Introduction: For millions of people around the world, bird ownership is truly one of the great joys of their lives. Birds have been kept as pets by royalty for thousands of years, but only fairly recently have such an astounding array of birds been available to the general public. Today birds are more popular than ever, and likely to only continue to increase as the pet of choice for more and more people. Some birds should not be kept as pets. These include species that are so rare that every available individual should be in a breeding program. Raptors, including eagles, hawks and owls, do not make good pets and should not be kept encaged. An exception to this rule is falcons, which should only be kept by experienced bird handlers. Most types of native American birds such as robins, sparrows, mockingbirds, woodpeckers and most aquatic and shore birds fare very poorly in captivity.
No one should want to keep a bird unsuitable for captive-living when there are so many types that readily adapt to human companionship. There are literally hundreds of species of birds, ranging from some of the tiniest to some of the biggest, that thrive as pets and contribute greatly to a mutually beneficial relationship... if matched with the right owner.
WHY A BIRD?: Some people are just not animal people, period. Yet even many dog and cat lovers entirely fail to see why anyone in their right mind would bring a noisy, messy bird into their home. What these people do not understand is the entirely different type of magic that pet birds bring to a relationship with humans. Researchers have recently confirmed what bird-owners have long known: that certain birds, parrots especially, are among the smartest creatures on Earth... some perhaps far more intelligent than dogs or cats. Yet no bird is truly domesticated. Aside from some color mutations and the occasional hybrid, most have not been tampered with by human genetic folly. Pet birds are among the rarest of wild animals in that they can potentially become loving members of a human family.
And what animals they are! Stunningly beautiful. Amazingly clever and amusing. Singers of the highest order. And a certain group are even the only animals capable of human speech. Many birds put to shame other pets in terms of entertainment potential, loyalty and absolute devotion to their human flockmates. It is no wonder that keepers around the world are enchanted by these little bundles of wonder.
WHAT TO CONSIDER: With hundreds of birds to choose from, how is the first-time bird owner ever to make a decision? There are six main considerations that may greatly narrow the field.
The first and most important consideration is your Expectation. What do you expect out of a bird? What is your motivation for buying a bird? How is it going to improve your life, and how committed are you to taking good care of the bird? If you possess the time, energy and love to give to a fascinating companion and are truly interested in the magic that birds can bring to your life, then you are probably a good candidate for bird ownership.
Otherwise, beware! Many birds require far more attention and care than some prospective owners at first realize. Please don’t buy a bird (or any animal) on a whim or as some sort of ego-extension. They are not decoration pieces. The thrill wears off and you are stuck with the pet — and worse, the pet is stuck with you! Moreover, many bird species are extremely long-lived. In acquiring certain parrot species, you are entering into not a 10-20 year commitment, but possibly a 50-year plus commitment!
The second thing to consider is your Living Conditions. If you live in an apartment, with other people, with children or with other pets (including other birds), you will need to carefully consider how a bird is going to affect your total situation. Are you home enough to care for a pet that needs such attention? Are you prepared to deal with the mess that many birds make? Do you travel often? Some birds may not be compatible with your style of living.
The third consideration is your own Personality. Some birds are quiet, unobtrusive and hardly noticeable as household entities. But others are loud, boisterous, rowdy and rule a home as if they are lords of the manor. Most birds require lots of love and patience in order to gently win their confidence and teach them be good family members. Some birds will end up dominating a very unhappy owner. Get a bird that is not going to clash with your essential nature.
Your fourth consideration is the Source of your bird. From where and whom are you buying your pet? Try to buy directly from a breeder, or at least from a pet shop that specializes in birds. Look carefully at how the birds are housed and handled, and be wary of dirty places and handlers who don’t show their birds respect and love. Inspect the bird physically, and look for one that has clear eyes and nostrils, nice shiny feathers, an alert expression, no noticeable defects and one that is not overly aggressive or seems desperate to flee. Always insist on a guarantee that you can take the bird to your veterinarian for a complete health checkup and return it for a full refund if it is diseased or otherwise seriously flawed.
Try to buy a very young hand-fed bird, preferably a just-weaned youngster. Do not take on the responsibility of hand-feeding yourself unless you are very experienced. An inexperienced hand-feeder can easily kill the bird. Be wary of taking on an older bird, and don’t buy a bird you suspect was wild-caught or imported; these do not make the best pets.
You must also carefully consider the Financial Investment you are making in this pet. Not just the initial purchase, which, of course, can be very significant, but also the on-going cost of proper pet care — cage, toys, food, inevitable vet bills, pet-sitting, etc. All of this can add up to a considerable continuing expense. It’s only worth it, of course, if you are in love with this pet.
One word of caution: DO NOT look for “a bargain” when buying your bird. Comparison shop, yes, but beware of the “too-good-to-be-true” price. That “bargain” will likely cost you dearly in the long run.
Finally, it is important to note the growing concern amongst the bird-keeping community for the welfare of “only birds”. Almost all pet-quality birds are species that are “flock birds,” living in large social groups in the wild. It can be cruel to keep them as solitary avian members of a family which can spend only a few hours per day truly interacting with them, while leaving them alone for hours upon hours, day after day. So if you want to be a bird-keeper, please make plans to have more than one.
Probably more than any other type of pet, birds — especially many parrots — get passed from owner to owner. This is a great shame, can psychologically damage the bird, and could be easily avoided if each prospective owner simply used a little common sense before taking on such a responsibility.
That said, however, if you find yourself with a bird that you cannot care for, cannot handle, or plain just don’t like... it then becomes your grave responsibility to atone for your mistake by finding the bird a more suitable owner. In an unhappy living environment, a bird can literally “go crazy” of boredom, loneliness or abuse. These birds are prime candidates for such neuroses as feather plucking and/or constant screaming.
Unfortunately, birds are like most pets... they cannot choose their human companions. Humans choose them. The least we can do is choose very carefully. Whatever you do, read as much as you can about the type of bird that you are thinking of acquiring. Talk to people who own — or better yet breed and raise — your kind of bird. Then prepare to be enchanted by your brand new family member. There is nothing like a pet bird!
COMMON PET BIRDS: The following short descriptions are meant solely as introductory, general information. Keep in mind that individual birds of the same species can greatly differ in personality. Also, this is only a partial list of some common species that can make excellent pets; other species may also warrant consideration. Thoroughly research a variety of compatible species before making any decisions.
Code Keys: A = generally OK in an apartment; C = generally OK with children; E = best left to experienced handlers; F = good first bird; $ = less than $100; $$ = $100-300; $$$ = $300-800; $$$$ = $800 and up.
AMAZON PARROTS - Medium large parrots from Mexico, Central and South America. Most are mainly green with various coloring on the head and underwings. There are many different types, with a variety of personalities. Very popular among more experienced bird keepers. Some are great talkers. Sometimes loud. Require extensive attention. Can be very affectionate. Many species are among smartest of all birds, but some can be temperamental and aggressive. Lilac-crowned, Orange-winged among types regarded as more gentle. Commonly available: Blue-fronted, Green-cheeked, Orange-winged, Red-headed, Red-lored, Spectacled (White-fronted), Yellow-headed, Yellow-nape. E, $$$-$$$$.
BROTOGERIS PARAKEETS - This lively group of small parrots from South America is comprised of a handful of birds sometimes referred to as “dwarf” parrots. Mainly green with variously colored and placed adornments, these little guys can make great pets and some can even talk a bit. For a long while the Bee Bee (also known as the Tovi and Orange-chinned) Parakeet was the most popular of this genus in the pet market. These days the Grey-cheeked (or Orange-winged) has won wider acceptance as far as American breeders are concerned. Also sometimes available are the Tui, Golden-winged, Canary-winged, Cobalt-winged and White-winged. A, C, F, $$-$$.
BUDGERIGARS - “Budgies”, mistakenly called “parakeets” (any smallish parrot with a long tail is technically a “parakeet”) in the U.S., are little gems native to Australia. Perhaps the most popular pet bird of all, budgies are members of the parrot family and come in a dazzling array of humanly-manipulated colors (in the wild they are usually green). If acquired young and handled carefully they can become very affectionate. They are an ideal first bird and can live comfortably in an apartment. They can learn to talk well; one famous budgie had a vocabulary of over 500 words. Soft, sweet voices. Once you have your first budgie tamed and trained, consider getting another one as a playmate. A, C, F, $.
CAIQUES - Pronounced “ca-yeeks” or sometimes just “kikes”, these medium-small parrots hail from South America. There are two common species which have slightly different coloration but are generally identical in personality. Lively, charming and playful, but some can be stubborn, nippy, even aggressive, while others become very tame and friendly. Almost all require disciplined handling. Loud. Voracious chewers. Not common in pet stores, but can be easily ordered from breeders: Black-headed, White-breasted (White-bellied). E, $$-$$$.
CANARIES - An established champion of the pet bird world, the beloved canary from the Canary Islands and West Africa has been enjoyed for its color and song for hundreds of years. Canaries don’t typically bond with humans or become affectionate, although there are some exceptions. The joy of canary ownership stems from their lively and beautiful presence as a visual and auditory enhancement to your quality of life. Many different colorations available. A perfect first bird, bird for children and species for beginner breeders as well. Yes, it’s true that only solitary males will sing... they are singing a song of desperate loneliness. Get two! A, C, F, $.
COCKATIELS - Another all-time favorite, this Australian native of the parrot family is sometimes regarded as a “step up” from the smaller finches, canaries and budgies. Though its colors are more muted that many other pet species, its popularity stems from its lively personality. A member of the cockatoo family, the much smaller cockatiel resembles its larger cousins in affection potential but displays few of the less desirable personality quirks of many cockatoos. With diligent handling, a young bird should become exceptionally tame and friendly. Sweet, relatively quiet voices. A range of different color varieties are generally available, with some of the more rare types comparatively expensive. Perfect for apartments and households with kids. A, C, F, $.
COCKATOOS - Surely among the most exotic of pet birds, the cockatoo is also one of the most intelligent and personable. These medium to large, crested birds from Australia and South Pacific islands have charmed many generations of pet owners with their nutty antics. Yet this complex bird requires diligent handling and care, and fully expects to be treated as a member of the family. Cockatoos are one of the few types of parrot that can develop into a too affectionate bird, wanting to be cuddled all the time. There are numerous species generally available. Most are predominantly white, though the Rose-breasted Cockatoo is mainly grey and pink, while some of the larger, even more exotic and rare cockatoos, such as the Palm, are black. Cockatoos are sometimes strong-willed, can be downright quirky and may grow even more head-strong as they get older. Those completely inexperienced with birds should opt for a cockatiel. Very loud. Big-time chewers. Not always good with other birds or pets. Some are decent talkers. Commonly available species: Umbrella, Goffin’s, Moluccan, Citron, Lesser Sulpher-crested, Greater Sulpher-crested, Triton, Rose-breasted, Blue-eyed, Bare-eyed. E, $$$-$$$$.
CONURES - Sometimes referred to as the “champions of charm” this huge group of Mexican, Central and South American parrots, most of them medium-small in size, has exploded into popularity over the past two decades. A few offer dazzling color schemes, yet even the most blandly adorned are playful little clowns that can make ideal, affectionate pets. These birds are small enough and gentle enough (when acquired young and hand-fed) that they could be considered as a first bird by the more serious keeper. Most of the larger conures, however, have fairly loud screeches that might render them unsuitable as apartment dwellers (although this oft-cited “drawback” is sometimes grossly overstated — many pet conures rarely turn it up to volume 10, and aren’t even in the same league with cockatoos and macaws in loudness). Most conures get along well with birds of other species. Among the highly recommended and generally available pet species are: Sun, Jenday, Gold-capped, Peach-fronted, Red-fronted, Green, Red-Masked, Mitred, White-eyed, Nanday, Blue-crowned, Halfmoon, Dusky, Cactus, Lesser Patagonian. F, C, $-$$$. Smaller, generally quieter species: Maroon-bellied, Green-cheeked. A, F, C, $-$$.
DOVES- Various types of doves from America, Mexico and even Europe are available for sale as pets. Like their more domesticated cousin, the pigeon, doves are not known for their astounding personality or affection, yet in an aviary setting they can add beauty and elegance to a backyard setting. These birds should be kept in colonies in a large aviary, certainly not as an individual prisoner in a small cage. Good bird for kids and beginning breeders. Many species to select from. F, C, $.
ECLECTUS PARROTS - This very striking, medium large bird from Australia, Indonesia and various South Pacific islands is like few other parrots. The males and females of many parrots are impossible to distinguish, yet the two genders of Eclectus were once thought to be entirely different species! The male is an emerald green with patches of blazing reds and yellows; the female is a deep red, shading to maroon along the back and tending to mauve in places, usually with a blue bib. The male has a horn-colored upper beak, while the female’s is black. Both sexes have unique, fine feathers. If hand-raised and handled regularly “Eckers” can make excellent pets, and despite their size can often be trusted around children though this bird is probably best with more experienced bird-owners. Good talkers. Fairly quiet. Four main species, all very similar, are generally available. E, C, $$$$.
FINCHES - The beautiful, tiny finch from Australia, Africa and other exotic locales has been a beloved pet bird for hundreds of years. Though they are usually not particularly affectionate toward humans, they can thrive in a home setting either in pairs or as a multicolored aviary colony. They should never be kept as single individuals... and please don’t set them up in those tiny little cages. Many serious fanciers set them up in spacious aviaries and revel in their constant flittering and soft chattering, often being rewarded with babies. A seemingly unending array of species and color schemes are available, ranging from a few dollars to a cost-per-ounce price rivaling the most expensive parrots. Perfect for first-timers, children and would-be breeders. A, C, F, $.
GRASS PARAKEETS - Stunningly beautiful, these relatively small parrots from Australia are not particularly common as pets in the U.S, but perhaps they should be. They are quiet, with sweet voices, and generally have a non-aggressive temperament, though they can be a bit flighty. Most, but not all, can be kept with other birds. If hand-fed and handled very regularly they can make good pets. Many different species and colorations are available from breeders. The most common species: Bourke’s, Turquoisine, Scarlet-chested, Orange-bellied, Blue-winged, Red-rumped, Bluebonnet, and similar birds: Princess of Wales, Barraband’s, Rock Pebblar. A, C, $$-$$$.
GREY PARROTS - The acknowledged champion of talking parrots, this native of Africa is known the world over for its intelligence and personality. It is a medium large bird, with primarily grey-streaked plummage and a red tail. Popular among experienced keepers, the Grey can become a “one-person” bird, temperamental or aggressive. Some have a tendency to feather-pick. Its complex personality requires a lot of attention. Not usually very loud. Two species commonly available, the Congo and Timneh, similar in general appearance but differing in size and price. E, $$$-$$$$.
LORIES/LORIKEETS - This group includes some of the most beautiful birds in the world, and perhaps the most playful. Yet they were not popular as pets in the past because they primarily feed on nectar, which when it comes out the other end is messy liquid waste. Now, however, dry lory food is commercially available, making these wonderful birds a potential pet choice for many more people. They are certain to grow rapidly in popularity. They are medium-small parrots, mostly from Australia and South Pacific islands. Most are very intelligent, curious and fairly high-strung, so they will need discipline from a confident owner. However, their acrobatic antics are a sight to see, and hand-reared individuals can become very tame and affectionate. Typically not good with other birds of a different species. Commonly available: Red (Moluccan), Red & Blue, Black-capped, Black, Chattering, “Rainbow” (several species), Dusky, Goldie’s, Blue-streaked, Yellow-streaked, Duyvenbode’s, Violet-necked. E, $$-$$$.
LOVEBIRDS - These adorable, colorful little parrots from Africa are extremely affectionate and playful — with each other. Naturally pugnacious, they are somewhat harder to tame down unless a single bird is acquired very young and handled regularly. However, once tame they can make wonderful little companions, with even more engaging personalities than cockatiels. Even untame, they can make a great addition to the household as a pair to simply watch and admire as they go about the business of being lovebirds. Great species for beginning breeders. Sweet voices with a surprising range of sounds. Four or five species and a variety of different color schemes are commonly available: Peach-face, Black-mask, Blue-mask, Fischer’s. A, C, F, $.
MACAWS - The largest of the parrots, some with a wingspan of four feet, macaws can make the pet of a lifetime... figuratively and literally. With a life expectancy in captivity of 60 years or more, this bird (and many other types of parrots) may well outlive you. Its size and dazzling color certainly impress (and this is the bird that is most often acquired as an “ego-extension”), but this is not a pet to acquire without great consideration. Befitting their size, macaws require a great deal of care and handling. Hand-fed babies make very affectionate pets, are very intelligent, active and demand your attention almost as much as two-year old child. Like Amazons and Cockatoos, their personality sometimes turns more cantankerous as they age. Although many individuals are gentle as lambs, the sheer power in those beaks makes them generally ill-suited for households with children. They can usually hold their own in homes with dogs, but probably should not be kept with significantly smaller birds. Very loud. Major-league chewers. All need a very large cage, and should not be left in their cage all day. Several varieties of mini-macaws are available and would probably make better pets for the less experienced owner. Large: Blue and Gold (Blue and Yellow), Scarlet, Green-winged, Military, Hyacinth. E, $$$$. Mini: Red-fronted, Severe, Illiger’s, Hahn’s, Yellow-collared, Noble. $$$-$$$$.
MYNAHS - Natives of Southeast Asia and Indonsia, Mynahs were once more popular than they are today, having been largely pre-empted in the pet bird market by the huge influx of imported parrots in the 1960s and ‘70s. Mynahs can be sensational talkers, capable of mimicking voices and sounds exactly. Some individuals can become quite tame and friendly. Yet they are not typically as “cuddly” or as personable as many parrot-types, nor as colorful, thus their diminished popularity. Several species available, some quite pricey. A, C, F $$-$$$.
PARAKEETS (see Budgerigar)
PARROTLETS - Also known as “pocket” parrots, these little bundles of joy from Mexico, Central and South America are among the smallest members of the parrot family. Sometimes referred to as America’s answer to the African lovebird, they are not quite as colorful as lovebirds, instead sporting a comparatively unpretentious but pretty green and blue color scheme. When acquired young they tame down very nicely and have engaging personalities much larger than their size would suggest. These are great for the beginning breeder as well. Several different species are available: Mexican, Pacific (Celestial) being the most common. A, C, F, $-$$.
PIGEONS - Pigeons, common denizen of parks and building facades, are kept as entertaining and faithfully dependable “pets” by legions of admirers across the country. Pigeons don’t possess the engaging companion quality of the parrot-type birds, and are usually kept in colonies in outside aviaries. A single pigeon kept encaged indoors would most certainly be a pathetic sight. Raising and caring for pigeons can be a very valuable project for youngsters, as well as for the serious hobbyist. F, C, $.
PIONUS PARROTS - The unassuming Pionus parrots of South America are quickly gaining popularity as pets in the U.S. Medium-sized, with gentle dispositions, these are not the most impressive parrots visually at first, but they deserve a closer look as both physical specimens and potential pets. In the sun their colors shimmer, revealing dimensions hidden in the shadows. Similarly, these outstanding birds could just be your discovered treasure. Five species are commonly available. The Blue-headed is perhaps the most common, followed by the Maximilian’s, White-capped, Dusky and Bronze-winged. This is one of the few types of medium-sized parrot that, with proper care and attention, could make a good first bird. Probably OK with a supervised or well-disciplined child. Relatively quiet; not as demanding as Amazons, Macaws or even Conures. A, C, F, $$$.
POICEPHALUS PARROTS - This group of medium-small parrots from Africa has enjoyed surging popularity in the past decade. They sport distinctive color patterns, comparatively quiet voices and generally docile personalities when hand-fed and regularly handled. The Senegal Parrot is the most common of this genus, followed by the Meyer’s, Jardine’s and Red-Bellied. A few other species are also sometimes available. This group of engaging parrots gained great acceptance in Europe before the American market began to catch on. Now these birds are commonly seen in pet bird shops across the country. Like the Pionus parrots, any of this group could be a good bet for apartment dwellers and families with children, perhaps even an appropriate first bird choice for the dedicated owner. A, C, F, $$-$$$.
PSITTICULA PARAKEETS - Perhaps the most elegantly-configured of all parrots, this group of very artfully colored, medium-small parrots from India, Southeast Asia and Africa is fast gaining popularity among breeders and beginning to make a more regular appearance in pet stores. Although these birds typically require a disciplining owner and constant handling, they can become very trusting companions. The group is headed by the Indian Ring-necked (Rose-ringed-necked), which in its normal color scheme is a beautiful emerald green. Some are excellent talkers. Pastel blue and lutino (yellow) versions are also available, though more expensive. Second in popularity, and the largest in size, from this group is the Alexandrine, whose pet potential comes highly recommended by those who breed them. Also available: Plum-headed, Derbyan, Moustached. A, $$-$$$.
QUAKER PARAKEETS - Also called the Monk Parakeet, this is one of the most highly persecuted parrots in the world, considered a pest by farmers and wantonly killed in its native range in South America. Even in the U.S., agricultural officials are so fearful of this bird that it is banned in several states, including California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Georgia (check state agricultural laws for latest information). Yet owners and breeders of these little charmers absolutely swear by them, sometimes claiming the Quaker as their favorite bird of all. Hand-reared youngsters are adorably sweet and can become surprisingly good talkers. Usually green with a grey face and chest, they also can be found in more expensive blue and yellow mutations. Sometimes loud. Great chewers. Sometimes not especially good with other types of birds or pets, but they make an excellent first choice for novice breeders. C, F, $$.
ROSELLAS - Considered by many the most beautiful parrot-type bird, Rosellas are natives of Australia and not commonly available in pet stores in the U.S.... however, they can be easily acquired from breeders. On the nervous side, they require constant handling to become and remain tame as pets, and more often are found in larger aviary settings where they are enjoyed simply for their striking beauty and natural behaviour. Despite the tempting allure of this beautiful bird, less experienced keepers should probably opt for a more easily tamed and trained species. E, $$-$$$.
TOUCANS/TOUCANETS - Occasionally found for sale, toucans and their smaller cousins toucanets, all from Central or South America, make for an exotic pet indeed. But buyer beware. Unless one is willing and able to work long and diligently with these rainforest gems perhaps another species would make a more readily adaptable pet. Generally speaking, toucans make better pets than the more nervous toucanets. Acquiring them very young is a must. They require a soft-food diet and can be extremely messy. Several species available, some very expensive. E, $$-$$$.
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BE A BIRD BUDDY: If you are aware of individuals, pet stores or other businesses (such as hotels) that are keeping birds in unsanitary conditions, cages that are too small or otherwise mistreating them, complain to the owner/management... and consider reporting them to your local humane society or law enforcement officials.