By Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian Practice)
Birds are very popular pets, as they are beautiful, entertaining and often long-lived. The most common family of birds kept as pets are parrots, or hookbills, that include tropical and subtropical birds form the order known as Psittaciformes. Parrots include several different species that originate from all over the world. The most commonly kept pet parrots include macaws, budgerigars (or budgies), cockatoos, cockatiels, Amazon parrots, and various species of parakeet.
Before making the decision to take a pet bird home, it’s important to know how long it will live and how to help keep it happy and healthy throughout its life.
How Long Do Pet Parrots Live?
Macaws are large group of parrots from the rainforests of South and Central America made up of 17 different species, including the familiar blue-and-gold, scarlet and green-wing macaws, and the endangered Hyacinth, red-fronted and blue-throated macaws. The largest of the parrots, wild macaws live on average approximately 60 years, depending on species, while their captive counterparts generally live 35 to 50 years. The oldest pet macaw was reported to have lived 112 years.
Budgerigars, also called budgies or parakeets, originate in the grasslands and woodlands of Australia. These well-known, small, typically yellow, blue, green, and white birds may live 5 to 12 years in captivity but unfortunately often do not make it seven years due to improper care and traumatic accidents.
Cockatoos are medium-to-large sized parrots that come from the rainforests of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia. This group includes 21 different species, such as the large white umbrella cockatoo, the salmon-colored Moluccan cockatoo, the slightly smaller sulfur-crested, yellow-crested and citron-crested cockatoos, the vibrant peach, orange, and yellow-colored Major Mitchell’s cockatoo, the striking pink rose-breasted cockatoo, the small Goffin’s and bare-eyed cockatoos, and the rare black palm cockatoo. While these birds have been reported to live over 100 years in captivity, most pet cockatoos live between 40 to 70 years, depending on their care.
Cockatiels, also one of the most common type of pet parrots, are small birds native to Australia. These yellow, gray and white parrots have been inbred to produce a number of different hybrids with varying colors and feather patterns. Pet cockatiels live on average approximately 15 to 25 years in captivity, with the oldest cockatiel reported to be 36 years old.
Amazon parrots are medium-sized parrots from South America to Mexico and the Caribbean. These predominantly green birds include several different species that are distinguished by their different colored head feathers, including the common yellow-naped Amazon, the blue-fronted Amazon and the double yellow-headed Amazon. Amazon parrots live an average of 40 to 70 years in captivity, depending on how they’re cared for.
Finally, parakeets are a group of birds that include several small-to-medium sized parrots, all of which have long tail feathers. This group includes the well-known budgerigar or budgie; the monk (or Quaker) parrot that originates from South America and the rose-ringed parakeet from Africa, Asia, and India. The lifespan of parakeets varies by species, with the budgie living, on average, 5 to 12 years in captivity, the monk parakeet living 15 to 20 years and the ring-necked parakeet living 25 to 30 years.
What Impacts a Bird’s Lifespan?
Regardless of species, the lifespan of pet parrots is strongly influenced by their housing and nutrition. Unfortunately, most kept parrots are inappropriately fed a high-fat, nutrient-deficient, predominantly seed diet that leads to obesity, hyperlipidemia (high blood cholesterol and triglycerides, as in people), atherosclerosis (fat deposits within blood vessels that restrict blood flow and predispose to strokes and heart disease), and kidney failure. Most pet birds are also housed in small cages with little opportunity to exercise, further predisposing them to heart problems and weight gain.
In addition, pet birds typically do not get fresh air as their wild cousins do, making them prone to development of respiratory infections from exposure to aerosolized toxins such as smoke, cleaning products and other chemicals. Furthermore, unlike wild birds, pet birds are often housed indoors, away from direct ultraviolet (UV) sunlight, so they are not able to make the vitamin D in their skin that requires UV light to synthesize; consequently, they cannot properly absorb calcium from their diets, making them subject to development of brittle bones that fracture easily. Finally, pet parrots frequently suffer from deadly traumatic accidents such as flying into windows, mirrors, ceiling fans and hot liquids, and unfortunately, they often fall victim to attack from other potentially predatory pets such as dogs and cats. The combination of inappropriate nutrition, poor ventilation, lack of sunlight and traumatic injuries, plus attacks from other pets, all tend to shorten the lifespan of captive parrots in comparison to that of their wild counterparts.
How to Help Your Bird Live Longer
Parrot owners can help their birds live longer by providing them with a balanced diet of nutritionally complete, commercially available pellets supplemented with fresh fruits and vegetables and limited treats (such as pasta, cooked egg, nuts, bread or low-salt crackers). In warm climates, they can take their birds out in escape-proof cages to expose them to direct sunlight, and when birds are indoors, owners can provide them with artificial sunlight in the form of UV bulbs made for birds that should be shined over the cage for several hours each day. Bird owners should encourage their pets to exercise by taking them out of their cages as often as possible either to fly around in safe, predator-free rooms or at least to flap their wings or to run on the floor.
Parrot owners also should be careful never to smoke or spray aerosols of any kind around their birds and be certain that their cages are in well-ventilated areas, away from cooking fumes, especially odorless, toxic Teflon particles that are released from non-stick pans when they are heated and that can kill a bird within seconds if inhaled. Finally, all birds, regardless of species, should have regular, annual veterinary check-ups, including blood testing to catch illness early and treat it before it becomes life-threatening.
Caring for a Senior Bird
Even with the best care, parrots, like us, will age, and their owners should be sure to make adjustments to their birds’ diets and environments as this happens. Older birds may be more sedentary and may gain weight if they are offered too many treats, so parents of older parrots should consider limiting snacks. Older birds may develop arthritis and cataracts and may not maneuver around their cages as well. Consequently, their owners may need to adjust perch heights and food dish locations to make it easier for birds to rest and eat. Older birds with significant arthritis may not grip well and may need dowel-like perches replaced with flat platforms to make perching more comfortable. Arthritic birds may also occasionally fall off their perches and may need a towel on the cage bottom to protect them from injury.
We want our pets to live as long as possible, and with proper nutrition, the right environment, preventative medical care and adjustments for aging, pet parrots can live long and happy lives. Remember, many of these birds can live for several decades, so before you go out and get one, be prepared, as these amazing feathered creatures might outlive you!
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