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Entering a room of birds can be captivating. You are surrounded by brilliant rain-forest colors; sharp street sounds are replaced with cheerful calls and playful chatter. Approach a cage, and you're likely to be greeted with a friendly "hello"—or at least some curious looks and inviting whistles. For many people, that's all it takes: Those first, mesmerizing moments, combined with a few popular assumptions (birds are easy to care for; birds spend all their time in cages; birds talk), lead to what may well be a life-changing adoption.
The decision, of course, isn't that simple. Birds make wonderful pets, but only when they live in households that are prepared to meet their needs. There is a tremendous variety of pet birds, each with its own personality traits and requirements; chances are there's a right one for you. But you have to do some research to find it. With the help of our pet consultant, Marc Morrone, we've gathered basic information to help first-time bird owners make an informed decision.
The Different Types of Birds
For simplicity's sake, Morrone divides the enormous world of pet birds into two categories: "companion" birds, the parrots and parrot-like birds, or psittacines (pronounced "sit a scenes"), which range from petite lovebirds and parakeets to massive macaws; and "cage" birds (also classified as songbirds, or soft-billed birds), such as canaries and finches. The differences between these categories far outnumber the similarities; which type is better for you depends on your needs and expectations. Psittacines are true companions. Usually monogamous in the wild, they instinctively form a strong bond with their human caretaker. "This loyal relationship is very important to these birds, as is physical contact," says Morrone. "They have a cuddly nature that many people find appealing in a pet."
Many, though certainly not all, psittacines can learn to speak, and all will enjoy playful interaction with their companions. How sociable they are depends on many factors, including their individual personalities and how they were raised. Among psittacines, there are two distinct subcategories: Small domesticated birds, such as budgies (a type of parakeet), cockatiels, and peach-faced lovebirds; and non-domesticated birds bred in captivity, such as conures, African greys, Amazon parrots, cockatoos, and macaws. "For someone who has never had a companion bird before, a small domesticated bird would be the best choice," says Morrone. Since these birds have been bred selectively for many generations, their behavior, size, and appearance are all very predictable.
By contrast, the larger, non-domesticated parrots have been captive-bred for only two to three generations, so their behavior resembles that of their jungle-dwelling relatives. And though they're highly intelligent, playful, and often very loving, "These parrots can scream bite, and generally be destructive and possessive," Morrone warns. Such faults are not inevitable, and the birds can be controlled by a knowledgeable handler, but inexperienced people often find them too much to deal with.
Caring for Birds
If you select any companion bird as a pet, expect to devote a good deal of time to it. These birds like to feel as though they are a part of the family; they often learn to play games, love snuggling on the sofa, and will even beg shamelessly at the dinner table if allowed to. Most will want to spend time with you outside the cage every day, and will need plenty of toys to stay occupied when you're not around. A companion bird, in many ways, is like a small child.
Living with cage birds such as finches and canaries (in fact, the canary is technically a variety of finch) is an altogether different experience. As a rule, they tend not to bond closely with human companions and rarely leave their cages. Like domesticated parrots, canaries and finches have been born in captivity for many generations and, as a result of selective breeding, are larger and more colorful than their wild relatives. The beauty of their plumage and their song is their primary attraction as pets. If you love the cheerful music a canary makes, get a male bird—only males sing—and house him alone. "Male canaries are like artists," says Morrone. "They prefer to be left alone in their cages to perform."
Finches other than canaries, such as Gouldian, zebra, and society finches, are usually kept in pairs or groups. They are pretty and pleasant to have around, and though they aren't overly loud, they create a cheerful, chattering background noise. These birds enjoy the company of other finches and, if given the proper nesting materials, will build nests and breed. Canaries and finches require substantially less effort than parrots. Just don't expect to build a warm relationship with one.
If you're considering a bird because you don't have the time to look after a dog or cat, then you definitely don't have time for a parrot. These birds can demand more attention than the average puppy. A canary or finch, on the other hand, might suit your needs well—though even they require your time, with special diets, a clean cage, and so on. Ask yourself how serious a commitment you're prepared to make. If you buy a baby parrot today, there's a good chance he will still be with you in 20 years. Some of the larger parrots are extremely long-lived—a life span of 50 years or even longer is not unheard of. Cockatiels and lovebirds can live 15 years or so; budgies, canaries, and finches, nearly as long.
If you're adopting a bird for a child, you have other things to consider: "Kids need birds that can relate to them on a personal basis," says Morrone. "Cockatiels and lovebirds are best because they enjoy being touched and stroked, and will respond well to a gentle child." Start with a young bird (less than ten weeks old) so the child and bird can bond early, and bring the child to the store with you to see how they get along. "If the bird won't sit on your child's finger there, he won't at home either." When the child and the bird connect, however, it can be a wonderful match. "Some 20 years ago, I sold cockatiels to 6-year-olds who still have their birds," says Morrone. "Now, as grown-ups, they come into my store with their own children, because it's been such a great experience for them."
After you've settled on the right kind of bird, there's still a lot more to do. Visit pet stores and breeders to get a feeling for the distinct personalities and habits of individual species. Find a reputable pet shop or breeder in your area; ask bird owners for recommendations. Buy only from someone who offers a written health guarantee. You can ask to take the bird to an avian veterinarian for a checkup, and make the sale conditional on a clean bill of health. To make the bird's transition as easy as possible, have the proper cage and food waiting for him at home. Consult the breeder and/or veterinarian for care advice specific to your bird, and read up on the subject. The Pet Bird Report is a helpful source for care tips as well as listings of reliable breeders and veterinarians throughout the country.