Considering my 3 birds seem to feature in a few of my photos (and a fairly hefty amount in my social media) I thought I’d do a little post about them and what it takes to care for birds. I say ‘birds’ generically, what I mean is parrots specifically in this case. And our birds are definitely household pets as opposed to being aviary birds.
Before we start…
Right off the bat, if you want to get a bird as a starter pet or you’re planning on buying your child one as a substitute for a dog in the short term, don’t. Just don’t. Birds don’t make great first time pets, especially for little ones. I heard a story of a little boy who was bought a conure as a pet in lieu of a dog. At first everything was fine and dandy but as the boy began to lose interest in caring solely for the bird (as we are all wont to do at some point after the initial novelty of anything new has worn off), the bird was interacted with less and less until at one point it wasn’t let out of its cage for 4 months because its behaviour had become too difficult to handle by then. The family wisely decided to give the conure up for adoption, realising that they couldn’t care for it properly, and it’s now owned by a very animal minded friend of mine.
What is a parrot as a pet?
Despite their small size, birds are highly intelligent animals that need external stimuli and daily interaction, and the bigger the species, the more time they need. They are very demanding, messy, live long lives, and can be very skittish.
What people forget is that birds are not as fully domesticated as dogs and cats – their fight or flight mode is hypersensitive and always on. Even seemingly calm birds can freak out in a highly traumatising manner if they are spooked. A quiet, lethargic bird is not a good thing; birds are flock creatures and will spend better parts of the day screaming, chattering, and being noisy in general. The times when they are not are normally if they are playing happily by themselves, are sleeping, are eating, or are busily destroying something of yours they shouldn’t be!
Birds also carry emotion and can be quite neurotic in their behaviour. This is exhibited by bonding deeply with one person (making it difficult for others to interact safely with the bird if the favoured individual is not there), or expressing anxiety by feather plucking where they literally pluck themselves bare. It’s a painful process, the equivalent of trying to remove your fingernails in one go. Birds will sometimes inflict injury on another bird if they don’t like them, or hormones make them aggressive.
Biting is also a form of communicating, and whilst you can train a bird to not bite you unnecessarily, be prepared to be bitten often then none. It can be their way of saying ‘don’t touch me’ or ‘I’m not ready to be handled’. You need to be able to read their body language and interpret accordingly.
As with any one and any animal, birds have incredible personality. Since birds are not usually the first pet choice however, many people don’t spend significant time with them to realise this. Just as people can be broken down into varying degrees of introvertedness and extrovertedness, the same can be said of birds. They can also bond deeply with one person, which can make it difficult for others to interact with the bird if the animal will only tolerate one individual.
My short billed corella, Turtle, is quite young (at just over 2 years), highly extroverted, very curious, and constantly getting in the way. Corellas are the smallest species of cockatoo and are quite clownish. He’s not a particularly calm bird, jumping from shoulder to shoulder like a hyperactive child who’s ingested red and green cordial, and blue birthday cake. He will fly from corner to corner of the house, jump on the shower head when I’m taking a shower, try and eat whatever I am handling (or straight out of the pot if given a chance), throw out teaspoons and other cutlery, chew the silicone handles of knives and kitchen scissors, destroy chop sticks, steal the car keys, take chunks out of the scroll wheel in a mouse, and fly off with my wallet.
He likes females over males, but prefers dark hair over blond (because both the husband and I are dark hair) if given a choice, and has an eye for the Asian appearance (this isn’t due to yellow fever – he’s just bonded with me and well, you know what I look like). He picks up human speech freakishly well (I am constantly worried he’s going to swear one day, just from listening to me), is a master of imitation of sound, can unscrew carbine locks, roll over, jump, hop, skip, and dismantle anything with moving parts in a matter of seconds.
The two cockatiels are a little older (at about 4-5 years) are as distinct from Turtle as they are from each other. Noodle, the grey one, is a Pearl (he was speckled as a youngster, but then lost the pearl pattern on first moult) and loves head scritches and constant attention. However he will let you know firmly with a squeal in your ear whether he approves of your moving or not and whether that disrupts his perch on your shoulder. Birdie Girl (because ‘Bitch’ didn’t seem an appropriate name) isn’t as cuddly, a little more standoff-ish, but can be very affectionate when she wants to be. That choice is entirely up to her though. Her personality is firmly in the ‘resting bitchy face’ category; she’s either a Fallow or Cinnamon mutation.
Another reason for not just getting a bird as a impulse buy or starter pet is their lifespan. Parrots live for a long time – the cockatiels can live 20+ years, and Turtle has a human lifespan at 80 years; he may well outlive us. When you buy a bird, you are buying them for life. Your life. With the larger parrots, you are also potentially getting an animal with the intelligence of a 2-3 year old for life. Can you imagine running around after a toddler for 60+ years? That’s what it’s like with a parrot. If they’re out of the cage, they need to be supervised; you can’t leave a bird unattended. They are curious creatures, and much like a baby will put things into their mouths as a form of feeling and processing information, a bird will do the same. But they apply the thing they’re curious about to their beak. And they are testing to see how fast they can take apart that thing.
Tidiness and hygiene
Birds are incredibly hygienic animals and keep themselves immaculate. Note the word themselves. They have no regard for you and your surroundings. Unless you can toilet train your bird, they will crap whenever they need to. If they undergo a stressful situation that causes anxiety for an extended period of time, their will not just crap but will diarrhoea the hell out of you to convey their emotion. Birds don’t politely nibble their food, they unceremoniously fling it everywhere. Sometimes when Turtle gets excited, he doesn’t even eat the food, he just digs his beak in as much as he can and throw his head to the side like one would chuck a frisby, food flying.
Birds will constantly preen, produce dander (a fine powder that keeps the feathers waterproof and smooth), and shed their feathers all the time. Discarded feathers will range from the full flight feather (the type quills are fashioned from) to super fine down feathers that resemble bobbing dandelion seeds in the wind that catch on everything.
You will constantly be changing their cage papers and sweeping/vacuum every day, if not twice a day sometimes. If you are OCD, a bird is not for you.
On the bright side…
Birds are incredibly fascinating animals and can give a lot of affection if its in their nature. There is nothing sweeter than at the end of a day when Turtle starts to fall asleep perched on my arm, or when Birdie Girl has hunkered down on the husband’s tee shirt collar and moulded herself to fit the curve of his neck. I’ve had dogs in the past, and I can safely say that birds have given me more laughs than a dog ever has. Dogs (generally) obey their owners and are there unconditionally; birds will decide when they want to obey you until you override them, and their protesting alone will give you belly aches for days later. They’ll put themselves in hilarious situations just because their little bird brain has told them it was a good idea – the time Birdie Girl face planted into my toast because she was desperate for a bite and overestimated the distance between herself and my plate; when Noodle decided that hopping into a cold vat of beef and tomato stew was a good idea because he wanted to take a bath; or every time I’m playing on my iPad and Turtle steps on the screen and tries to pick up the graphics because he thinks they’re real.
I’m hardly the best example of bird training, because birds need a lot of time and patience to be trained, but they are definitely very rewarding creatures to be with. If you are the type who can handle their intelligence and pickiness, give the time they need to interact with you, don’t mind the messes they make and the money you will spend on endless toys to keep them happy and occupied, then you’ve firmly got yourself a friend for life. Having evolved from dinosaurs, they could have turned out worse!