was “loved” to death. And the child can handle the bird easily with minimal fear of injury. Just remember to keep the bird’s nails short.

Budgies and cockatiels work well for older children who have the time and patience to train them. And, even if the bird does bite, little injury will be incurred by the child beyond a small puncture. At this point both child and bird train each other as to their respective limits.

For little additional investment than a cockatiel, a variety of conure and conure-like species, such as the Quaker, can be purchased as hand-fed pets. These are good pets for teenagers and older. If possible, always select a hand-fed pet that has been fully weaned when giving a bird to the uninitiated.

Of course, you will have to tolerate the additional noise some conures bring to the household. But anyone who has teenagers and knows their musical tastes will understand that this may not be a problem for the teenager or bird. (I think most heavy metal rock groups are actually recordings of roosting macaws at sunset).

A next step up would be a bird from the Poicephalus or a Brotogeris. From genus Poicephalus, Senegals make excellent apartment pets given their size, relatively quiet nature, and great intelligence including enhanced speaking ability. From genus Brotogeris, Grey-cheeked parakeets make great pets and work well with individuals ranging from children to adults.

For those who want a larger bird, I always ask, "What do you want from your bird?". If you want to be able to cuddle and pet your bird, a Yellow-naped Amazon would not be a proper choice. If you want a bird with extensive talking ability, a Goffin’s Cockatoo would not be a good choice. I like to make the general analogy that Amazons are to the bird world what cats are to the mammal world, and cockatoos are to the bird world what dogs are to the mammal world, with African greys falling somewhere in the middle.

What I mean is that like cats, Amazons are inquisitive, intelligent, somewhat aloof, very independent, and vocal, but have certain limitations like: “Don’t squeeze me or I’ll bite.” or, “You can pet me here but not there.” Also, Amazons typically offer an extensive vocabulary and bright coloration.

Cockatoos are similar to dogs in that they thrive on affection and touch but usually do not develop extensive vocabularies. African greys, noted for their great talking ability, fall between these two personality categories, having traits of both. And greys tend to be more individualistic, so it depends on the grey as to the kind of personality it may have.

A great deal of variation exists within each family. However, some generalities can be made. For the Amazons, any of the ochracephalids (Amazons with yellow on the head like napes and double yellow heads) tend to be very good talkers but don’t like to be handled. The more red-colored Amazons, like the lilac-crowned and Mexican red head, are more tolerant of handling and some even like it, but tend to develop a smaller vocabulary.

With cockatoos, umbrellas make good first pets due to their quiet and gentle nature. For the more intrepid, a Moluccan makes a very interesting pet, but be willing to put up with noise. The crested cockatoos vary in pet potential, but all the sulphur-crested species tend to be very good pets.

Macaws and Eclectus Parrots fall into their own categories. Macaws do not make ideal apartment pets because of their twice-daily screaming sessions, at sunrise and sunset, and their ability to dismantle anything they can easily reach, such as the apartment building! However, for those who have a suitable environment, macaws make great pets and can develop pretty good vocabularies and fascinating antics.

In my opinion, the Green-wings and Hyacinths are the tamest, followed by Blue-and-yellows, Canindes, Buffons, and Militarys. The mini-macaws, such as the Severe and Yellow-collar, tend to be loud and nippy. Scarlet Macaws are schizophrenic, none will convince me otherwise. The same Scarlet that gives you a kiss today will take your ear off tomorrow when it has reached breeding age of about 2.5–3 years. Scarlets are beautiful, but be prepared to put up with this problem.

Eclectus? Well, what can I say? They are stunning to look at, and I have heard some with fantastic vocabularies. But, because they are not typically flocking parrots, they do not have the same social structure as other parrots with which we are acquainted. So, the Eclectus Parrots behave differently and tend not to be very social as adults. And they extend this behavior to us as well. Males make better pets than females. But expect to work at developing a relationship with your Eclectus, if you expect to maintain its pet potential.

The lories can make endearing pets that are brightly colored, acrobatic, and have small vocabularies. But you must contend with the special dietary needs and the messes they tend to make.

For those seeking a less "interactive" role with a bird, softbills make excellent pets. Finches are like flying jewels, are easily maintained, very quiet, and highly active, making them an ideal pet for older individuals or those who have less time to spend with a bird. Finches usually are kept in groups or pairs and tend to amuse themselves. Canaries are great pets for those who love singing, as are the green singing finch and the Pekin robin.

No other bird even comes close to the mimicking ability of the mynahs. They are unparalleled in the speech world in clarity. However, they have become increasingly difficult to obtain and are messy.

Toucans are good pets for iconoclastic individuals. They are amusing and quiet, but require a large cage to do well and have a tendency to sling their food about.

There is a variety of birds I have not discussed, but these are some generalizations about the types of pets some birds tend to make. Exceptions always exist and someone invariably says, “Well, my bird isn’t that way.” All I can say is that like people, birds vary in personality, usually unpredictably. But, if you use the general guidelines I have suggested, it will enhance your chances of obtaining a satisfactory pet.


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