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She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.

     - Mark Twain

Or two.

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Dawn Chorus is generally about wild birds and birding and getting out in their habitat.  I haven't talked much about domesticated birds, but living with birds has fueled my interest in wild birds - and vice versa.  I have shared my home with birds (finches initially, and then parrots) for almost 25 years now.  My understanding of wild birds and their behaviors has certainly been shaped from watching our birds go through the same actions and reactions.

One thing I want to be clear about up front - Birds, as pets, require a serious commitment and an understanding of very different needs than dogs or cats.  This is especially true of parrots, who form strong relationships and can have much longer life expectancies than cats or dogs.  Like most serious parrot lovers, I am more likely to steer people away from getting them as pets rather than encouraging it.  

I'm mostly focussing on parrots (including budgies, lovebirds and cockatiels), because living with them is a lot more complicated than living with finches.  But before we start:

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Wild parrots should stay wild.  Never, ever buy a wild-caught bird.  Just don't.

If you have ever considered adding a parrot to your family, the very first consideration is pretty straightforward:  Do. Not. purchase a wild-caught bird. That is the one absolute rule.  If you can not be certain that the bird was bred in captivity, then just don't do it.  The wild bird trade is absolutely devastating to populations - not just by removing the birds themselves, but also by destroying their nesting habitat.  Parrots are cavity nesters, and one easy way to get baby birds is to cut down the nest tree and hope they survive the fall.  Many birds (chicks and brooding adults) die in the process - and the nest trees are destroyed.  Because they need large, old trees to hold their large nest cavities, it may take decades for the replacement to grow.  The process of smuggling is brutal, too, and many birds die in transit.  If you love the birds and want them to thrive, you simply can not justify wild-caught birds.  Period.

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Besides, why would you want a wild-caught bird when a domestic, hand-fed baby is so cute?

The next question to ask yourself is why do I want this bird?  Do I want a bird that talks?  A bird that's extremely affectionate?  A bird to sit on my shoulder?  A really beautiful creature to share my home?  When you know the answer(s) to that question, then it's time to start reading. You really want to know what you're getting into because you're making a long-term commitment.  If you have been thinking of getting a bird, I can suggest some resources in the comments.


Maybe you want a bird that sings?

It's often said that living with a parrot is like living with a perpetual two-year-old.  They are both remarkably entertaining but they can also drive you nuts at time, and they don't always retain "yes" and "no" very well.  And even if they do know "no" they are apt to "forget" it when it's not convenient.

A talking bird is fun, but you need to understand that they're not clever comeback artists like the birds in movies.  (Some do have a sense of humor, though, which I'll touch on later.)  It takes a lot of work to teach them to talk, except for things you'd rather they not learn - they're fascinated by loud noises, so they'll learn to swear pretty easily.  When they learn something new, you may hear it incessantly for a while as they continue to practice it.  Listening to the practice sessions can be quite entertaining, though, as they play around with words and combinations.  Once they understand something, it's pretty cool to have words used in context (like asking for a specific thing that they want, whether it's a treat or to be picked up), and it's very nice to be greeted with happy hello when you come home.  (not to disparage wagging tails, of course.) But also consider:  If you want a talking bird, what if the one you get is the silent type?  Will you still keep your commitment?  Kodachrome was a wonderful bird, but barely mumbled more than a handful of phrases.

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I love having a bird on my shoulder; when we lost Amelia, the thing that hit me hardest at the beginning was missing the weight on my shoulder, the presence next to my head.  She'd groom me as we sat reading; she'd laugh at a joke when I did.  She'd also grab my glasses (that stopped eventually) or grab my husband's glasses when he gave me a kiss (that never stopped - it was one of her favorite games).  I stopped wearing earrings twenty years ago because bright shiny dangly things things look exactly like a bird toy to a parrot.

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Frequent view of a parrot on your shoulder.

They are very curious creatures and love to explore - especially any opening or crevice that might make a suitable nest site. Kodachrome was a homebody, but she would investigate "openings" that appeared in her cage, like an empty peanut butter jar (not a good nest, it turns out, but this thing is covered with food!)  Amelia loved to walk around the house, and we had to keep the doors to many rooms closed (the space behind the toilet would be a great nesting spot, and look! there's a basket full of nesting material - used Kleenex - right next to it!)  Harlan has thus far limited his wanderings mostly to the top of the work table next to his cage, although he does occasionally take off flying to get to other places.  He doesn't get real far because his wing feathers are clipped, but he generally doesn't land gracefully (especially not when he went into the Christmas tree) so the potential for disaster is there.  

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I wonder what's on top of this?  Could I make a nest in these drawers?

A little practical talk here:  In most homes, the bird will not be out and about all day.  You want to get the biggest cage you can because they're going to spend a fair amount of time there, and a too-small cage is just cruel.  Bigger birds need bigger spaces, and long tailed birds need a little extra room so they can turn around comfortably.  Ideally, it can go near a window so they can get some sun (but not bake - shade is necessary, too!) and look out at the world. You also want it to be in a location that's easy to clean, because birds are messy - even little finches will spread seed hulls everywhere when they flap their wings.  Parrots like to chew, so you'll want to make sure they can't reach furniture or woodwork.

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Look at all that yummy molding!  If Amelia she could not find us, she'd walk around the house and look in all the doors.

Parrots are flock animals and need to be social.  If they won't be able to get a lot of interaction, don't get one.  It's just not fair to them.  All of our parrots' cages havee open whenever we're home - the first thing I do when I wake up is open the doors.  There's also a lot of shoulder time (or knee time, when I'm sitting on the sofa and reading).  It doesn't have to be active playtime; just hanging out together is the big thing.  And there's the long-term time - your bird could live 20, 30, 40 years - or much longer.  When we got Amelia, our macaw, I was 30ish; I was 50 when we lost her unexpectedly.  As much as I would have loved to have a macaw again, there were two realities to face:  macaws can live to 50-60 years, and I wasn't going to be around that long, and I wasn't sure I could handle that large a bird when I am 70 or 80 years old.  African Greys (like Harlan) don't live quite that long, and they're a bit more manageable size.  Generally speaking, smaller birds are shorter-lived and larger birds live longer.  

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Sometimes they want to be on a knee rather than a shoulder.

They love attention - as I said, most of them love to perch on a shoulder because it lets them stay with you and go wherever you go.  (What about the poop?  Well, the good news is that it's not hard to potty train them - birds prefer not to foul their perches.)  Petting a cat or dog can be extremely calming; birds prefer gentle scritchies that fluff up their feathers a bit, but it's every bit as soothing.  The bonus is that they'll "pet" you right back, by grooming your hair (or beard).  The downside to this affectionate nature is that they can really go nuts when they want attention and aren't getting it.  Screaming and squawking can be common, which annoys everyone - neighbors as well as family members.  This can lead to a vicious cycle - people ignore the noisy bird, and the bird gets noisier, so it gets left alone even more.  This varies by species - some birds are perfectly happy to amuse themselves, but others (especially cockatoos) really need to be with their human constantly.

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Not all communication is verbal.  This gentle grab of my finger means that it's time for head scratching.

Birds can amuse themselves as well.  They like to make up games, many utilizing their verbal abilities.  They see what gets the attention of those around them and then put it to use for fun.  Our friend's greys imitate his telephone (because when that device makes its sound, he always gives it attention); they call the cat (who responds to them about as well as it does to a human, which is to say - when it feels like it) and they imitate the cat calling to come indoors (because that gets the human's attention).  I've heard numbers of stories about birds, especially Amazons and Greys, who learn to mimic their human's voice calling the dog.  The unfortunate angle for the dog is that many of them also learn to send the dog away by saying "Shoo!" or "Bad dog!" and then calling them back in; it's fun to make the dog go back and forth.  They don't realize they're messing with the dog's head, they just think it's fun to watch it run around.

I realize this is getting really long and there are another eleventy dozen things I could talk about.  How about ending it here, but I'll be around a lot today so I can answer questions.  I suspect some of the other Kossacks who share their homes with birds will too.  And post pics!  

Please read elmo's comment on care and commitment; kishik and elmo also have multiple comments with useful advice (as do others).  There's a lot you can learn in this thread.

Originally posted to lineatus on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 06:00 AM PST.

Also republished by J Town and Birds and Birdwatching.

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