Is a Bird a Suitable Companion for You?

By Sybil Erden, Founder -2004.

The fact that you are reading this suggests that you already have a bird or are debating whether to acquire one as a new member of your household.

Parrots are not pets as we have been taught to think of such. This is because they are not domestic animals. Under the right circumstances they can make suitable companions, but it takes a lot more self-education and far more life-style adjustments than taking in a domesticated animal such as a cat or dog. It can be and must be done in order to care for the forty to sixty million exotic birds currently living in captivity in the United States.

Why is making a bird a companion or a member of the human flock, a more difficult and different process than taking in a cat or dog?

Let”s get back to absolute basics. Humans are mammals. We are predators, hunters. We are capable of being solitary. So are most of the animals we commonly surround ourselves with, such as cats and dogs. Cats and dogs are domesticated. Domestication is not the same thing as captive breeding. Domestication is a long process, one that takes multiple generations to achieve, by which humans selectively breed characteristics that make the animals more suitable for life with humans or for use by humans.

Example: your Thanksgiving turkey. It has been selectively bred for stupidity. It has one- third less brain capacity than its wild cousins do. This is so it is easier to manipulate and slaughter. It also has been selectively bred for meat. It is much heavier than its wild cousins are. So much, in fact, that while a wild turkey can live to be ten or more years old, a domesticated turkey”s joints will collapse from arthritis due to the weight it must carry within several years. These domestic animals are bred to be food on our tables within six months of being born.

Dogs and cats have also been bred selectively. Dogs have been bred as companions, as hunters, as protectors. They are smart, but not a smart as their wild cousins, the wolves or coyotes. They have depended on us for millennia so most are not capable of surviving in the wild any longer. Cats have been made smaller than most of their wild counterparts. They are bred for color and length of fur, and most importantly for sociability.

Parrots are still wild animals. They differ from us, and from mammals as a whole, in every possible way. There were proto-birds back when we were still lizards, almost 200 million years ago. The physiology of birds is 180 degrees from ours: their bacteria balance…what is healthy or not… are totally different. Genetically the female selects gender of offspring rather than the male. Birds see into the ultraviolet and infrared range. Think of it as though we could see what we see and could see under “black light” and wearing night scopes all at the same time. In addition, birds can see up to 170 images per second, at least two to three times what humans are capable of seeing.

And while we are literally grounded, birds live in a three-dimensional world. It is the difference between the flat surface of a painting and a sculpture or, more to the point, the difference between a film of a landscape and its counterpart reality. Birds are created for two things: one is the social interaction of the flock. The second is for flight. Cockatiels, the small bird commonly found in our homes, can fly three or more miles a day in search of sustenance. Larger birds such as macaws often fly ten or twenty miles a day.

In captivity, we force these incredibly complex, athletic creatures to live a solitary, sedentary life in a cage…

Although many, if not most, of the birds living in homes today were captive-bred, they were never bred for behavioral modification. In some cases specific species have been bred for color or plumage. Canaries and pigeons often have such strange plumage they cannot fly normally. Lovebirds, budgies and other smaller birds are routinely bred for color mutations, which would no doubt make them more obvious to predators in the wild. Although there is no scientific proof, it seems apparent to me that we are breeding many of the least desirable traits into many of the domestically born parrots. Until recently the “solution” to an aggressive bird, or a bird that plucks its feathers, was to put the bird in a breeding program. If what we have learned about aggressiveness in dogs is an indicator or model for the breeding/genetic factors in birds; it would seem obvious that we are breeding undesirable tendencies into these birds.

How do the hardwired survival instincts of a bird, coupled with the physiological differences between avians and mammals, impact on our ability to live with birds? The most important part of creating a happy environment for these animals is beginning to understand their psychology…how they view the world.

Parrots – Psittacines and Passerines (birds such as finches and canaries) – are the most commonly kept exotic birds. They are all prey animals. We humans, as well as cats and dogs, are predators. They are flock animals. We are solitary. They depend on the flock for survival. Family or flock surrounds them from the moment they are born until they die. Generally speaking, the only time parrots are alone in the wild is when one of the pair is on eggs and the other is foraging for food. Being alone to a bird means it has been rejected by the flock or mate because it cannot keep up, due to illness, injury or age. To the bird it means that he is going to die. In the wild, when ornithologists see a single parrot flying, the most common comment is “Its mate has died.”

Birds have many tens of thousands of years of hard-wired survival instincts that tell them that it is unsafe to be alone. This is why hand-reared birds adopt us as their flock, and why they scream and cry for us so often if left alone, even momentarily. It is psychologically necessary to at least hear their flock mates, even if they are out of sight.

Different species of parrots can do better or worse than others when alone. Some learn to occupy themselves with toys, and can accept radio or TV as a substitute for flock noises. But not all birds can do this. Some will “scream” incessantly. But what we, in an enclosed environment perceive as annoying screams is in fact “calling” or natural vocalizing which birds do as part of their survival instinct. This behavior can become twisted and neurotic behavior if the bird does not feel safe.

Birds in the wild are reared by family and siblings, taught all their survival tools much as we are. Unlike birds such as chickens who hatch eyes open and ready to eat, parrots are born with eyes closed, naked and defenseless, fed by both parents. Their nest is a small, warm place. Dark. They are butt-to-butt with clutch mates, parents and even siblings from previous breeding cycles. As their eyes open and they grow they can peek out of the nest to see the world, but duck back in for the relative safety of the nest.

In captivity things are very different. The common practice these days is to “hand-rear” or hand-feed baby birds. Often eggs are removed from under the hen and artificially incubated. In many other cases the newly hatched neonates are removed within a few days, certainly before their eyes ever open. The theory and assumption is that by having birds dependent on humans in infancy they will remain bonded to humans as they grow. In part this is true. We create an abnormal dependency, one not unlike the “orphan kitten syndrome.” This occurs when a kitten is bottle-fed. It is sweet and dependent as a baby, but without the guidance…and discipline…of parents and pride, they become obnoxious, aggressive cats.

So, with parrots we have a scenario where a predator (human) removes a flock animal from its parent (often as an egg,) hand-feeds it in isolation, often in a situation where it cannot touch or even see other birds, where it gets no education about being a bird…but still has all the hard-wired survival instincts in place.

This is a difficult situation…

We learned why the differences between mammals and avians can make living with a parrot difficult…for both bird and human.

But here you are, reading on. You must really want to share your life with a bird…or having one already, you must really love your companion and want to make this relationship work.

Good. The first step is recognition of the commitment.

If you are going to bring a companion bird into your home you need to make a number of decisions. What kind of bird is appropriate given your lifestyle, time and space limitations? How many changes are you willing to make to your lifestyle in order to accommodate the new family member? How many years do you think you can commit to share with another intelligent…if alien…being (and I am not referring to your spouse!)?

Parrots do not all have the same, or even similar, temperaments. They do not live the same length of time. Their voices are not all of equal pitch or volume. I strongly suggest before you go out to buy or, more preferably, adopt a bird, that you find a local rescue organization and volunteer some of your time to learn about a wide variety of parrots. After working with a variety of birds, you might discover that what you thought would be your “dream bird” would be your nightmare, but the little fellow you originally overlooked might be absolutely ideal for you.

Certain generalities: The smaller the bird, the shorter the life expectancy; the larger the bird, the longer the life.

  • Canaries and Finches live 5-10 years, although some can live to be 12 or more.
  • Budgies, Cockatiels and Lovebirds average 15 or so years but one can live to be around 20 years of age with proper care and some luck.
  • Conures, Psitticula and Quakers average 18-25 years.
  • Poicephalus (Red-bellies, Senegals etc.) can live into their mid or late twenties.
  • Pionus, who are not much larger, have a life expectancy of up to 40 years, although we have a retired breeding pair already in their mid-forties.
  • Small Cockatoos such as Lesser Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos and their sub-specie cousins the Citrons, are expected to live between 40-60 years of age.
  • African Greys can live into their 60”s, as can smaller Amazon parrots.
  • Larger Amazons such as Double Yellow-Heads or Blue-Fronts, while not much larger than the Greys or small Cockatoos, have been known to live into their 80”s, and some have even been reported to live into the early hundreds!
  • Larger Cockatoos such as Eleanoras, Umbrellas or Moluccans, can live to be 60 or more years of age.
  • The larger Macaws can also live into their 60”s. Two of our Scarlet Macaws lived to be 72 and 79 years of age respectively.

The same size-to-volume ratio generally holds true in birds. However, there are people who cannot stand certain pitches or frequencies. For some a Cockatiel may be too shrill, while a Pionus may be just right. I personally find African Greys delightfully quiet, but some people cannot stand the repetitious mimicry of a telephone ringing or the beeping of a microwave.

The small bird with the loudest gram-to-decibel ratio is a Conure. While their size would seem to make them a wonderful apartment or condo bird, their noise level will assure eviction for many.

Cockatoos are LOUD. So are Macaws. My partner TJ cannot stand to be in the next room to a screaming ”Too. I can sleep through it. He has no problem with the bellowing of Blue and Gold Macaws. In my opinion, they wake the dead.

Much of this is obviously personal preference, but these things must be dealt with and decided upon by all family members before acquiring a new family member who will be around, quite possibly, when your youngest child”s grandchild is born…

Do you want an active family companion like a little Goffin”s Cockatoo or do you want a more independent bird with potential talking ability like an African Grey? And if the Grey decides that she has nothing to say to you, but likes sounding like the neighbor”s barking Rottweiller, or the car alarm, will you still love her? If your beautiful and affectionate Eclectus decides that he wants to shred his green feathers and now is an affectionate, naked fuzz-ball, will you still think he is beautiful?

Parrots are highly intelligent, self-aware creatures. They, like humans, enjoy controlling and reshaping their environment. They are active participants rather than passive observers of their lives. We have been told that Parrots are “easy pets”, that all they need is a cage and some seed. Obviously, this is untrue. They are highly complicated individuals and, if you cannot accept them for who and what they choose to be, perhaps a Parrot is not the best companion to bring into your home…

But I see you are still reading…

The amount of time you can give your new companion is paramount in selecting the type of bird to bring into your life. With enough toys, a Pionus or small Amazon might be able to spend hours a day alone, where the cute and cuddly Cockatoo might scream or pull her feathers out if she is left alone the same amount of time. With the right bird, quality time with his or her flock-mate (you) can be more important that the amount of time. But, be careful. When your new bird first comes home, do not give him more time and affection that you will be able to sustain over time. Parrots are creatures of habit. If you give him several hours which, as the newness and excitement wear off, becomes a few minutes to feed daily, your bird will feel rejected and may act out.

Space for your bird is a major consideration. This means that there must be room for your new family/flock member to hang out with you, and not get into trouble. Many species of birds are extraordinarily destructive. Your grandmother”s hand-carved heirloom credenza is a hunk of wood worth shredding to a happy Cockatoo or Macaw.

So, when creating an environment, a habitat for your companion, it is important to keep in mind a number of things that are hardwired, i.e. difficult or impossible to change:

  1. birds are designed to fly many miles a day;
  2. birds spend a great deal of time foraging for food;
  3. they can be very loud; and
  4. part of what they do is excavate trees and tear up branches.

It therefore becomes paramount to give your bird many things to do to burn off the energy normally taken up with flight and foraging. Part of this can be through toys and other stimulation. Make sure there is wood or shredding material for your bird to “play” with. And get the appropriate bird for your noise tolerances, and that of your spouse and neighbors as well.

Parrots should have a large space for activity. This may be a large aviary (cage) or a room where you can set up play stands. The idea is not to confine the bird but to create a safe, enjoyable, and interesting habitat. The newest theories also suggest that rather than one large cage, many birds might desire play stands and climbing areas with a smaller sleeping cage for night. Remember that in the wild they sleep in small excavations in trees. So, perhaps a huge jungle-gym type play stand and a smaller cage are better than a single large cage for your bird. However, if you are away from home a lot, you will need to have a safe enclosure for your companion during the times you are gone. Birds tend to wander from their play stands and can get into serious trouble. Although you would no doubt be angry if your beloved companion ate your antique furniture, you must remember that they can and will eat through walls and get into the electric wiring…or chew through appliance cords and such. There are also toxins in our environment from which we must protect the birds. And there are other, less apparent, but equally dangerous things for birds to get into.

True story… A friend of mine had a pair of baby Moluccan Cockatoos in her home. She had a huge guest bathroom on the second floor of her two-story home. It was unused and she felt that it was the safest place to leave the birds so that they could play when she had to go out. One day she came home and found her living room and dining room, on the first floor, awash with standing water. Water was raining down and the ceiling was caving in. At first she thought a pipe had burst. She ran upstairs and found that the two little ones had turned on the water taps in the bathroom and were playing in the sink…

When thinking of acquiring a bird, or any pet, keep in mind that over time where you live may change. That you may lose or acquire different living partners, that your career may put different demands and constraints upon you.

It”s a lot to think about. It goes back to that word “commitment”… like choosing a spouse or contemplating having a child…

We”ve now looked briefly at who and what Parrots are. Now we need to find out how to live with them…

In the previous two sections we have looked at who, why and what birds are. We have touched upon the sort of commitment it takes to bring a bird into our lives…

It becomes somewhat more problematic if you already have a bird living in your home. Perhaps you now are gaining a different perspective or understanding of his needs. You love that bird but fear you do not have enough time to give him the emotional and psychological stability he requires. Or perhaps you have known for a while that s/he is unhappy and have contemplated solutions ranging from giving him to a new home, an adoption program, or to a sanctuary. But since you are reading this, I will guess that ultimately you really want to make it work for this family member….

Or perhaps you are a person who loves watching birds in the wild and would like to create an environment, a sustainable habitat, for a bird and want to allow him to “be a bird” rather than necessarily a companion. Many of us have come to understand that since birds are flock animals, it is difficult if not almost impossible to give them a lifetime of the emotional and psychological support that they need…and that they do get from the flock.

While it is true that sometimes two birds are more noisy than one, it is not necessarily so. Birds who scream incessantly may be doing it due to fear or loneliness. Another bird may help alleviate that anxiety. It is important to recognize, however, the calls of birds, particularly in the morning and late afternoons, are totally normal behavior. Whether you have one bird or a flock, this twice-daily cacophony is as much a part of living with birds as dog or cat fur is a part of living with any of those four-legged creatures.

It is also true that having numerous birds means that it takes longer to prepare their food and clean their cages and play stands. But the offset is that several birds can ideally keep one another company, thereby freeing up some of your time without guilt.

So, if you wish to be around birds, or if you have a companion bird already but fear he is lonely, then perhaps a companion for your companion, or the development of a small flock of small non-companion birds, may be the ideal situation for your home.

Finches and Canaries, even little Budgies, Lovebirds or Cockatiels are relatively simple to set up in an indoor aviary. A large cage with multiple perches, several feeding stations with enough room for each bird to fly about and still have space alone are necessary. Lighting, particularly natural or UV, is crucial for this or for any bird living indoors.

Even with multiple birds, toys and other enrichment items is necessary. Such an aviary can be purchased or custom built to fit into a portion of a living or family room, bringing a touch of nature into the home. While most “pet stores” may not have cages appropriate for small flocks, going to a large bird show where cage vendors are displaying a large number of styles of cages will help give you ideas. And you may find someone able to help you design and build just the right environment for you and your feathered friends.

When establishing a small bird flock, remember that most of these birds will have little interest in humans and more interest in their cage mates. Many hand-reared birds will remain interested in you even if they are now part of a flock. The flock is the ideal situation to observe and truly learn how birds interact in the wild. Personally, I find it far more interesting and educational, especially if one has children, than having a hand-reared bird who may be a little person with wings…

With larger birds it is more difficult to create a large flock, mostly due to spatial restraints. Unless one has a large amount of suitable backyard….and understanding neighbors, setting up a “flight” size aviary for larger birds may just be a dream. But a small flock, or even a non-breeding pairing, can be created and can allow you to remain a “flock member” rather than the “parent” or surrogate “mate” of the bird. In order to give you an idea of the variability of how this comes about, I will give you examples of situations we have encountered at The Oasis…

Sassy, Cosmo and Milo

Sassy, Cosmo and Milo are special-needs birds who live at The Oasis. Sassy and Cosmo are large female Moluccan Cockatoos. Milo is a tiny male Citron Cockatoo.

Sassy, born in 1995, is one of the main reasons The Oasis came into existence. Born with severely deformed feet and legs, I received Sassy at 6 months of age after her breeder had extensive orthopedic surgeries done to try to correct the problems. Even after the surgeries, at that time we were unsure whether she would ever walk properly and the thought of Sassy ever being able to perch was simply an unspoken dream. Within a year she showed us how incredibly resilient these little wonders can be. With modifications to her environment (mostly carpeting on the floors to pad her deformed feet) and by allowing her feathers to remain long enough for complete flight, Sassy has become a fearless force to contend with.

Cosmo came into my life about a year and a half later as an untenable and improbable neonate. Born with only half a crop and other internal problems, it seemed unlikely she would survive her first year. With round-the-clock hand-feedings, numerous bouts of antibiotics due to ongoing infections and rounds of pneumonia, Cosmo beat the odds.

Milo arrived at The Oasis in early 2000, as a young adult. A long-term plucker, he had been abandoned at a Veterinarian”s office in California when his family went through a divorce. In fear and distress his feather plucking became severe mutilation and he had several surgeries to close up life-threatening wounds. We heard about Milo when he literally was hours from euthanasia, when the Veterinarian, after almost of year of tending to this miserable little creature, had given up.

Sassy was a spoiled little girl. Handled a lot and loved to pieces, living with numerous toys and people in her life she was less than thrilled when Cosmo, who was now a year old, moved into “her” room. For the first two weeks I had two unhappy birds. I could only have one bird out at a time if I was not in the room with them. Gradually things changed. We would have what I called “Cuddle fests” where I would play on the floor with both girls, folding my body over both birds, giving them mutual affection while they were touching one another. Within about three weeks both girls could be left out of their cages, unsupervised, without any difficulty. For the first two years, Sassy was the “flock leader”, but by now (December 2002) Cosmo has become the alpha bird while Sassy is, surprisingly, the more demure and less demanding of the two.

Over time the girls grew accustomed to having other Cockatoos living in their room with them, while remaining a ” bonded pair”…eating together, mutually preening, choosing to sleep in the same cage. And they still loved having people to interact with. While Cosmo is definitely more gregarious around people, once Sassy is introduced, both birds will go to people and sit and scream with joy…

When Milo arrived he was very quiet and withdrawn. Over the first few weeks he began to bond with some of the people here. Over time he became used to the rhythm of life surrounded by numerous birds and people. He stopped mutilating…for a while. Six months after Milo moved to the Sanctuary, The Oasis found land and packed to move. Seeing the changes, the packing and chaos, put Milo in a tailspin. The mutilation began again in earnest. When we moved to the new facility, it was obvious that he could not, at this point anyway, be an outside bird. I wanted to keep a close eye on his self-destructive behaviors so rather than put him in the bird building, I moved him into Sassy and Cosmo”s room. Over the next few months, Milo gradually was accepted into their little flock. While the girls still are best buddies, now Milo is also allowed to eat with and preen them.

Normally we do not bring male Cockatoos into female Cockatoo environments. At The Oasis we have seen the results of mate aggression too often and since we do not breed, we have no desire to have these sorts of problems. However, since each of the girls weighs in the neighborhood of 700 to 800 grams, and little Milo weighs around 350 grams, we saw little danger in his ability to harm the girls.

Milo still has times where he mutilates. And there are stretches of time where he must wear a collar to keep from severely harming himself. We don”t understand what is going on during those periods of time…but we do know that he is happier surrounded by his girls than if he were alone.

And all three of these birds love having humans join in their fun and games. We have not “lost” their companionship. Rather, we have the privilege of being part of their world…

Tiki and Joey

Macaws have very different temperaments than Cockatoos.

Tiki, a female Blue and Gold Macaw, arrived at The Oasis at the end of 1998. She was then sixteen years of age. She had been the pampered “pet” of a woman who had her since she was merely six months of age. Tiki was spoiled. She was loved. She had the run of the house. Her life was going very well until a new man came into the woman”s life. After moving into an “adult community” and receiving complaints about the “noise”, Tiki was de-voiced. (See the article on Tiki and devoicing on The Oasis website) This changed her personality and caused her to become depressed and aggressive. The woman considered euthanizing Tiki, but was encouraged to bring her to us instead. We tried placing Tiki with several other Macaws, but she had no interest in them. Instead, I became “her person” for several years. She would make a big show of preening me and rubbing her face on me when other Macaws were around, showing, by these behaviors, that she and I were a pair.

In February 2000 we took in Joey. Joey is a huge Blue and Gold Macaw, totally and irreparably plucked. She was found hanging on the vines growing on a parking structure in Central Phoenix during an extreme cold-snap when nighttime temperatures dropped into the twenties. She was stressed, dehydrated and malnourished. A wild-caught and not human-friendly bird, we have come to the conclusion that she was a breeder who had somehow escaped from her aviary. After trying unsuccessfully to locate her owner, we had her tested, quarantined, and eventually introduced her to other birds.

Tiki and Joey hated one another. For two years any time they were out of their cages at the same time, we would have to make sure that their play stands were at opposite ends of the room. If close, they would stalk one another and beak fight aggressively, although never hurting one another.

About a year ago, for some unknown reason, that changed. And instead of stalking one another, they began working in tandem, ganging up on people who came into the bird building to feed or clean. I began thinking of them as The Piranha Girls. For whatever reason, they had decided to become friends and began bonding.

The girls now live in an outdoor aviary. Tiki has allowed me to stroke her in the aviary, but if Joey is near, even that is not allowed. While I may have “lost” Tiki as a personal companion, watching them interact, knowing they have one another”s support and company 24/7 is so much more rewarding to me than those few minutes or hours that I could spend with her.

Billy and Peanut

Billy is a male Yellow-Naped Amazon. He came to us from an adoption program in 1998 when it was decided that he was too aggressive to be placed in a home. Billy is at least 15-20 years old and we are not sure whether he is wild-caught or domestically reared. We do know he was around someone who was on the phone a lot…perhaps kept in a cage in an office, since he has long, on-going, one-sided telephone conversations.

Peanut is a female Blue-Fronted Amazon. She was a foundling whose owner never claimed her. She came to us later that year in 1998. Peanut has a quarantine band proving that she is wild-caught. Like Joey, we suspect that she escaped from a breeding situation. Over time she has learned to say “Hello” in my voice, but other than that she mostly speaks Amazon.

The first time Billy and Peanut met it was love at first sight. Within days of their meeting they moved into an aviary together and have been inseparable ever since. Even though they are of different species who would in all likelihood never meet in the wild, they “duet” (sing their calls) in harmony together all day long.

There are many other birds who live together, either in flock situation or as pairs at The Oasis. Some situations took years to set up, others were instantaneous. But we do believe that unless a person can dedicate significant portions of time daily to the well being of their companion animals, a companion for their companion is probably the best way to ensure the happiness of all involved.

When creating a flock environment indoors, it is best to keep separate cages for the birds, at least until they choose to share their sleeping spots. Play stands and shared areas are important. Several feeding stations are necessary to reduce squabbling, particularly when the birds are first getting to know one another.

When introducing an established bird to a new bird, I usually bring the established bird to the new bird, sitting with the established bird on the floor, and keeping the new bird in his cage. This makes the established bird feel important and allows the new bird to understand that you are okay with birds and are not likely to eat him. Remember they are prey animals and you, no matter how nice, are the predator…

Not all birds, even of same species, will like one another. We have found it is more important to the introduction of birds that they be a similar temperament rather than necessarily same species. In other words, two Conures of similar temperament, one a Nanday and the other a Cherry-Head, might get along, where two Cherry-Heads of unlike temperament might not get along.

Obviously, creating a flock does not solve all problems of keeping birds in captivity…. But it does make life easier for them, and for us, knowing they have the comfort of another same or similar species bird with whom to share their life and time. The most important things to keep in mind when deciding to caretake a Parrot living in captivity are:

  1. The commitment of time, space for habitat and money for toys, nutritious food and veterinary care.
  2. The ability to abide with noise and destructive behavior.
  3. Long term lifestyle stability. Will job changes, marriage, or children impact on your ability to continue living with a long-lived, demanding animal?
  4. Planning for the birds” future should something happen to you.

Remember, by most conservative estimates from breeders there are at least twenty million captive parrots living in homes in the United States. Adopt a deserving, needy, wonderful companion…or two.