If You Want a Highly Interactive Fun Pet, This One's for You

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

exotic bird adoption

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you’re considering an exotic bird as a pet, one of the most important questions you must ask yourself is whether you have the time, energy and interest required to properly care for a high-maintenance, long-lived companion
  • There are many wonderful benefits to adopting a bird as a family pet, but there can also be “deal breaker” drawbacks that must be carefully considered
  • Example: Bigger exotic birds such as parrots are highly intelligent and love to learn, which means they require many hours of human interaction each day and consistent mental stimulation and environmental enrichment

When you’re deciding what type of pet to add to your family, it’s extremely important to consider the needs of the animal along with your own. You want to ensure that your lifestyle — in particular, the time and energy you're willing and able to devote to a nonhuman family member — will meet (and I strive to exceed) the pet’s needs.

One mistake many people make when selecting a pet is assuming that smaller animals kept in cages or other types of enclosures require less care than, say, a dog or a cat. But the truth is no animal is designed to be confined to a cage, and certainly not all day, every day. Even pocket pets like hamsters and rats need lots of time outside their habitats to be balanced, healthy animals.

This is especially true for pet birds, and exotics in particular, like parrots, cockatoos and macaws, require a great deal of daily attention and interaction with their humans. In fact, deciding to adopt an exotic bird requires as much or more careful thought and planning than most other types of pets. I believe parrots are much higher maintenance than a dog, so it’s critical to evaluate your ability to make such a monumental commitment before diving in.

Benefits and Challenges of Caring for a Pet Bird

1. Some species of birds can be easier to manage than other types of pets — Unlike your dog or cat who roams freely in your home, you can put your bird in his cage while you're away for a few hours or busy around the house. Birds also don't need to be walked or housetrained, but in my opinion, they do need regular opportunities to fly, if possible. Cleaning a cage or play station each day is more convenient for many people than scooping litter or taking the dog outside every few hours to potty.

However, while it's true your bird is more easily confined in the house than other types of pets, it doesn't necessarily mean he’ll be any less demanding. Many birds are extremely vocal and loud, so even if yours is hanging out in his cage on the other side of the house, he’ll make sure you know he’s there.

And while the cage is convenient confinement when necessary, it's not healthy for your bird to spend hours in there unattended. Many bird parents, me included, only confine their pets to their cages at night. Parrots need to spend the day doing a variety of things (grooming, foraging, playing, napping) both inside and outside of the cage, not to mention lots of time interacting directly with family members.

Also, birds are messy creatures, and the mess is rarely confined to the cage even when they’re in it. The area under the cage will be perpetually littered with discarded bits of food, water and bird droppings. As far as your bird can toss things from his cage will be the floor area under it that will require daily clean-up.

2. Birds can be kept in small spaces — Smaller species like budgies, canaries and finches, and their smaller cages, can make perfect sense for people who live in an apartment or condo.

However, regardless of the size of your bird, constant confinement is not healthy. In addition, small birds have lots of energy and need space to burn it off. If you plan to allow your smaller bird outside her cage most of the day, then a smaller size cage for sleeping at night is acceptable. If your finch or canary lives solely in a cage, I recommend getting the largest cage you can afford, not the cage that fits in the smallest area.

3. Birds are attractive and interesting to have around — Many birds have feather coats that are an explosion of beautiful, vibrant colors. Bird behavior is also fun and interesting to observe and can even lower your stress level.

However, birds should never be considered pretty cage ornaments or part of a home's decor. And they’re also not the feathered equivalent of brightly colored aquarium fish. Parrots are every bit as high-maintenance as more common types of pets, and indeed require a great deal more time and attention than many other companion animals.

4. Small birds are relatively inexpensive to feed — The smaller the pet, the less food he eats. Keeping a bird fed is obviously less costly than feeding a dog or most cats. Generally speaking, it's best to feed a high-quality diet of species-specific organic nuts, fruits, veggies, and sprouted grains and seeds.

However, overall, you shouldn't think cheap-to-keep when it comes to a bird as a pet. Owners of large exotic birds can spend more than $100 a month for food, toys and other supplies. And feathered pets need annual wellness exams with an avian veterinarian to ensure they stay healthy. Birds are masters at hiding disease, so it's critically important that your pet has regular diagnostic testing to check for any problems with his health.

5. Birds don't require much grooming — Birds are naturally clean and a healthy, happy bird will keep his feather coat shiny through preening. All you'll need to add on a regular basis is a mist spray, shower or bath for him in clean, filtered, tepid water.

You'll also need to trim his nails routinely or arrange to have it professionally done. On occasion, some birds require beak trims for various reasons, and of course, you will be left with the quandary and age-old debate of whether to trim flight feathers (a “wing trim”) or not.

6. Birds are very social — Many birds have the capacity to bond just as closely with their humans as dogs and cats. And in fact, birds are much more socially inclined than kitties.

However, this can become a problem if you're not prepared to spend significant time interacting with, training and socializing your bird. Many exotics do best when they’re treated as full members of the family. This means allowing your bird outside her cage for several hours each day and including her in most at-home family activities.

Also, many birds tend to bond with one member of the family rather than everyone, and some can become aggressive to certain family members. If you confine your bird to her cage most of the time, her need to be social and stimulated by family activities will not be met. This can result in a very unhappy bird who becomes self-destructive.

7. Birds are extremely intelligent — Birds — especially those in the parrot family — have an amazing ability to learn new things, which makes them fascinating and fun companions for people who are dedicated to constantly enriching their bird's environment.

However, parrots who aren't given the opportunity to interact for several hours each day with their human family, and who don't receive frequent, consistent mental stimulation and environmental enrichment, are guaranteed to develop emotional problems and self-destructive behaviors.

8. Birds are easy to train — Many species of birds love to learn and love attention from their humans, so training them is often remarkably simple, not to mention fun!

However, depending on the bird, yours may quickly learn things you didn’t intend to teach her. Parrots, in particular, pick up words, phrases and sounds they hear in their environment. You might be surprised one day while friends are over to hear your bird start loudly cursing from another room.

It's important to keep in mind that interacting with and helping your inquisitive bird learn isn’t an activity you can do once in a while when the mood strikes. Birds not only like to learn; they need to learn. If yours isn’t given regular opportunities to interact with you and discover new things, she’ll develop emotional problems and harmful behaviors.

9. Many birds live a very long time — A long-lived pet can be extremely attractive to a person who has suffered the heartbreak of losing a dog, cat or other companion animal, even if the pet died at what is considered a ripe old age for his species.

However, depending on your age and the age and species of the bird you bring home, your pet might easily outlive you. Contemplating who will take care of your beloved bird after you're gone can be as difficult as knowing a pet is destined to leave you long before you're ready to say good-bye. A decision about what kind of pet is best for you should always include considering what is also best for the pet.

10. If you rent, you may not have to pay a pet deposit or monthly pet fee — Birds aren't thought of by most landlords or rental management companies as pets that cause damage to property like dogs or cats. So, a bird could be a good choice for someone who doesn't want to pay those extra fees.

However, if you own a large bird, he can cause plenty of mess and damage — often much more than a dog or cat. And keeping your bird confined to a cage is not the answer for reasons I’ve already discussed. Another consideration is the noise level. If you live in a multi-unit building or in close proximity to others and your bird is prone to shrieking (which many big birds are), you won’t be the most popular neighbor on your block.

Where to Find Adoptable Birds

If you're interested in acquiring an exotic bird as a pet and are prepared to make a substantial and lifelong commitment to it, I strongly encourage you to adopt rather than buy from a pet store or flea market, where illegally imported birds can still be found. The Avian Welfare Coalition offers the following suggestions and resources for adopting a bird:

  • Find an avian rescue organization in your area online or search the bird adoption listings at Petfinder 
  • Local veterinary offices that specialize in avian medicine often know of birds in need of homes; a listing of avian veterinarians in your area can be found at the Association of Avian Veterinarians
  • Contact your local animal shelter or humane society; if they don’t have birds available for adoption, they may be able to refer you to avian placement resources in your area
  • Contact exotic bird sanctuaries in your area

I also recommend doing a lot of research and planning about species-appropriate nutrition, positive training and behavior modification techniques prior to bringing home your new feathered friend, as preparation is priceless when it comes to welcoming any exotic pet into your home.

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