There are few subjects more divisive than animal welfare, be they wild animals or household pets. For example, the UAE recently banned exotic pets, especially wild cats, and the social media chorus has been in good voice. The core issue is whether any animal can live a happy, healthy and contented life in a family home.

pet-lovebirdsThe truth is that many common pets, including dogs, cats, and rabbits, are unhappy and unfulfilled. And many snakes, pigs and hedgehogs are happy as … well … pigs in muck.

The welfare of pet birds hasn’t generated a lot of attention yet. However, one suspects that as the public becomes more conscious of all animals, their time will come.

Have wings must fly

Birds are pretty, they are colorful, they can sing beautifully, and they can chat back. They are social creatures, and are intelligent and affectionate. Given the right environment, they are wonderful pets.

However, they have very specific needs that you must meet for them to reach their potential and enjoy life. Unfortunately, people don’t fully understand the needs of wild animals, and, according to Adam Roberts (CEO of Born Free USA), birds are definitely wild animals.

It’s not that Roberts, or many of those in animal welfare, are completely against birds as pets. Rather that they are against ‘kidnapping’ wild birds and making them live in cages. They are also against keeping birds in unsuitable conditions.

Before you get your pet bird

There are some things that you need to know before you pop into your local pet store and bring home a canary or exotic parrot.

For example, birds live a long time. Even little canaries or budgies have a lifespan of about 15 years. Your big exotic birds, like African Greys, can live for 60 years. Now that is a lifetime commitment. In fact, as many people get African Greys when they are in their 30s, the chances are good that it’s a post-lifetime commitment. Be honest: how willing are your kids to take on your pet bird?

Birds can be quite noisy creatures, twittering, and singing, squawking, and talking. This is why they aren’t always welcome in apartment blocks. Birds are also messy and, if you can’t meet their needs they are destructive. These are also reasons landlords aren’t so keen on having birds in apartments. They definitely put your security deposit at risk.

Always research the type of bird you think you want, so you learn about their social, exercise, and food needs. You should also research different sources, as many pet shops get their birds from bird farms, which are just like puppy mills. Some breeders use birds from smuggling rings that transport birds in inhumane conditions. Obviously, there are reputable breeders, but most animal welfare organisations recommend approaching rescue centres and sanctuaries to find a pet bird who needs a good home.

Make life worth living

Pet bird on climbing post

Whether or not you think of birds as wild animals, your pet bird has similar needs to birds in the wild, including the need to fly and to interact socially. This means they need plenty of space and plenty of attention.

Ensure that the cage is big enough for your bird to stretch her wings, and that she gets plenty of time outside of the cage to hop and fly and perch and explore. It may surprise you to know that many bird experts recommend that pet birds spend more time outside of their cage than in. In fact, they recommend that the only time spent in the cage is night time, so they can get proper sleep. Clean the cage (and floor area) every day for your health as well as your bird’s. We’ve said birds are messy, as you’ll learn when you encounter shed feathers, scattered food and wood chips and bits of toys. Clean all toys and perches about once a month.

You need to ensure that the space you give your bird is completely bird-proof (they will peck wires and aren’t averse to pecking lounge suites and window or door frames). You need to clean up after your pet bird daily, so it helps if the floor and the bottom of the care are easy to clean. A great tip is to reuse your newspaper. It’s not a good idea to leave the windows open unless they are covered with mesh.

You should also provide plenty of interesting and interactive toys, both in the cage and outside, to give your pet bird mental stimulation. Good options include ropes, bells, ladders, mirrors, swings, and puzzle toys. Without stimulation and physical exercise, birds can develop similar behavioral problems to dogs and cats. Problems include destructive and obsessive compulsive behaviors. You can even expect to see some aggression. If you can’t spend as much time with your bird as you would like, get her a companion.

Training provides a fun way to spend time with your bird, building your relationship while exercising their brain. Birds respond well to clicker training (you’ll find plenty of videos showcasing clicker trained chickens on YouTube) and love learning new tricks. For example, you could train your bird to run an agility course, using jumps, A-frames and weave poles. Some birds will learn to speak or sing, but not all birds have those talents, even those who are famous for it.

You can reward your bird with treats (bits of fruit and nuts usually go down well), as well as affection. People have reported that their birds are more affectionate than their cats. So if you want a loving pet that isn’t a dog, then a bird could be perfect. Provided you invest time and attention in your bird, that is. Be warned that some birds bond more closely to certain family members than others. They may even show aggressive behavior towards family members they don’t particularly like.

Compared to other pets, birds are quite cheap to feed (in terms of volume) and have relatively simple food needs. Seed mixes don’t meet all their nutrient needs, so Dr. Becker recommends that you feed species-specific pelleted food, fruits, vegetables and sprouted grains. They should always have access to clean water, free from feathers, droppings and nut shells. They may also appreciate water for bathing and splashing.

Rudimentary grooming is necessary, including trimming nails and beaks. Placing cuttlefish in the cage allows birds to keep their own beaks short, and it provides important minerals.

When it comes to veterinary care, birds are not cheaper than dogs or cats. They should see only specialist avian veterinarians, who are more expensive that vet “GPs”.  Their respiratory systems are delicate, so they need to live in rooms with good ventilation, where they aren’t exposed to chemical fumes. You can contribute to respiratory health by increasing exposure to sunlight or full-spectrum lighting, which promotes vitamin A absorption. Note that your pet bird can impact your health. Their ‘feather dust’ aggravates asthma and some illnesses and diseases are zoonotic (they are transferred from animals to people).

blue-budgieHow to tell if your pet bird is sick

Birds are experts at hiding signs of illness and often you won’t notice anything is wrong until the problem is advanced. You need to become an expert at reading your bird’s body language. Some signs that indicate your bird is off color include:

  • Excessive sleeping with drooping posture. They often tuck their heads under a wing and opt to sleep on the floor instead of a perch.
  • Labored breathing, which could indicate bronchitis or pneumonia.
  • Feather plucking, which is usually a sign of stress and/or boredom.
  • Scaly face, which is often causes by mite infestation. You might also see signs of red mite infestation on the bottom of the cage.

It’s important that your pet bird is used to handling, not just from an affection/bonding perspective, but also because birds are prone to tumours.

Commitment commitment commitment

Many pet birds live longer than most marriages. Like those marriages, people tend to give up on their birds within a shockingly short space of time. According to PETA, about 85% of pet parrots are sold, given away, or ‘set free’ (abandoned) within two years. Of those who remain in their homes, too many are ignored, with people providing the bare minimum of care.

This is partly why the ASPCA’s position statement on birds as pets doesn’t recommend keeping large parrots as pets unless you can provide for all their needs. It also states:

The ASPCA encourages anyone who believes he or she can offer appropriate care to rescue a bird from a bird sanctuary or shelter instead of buying from a breeder or pet store. The ASPCA recommends that all pet stores stop selling large parrots. Where they are sold, the chicks should be reared by captive-bred parents, and should know how to eat on their own before sale. … The ASPCA strongly supports federal and state laws that prohibit the import or sale of wild-caught birds.

As with all pets, it’s important that you understand birds’ needs and are perfectly happy and able to meet them for the next 15 – 60 years. If not, consider a gold fish.