Pet Parrots - A Complete Beginner's Guide
by Colin Scott
The purpose of this article is to provide a complete guide for the new pet parrot owner. Parrots have been held in high regard ever since 1504 when the first live parrot was imported into the UK, although the Romans kept them as pets long before this. Parrots, given the correct care and attention can be long lived and so will provide your household with not just a new pet, but a life-long companion and a new family member.
This is the first major purchase before selecting your new companion, there are numerous designs and styles available, at various prices, from pet shops. Whilst there are no right or wrong cages, a simple design will be easier to clean and maintain. Remember that your parrot will treat its cage as its own territory, and will happily spend large parts of the day in it, so the cage should be as spacious as possible, and should allow the bird to at least be able to spread its wings.
The bottom of the cage needs to be covered with something that can be changed regularly, this can be shredded paper or wood-shavings, but these tend to get blown about and make a mess around the cage. The best floor covering is old newspaper, this is cheap and readily available so that it can be changed daily.
Location of the cage is also very important. Birds are very sensitive to fumes and gases, hence the use of canaries to detect dangerous gases in coal mines. If you notice a smell or fumes move the cage to another room with good ventilation, fumes can arise from cleaning products, aerosol sprays, new paint, cigarette smoke, cooking gas, self cleaning ovens, carbon monoxide from household boilers and car exhausts, etc. Cages should not be positioned in the kitchen as fumes from everyday cooking can prove fatal.
Cages should not be placed in the window or near doorways, because of the risk of draughts, nor should they be placed in direct sunlight when the bird may overheat. One essential addition to the cage is a method of securing the door, the best and fool-proof method is by using a small padlock.
Diet or polly filler
Your parrot should be fed at least once a day, with tit-bits offered as available. Most pet shops sell "parrot mix" or possibly parrot pellets, but neither of these will form a complete diet. A good selection of fresh fruit and vegetables should also be offered every day. Peanuts if offered should be those sold for human consumption, as the ones sometimes sold in pet stores may be infected with a fungus which will lead to aflatoxin poisoning. Anything that we eat can be offered in moderation including, cooked meat and bones, also cooked fish, tinned fruit, cheese, plain biscuit, etc. Chocolate however should not be given, also avocado which is poisonous to parrots. (Improved research in recent years has confirmed that there is no 'one size fits all' diet for all parrots. Many companies now produce various mixes for Macaws, African parrots, Parakeets, Lories, overweight birds or breeding birds, etc. AKJ 2018) See also Parrot Nutrition
Keeping polly happy
Although your parrot's cage is its castle, it should be let out under supervision at least once a day, never leave your parrot out unattended as this can result in chewed furniture or wall paper.
A wide range of toys are now available from pet shops, the best ones are made from natural products like wood and hemp rope. The purpose of these toys is to give your bird things to chew and destroy, so every day things which can be found around the house are just as suitable, such as, cardboard boxes and empty toilet rolls. Fresh cut branches from non poisonous trees are also required. Also try placing objects such as large pieces of fruit on top of the cage so that the bird has to climb up to get it, thus exercising your parrot.
Selecting your new pet
There are numerous decisions to be made about choosing the right bird; either imported (i.e. wild caught), usually less expensive, adult birds and some young birds will never settle to a cage life, there is also a greater risk that the bird may be carrying a disease. (No longer applicable in 2018, since importation became illegal without special licence in 2005) Aviary bred (i.e. a bird bred in captivity) will be much more settled to domestic life. If the bird has been hand-reared, it will already be hand tame and possibly talking, consequently hand-reared birds are more expensive but much more desirable. You could also choose an adult bird that has been someone else's pet, however the disadvantage of this is that the bird may be attached to one person and may utter phrases that are unacceptable in its new environment!
Always choose a healthy bird - that is one with its feathers held tight against its body, bright eyed, and lively. Leave the one with its feathers ruffled, and spending most of the time asleep with both feet holding the perch. Many dealers and breeders now offer birds that have been tested for certain diseases. If your pet shows these symptoms, seek veterinary advise, and select a vet with avian experience. (See list of avian vets on this website)
In many species the males and females are identical, if you do wish to find out its gender however some vets offer surgical sexing, other firms, which advertise in the bird press offer DNA sexing from a feather. The latter method is the safest for your bird.
Being able to positively identify your bird is very important, should it be lost or stolen and then recovered. There are various ways of permanently marking your bird; closed rings, these are steel bands which are fitted around the bird's leg when they are a small chick. As the birds grow they cannot be removed or fitted to adult birds, these rings often carry the initials of the breeder and the year it hatched. Micro-chips are small electronic chips, about the size of a grain of rice, which are inserted into the parrot. These then stay under the skin for the rest of the bird's life and are read using a scanner which will give a individual numerical/letter code.
Transportation of your parrot - how this is done depends on the temperament of each individual bird. If your bird is nervous then it is best if it is moved in a small wooden box, this way the bird will feel safer in a darkened environment and it cannot harm itself by dashing against the bars of a large cage. If your bird is very steady then it may be moved in its cage, indeed many parrots enjoy going for a drive when they are used to it.
If you already own other pets such as cats or dogs, many breeders offer birds that have been reared in the company of other animals so they are used to them. Young birds however will usually accept other animals with no problems. Likewise with children, some birds will readily accept youngsters running around, but remember, large parrots have large beaks which can deliver a painful bite if provoked, so it may be as well to choose a smaller species to start with.
Neighbours - remember that some larger parrots can be extremely noisy, so it would be good manners to ask your immediate neighbours if they would have any objections, or if they would prefer a quieter species such as a Senegal or Meyer's Parrot.
Remember that parrots can be long lived - some as long as humans - so you may need to make provision for their care in your will.
Some species that are regularly bred and offered for sale in the pet trade are extremely endangered in the wild, to protect these birds they are included on CITES listings (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). All captive birds on the CITES List have to be identifiable (either rung or chipped) and have to have the correct paperwork issued by Wildlife Licensing, Animal and Plant health Agency (APHA), Horizon House, Deanery Road, Bristol BS1 5AH
If when buying a bird on the CITES List, and the owner does not have the correct documents then it is an offence to offer the bird for sale, it is equally an offence to purchase the bird.
The following are regularly offered and are on CITES, but this is not a complete list; Cuban, Tucuman and Green-cheeked Amazons, Hyacinth, Scarlet, Buffon's and Illigers Macaws, Goffin's, and Moluccan Cockatoos, and Blue-throated Conures. For a complete list contact DETR at the above address.
Choosing the right bird for your home
Take your time when selecting your new pet as they can live for a considerable time. Choose which species you may be interested in then speak to the breeder or dealer to try and gain as much information as possible about the bird being offered, such as diet, where it has been kept, has it seen other animals or children, etc. Do not choose a bird just because it is large and impressive or worst still, because it matches your decor.
I shall now give a list of different species that are fairly commonly available.
African Grey Parrot
Pros - Perhaps the best known member of the parrot family, this species has the fully justified reputation of being the best talker, although individuals vary in this respect. Hand-reared birds make delightful, but demanding pets.
Captive bred birds available, but now requires CITES Article 10 certificate.
Cons - Prone to feather plucking if bored or frustrated, so needs lots of attention. Produce lots of feather dust, a white "powder-down" , which leaves a layer of dust which most house-proud people would not appreciate. Also bad for asthma sufferers or anyone suffering from allergies.
Senegal / Meyer's Parrots
Pros - Two of the most readily available African parrots. Their smaller size being less intimidating and safer for children. Less demanding than the larger parrots and a lot cheaper. Their size also makes them more suitable for the smaller home.
Cons - Although these birds may pick up a few words and learn to whistle a few tunes their vocabulary will never match the larger parrots.
Pros - Good talkers and characters. There are several species, the most commonly kept for pets include the Blue-fronted, Yellow-fronted, and Orange-winged.
Prices vary depending on species.
Cons - Can be demanding, and if not receiving attention, become very noisy.
Pionus and Caiques
Pros - South American parrots, being colourful, playful, and gentle. Their smaller size makes them suitable for children and the smaller home. The Pionus family consists of several species, the most commonly bred in the UK are the Blue-headed and Maximillian Parrots, the most common caique (pronounced cake), is the Black-headed.
Cons - Not so readily available as the above species, but worth the trouble or wait as these make excellent pets. Medium talking ability.
Macaws and Conures
Pros - These South American parrots are regularly bred in captivity and hand-reared birds are readily available. Conures are a family of parakeets which are closely related to the larger macaws, in fact there are dwarf macaws (Hahn's and Noble) that are smaller than the larger conures. Some of the smaller conures, (Green-cheeked, Maroon-bellied, Painted, Petz, Peach-fronted and Dusky-headed to name but a few), make exceptional pets when acquired young, these are good with children due to their smaller size.
Prices vary considerably, depending on size and rarity.
Cons - The large macaws can make good pets when young, but can become vicious as they mature, this is particularly true of the Scarlet macaw. These large birds also require large cages and are not really suitable for the average living room. They also need a lot of attention otherwise they will suffer from stress which will result in feather plucking. The large macaws are also extremely noisy.
Pros - Lories and lorikeets are sometimes offered as hand-reared pets, these make very friendly and engaging pets. They are also very colourful and can learn to speak a few words. Very playful and entertaining behaviour.
Cons - These birds require a specialised diet consisting of artificial nectar, they also eat a lot of fruit. As the diet is basically all liquid, so too are their droppings, which they squirt out with considerable force. This makes their cage and surrounding area very messy and sticky and requiring daily washing. Sometimes birds have been weaned onto seed or pellet diets, whilst this makes feeding and cleaning up their more solid droppings easier, such birds are going to have a much shortened life span or will suffer from liver disease.
Pros - Cockatoos can make good pets and learn a few words.
Cons - These birds require a lot of attention and need to be kept occupied or they can easily become bored resulting in feather plucking or, worst still, body mutilation. These powerful birds can quickly cause damage to household items if left unattended for more than a few moments, they can also inflict a painful bite if they become spiteful. Cockatoos can also be dominating over their owner, so you have to be firm with them from the outset. Like the African Grey they also produce large amounts of white feather dust. Most are now protected species and will require Article 10 certificates.
Cockatiels, Budgies, Parakeets and Lovebirds
Pros - Yes, budgies are members of the parrot family, being Australian parakeets, the Cockatiel is also from Australia. Both birds make good pets if obtained young and can learn a few words and tunes. Lovebirds, being highly social birds are best kept as pairs which can be very entertaining, and less demanding than the larger parrots, they may also breed if provided with a nest box and fresh twigs. Easily fed on good seed mixtures plus a little apple and some green food. Cages for these birds are cheaper as they don't have to be made of such heavy materials. These birds make an ideal introduction to parrot keeping.
Cons- Cockatiels can be noisy. Lovebirds rarely become tame or learn to talk. Australian parakeets such as the Rosella and Grass Parakeet families are not suited to cage life, and are only at home in large outdoor aviaries.
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