Pet Bird Basics for Beginners

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This article is for people who are considering purchasing their first bird or for people who are new to birdkeeping. There is quite a lot to learn about the proper care of birds and even those of us who have kept birds for years continue to learn new things. There is so much to write about and so little room, so I’ll attempt to touch on just a few of the fundamental topics.

First of all, I would recommend buying a few books about bird care and also subscribing to one of the magazines devoted to bird care. BirdChannel.com (new home of Bird Talk Magazine which is no longer published) is an excellent source of information about pet bird care.  Two of my favorite books when I began keeping parrots were Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot by Mattie Sue Athan and Healthy Diet, Healthy Bird by Dr. David Henzler DVM. There are many more sources of information about pet birds and I urge you to learn all you can about responsible bird ownership.

From a breeder's perspective, as much as we all want to sell you our birds, we also want them to go to good homes where they will be well-cared for. Parrots require interaction with their household. Their behavior is a bit different from that of a cat or a dog. Birds are highly social creatures and bonds of trust must be forged for a good relationship between you and your bird.

Birds have the intelligence of a 2 or 3-year old child. They need boundaries and they need an established routine. Many people make the mistake of lavishing hours and hours of attention on a new bird when they first bring it home, only to decrease the time they spend with it when the novelty wears off. This can cause behavioral problems such as feather picking or screaming. It is necessary to spend time with your bird for they have been known to “go crazy” sitting alone in a cage day in and day out. Never underestimate the intelligence of these creatures. Ask yourself how you would react under similar circumstances.

Consistency is the key. If you let your bird out for 45 minutes in the morning, and an hour or several hours each night, then it is best to stick with this routine. Sometimes our birds will watch TV with us or eat a bite of our meal (limited junk food, please), and other times your bird may be happy just to play on top of his or her cage, on a playgym or on a T-stand. Remember, your 2-year old can get bored easily and will enjoy a change of scenery and a variety of activities.

In the wild, birds wake up at sunrise and usually forage for food soon thereafter. If you are able to do so, it is best to give them their fresh food at this time since they will tend to eat their healthy foods first. Then that food bowl must be removed before bacteria can grow. If you have your birds on a good pelleted diet, the fresh food isn’t all that necessary. However, there are many that feel the birds enjoy the various textures and tastes of a varied diet. You will learn more about nutrition and diet from reading and talking to other experienced bird owners like those in your local bird club.

Parrots need toys to chew on. It is an instinctive psychological need for them to play and chew and it also keeps the tips of their beaks dulled. Should you acquire one of the larger parrots, such as a cockatoo or macaw, be aware that you must keep them supplied with wooden toys. Perches can be made from dowel wood or from branches of trees that are non-toxic to parrots. They should be of varying thicknesses in order to prevent foot problems from developing. PVC pipe for perches is not recommended. Yes, it is easier to keep clean and it is indestructible, but it will not make for a contented bird.

Playtime should be fun for both you and your parrot. They love toys or sharing a healthy snack with their owners. Most pet birds love music or the soothing sounds of new age music or natural sounds such as an ocean surf or the calls of songbirds. Amazons are known to be particularly fond of all kinds of music ranging from Aretha Franklin to opera to C&W. Birds enjoy being talked to and some owners even read their pets stories! Which brings us to the fine art of teaching them to talk and training them to do tricks.

Parrots are flock animals and have a complex body language. Often they have no reason to talk to you face to face, let alone to “perform on cue.” Often, they tend to talk more when you are in another room, for this is the way they “keep in touch” with their flock. Start out with “Good Morning!”, “Hello” and “Good Night” or “Good Bye.” Make your voice dramatic and interesting. This will help them to pick up varying speech patterns. Dr. Irene Pepperberg of the Alex Foundation uses the “model/rival” technique of teaching Alex (who is an African grey parrot) to talk. Like children often do, parrots will want to join in the conversation when you are talking to someone other than them. As for trick training, Steve Martin--the well known bird trainer, has several good tapes on this subject which are available through advertisements or which can be purchased online.

Grooming your parrot is also an important part of responsible ownership. Keeping the wings and nails properly clipped can be done by you or by an avian veterinarian. Baths are  also very important to the psychological well-being of pet birds. If exposed to baths at an early age, parrots will enjoy this special time with you. Many owners shower with their birds, while some birds prefer to bathe in a dish of water or in a kitchen sink, and still others love to be misted with lukewarm water. The baths are necessary for your bird’s skin and feather quality. Feathers will last longer and look prettier while the skin will be less prone to dryness and flakiness. Simply said, the bird will feel better after a good bath.

You should be aware that birds’ respiratory systems are very sensitive. Do not use scented candles or spray scents in your house around the birds. They have been known to kill pet birds. Overheating Teflon cookware has also killed pet birds. Be wary of anything that gives off a strong odor such as cleaning fluids, paint or fingernail polish removers and so forth. Do not keep birds close to toxic plants for it is hard for them to resist chewing on plants. Don’t allow them to play with aluminum, lead, pencils or pens. Never give your bird chocolate, avocados or caffeine.

Make sure you have a good avian veterinarian. Your pet bird should be given a yearly check up and blood workup. Have the name and phone number of your vet handy in case of emergencies. It is also good to keep a first aid kit which contains nail-clipping scissors, Quik-stop, Betadine, triple antibiotic cream and vet wrap.  Check online for other items you may want to include.

It is a privilege and joy to own a parrot, but it is also a great responsibility which requires not only a long-term commitment from you but also a willingness on your part to learn all you can about these wonderful creatures. Enjoy your parrots and they will enjoy you. Happy bird keepers keep happy birds.