What Makes Parrots Good Pets?

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Orpheus, preening his feathers.

Hawk-headed (red fan) parrot, Deroptyus accipitrinus accipitrinus
(if you look closely, you can see a pale bare spot where the feathers that cover his ear are located).

Image: GrrlScientist 2008 [larger view].

In honor of National Pet Week, and in response to one of my readers, I am writing a little about what makes a parrot a good pet, because I wrote an essay about some of the drawbacks of living with a parrot.

So please keep in mind that describing why a parrot makes a good pet is much like describing why you have fallen in love with a particular person; you can point out your lover's good qualities to justify your affections, all the while realizing that other people share many of those same good qualities. So this is merely a list of reasons that parrots make good pets, when in fact, the underlying fact remains that there is a particular "magic" or "chemistry" that draws us to appreciate particular types of pets much as we are drawn to particular people.

First of all, parrots are very intelligent. Not only do most of them learn how to manipulate objects such as locks, latches, light switches, drawers and other objects, but they also are interesting; they naturally have a three dimensional way of thinking about the world, unlike humans and our mammalian pets. For example, my adult eclectus parrot, Elektra, loves puzzle toys that require her to manipulate the toy in three dimensions and to carefully observe the results when she does so, so she can earn a treat. It may take her a few days to figure out a particular puzzle toy, but she will eventually learn how to manipulate it to earn her reward (either a peanut in-shell or a shelled raw almond).

But not all parrots are as persistent and thoughtful as Elektra. Orpheus, my young hawk-headed parrot, loves to manipulate objects, but he is more straighforward, preferring a reward without having to wait too long for it. Surprisingly, Orpheus does not like peanuts, so this might be part of the problem. I suspect he will work harder for a treat that he is very fond of. Perhaps a grape would be more suitable? Or pine nuts?

I suppose this should go without saying, but another aspect that many people enjoy about parrots is their ability to mimic human speech and other sounds, such as ringing telephones, microwave timers, squeeky furniture, laughter, video games, television shows, and a huge variety of other sounds that they are exposed to. This ability amuses most people, who are only too eager to encourage this behavior on their parrots. Of course, this ability can work both ways, since some people absolutely demand that their parrots learn to talk and are unhappy otherwise, despite the fact that most parrots never learn to talk, or if they do, are rarely motivated to talk. So one should always be aware that talking ability is unusual among parrots, that mimicking human speech is a rare gift, and should not be the only eason that one chooses a parrot for a companion in the first place. Ironically, all my parrots mimic human speech even though I personally do not care if my birds ever talk.

Parrots are very social animals, and forming a social bond with a parrot means that you have become a member of the flock. For some people who live alone, as I do, this sociality is very compelling. In fact, I find that living with a parrot is like living with other people; are separate but equal, with our own opinions and thoughts, and our own reasons for doing the things we do, yet we still actively seek out and enjoy each other's company. For example, I personally enjoy watching DVDs with my parrots in the evenings and allowing them to fly around my apartment in the mornings while I shower and prepare their meals. I think they also enjoy all these interactions since they will actively seek me out by flying across the room and landing on my head if I do not include them in the fun.

One quality that parrots have that is especially interesting to me is the fact that they perceive the world similarly to humans. Mammalian pets such as cats, dogs, hamsters and rabbits, rely on scent and, to a lesser extent, vision, to perceive and interact with the world. Birds, on the other hand, have a poor sense of smell, but are primarily auditory and visual animals, just as humans are, and in fact, their senses are keener than humans'. So birds will never charge up to the door to sniff your boss's crotch when you welcome him to your fancy dinner party, for example.

Those few minor differences between the way that humans and birds perceive the world become a source of tremendous fascination, at least for me. For example, birds are very keen observers of human body language and they tend to know when a human is upset, in pain or angry before their human companion is aware of their own feelings. Further, most birds, including parrots, are thought to be able to see UV light, which would affect their perceptions of their invironment in all sorts of ways that we have not considered before, and cannot really imagine, either.

I know that some people prefer a pet with a short life span. If that is the case, then a parrot is not the pet for you, because parrots will live a long time, provided that they receive high quality care. Since I think of my parrots as life long companions and family members, I am not eager to experience their deaths, at least not while I am still young, as I did with all of my other pets. Since parrots do live for such a long time, one can really build a strong relationship with their parrot, and can learn so many interesting things about this unusual companion.

And one thing that I especially appreciate about parrots is the fact that they do not have fleas! Nor do they leave hair on your clothes and furniture nor hairballs on your floors. Yes, parrots do lose feathers when they moult, but they moult only twice or thrice per year while dogs and cats shed hair constantly. Not only that, but feathers are easily swept up, unlike animal hair, which requires a vaccuum or a mop (followed by lots of drain cleaner) to properly deal with.

So those are a few of the reasons that I think parrots make good pets. Why are your parrots good pets for you?

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they do not have fleas! Nor do they leave hair on your clothes

Yeah but what about pooping on things?

Do your parrots peel grapes? I saw a friend's cockatiel do that....

By David Harmon (not verified) on 06 May 2008 #permalink

Actually, our 21-year-old African Grey is a pretty typical parrot in being loud, demanding, and destructive, but we consider her a member of our family rather than a pet. Jesse's most endearing qualities are her brilliant mind, creativity, and sense of humor, expressed through her huge vocabulary of words and sounds. We never know what she's going to come up with next. When my husband goes to bed before the bird and I do, she'll usually ask, "Daddy go bed?" The other night he was away, and at bedtime she asked, "Daddy go out?" Her latest catchphrase is "Don't poop on the cat, sweet kisses."

Your comments on the relative rarity of parrots mimicking human speech got me wondering if parrots who live with people who acquired them primarily for the novelty of a talking bird are less likely to talk because they're not treated as part of the family?

And where do you get really challenging bird toys? The average bird puzzle is waaaay too simple for a brainy parrot like Jesse.

I, too, am wondering about what Sheri said about "Your comments on the relative rarity of parrots mimicking human speech got me wondering if parrots who live with people who acquired them primarily for the novelty of a talking bird are less likely to talk because they're not treated as part of the family?" I know we all like to say it's rare so that people won't just buy them for the talking, but anecdotally, it seems some talking ability is more common than not. Whether that talking is comprehensible is another question altogether, of course. ;) In the nearly four years I had my citron cockatoo, I only ever understood three phrases, though she talked on a fairly frequent basis. Interestingly, I've found it much easier to understand my grey than any other bird I've been around. It's probably since I've had her since she weaned, but it's still pretty amazing that I do understand her since she makes up her own funny voices and rarely mimics our voices with any skill at all.

The why they're such great pets is hard to put forth in words. It's not just their great personalities, since certainly most typical pets are capable of having interesting, unique personalities. Their intelligence certainly has a factor-it's so interesting to say something to my grey. There's no telling whether she understands what we're saying or not, especially as she's only two and a half, but she quite obviously /thinks/ about it whether it makes sense to her or not. I also admit to getting something of a thrill from such close, personal interaction with what is essentially a wild animal. I have a 30 year old Amazon (so almost certainly he's wild caught) who will come over to see me and give me kisses without asking. It's one thing for a domesticated animal to like you, they've been bred to do so, but for most of the parrots, it's something altogether different.

Maybe that's some of it, too. Parrots, generally speaking, make a conscious decision to have a relationship with a person in a way that other animals can't, and have done so for probably thousands of years. While hunting them has always been a problem, there have also always been cases where they've chosen to be friends with humans. The strangest part of the whole thing with the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill is that they were able to adapt to the environment, not that Mark was able to form relationships with so many of the flock.

You are such an excellent writer, G/S. I am so enjoying your new series on pets.

By biosparite (not verified) on 07 May 2008 #permalink

"Don't poop on the cat, sweet kisses."

ROFL =gasp= MAO =snort= Gimme some =wheeze= oxygen! I'm turning =choke= blue!!!!!!!eleventyeleven!!!!!11!

By themadlolscientist (not verified) on 07 May 2008 #permalink