Birds Can Make Terrific Companions
By Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Birds of all kinds are increasingly popular as pets. Statistics from a survey completed by the American Pet Products Association in 2011 show that Americans own 16.2 million pet birds.
Birds can make wonderful companions, but they aren’t for everyone. Many birds – especially the larger ones – can live for dozens of years, can be very loud, and may be quite messy. In addition, certain birds, such as cockatoos, require a great deal of time out of their cages or they will pick their feathers and scream.
Before getting a bird, a potential new owner should be sure to thoroughly research the bird’s needs, including requirements for housing, nutrition, and attention. As with other pets, like dogs and cats, these animals also require new pet examinations and annual, preventive veterinary care. If you’ve done your research, and you’re sure you want a pet bird, here are eight popular species of birds for you to consider.
Full of personality and easy to handle, cockatiels are great first birds for families with children. They make great companions that can talk and sing, and well socialized cockatiels definitely recognize and respond interactively to their owners.
A healthy cockatiel can live 20 or more years. They require a medium-sized cage, about 24” x 24” x 24”, lined with newspaper and containing a variety of perches, at least two feeding dishes (one for dry food and the other for moist food), and a water cup. They need fresh water and food every day, including commercially manufactured pelleted bird food and a small amount of fresh produce. They also need time out of their cages daily for an hour or more to be well socialized, and they should have daily exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light (either from direct sunlight, unfiltered by a window, or from a UV lamp indoors) to ensure their bodies manufacture adequate vitamin D.
Cockatiels can live happily alone and don’t require cage-mates, as long as they get daily attention from their humans and are provided with mental stimulation in the form of toys and a TV or radio. They are generally hardy birds that most commonly require veterinary care because the females are prolific egg layers, even without the presence of a male, and can have difficulty laying eggs if they don’t consume adequate dietary calcium or if their bodies don’t produce enough vitamin D.
Read more about Cockatiels.
Budgies, or parakeets, as they are commonly called, also make terrific birds for families, as they are small and easy for tiny hands to handle.
Budgies have an average lifespan of 5-13 years. They should be provided with a newspaper-lined cage that measures, at minimum, 24” x 18” x 18”, with several perches, food bowls, and a water dish. They enjoy playing with toys, such as bells, which can also be included with the cage furnishings.
They require fresh water, a pelleted bird food, and a small amount of fresh produce every day. They particularly love to snack on millet as an occasional treat. They also need exposure to direct sunlight that is unfiltered by glass, either from outside or from an indoor ultraviolet bulb, to ensure they make essential vitamin D in their skin.
Many budgies will enjoy the company of other budgies, but they can thrive alone as well, as long they are given daily attention. To be socialized properly, they should be taken out of their cages daily; most love to hang out with their human families at meal time or to watch TV. They can be quite entertaining in their own right, making sounds that include whistles and chirps, and some can be taught to repeat words. Available in many different colors, from blue to yellow to green to white, budgies make a great addition to any family.
Read more about Budgerigars.
African Grey Parrots
Perhaps the smartest of all parrots, African greys are the best talkers and make great pets for people who have a good deal of time every day to spend with their bird. These parrots need to be out of their cages interacting with their human families for several hours daily, or they notoriously pick their feathers and develop other behavioral problems. They commonly bond to one family member.
African greys can live more than 40 years. They require large cages with a minimum size of 24” x 36” x 48”, with food bowls, a water dish, and numerous toys to chew on and play with. Given their intellect (akin to that of a 4-5-year-old child), they need a great deal of mental stimulation, such as toys with levers or puzzles and other games.
They generally do not like to share their cages with other birds and usually do well as solo birds in a household, as long as they get adequate daily attention. They love to hang out with their human “flock-mates” during meals and often love to steal bites of their caretakers’ food. African greys are amazing pets for adults or teenagers who have the time to spend with them. Given their large beaks and love for crunching hard objects like nuts and wood, African greys are not the best pets for families with young children, who might like to share their treats with the family pet; tiny fingers can be easily bitten and injured.
Before getting an African grey as a pet, be sure to consider carefully the long-term commitment and responsibility that having such an intelligent, social, long-lived animal entails.
Also known as monk parrots, Quakers have become extremely popular pets over the past few years. With big personalities in small bodies not much larger than that of a cockatiel, these birds are energetic, playful, very affectionate, and can learn to speak many words. Quakers make great pets for families with kids or for anyone who has an hour or two daily to interact and play with a bird outside its cage.
Their name comes from their characteristic shaking and bobbing behavior that looks odd but that is unique to their species. Their feathers are typically green and gray but may also be found less commonly in blue or yellow-green with gray. Quakers can be quite loud and love to chew on things, such as paper, cardboard, or soft wood. They also love playing with interactive toys.
Quakers have an average life span of 15-20 years. They need a medium-sized cage of about 24” x 24” x 24”, with newspaper on the bottom, perches, feeding dishes for both dry and moist food, and a water cup. They should be fed fresh water, a commercially manufactured pelleted bird food, and a small amount of fresh fruit and vegetables every day. They also should be exposed every day to ultraviolet (UV) light, either directly from unfiltered sunlight or from a UV lamp indoors, to ensure that they are making vitamin D in their skin.
While they can thrive alone in a cage when given adequate attention and mental stimulation, many Quakers enjoy the company of other birds, and they generally do well when raised in pairs. If their social needs are ignored, they frequently get bored and start to feather pick. They also are prone to obesity and to developing fatty liver disease if fed a high fat diet, such as all seeds and nuts. Fatty liver disease is a preventable condition that can be fatal if left untreated but that is potentially reversible with exercise and a balanced diet.
Known to be the clowns of the parrot world, caiques are great for families with elementary school-age and older kids, or for anyone who wants a medium-sized parrot with a huge amount of energy. These heavy-set, brightly-colored birds with orange, green, white, and black feathers love to hang upside down, roll on their backs, and perform tricks. While caiques don’t typically learn to speak, they can be quite stubborn and will convey their opinions with body language and constant activity. They are very mischievous and interactive and love to spend time outside their cages hanging out with their human “flock-mates.”
They are generally a hardy species that when cared for properly can live 20-30 years. Though not very large, caiques have powerful beaks that can chew through cages; thus, they should be housed in as solid and large a cage as possible — no smaller than 24” x 36”x 48” — with plenty of toys to interact and keep busy with. They should be housed individually and monitored when outside their cages, especially when they are around other birds, as their mischievous nature can get them into trouble; they are known to be aggressive toward other birds. They should be fed fresh water, a commercially manufactured pelleted food, and a small amount of fresh produce daily.
Likely the loudest of the small birds, with a screech-like squawk, these birds are generally curious, self-assured, and very active. Conures are social, outgoing, love to be around and literally on people constantly, and make great pets for people who don’t mind loud sounds and constant movement. They usually speak only a few words, but they love to mimic their owners’ behavior, and they enjoy dancing and hiding in clothing or in other objects. Depending on the species, conures come in a variety of vibrant colors, with mixtures of red, yellow, orange, green, and blue.
On average, conures live 20-30 years. They need a cage that is a minimum of 36” x 24” x 24”, with several perches, food bowls, a water dish, and several interactive toys on which to chew. Many of them love to bath in their water dishes or in the shower with their owners. They should also be exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light, either directly from the sun outside or indoors from a UV bulb, to ensure their bodies are making essential vitamin D. Conures should be fed a staple diet of commercially manufactured pellets supplemented daily with small amounts of fruits and vegetables. They are generally a hardy species, but they are prone to feather picking when not given enough mental stimulation or interaction outside the cage.
Depending on their species, these adorable little birds are available in a variety of patterns and colors, from owl finches that truly look like little owls, to Gouldian finches that have vibrant, rainbow-like colors, to zebra finches that have black and white stripes. Finches are more to be watched than handled; thus, they are great for people who are satisfied with observing birds rather than handling them. Unlike screeching parrots, finches are songbirds (of the passerine family) that make short, frequent, relatively quiet peeping sounds; therefore, finches can be great for noise-sensitive individuals or those with close neighbors.
Finches live, on average, 5-10 years, and do best when housed in pairs or small groups as long as the cage is large enough. They are very social, love to build nests, and are prolific egg layers, so expect to have more than just two if you get a pair. They need to be housed in large, horizontally oriented cages with sufficient room for flying and for numerous perches, food bowls, and water dishes. They typically don’t play with toys, preferring to spend time gathering shredded paper and small sticks to build nests. They should be fed fresh water daily, along with a commercially manufactured pelleted food made for finches, small amounts of finely minced produce, a limited amount of seed, and occasional chopped hard boiled eggs with crushed egg shells (a source of calcium for breeding).
When stressed or overcrowded, finches may develop respiratory tract mites that make it hard for them to breathe, or scaly face and leg mites that cause dry, scaly crusts to form on their face and feet. Both conditions can be treated successfully by a veterinarian when caught early.
If you are looking for a bird to watch and listen to, rather than to cuddle with, a canary is the bird for you. Available in different colors depending on species, canaries can be yellow, orange, red, white, and with a variety of feather patterns.
As members of the passerine (songbird) family, canaries are known for their beautiful, operatic songs —specifically the males after six months of age. They are bred to produce specific songs, in fact, such as the American singer, the German roller, and others. As males sing to compete for females during breeding season (typically the springtime, in response to light cycle changes), canaries can be quite territorial and should be caged individually or they may fight. A male does not need to be in sight of a female to sing and may even sing more actively when housed in a cage nearby another male.
When cared for properly, canaries can live 5-10 years. They should be fed fresh water daily, with a commercially manufactured pelleted food for canaries, a small amount of finely minced produce, and a limited amount of seed. If stressed by malnourishment or overcrowding, canaries may develop both respiratory tract mites, which causes breathing difficulty, and scaly face and leg mites, which causes crusty skin on the feet and face. They should see a veterinarian for treatment if any of these signs are noted.