Early in my veterinary career, I saw a lot of birds and exotics. Since that time, avian and exotic medicine has improved by leaps and bounds.
I still do general avian medicine but in no way consider myself a specialist. Then again, this article is not really about diagnosing and treating birds — it’s about owning birds.
Just as my house has been open to stray dogs, cats, chinchillas and pocket pets, so it goes with our feathered friends. There have been lories and finches, parakeets and amazons. Cockatoos and African grays have had visitation rights only.
Naturally, any responsible person must think carefully before taking on a pet of any kind, or adding a pet to his or her existing menagerie.
But birds are unique. They require a special kind of understanding. Actually, they demand it.
Birds are extremely intelligent. They need the appropriate kind of attention and socialization in captivity or they go mad.
I stopped doing a lot of avian medicine partly because it was so depressing to see so many birds owned by people who did not understand their intelligence and their needs. When the birds came to me, they were already damaged goods.
“Is a Bird Right for Me?”
Before you buy or adopt a bird, think about something an avian expert once told me.
“Keeping a parrot in a cage,” he said, “is like putting a 4-year-old in a cage. And leaving him there.”
Large birds, like amazons, macaws and cockatoos, exhibit their frustration and boredom by screaming, being aggressive, feather picking or other compulsive behaviors. But little parakeets are brainiacs too.
Think of your basic pet store parakeet as a little parrot (which they are); they are not meant to live a life of isolation in the cage they went home in.
- So why do you want a bird? It should not be an expensive ornament. If you want something pretty to look at, get a fish tank. That’s why they’re called ornamental fish. (But learn about fish before investing, too.) A bird should be an addition to your family, requiring thoughtful attention, varied activity and a fresh diet. Keeping a bird happy and healthy is a lot of work.
- What sort of bird should you get? The novice bird owner really should start out small. I suggest a parakeet or cockatiel. Prepare to spend time training, bird-proofing your house for when you allow the bird some out-of-cage time, and spending time with Tweety. A breeder or specialty pet store should be willing to spend time with you and educate you on your new addition. Do your research before you do your buying.
But She Was Free!
Beware: Nothing in life is free.
I occasionally see ads in our local newspaper, “Amazon, 10 years old, free with cage.” Or “Cockatoo, very friendly, pay for cage only $400.”
My translation: “Get this screaming parrot out of my house. It’s driving me crazy.” And “This cockatoo thinks I’m its husband, and I can’t get away from it.”
- Many larger birds, like Amazons and African grays, can become difficult if not happily socialized. They can scream, bite, demand attention, throw their food. Eventually, the frustrated owner covers the cage and leaves the room. The bird’s annoying behavior escalates. It becomes an untenable situation.
- Cockatoos present a different problem. They are often very sweet birds that like to “cuddle.” If you’re not in the mood to cuddle, they can act crazed, depressed, pluck their feathers, make you feel guilty. If they bond with one owner over another, they can actually create tension in the human relationship. A confused bird that believes you are its mate may sound funny, but it’s a source of anxiety for you and the bird.
Because birds are so complex, even an experienced bird owner may be faced with complex behavioral problems in certain birds.
Give the bird more attention? Less attention? Happy cage time balanced with supervised freedom? The list goes on and on.
Expert advice and help is out there, but the answers to these questions are not simple, and solving these problems can be difficult and time consuming.
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Ozzie the Problem Parrot
Let me speak from my own experience.
When my family was young and I was working about 70 hours a week, I seemed to run into an awful lot of pets who “needed a home.” At the height of the bleeding-heart years, we had two and a half dogs, 10 cats, a chinchilla and a guinea pig (roommates in a ferret cage), two parakeets, and a small amazon parrot named Ozzie.
Let’s zoom in on Ozzie, the one-legged, orange-winged parrot from hell.
Ozzie’s parents had taken a long trip to find their spiritual selves in India, leaving their excellently cared-for flock in a good pet sitter’s hands. But Ozzie still became lonely and frustrated, got his foot tangled in an elaborate hanging toy and was found with his leg almost chewed off.
I did what I could to save the leg. The owner, now back with his karma all tuned up, did weeks of nursing care on the leg, changing dressings, etc., but Ozzie was left with not much more than a stump. The owner, after all that rehabilitation, didn’t want Ozzie anymore.
Long story short: I had already taken Ozzie under my wing (couldn’t resist), and the bird and I formed an even deeper attachment. Call it my great bedside manner. The bird loved me. I let Ozzie sit near the counter while I cooked. I took him out to the garden with me, and he helped me weed. I put him back in his cage after hours of attention, and he wanted more. And more.
I probably made some mistakes letting him bond so deeply. Eventually, he disrupted any family time. Putting him back on (not in) his cage wasn’t enough. During our dinner, he screamed and talked to us constantly.
His lack of a foot frustrated him to no end because he couldn’t hold his food the way he wanted to. Apparently, his previous owner had used colorful language when nursing the foot.
During dinner one evening, clear as day, he tried to walk up the side of the cage and his foot failed him. “This f—ing foot!” he blurted out, plain as day. My children became hysterical. Clearly they knew “the word.”
After that, Ozzie was not only the annoying parrot — he was also the dirty-mouth parrot.
Of course we encouraged this behavior during adult gatherings so everyone could hear the one-legged parrot curse about his handicap. On the up side, he loved the attention.
One last thing to remember about large birds: If kept healthy, they live a long time.
If you get a hand-raised African gray, think about what you’ll be doing in 50 years, because the bird will still be around. This should not be an impulse buy.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and was last updated Feb. 4, 2019.