By Dr. Becker
Many people identify themselves as "dog people" or "cat lovers," but others have a fondness for feathered friends. Pet birds, specifically psittacines (hookbills), form surprisingly strong bonds with their mates and flock (owners), in part because they're highly intelligent.
It's that very intelligence that makes birds like parrots, parakeets, cockatiels and lovebirds so engaging due to their ability to learn — new words, games, cool tricks and commands, as well as new sounds and songs, in many cases — so creating an environment where they can thrive can open a world of enjoyment for both of you.
Owners can glean immense satisfaction from having a unique pet they can interact and bond with, as well as chat with every bit as much (or perhaps more) as with a dog or cat. But there are several things potential bird owners should understand before considering adoption; most birds are loud (and many never learn to speak, they just scream), are messy, have strong social requirements and thrive on attention (and are masters at attention-seeking behaviors, or training you).
Sadly, many people enamored by the thought of having a talking parrot prematurely jump into the massive responsibility of bird ownership without doing their homework. This has resulted in thousands of emotionally devastated birds that are surrendered to shelters and bird rescues around the world each year. Before these birds go through more mental stress (and you become a disenchanted bird owner filled with regret), there are a few things to think about before seriously pursuing this substantial commitment.
There are several other things potential bird owners should think about before adopting a winged companion as well. If you're under the assumption that a pet bird won't eat much, that's only one of several things to consider. They may not eat a lot, in terms of volume of food, but they require immense dietary diversity, requiring notable time to prepare and an economic investment.
Dr. Sharman Hoppes, clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, has advice for anyone thinking about adopting a bird as a pet:
"A pet parrot of any size is not a low-maintenance or inexpensive pet. Depending on the species and age, the bird itself will vary in cost. Pet bird owners also need a large cage, play gyms, multiple toys, and perches in different textures and diameters to prevent foot problems."1
It's not true that pet birds are easier to take care of than dogs and most cats. A cage for a parakeet doesn't take up much room, but an adequate macaw cage can take up most of your living room, and ideally a cage should only be viewed as a bird's bedroom (like a dog crate); birds needs a lot of exercise outside of a cage.
Birds are highly social creatures and their cage and day-to-day life must be located in a happy, socially interactive, non-toxic part of the house (i.e., living room, but not by a loud speaker or TV).
Daily cleaning is just as much, if not more, of a chore as cleaning out a cat box, plus you'll end up having to wash the walls and floors around the cage regularly, as well. You will need to switch from chemical-based cleaning supplies (from the grocery or big box store) to vinegar and water or non-toxic cleaners from your health food store. And even though he may not whine, bark or meow, most birds can be incredibly noisy on an ongoing basis, and many birds are much louder than any dog or cat you can imagine.
Punishing a bird for being loud only makes the situation worse, and yelling back also exacerbates the situation. Consider learning how to address annoying behaviors BEFORE they occur (and they WILL occur) by gaining the advice and consultation of an avian behavior expert. I cannot stress this point enough. It's better to learn what pet birds can be capable of beforehand (and proactively create a positive modification plan) than to be unpleasantly surprised later.
Birds require a tremendous amount of environmental enrichment to prevent boredom and destructive boredom-based behaviors (which can manifest as behavior problems or physically self-destructive behaviors). I recommend rotating through non-toxic, destructible (chewable) toys daily to keep your bird creatively interested and engaged in play, in addition to super fun training sessions, and of course, plenty of time conversing.
Feeding Your Pet Bird
If pet birds aren't fed properly (and most aren't), they can develop health problems just like people do. Long-term nutritional imbalances are a major factor for exotic birds not living to their full potential lifespan, so focusing on weaning your bird onto species-appropriate nutrition is critical for overall physical and mental well-being.
It's vital for their health, from their beaks to their feathers, to offer different types of biologically appropriate food so they'll look good and feel their best. However, specific nutritional choices can depend on the type of bird you have. Your avian vet will discuss the specific nutrient requirements of the species you've brought home.
There are some very common foods birds should never eat because of toxicity to their systems, indigestibility or potentially triggering dehydration, anemia, harmful fungi and cardiac arrest. According to The Spruce, never let birds near the following:2
✓ Tomato leaves
✓ Unripe avocado
✓ Wild mushrooms
✓ Dried beans
✓ Apple seeds
It's important to be diligent when you have a pet bird in the house, though; while you may be wise enough not to give your bird alcohol or coffee, leaving a glass or cup unattended could have fatal consequences. Another bit of advice you may not have thought of is that organic foods are always best, for people, as well as dogs, cats and birds. Beyond that, Pet University asserts:
"Parrots in nature eat a complex mix of all the foods their habitats have to offer: leaves, bark, vines, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, shoots, insects, and worms. The parrots who live in our homes have the same dietary needs."3
Main Food Types to Feed Your Pet Bird
In determining your bird's needs, size matters; it wouldn't work to give macaw-sized foods to a budgie. Food should also be fresh and unsprayed, without harmful chemicals. Birds need a tremendous amount of dietary diversity to meet their nutritional requirements. This can be achieved by offering a variety of different foods on a daily basis. Many birds are fed poor-quality sunflower and peanut mixes, which are too high in fat and deficient in antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals.
If you adopt a bird that only eats one type of food work with your avian vet on expanding your bird's palate over time; this is a critical step in creating long-term health and vitality. Birds also require filtered, pure, clean drinking water that is free from fluoride and chlorine (so no city tap water). The main food groups birds like to eat generally consist of the following:
✓ Freshly sprouted seeds — The mainstay of a bird's diet, freshly sprouted seeds, comes in many premixed varieties, but you can also make your own. Sprouting seeds is an excellent way to unlock a powerhouse of nutrition and feed your bird's natural desire to forage through many sizes and textures of super healthy, nutrient-dense seeds.
Sprouting sunflower seeds augments their nutrition by 300 to 1,200 percent. This is a great way to transform "sunflower seed junkies" onto a substantially healthier form of seeds. Start the weaning process by offering seeds that have been soaked for 24 hours.
✓ Pellets — This type of bird food is premixed to contain an array of ingredients, in theory to provide optimal nutrition (by adding in synthetic vitamins and minerals). If you feed pellets I recommend using them in limited quantities as additions to a whole, fresh-food diet, and make sure you choose organic pellets with no synthetic dyes or colors.
It's important to note bird pellets contain the same carcinogenic byproducts of the extrusion process (heterocyclic amines and acrylamides) that dog and cat kibbles contain.
✓ Grains, legumes and nuts — Offering several healthy proteins, vitamins, minerals, fiber and fats, grains should be organic and whole for the best nutrition; cooked grains can include offerings like quinoa, brown rice, barley and wild rice.
✓ Bugs — Omnivorous parrots enjoy live mealworms, waxworms and crickets. Make sure these living food sources come from healthy bug farms that don't use harmful chemicals.
✓ Cooked legumes can include black beans, navy beans and kidney beans, as well peas, lentils and chickpeas. I do not recommend peanuts due to the overwhelmingly likelihood of mycotoxin contamination. Whole nuts (preferably unshelled) provide important minerals and healthy fats so essential to the diets of birds as well as humans. However, just like with humans, nuts contain calories and calories must be burned in order to not gain weight.
✓ Fruits and vegetables — You may be surprised by the plethora of fruits, veggies and even herbs your feathered friend enjoys, but depending on what he's been used to eating in the past, it may be a trick to get him to eat rather than play with the strawberry or carrot you give him. Weaning "sunflower junkies" onto fresh foods can take up to a year, but just hang in there.
Your commitment to improving your feathered friend's diet makes all the difference in the world for her long-term health. Beforehand, make sure everything is thoroughly washed and rinsed (even though it's organic). Nearly any fruit or veggie is good for pet birds, but just as you consider the foods you eat yourself, some are better than others (such as noting that even though iceberg lettuce is crunchy and tasty, it doesn't offer a lot of nutrients).
Additionally, adding small amounts of coconut or orangutan-friendly palm oil to your birds' food every day will help ensure they're getting enough essential fatty acids. Many birds also enjoy and benefit from herbal teas.
Pet Birds: Research for Knowledge and Prepare for Practicality
Taking your bird to an avian vet for regular check-ups will help keep on top of any medical issues, but becoming an empowered avian guardian requires the same time and commitment to learning as becoming good at anything else; you have to want to know what it takes to intentionally create emotional and physical wellness for your feathered companion, then strive to always do better, learn more and continually work at being the best care giver you can possibly be. Naples News adds:
"If you're thinking about getting a new pet, a companion bird may be for you. However, be sure to consider the amount of time you have to dedicate to a pet bird. Birds are flock animals and need to feel like they are part of the family, so giving them plenty of attention and mental stimulation is critical in maintaining their health."4
I strongly recommend investigating the type of bird you are interested in adopting months before you begin searching for the perfect rescue. If you have never owned a bird before I recommend you join a local bird club, and the American Federation of Aviculture, where there's lots of free resources pertaining to companion birds.
Get to know other people's birds, join online bird forums or volunteer for a local avian rescue. Join my friend's Avian Raw Whole Food Nutrition group on Facebook. The more experience you can gain learning about the species you are interested in the better bird guardian you will be.