Is a Parrot the Right Pet for You?

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Odysseus, screaming his fool head off.

Yellow-bibbed lory, Lorius chlorocercus

Image: GrrlScientist 2008 [larger view].

Okay, as I promised yesterday, I am going to write a series of articles about parrots as pets. Even though I have lived with, bred, raised, trained and researched a variety of birds, I am focusing on parrots as pets because they are generally what people think of first when they talk about pet birds.

The first thing to consider before you ever add a parrot to your household is whether a parrot would make a good companion for you at all. Even though I have lived with parrots most of my life and I do adore them, I can easily understand that they could not possibly be a good pet for most people for a variety of reasons.

First of all, there's the noise. Some parrot species are fairly quiet, such as my female Eclectus parrot, Elektra. Others can be very loud, such as my male hawk-headed parrot, Orpheus. When considering the voice of a parrot, size plays a role in how loud a parrot can be (larger parrots tend to be louder than smaller species), although this is not universally true since Elektra, who is nearly twice the size of Orpheus, cannot hope to match Orpheus for the sheer volume of noise that he can produce.

Another important thing to consider is that some species tend to become "screamers." Some parrot "screamers" are created by their owners who initially reward such vocal misbehavior because they think it is "cute", only later realizing they've created a monster that their family, roommates and neighbors are complaining about. But other parrot species simply tend to be very vocal: they chatter incessantly at or near the top of their voices as a form of communication with the world at large. Bird species that are loud chatterers include some species of conures -- particularly the astonishingly beautiful sun conures -- and most species of cockatoos.

Bad behavior, such as screaming, can be trained out of a companion bird, but it usually requires a dramatic change in the bird's environment (relocation to a new home, usually) or tremendous patience, consistency and effort, which most people don't have after returning home from a long stressful day at work.

One thing that I rarely hear anyone even consider is that some people dislike particular parrot species' natural voices. It might surprise you to learn that parrot species do not sound alike: each species has its own distinct repertorie of sounds that it naturally produces as well as its own particular voice. For example, budgerigars have a soft warbling chatter that I find to be quite pleasant, while cockatiels produce a sharp whistling call that I personally find to be annoying. Many other people who live with cockatiels disagree with me and actually enjoy the sounds that a cockatiel makes.

But nevertheless, regardless of which parrot you are considering, it is important to remember that all parrots will make noise, that a quiet parrot is a seriously ill parrot, so a person who cannot tolerate a noisy pet should not consider living with a parrot.

The next thing to consider about living with a parrot is the mess. Yes, like all pets, kids and roommates, parrots are messy. Even though I don't think that parrots are any messier than cats or dogs, I've noticed that, for some reason, people always complain about their messy parrots. Perhaps it's because parrots typically live in a cage, so people expect that parrots' messes will remain confined to their cages, as if by magic. But these people are conveniently forgetting that parrots enjoy throwing food on the floor and walls, that parrots lose feathers when they moult twice per year, and that some species, especially the cockatoos and African grey parrots, produce a fine powder that they use to properly maintain their plumage -- a fine powder that will settle onto every flat surface in the room. But if a person cleans up after their pet parrot's messes as diligently as those messes made by their other pets or their kids, they will find that parrots are easy to keep clean.

Another little problem with parrots is that they bite. In fact, living with a parrot is like living with a four-year-old child with a pair of pliers mounted on its face. Every parrot owner has been bitten in the past, and will be bitten in the future. It's just a fact of living with a parrot. But one can lessen the frequency of bites by understanding why parrots bite.

Parrots bite under several circumstances; when they are afraid, angry, or when they are protecting something. The most common reason that a parrot bites is due to fear. As a result, parrots tend to bite more often when they first are introduced into a new home or to a new set of circumstances. Parrots will often bite strangers who try to handle them and parrots will even bite their owners if they do something that causes the parrot to be afraid, such as moving quickly or erratically, wearing odd clothing (baseball caps are often mentioned as being a fearsome object for parrots), shouting, throwing things or when arguing with other people.

The way to deal with parrot's fear is to introduce new objects, such as hats, over a period of time, so the bird has a chance to study the object and to become comfortable with it. With regards to human misbehaviors such as shouting or throwing objects when in the same room with a parrot, well, it is best to deal with disagreements in a civilized adult manner for the psychological comfort of your parrot pal as well as that of your human companion.

Like humans, parrots also bite when they are angry. My eclectus parrot, Elektra, frequently delivers a nasty bite when I return her to her cage before she is ready to go there. I deal with this by distracting her with a favored treat and I refrain from handling her altogether if I am in a bad mood.

Parrots, like most birds, are highly territorial. As they mature, they come to view their cage, toys, food bowls and other familiar objects as their special territory and will often wish to protect them from unwanted attention or removal. This is one reason that a person should never clean a bird's cage while it is occupied. Instead, cage (and toy) cleaning is often a good time to remove the bird for a bath of his or her own. Additionally, all parrot cages should have outside access to food and water bowls so the bird can be fed and watered without anyone losing any blood during the process.

This leads me to the dietary considerations necessary to keep a parrot healthy. Many people have never been educated as to proper parrot nutrition and, as a result, their birds can become ill or even die due to malnutrition even though they have a bowl full of food. But as every parrot owner soon discovers, there are as many opinions about how to properly feed a parrot as there are parrot breeders and owners. Despite this potential for confusion, it is useful to remember that wild parrots tend to eat a wide variety of food items, although each species has its own particular niche that it exploits. So putting a parrot into a cage with a bowl of sunflower seeds is not only unhealthy, but is often considered to be a form of abuse. But how does one find out how to feed a parrot properly? You ask other people whose parrots are in good health, and you read widely about parrot behavior and feeding habits.

I hope I am not adding to the general confusion, but after living with parrots for most of my life, it is my personal opinion that parrots should be fed a wide variety of foods, including fresh and frozen fruits, berries and vegetables, pesticide-free flowers, raw nuts, a high-quality pelleted parrot food, a good seed mix, and a variety of "people foods" such as cheese, eggs, lean meat, and bread. Some of these food items provide great joy to the birds when they see them. For example, my parrots scream in delight when they see a watermelon or grapes enter the apartment. Other people's parrots have become especially fond of pizza and spaghetti, and will demand to eat dinner with their human companions.

There are a few food items that, as responsible parrot owners, we should never feed to our birds. We should never feed a diet that is rich in processed foods, nor should we feed foods that are rich in iron, and we should avoid giving them coffee, tea, chocolate, and alcohol.

Another thing to consider before bringing a parrot into your home is the expense. Depending upon the species, a good quality cage that is spacious enough for your parrot often costs as much as, or more than, the parrot. Most people provide parrots with a free-standing playgym or perch for the bird to spend time on each day. These items are also very expensive. In addition to these large items, parrots are intelligent and destructive animals so they need wooden perches, toys and other objects that are safe for them to puzzle over, manipulate or to destroy at their whim. Some birds will destroy a perch or a toy every week, and replacing these items can become a burdensome expense.

Some people prefer a parrot of one sex or the other, erroneously thinking that male parrots prefer women while female parrots prefer men, or because they believe that male parrots make better talkers or that female parrots are more likely to suffer health problems associated with egg-laying.

I live with both sexes of parrots of a variety of species and have found that both my male and female parrots are delightful companions, and that both male and female parrots make good talkers. This is generally true for most parrot species, except for cockatiels, where females almost never talk, and for some cockatoo species, where males tend to talk more frequently than females and to have a bigger repertorie.

I have not encountered any increased health problems in my female parrots when compared to the males. It is true that a female parrot is more prone to experiencing health problems associated with egg-laying, but those health problems rarely occur when the parrot is being provided proper nutrition with an emphasis on adequate calcium, phosphorous and vitamin D3.

Some people cite a parrot's relatively long life as a reason not to keep one as a companion pet, but I disagree. It is true that, if properly fed, housed, and protected from accidents, parrots will live a long life. Depending on species, they will live between 10 years (budgerigars) and 65 years (African grey parrots, Amazon parrots, cockatoos). As a result, unless they are unnecessarily isolated form other people, parrots are more psychologically resilient than most people give them credit for. Some people claim that parrots will not accept a new human companion after their former companion has died or has had to give up the bird, but this is simply not true. Some parrots will experience a period of mourning the loss of their former human companion, but they are social animals and will respond to kindness by forming a bond with their new caretaker. So basically, parrots can and do live happily when moved from one home to another, provided that they are placed into a good home where they are respected and accepted as valued members of the family.

I think I have addressed the major aspects involved with making a decision about whether to get a companion parrot. Tomorrow, I will provide a brief overview of the personalities of most parrot groups and discuss how to decide which of the many different species of parrots available would make a good match for your personality.


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That's a thorough post. But are parrots, or any bird for that matter, the right pet for anyone? There are some who believe that keeping a bird as a pet is a form of cruelty, denying the animal of the environment under which its species has evolved and is accustomed. What are your thoughts on keeping any bird as a pet?

You should not feed humans a diet high in processed foods.

apk; that's an excellent question -- one that i've wrestled with and thought about for most of my life. in fact, that is such a good question that i will write an essay about that tomorrow, instead of how to choose a parrot species that is right for you. thank you.

You hit things right on the nose with the type of call a bird has. I'd rather be in a room full of screaming Moluccans than spend time around a shrieking Nanday. Nandays are like nails on a chalkboard to me.

Territoriality is highly variable, though. I've had birds who are just fine with having their bowls removed from inside or out, I've had birds who aren't. My grey is in the middle-she's fine with it if I give her scritches first, but if I go for the bowls first, watch out. Then of course there's the species variability there. I wouldn't even think to mess with a Quaker's cage while it's inside no matter the personality of the bird.

I've lived with a Maroon-tailed conure/parakeet and a Nanday, and I think one of the best things, but also hardest, is the intensity of relationship they give. I was incredibly lucky to have very social (with other people as well as me) birds, but would hesitate now because I'm not sure I could give a bird nearly enough time. But when I could, they were incredible roommates.

That and there's nothing like waking up to find a parrot standing on your forehead grooming your eyelashes one by one.

Very thorough post. I hope you will write a companion essay, though, on why one would WANT to keep a parrot as a pet. This essay seems mostly to address the drawbacks or considerations. I've never owned a parrot, for example, and I'd like to also know how they are special and endearing as pets.

I have a pacific parrotlet that hasn't been in her cage for a year (she's 2), so I finally put it in storage. She's happy sleeping on the curtain rod. Good apartment bird, not noisy. Is reasonably good about only crapping in 3 different places, so cleanup of the trays put there is easy. Relatively tolerant of others that drop over since she can easily retreat out of reach and observe til she's comfortable. Always has to come and check out everything I'm eating, so I've had to ban chocolate from the home :(. Other than that she makes me very happy.

I would never have a parrot as a pet--not for any particular ethical reasons (I need not get that far in my thinking), but because that "fine powder" you speak. I have always heard it referred to as "parrot dander" (unless I am thinking of something else, in which I defer to your expertise; having spent a few years working with laboratory pigeons, and too many days cleaning out coops, I have a sensitivity to bird dander that finds me coughing up blood the day after I have spent any reasonable time with them.

And I suspect that the devious little buggers would catch on to this quickly, being smart animals, and flutter above me in my sleep...

I had a cockatiel companion throughout college and grad school, and he was very entertaining and cheerful company. He was pretty noisy, however, and even though he could whistle several songs, they would inevitably devolve into high pitched whistling and shrieking. He loved to take showers from a plant mister bottle, and he lived to be about 15 or 16.

Even small parrots can be extremely destructive, though...I guess it's their nature to chew wood and other materials, since many are cavity-nesters. I had to secure all the electrical cords to avoid a horrific accident, since my cockatiel loved to walk around on the floor and pick things out of the carpet or rug, and oh by the way there's some intriguing insulation on that cord that I need to peel off with my beak.... Years later, I'll occasionally pull out an old paperback book, only to have a few downy feathers flutter out from between the pages, or to find the covers perforated by dozens and dozens of tiny beak-punches.

Parrots are social animals and have to be kept in a flock in a large indoor/outdoor aviary if they are truly to be happy. Keeping single wild caught parrot locked in a cage constitutes one of the highest form of cruelty.

The vast majority of parrot species are not suited as household pets in the mould of dogs and rabbits even if they were to be kept in flocks.