Are birds the right companion animals for me? What is the right bird for me?
There are plenty of studies that prove that birds are very intelligent . They are very clever; they can comprehend and learn things; they can learn to use tools; they have excellent memory. They need care, the right food, mental stimulation, and security. Birds are nearly always a flock animal and, as such, need a companion (either another bird or a person) and mental stimulation. They can be loud, or they can be very quiet. They can be destructive or happy to play with (rather than destroy) things in their environment.
The most common reasons for keeping birds are for their company, as a hobby (aviculture and showing), for relaxation, and for food (eggs from backyard chickens). What plans do you have for your birds? Do you want a companion that you can share lives with for many years? Or a bird that shares their life between you and another bird(s)? Whatever your plans are, you need to do some research first.
You should carefully consider whether birds are the right companion animals (pets) for you.
Can your home and lifestyle provide the care and an environment that will safeguard the birds’ physical and mental health and provide them with the opportunity for positive experiences and good welfare? Can you commit to doing this over their often-long lifespan (10-50 years)? For more information on what to think about before making the decision to add a bird or birds to your family, please see this article.
If after careful consideration you decide that birds are the right companion animals for you, the next step is to decide which bird is right for you. There are some species that may not be suitable as pets (for example, rosellas and Indian Ringnecks) and others that will not be ready to breed for years (for example, cockatoos and macaws). The key to knowing the answer is research. Read up on the birds you are interested in, ask other people about them, talk to breeders, reputable rescue groups, avian veterinarians, visit online forums, and so on. Have a look at this article for more information.
One bird or two (or more)?
Birds have evolved as communal animals, living in flocks that provide greater and better opportunities for feeding, protection against predators, and a rich social life. So, it stands to reason that a bird living a solitary life is an evolutionary aberration. Wherever possible, birds should have an avian companion.
Not all birds are compatible, though. They must be given the opportunity to learn to like each other and form a bond. Care must be taken with pet birds that this is not taken to the next level, and they want to breed.
Many birds form a pair bond with their human companion. While this is often appropriate, failure on our part to recognise body language and behaviours can lead to negative impacts on the bird’s welfare and health, and unwanted or inappropriate behaviours such as screaming, aggression, or feather damaging.
Where can I keep birds?
Birds can be kept indoors, outdoors, or both.
Companion birds are most commonly kept in indoor cages and enclosures, although some are housed in either temporary or permanent outdoor enclosures. These cages range from small (outdated) budgie cages to large steel framed macaw cages.
Aviary birds are generally housed outdoors in either full flight or suspended aviaries. Full-flight aviaries run from the ground to the roof, with a floor that can be, from most difficult to care for to easiest to care for, dirt, gravel, sand, or concrete (or a mixture), dirt, gravel, sand, or concrete (or a mixture), in order. Full flight aviaries, planted with grass or small shrubs, are ideal for small parrots and finches, but larger parrots will usually destroy them. Suspended aviaries, where the floor is wire, mesh suspended above the ground, usually at waist height) have the advantage of been easy to clean and maintain, and the birds may feel more secure in them, but they can be enrichment deprived.
Poultry are kept either as backyard or commercial flocks. Backyard flocks are kept as pets, layers, or show birds. They can be kept in fixed sheds (usually with a run attached) or in mobile pens. Commercial poultry are kept in cages, indoor (barn) systems, or as free range. Cages for poultry have significant welfare concerns.
Pigeons are kept in lofts, similar to free flight aviaries but more communal and with the ability to release the birds for a daily flight.
Where can I obtain birds?
You may be able to purchase a new bird from a pet shop, a breeder, or a friend or relative. You may even be able to adopt a pet bird from shelters (such as the RSPCA) or from rescue groups. It is very important to ensure that the birds you are interested in have not been captured from the wild. Taking birds from the wild is illegal and captive wild birds are often severely stressed by being captured, confined, and then placed into an aviary or home surrounded by strangers (and potential predators). There are pitfalls in selecting where you can get a bird, and this article discusses some of the issues and planning that you need to consider before you buy a bird.
What does a healthy bird look like?
When looking at bird, you must be aware of the masking phenomenon. Birds are, for the most part, a prey species (i.e., other animals eat them). A natural survival instinct, developed over millions of years, is to hide signs of illness from potential predators – including people. So, a sick bird will attempt to look healthy until they are so sick they can no longer hide their illness.
This means that, on first look, the bird may appear healthy even if they’re not. Fortunately for us, most sick birds cannot keep this pretence up for more than a few minutes; leaving the bird undisturbed in their cage while you chat to the seller gives the bird enough time to relax and start looking sick (if they are, in fact, sick). Then look for any signs the bird is healthy. This article will tell you what to look for.
What do I need to get ready for my bird before I bring them home?
Impulse buying of birds can be tempting when you come into contact with one of these magnificent, intelligent, and often demanding, animals. Always try and resist this, as often you don’t have everything set up at home ready for a new companion, and this can lead to problems, stress, and even resentment. So, take your time to think things through before you buy a bird – perhaps you can put down a deposit to secure them until you are ready, but try to make the transition from the place of purchase to your home a stress-free event for the bird and for you.
Firstly, is this really the bird you want? Are you in a good place where you can commit to companion who may not want you out of their sight? This bird will be with you for many years – do you have travel plans?
Next, do some research on where you can keep your bird (particularly if you are renting or live in a crowded city). Are there council regulations or body corporate rules that may affect your ability to keep a pet like this? What about your family or housemates? Phobias of birds are quite common, and this is a question that needs to be asked, before any decisions are made!.
If the answers to all these questions still give you a positive vibe for buying your bird, you will need to get everything ready before your new companion comes home. Things to ask yourself include:
- Where am I going to purchase a suitably sized cage, aviary, or other enclosure?
- Where am I going to position it?
- What am I going to furnish the enclosure with (perches, water and food dishes, toys, hides for security)?
- Is the house bird-proof and escape-proof? Is it bird-safe?
- What is the bird currently eating, and what do you want to feed the bird? You will need to transition your bird to a new diet over a few weeks, so you may need plenty of both diets.
- Have I made an appointment with a vet experienced with birds so I can have my new bird checked over? If you don’t know any avian vets, you can start by looking here.
What am I going to feed my birds?
Although there is growing awareness that seed is not a complete diet for birds, veterinarians still see birds with nutritional diseases – obesity, liver disease, heart problems, bone disease – resulting from a long-standing, incorrect belief that “seed is all a bird needs.”
Achieving a balanced diet is often difficult. Not only do we not know the exact nutritional requirements of most birds, but we are also often confounded by the birds’ desire to select and eat their favourite foods, leaving healthier options untouched in the bowl. Despite the claims that formulated diets are ‘unnatural’, they remove that effect of dietary selection and achieve a much healthier nutritional balance than ‘free choice’.
For most birds, a more balanced and healthier diet can be achieved by feeding a mix of a formulated diet and vegetables, with fruit and seed reserved as treats. There are some exceptions – budgies and some cockatiels can run into problems if they eat too much of a formulated diet – but for the majority of birds their health will improve dramatically when they are fed a balanced diet.
How will I keep my birds entertained, alert, and interested in their surroundings?
Birds are, by nature, bright, active, intelligent, inquisitive, – the list just goes on. In the wild, where life is a little more focused on survival, 80% of their day is spent looking for food, but they still spend the other 20% engaged in self-maintenance behaviours (napping, grooming, etc.), socialising with their flock mates, and playing. In captivity, when they no longer have to search for food, they need something to fill in the rest of the day. All too often, they don’t have to opportunity to keep themselves occupied and health and behaviour problems start to develop.
What’s the answer?
Environmental enrichment – providing activities that stimulate an animal’s brain to keep them alert and mentally active – is an essential part of bird husbandry. It’s a lot more than buying some toys, though – you need to sit down and write down an enrichment plan and then implement it each day. This is not as onerous as it sounds – it’s more about writing down some ideas that you can rotate regularly. Have a look at this article for some ideas you can use to keep your bird entertained, alert, and interested in their surroundings.
How will I keep my birds safe against household hazards?
Every year hundreds of birds suffer from health problems caused by their environment. Their human companions are often shocked (and horrified) when they discover that their bird has been exposed to a hazard in their own home, often a hazard of which they were not aware. Birds, in many ways, are like toddlers – capable of finding new ways of hurting themselves as soon as we turn our backs on them for even a moment!
Have a look at this article for more information on household hazards that can hurt (or even kill) your bird.
General care of birds
How do I handle my bird?
At some time, you, the owner, must handle (and sometimes restrain), your bird. Traditionally, it was considered acceptable to put on a heavy pair of gloves, pin the bird to the tabletop or the side of the cage and then drag it, struggling and screaming, into a position where it could be restrained. Undoubtedly this stress contributed to the myth that birds were ‘soft’ animals, prone to dying while just being handled!
Just as it is inappropriate to muzzle and grapple with your dog and cat, it is inappropriate to use heavy-handed restraint on a companion bird. Many of these birds have learnt to trust humans and regard them affectionately. Destroying this trust through aggressive catching and handling techniques can adversely affect the bond between owner and bird. This relationship must be preserved and handling techniques for closely bonded birds should emphasise minimal stress and fear. No form of restraint should ever be taken lightly, as each restraint has some effect on the behaviour, life, or other activities of the bird.
This article discusses ways that you can handle your bird without hurting or distressing them and with minimal damage to the human-bird bond that is so important to trust between you.
Identifying my bird
Despite our best efforts, birds occasionally escape outdoors, and permanent identification may help to return them to their owners. Closed, numbered leg rings and/or microchips are the only reliable means of identifying an individual bird. For more information on how to be sure that bird is yours and can be returned to you, have a look at this article.
Many bird owners like to groom their birds, i.e., trim their wings, nails, and beaks. This has to be done carefully, as your bird may be injured if the correct techniques are not used. Often these procedures are best done by a veterinarian experienced with birds but if this is not possible, this article describes the procedures.
Preventative health care
It is often said that birds are ‘soft’ – healthy one minute, sick the next. A lot of this is because birds hide signs of illness as long as possible. But a big part of this problem is that birds are often considered low maintenance pets. In fact, no pet is low maintenance, especially not birds. These suggestions may help you to keep your bird happy and healthy for many years to come.
- Take your bird to your veterinarian for a check up immediately after purchase, then annually for examinations.
- Feed a fresh, high quality, toxin-free formulated diet with fresh chopped fruits, vegetables, and whole grains according to the manufacturer’s recommendation.
- Provide clean, fresh uncontaminated drinking water and change frequently. Some birds can be trained to use a water bottle, which prevents faecal contamination so often seen in open bowls.
- Provide stimulating environmental enrichment by offering toys, social interaction, and foraging opportunities.
- Many birds enjoy bathing. Try providing a warm water bath, or gently spraying with clean warm water daily if possible.
- Avoid spraying the house with insecticides and other poisons and keep your bird safe from other household hazards.
Although aviculturists want their birds to lay eggs, pet bird owners face a dilemma that is the exact opposite – they want to stop, or at least limit, the number of eggs their bird lays. Left unchecked, some birds, especially cockatiels and budgerigars, will lay one egg after another until they are completely exhausted. This is a common problem in pet birds, living in conditions very different from wild or aviary birds. [Did you know that, in the wild, a cockatiel might only lay 5-10 eggs each year, spread over 2-3 clutches? Many pet cockatiels will lay this number in just 2 weeks!]
This in turn leads to a variety of health and behavioural problems – egg binding, aggression, and even sudden death. It is therefore important for the health of your bird that she does not lay eggs or, at worst, only a few every year. This article discusses why birds lay eggs, and what you can do to reduce the number of eggs laid by your bird each year.
Worming birds – both aviary birds and companion pets – is a subject that is hotly discussed in avicultural and pet circles, with almost as many opinions as there are bird keepers. Thoughts seem to range between worming your bird every six weeks to never doing it at all. And in certain circumstances, both of those protocols can be correct.
Getting worming right can mean that you can save a lot of money – either by preventing loss due to worms, or by not wasting money on worm medications that are not needed – and also a lot of heartbreak when a loved companion or a valuable breeder is lost to something as simple as worms.
So, how do you decide how often to worm your birds, and what to use? This article discusses these issues.
A word about lorikeets
Lorikeets are often kept as companions because of their colourful plumage, playful personality, and their desire to be with companions. But they require more care than many other parrots – they need a special diet, their droppings are voluminous and watery, and they can be very noisy. Thorough research is need before you take lorikeets on as companions, starting with this article.