Adopt a Bird | Thing to Consider
What are Birds Like?
If you've considered owning an exotic bird as a pet, there are a few things to consider before you shell out a couple thousand bucks for any of the parrot species that are available. I'd never considered owning a bird of any type. In fact, I thought they were dirty, noisy creatures that must be completely miserable constantly living in cages when they were meant to fly.
Since then, I've happily acquired two when I married a man who has been an avid bird lover for years. I've learned how fascinating and complex they can be, and have adjusted my attitude a lot. However, before anyone acquires a parrot, they should carefully reflect on what pet parrot ownership means to them and to their feathered friend, because uninformed ownership can lead to heartbreaking problems, some of which can't be solved.
Bird Types - Compare Grand Eclectus and Yellow Naped Amazon
Meet Our Birds
Scarlett, pictured above, is a female Grand Eclectus while Pepper Ann, at right, is a Yellow Naped Amazon. Both of them were gifted to my husband Scot and his then-wife, Mary, by owners who found them difficult.
Scarlett entered Scot's household when his house guest bought her from a pet store. She was a "tame, hand-fed" bird who wasn't captured from the wild, like many parrots are. When the young man moved away, he decided not to take Scarlett, and gave her to another woman, who later asked my husband to take her back. The woman said Scarlett bit her often and screamed constantly.
Pepper Ann's history is something of a mystery. When she considered getting a bird, Mary visited a woman who operated a parrot rescue. She approached Pepper Ann, but the woman warned her that the pretty green bird was unfriendly and likely to bite. Undeterred, she opened the cage, which held Pepper and another bird that bullied her. Pepper climbed onto Mary's finger without hesitation, and the rescuer said, "That's your bird," and sent her home with Mary. After their divorce, Mary said she couldn't take care of her and left her behind.
Although both birds had been members of my husband's household for several years by the time I met him, he warned me to watch for clues about the birds' moods before picking either of them up. "Pepper Ann doesn't really like people," he said, "but Scarlett's pretty friendly."
Boy, were we both in for a surprise or two!
Bird Tricks and Antics
Some Tricks are Cool. Some Aren't.
I learned that birds definitely have personalities that are as distinct as cats, dogs, or people. These two have very different personalities.
While our Grand Eclectus, Scarlett, loves to eat, and will gorge herself on sweet fruits and human food if given the chance, Pepper Ann is selective. Our Yellow Naped Amazon can snag, deshell, and devour a peanut in moments, while Scarlett's likely to drop it to the the bottom of her cage. Pepper eats about 1/4 cup of bird food a day. That's half Scarlett's intake, even though both weigh about the same.
We know for certain that Scarlett's a female. Eclectus males and females don't look alike. The females are red and violet-blue, like the Kansas Jayhawk mascot, while males are green. Pepper Ann, on the other hand, could be a male for all we know. Amazons have no distinctive features to differentiate males from females. We call Pepper a she-bird, but it's a best-guess based on her tendency to climb from her cage and walk around during mating season. (Although mating season varies by species, both of these birds typically get into season around October, and it can last through February.)
Though I was told that Scarlett was tame and friendly, she decided she didn't like me. At all. Any time I tried to pick her up, she climbed onto my finger without hesitation, and then seized my hand in her beak. More often than not, she drew blood, and I still have a couple of scars two years later. I'm the only person she has ever bitten, but for several weeks, she bit me viciously whenever I picked her up.
Well, why didn't you stop picking her up, then?
Believe me, I didn't pick her up by choice! Until I moved into the household, Pepper was allowed out of her cage all day, and Scarlett came out when my stepdaughter, Amanda, came home from school. She'd have been permitted to stay on her cage if it weren't for the fact that she liked to fly to other rooms, posing a danger to herself - especially when we also had four dogs, two cats, and a gerbil. (Ok, the gerbil probably wouldn't hurt her much!) When Amanda came home and released her, then later forgot to put her away when a friend invited her to go out, I was stuck with a free-roaming bird that hated me. When she flew to the ground, my dog tried to attack her and plucked two of her tail feathers in the process. It wasn't a happy situation, to say the least! Her tail feathers never have grown back, and I will probably feel guilty about that forever.
Pepper Ann hates to fly.
Scarlett was stuck in her cage more than ever as Amanda spent more time with friends, and I hated seeing her locked up so often. I picked up training books and tried to work with her. We had some success, but the truth is, I had a LOT to learn and only a few resources.
I'll tell you more about what I learned in a minute, but let me get back to the surprises that we discovered along the way first.
Scarlett has a pleasant, bell-like voice. It sounds like a little girl's sing-song happiness every afternoon around three o'clock. Until then, she screeches and squawks whenever someone walks through the room with her cage because she's very territorial. Pepper's voice isn't melodious, but she whispers and sings "Row, Row Your Boat" and whistles show tunes. She also wishes us good night every evening before we cover her up. Scarlett has more words, but has yet to sing. Both birds have been known to meow, especially at night.
If you haven't yet caught on, these two birds are as nearly opposite each other as they can be. Each one has a distinctive personality, and to top it off, they do not get along. In fact, there is really only one thing they can agree on - that their preferred human should be loyal only to one bird.
Birds Know Best
By Pepper Ann
Pepper saw me writing and decided she has something to say, too, so I'm turning the keyboard over to her for a bit. Scarlett may want her turn, too, but we'll see.
I read what Kathy wrote about being peckish toward people. It's true that I don't let just anyone put their clammy hands on my pristine plumage! Especially during that time of the year. You see, when it's breeding season, my mind is on other things. From October until February or so, I go in search of a mate. I climb right down from my cage and wander about the house. I know there are other birds near, even though I can't figure out why they won't "step up" when I tell them to. Kathy does, and she's pretty cool - for a human - so I let her return me to my cage. She swears that the dogs or cats could hurt me, but she doesn't know that I gave that feisty black cur a sound nip on her nose and now that big ol' galoot avoids me! I wouldn't mind her chomping a bit more on that feathered freeloader in the next room, though!
Of course, if she didn't put be back in, I'd be able to fly away from danger. My humans leave my feathers alone, just in case. I'm a bit lazy, though, so the only time I get any real exercise is when Kathy or Scot pick me up high and drop their arms. It scares me, so I head straight back home.
Have you seen my house? It's nothing like my grandparents' home. They had trees, and I have metal bars. It's very futuristic looking, though, and I manage to stay occupied with a few of my favorite toys. Check out these bird furnishings!
Pet Parrots Need Stimulation
A bored bird is a destructive bird.
Parrots Instinctively Explore
See what I mean? Pepper already went back to playing with her toys and left you sitting at your computer!
Actually, that's not exactly accurate. Parrots are extremely inquisitive, and her attention drifted over to the bag of chips I've been nibbling on while she typed, and then she found the mouse cord and decided it looked just as tasty. I had to put her back on her cage to make sure she didn't bite the cord.
Parrots chew. They forage. They listen. They repeat. They watch. They dance. They sing. They get sick.
Finding an avian veterinarian can be a challenge, but birds are prone to a number of diseases and illnesses. Something as mundane as cooking with Teflon-coated pans can endanger a bird's health.
Their dietary needs can prove challenging as well. Birds should never eat avocado, chocolate, or caffeine. Certain types of seeds are healthy, within limits, while others can kill them (like the seeds in citrus fruits.) While you might think commercial bird foods solve these problems, they aren't necessarily balanced and colorful dyes in them can produce unwanted behavior changes.
And sometimes, toys aren't enough to keep them occupied. Door frames seem to be particularly tasty to psitacines. (Psitacine refers to the scientific classification of true parrots.) They can turn six inches of wood trim into toothpicks before you can ask if Polly wants a cracker. It makes them happy, and once they've had their fill they'll coo and mumble joyously the rest of the day, while you, dear owner, gnash your teeth and wonder why you ever thought bird ownership was a good idea.
Sawdust on the floor and excessive noise are just two of the problems caused by boredom. Female psittacines retain the urge to nest - making them territorial and protective of their cages. This can lead to nasty bites. Experts recommend not allowing a pet bird to engage in nesting, although this may be an unnatural and cruel limit to place on her.
Parrots are noisy in the wild, and when they're house-bound, they still love to hear their voices. It's quite embarrassing when one of them picks up a curse word and uses it repeatedly when they're feeling excited, especially if the weather's nice and the windows are open. I've wondered how often neighbors think I'm the one swearing like a sailor. Alas, birds don't come with an "erase" button. Both of our birds tell us "bye bye" when we leave, and become quite rambunctious when they see our car pulling back into the driveway when we return home, but may sulk and avoid being held because they're angry about being left behind. (Birds are flock animals. They use their calls to stay in touch with other flock members. When they live in a household, their humans become their flock and it's very upsetting for their flock to abandon them without maintaining contact.)
Another permanent problem can result from boredom - feather plucking. It's normal for birds to preen and sometimes they lose feathers, but an unhappy bird can develop a habit of over-preening to the point of causing damage to their feathers that will never heal. It's heartbreaking to see a severe case of feather plucking like the one below.
Experts report that birds in the wild rarely pluck their feathers from their skins, but little is known about the causes (or treatment) for captive birds. Thought to be similar to an obsessive neurosis in humans, feather plucking can be triggered by many stressors: Lack of toys, environmental changes, vitamin deficiencies, poor sleep (they need 10-12 hours of undisturbed sleep in a dark room each day), illness, lack of appropriate lighting, and even personal preferences. One reported case of feather plucking was solved when the owner removed all colored toys and left only brown ones.
Last year, Pepper Ann started plucking her chest feathers. At first, we weren't sure if she may have been molting, since the downy feathers were littering her cage but her colored feathers weren't. I noticed her "scratching" her chest frequently, and started paying close attention, because the longer it's left untreated, the more likely it is that plucking and self-mutilation will become habitual. I eliminated a red blanket that hung on the wall behind her cage when I discovered she hates the color red. (She and Scarlett don't get along, and I'd noticed her become highly agitated when Amanda wore a red shirt one day. I tested it by wearing another one, and she had a similar reaction - pacing angrily, fluffing her feathers, making loud noises, and avoiding me.) Taking the blanket down didn't solve the problem, but moving her cage did. We were lucky, because pinpointing the cause of such problems is no easy task!
As you can see in the picture below, feather plucking is traumatic for birds - and their owners.
Problems with Parrots
(Why People Decide to Flip a Bird)
1. They're Noisy!
Parrot's aren't songbirds who happen to talk, as unscrupulous breeders might suggest. They're loud, raucous birds that want plenty of attention. They like to play and socialize, but not necessarily in the ways we think are appropriate. Scarlett, for example, sounds an alarm two or three times a day when she happens to decide it's the right day for it. When she does, she is louder than the vacuum cleaner and our barking dogs. While this may not be a problem for bird owners who recognize that birds are naturally loud, it can be a cause for complaints from neighbors in apartment complexes.
By comparison, Pepper Ann is quiet during the day. That is, until I make a phone call! She's a bit like a toddler tugging at my elbow saying, "Lemme talk on the phone, mommy!" and throwing a tantrum when the phone stays out of reach. I find myself explaining to customer service reps that I have a bird who is jealous of me taking phone calls, and asking them to wait until I reach my office where I can close the door. While I don't mind, it can be a serious issue for people who talk on the phone frequently.
During the evening, both birds become loquacious. In the wild, birds keep in contact with their flocks using their voices, allowing them to communicate over great distance. Birds don't understand why we leave them and don't keep in touch with them. I imagine that birds must think their human has abandoned the flock every time he or she goes to work. Whether or not that's true, in the afternoons, birds may start calling out to find their person and make that connection.
2. They're expensive!
Parrots chew. Wood moldings are one of the favorite snacks, perhaps, because most bird owners have experienced instances where their bird has turned their wall trim into sawdust. In our home, we have several areas of damaged trim that will require repair when we move their cages. We regularly find and cut branches to fit the metal rod atop our birds' cages, which gives them another perch and a toy to tear up, but sometimes, birds will be birds; they'll explore.
At one point, we had to paint an entire room because Pepper Ann managed to strip two large patches of paint from the wall in a single day. This was especially important because paint can contain dangerous toxins if she ate any, so we rearranged our schedules, cleared the room, and went to work right away. They can chew holes in drywall, bite through electrical cords, and shred important papers left untended within beak's-length.
Parrots need a variety of toys, and they need plenty of room. We never take their favorite toys away, but we do rotate less favored items so they'll stay intellectually stimulated. Too many toys in their cages could hamper their ability to move, while too few can lead to behavior problems.
Avian vets are more challenging to find than traditional animal docs. Taking your pet bird in can require extra travel and equipment (like a travel cage.) Because they are specialists, they may charge more, too. I tried locating a vet when Pepper Ann started to pull her feathers since the one my husband's family used to move retired, and wasn't able to find one within twenty miles. My traditional vet wasn't able to locate one for me, either, so I'm still searching. (If anyone knows a great avian veterinarian within an hour of Kansas City, please let me know!)
We normally spend about $40 a month in food on our two birds. They require a diet that's fortified with specific vitamins, so feeding them human food must be done with care and only as a supplement to their balanced diet. We use the ZuPreem pellets shown below.
3. They can be dangerous!
Parrots aren't naturally aggressive, but will bite if provoked or fearful. Parrots are highly intelligent and communicative, but even the most informed owners sometimes misinterpret a bird's signals and may get bitten. When Scarlett took such a dislike to me, she gouged my hand enough to make it bleed on more than one occasion, and two years later I still have some scarring. One of her bites pinched a nerve in my finger, and it was numb for a couple days, then tingled for many more before it finally got back to normal. Although we get along now, the process of getting back to good was not easy or fun (I tried using training gloves as some experts recommend and it actually worsened the problem). I remain aware that she could bite again, and I have to be willing to pay close attention to what she communicates with her posture, her body, and her eyes to minimize the risk.
While many bird bites aren't serious, they have been known to disfigure people in rare cases. Pet parrots shouldn't be carried on their owner's shoulder, for instance, because if something startles them, their instinctive response is to bite whatever's nearest - in which case their owner's face could become a target. The very first bite I got from Scarlett happened when I picked her up and she immediately moved up my arm to my shoulder. At the time, I was still brand new to birds, remember, and I didn't know that I should have blocked her from getting so high up my arm. When she reached my shoulder, she tilted her head at me and bit my cheek. It left a nasty red and blue pinch mark for about a week.
The majority of bites come from humans failing to learn their bird's signals and respecting them, but when there are young children in the home, the risk goes up exponentially. Children aren't as attentive, and can accidentally provoke fear in a pet bird. Curious, inquisitive children who don't understand how to read a bird's mood can try to pet a defensive bird that's ready to strike.
4. They're messy!
Fact of life: Bird poop. Dirty cages contribute to health problems for both the parrots and the people who live with them. The cage shown on this page allows a cage liner that the bird can't reach and chew up, which is better for everyone, but the liner must be replaced frequently. Cage bars must be washed weekly with a non-toxic soap and water mix.
Their food and water must be replaced daily. As they eat, bits of their food will fall on the floor both inside and outside of their cages. Scarlett has a peculiar habit of taking each piece of food and dunking it in her water before eating it. When she gets mushy gunk around her beak, she shakes her head to cast it off. That means we wash walls and vacuum nearly every day.
These are all things that should be given careful consideration by would-be pet owners.
Take a Parrot Pledge - Be a Responsible Owner
The Macaw and African Gray Parrots in the posters above are available for non-commercial and educational use from For Parrots, an advocacy group that asks people who are interested in caring for parrots to take a pledge that recognizes unique needs that exotic birds have. By signing the pledge, individuals agree to only adopt birds from rescues, not breeders. Many breeders continue to capture exotics from the wild, and in some cases, the breeds are threatened with extinction as a result. They promise to learn about providing for their bird's dietary needs, natural environment, and psychological care, with an understanding that pet birds are not actually domesticated animals, but have been taken from their natural environments in that last one or two generations, which means they retain many of their natural instincts.
What Do You Think?
Would you abide by the pledge posted at www.forparrots.com?
Other Tools and Tips
After having come into caring for exotic birds, I have adopted the Parrot Pledge, and not just for the reasons above.
Some species of exotics can outlive humans, and after spending years with their "people flock" may suddenly be orphaned when the owner's family and friends don't want the responsibility of caring for a noisy, intelligent bird.
I ask myself what the bird's experience must be - confined to a cage or room when it was intended to soar unfettered. I think I'd feel much like a kidnapped person held in a shed for a few decades, like the young Duggan woman we've learned about from the news media. Even the kindest owners couldn't restore the bird's freedom, because after being held in captivity, inexperienced in foraging, homeless, and unfamiliar with threats in the local territory it was transferred to, a bird is likely to die if turned loose.
I'll probably stay involved with rescued birds to some extent, but I won't support breeding or capturing these lovely creatures. I'll take the ones who have been mistreated and try to restore as much of their "normal" habitat as possible, but even as I try to befriend them, I'll find my heart breaking with sadness over their fates.
Before adopting a pet bird, please ask yourself if you'll have plenty of time to provide ongoing interaction throughout the day, whether you'll have room in your home to provide a cage that lets them spread their wings comfortably and get sufficient exercise, and whether you'll be able to locate for them in your absence.
Finally, please use only proven, high-quality products like the ones on this page when caring for them.
Look for cages without filigree that talons can get wedged into, with plenty of room for a bird to play and an easy-clean tray. Fewer bolts and a rust-resistant finish will make the cage last much longer.
Bird talons must be kept trimmed. Use trimmers or scissors if their perch isn't doing the job.
NEVER trim their claws without some styptic powder readily available to staunch bleeding if you trim a tiny bit too much. Even a small amount of blood loss can kill a bird or lead to infections.
Parrots need constant stimulation. A free-standing perch lets your bird enjoy other rooms that you're in. (Never leave a parrot unattended while loose in unfamiliar rooms. There are *many* dangers they can find.)
Fun with Parrots
One thing that's certain to happen if you elect to be owned by a parrot - you will laugh.
Every time a cell phone rings (which is quite often in our household!) the birds start up. "Hello!" "Hello?" "Helllooooo!"
Of course, as soon as they recognize that they aren't actually part of the conversation, they're like the pesky little brother or sister who always wanted to tag along. They get louder, screech, and generally force you to go into another room and close the door.
When a group of friends is over and someone that makes us laugh, the birds laugh, too. It makes everyone seem a bit more clever.
Parrot-Proof Your Home
Bird beaks, parrot-sized ones, anyway, are powerful. Did I mention how birds like shiny things? You may see red when your bird decides to nibble on that necklace and breaks it.
They can nip a hole in your shirt without you feeling a thing, or turn your tax return into confetti when you've left the room for two minutes.
Electric cords seem to have a special appeal to them and must be kept out of their reach.
And other birds? Well, they may or may not get along. If they don't, it's important to keep them far from each other because if they start fighting, like ours do, one of those beaks could puncture the other's chest cavity. Birds don't have lungs exactly, but have air-filled sacs that if punctured, can kill it quickly.
So while you're having fun with a parrot (yours or someone else's), don't let it out of your sight when it's not in its cage!
A Word from Scarlett
She didn't want to feel left out, and asked to put in her two squawks' worth....
If you decide to provide a nice, safe place for one of my fine, feathered friends, please take time to learn more. I bit Kathy because she brought that horrible, horrible dog into my house, and she seemed nervous about me, too. It really freaked me out. Since then, she has read magazines and books about what I need, and trained me to think of her as an acceptable two-legged bird. Her plumage will never be as lovely as mine, but perching on her hand sure makes me look better by comparison. Woohoo!
Most parrot problems are due to bad parenting - and by parent I mean people. Anyway, these books can help you learn what I need and how to train my friends to do simple tricks. Just don't teach them to Pepper Ann, because I don't want anyone trying to take away my limelight! (At least she isn't as photogenic as me. Hmmph!)
What you need to know about diet, care, and parrot problems.
How to read a bird's body language and understand its problems - the first step to solving them.
Never, ever use negative reinforcement to train your bird. It causes many more problems than you had in the first place.
Real stories from parrot people, vets, and more.