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Feathered Friends: The Pros and Cons of Keeping Birds as Pets

Mar 31, 2021 09:30AM ● By Julie Peterson
Pet bird flying

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Kata May is a 30-inch-tall, blue-and-gold macaw. “It’s nice to come home and have a conversation with a snuggly bird,” says Joshua Luther, who took over care of the avian when he was 13 years old and she was 11. Now 17 years later, Kata May holds a commanding presence in Luther’s home in Columbus, Wisconsin. “She’s set up where our dining room should be, so my wife and I can sit and talk or play with her.”

Luther notes that the cherished pet has a bit of a temper and can bend the bars on her $1,000 cage if she’s bored or angry. Considering the bird has a bite force of 1,800 pounds per square inch, it’s sensible to keep her happy, which could be for another 50 years.

Complex Commitment

Birds follow only dogs and cats as the country’s favorite companion animals, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Lovebirds, budgies and canaries have an average lifespan of eight or more years, but can live to be 20. Typically, larger birds live longer. Because it’s common for birds to outlive their owners, the Avian Welfare Coalition, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, helps ensure these pets are included in wills and estate planning.

Birds need to chew, and if they play outside their cages, must be kept away from hazardous items. Besides droppings, birds also create dander and dust. “Cleaning her cage and the room is a two-hour project every week,” says Luther.

There’s also the potty mouth. Kata May learned some unsavory phrases from her previous owner. She sometimes screams, “Shut the hell up!” or, “Turn that #@%&ing thing up!” to get the TV at the desired volume.

Babette de Jongh, an animal communicator and romance author in Bay Minette, Alabama, once knew a bird that routinely screamed, “Fire!” resulting in 911 calls.

“Birds can be loud,” says de Jongh. “They generally try to be louder than the ambient noise in the room.”

Luther agrees, saying, “You can hear my bird yell from a city block away.”

Happy and Healthy

Talking birds are delightful. Some mimic human language, others understand word meanings and use them appropriately. “Birds are as intelligent as a young child and as emotionally temperamental as a toddler,” says Mary Miller, who has raised budgies and the small- to medium-sized parrots known as conures at her home in Buffalo and has worked with other birds in rescue facilities.

23-year-old white-eyed conure pet bird

Cappy, a 23-year-old white-eyed conure, resides in Mountainside, New Jersey, with his lifelong human companion, Rosemary Wellner.

 

 Luther agrees that birds don’t just mimic what they hear. “They understand like a 2- to 3-year-old child. When we are cooking dinner, she will ask, ‘For me?’ or, ‘Can I have some?’”

Kata May also articulates her fondness for the pizza delivery person with, “I love you!” Then, “Mmmmmm, thank you,” in anticipation of a treat.

Even without words, birds are excellent companions. “If raised correctly and interacted with on a regular basis, birds can be very affectionate. They are highly intelligent and social animals, so they form deep and lasting bonds with humans,” says de Jongh.

Nutrition is key to a raising a bird. Leslie Moran, a Reno-based holistic animal nutrition and care consultant, is working to end avian malnutrition through the Healthy Bird Project, which conducts nutritional research on exotic species. Traditional grain and seed mixes lack essential nutrients and contribute to unbalanced protein intake for caged and companion birds. Moran’s goal is to move the food industry toward the inclusion of more wholesome choices. “Fresh fruits and vegetables can be purchased at the grocery store, but parrots need specific, high-quality, tropical bird food, which can be hard to find,” says Luther.

Keeping a tropical animal healthy also requires bathing, temperature control, clean air and water, exercise and mental stimulation. Costs vary. Owning a small parakeet could include the purchase or adoption price ($12 to $65); cage ($30 and up); food; toys; and checkups (typically less than $200 a year). A large macaw might cost $500 to $5,000. Supplies, food and vet care could top $2,000 the first year.

Don’t Shop, Adopt

Birds are available from breeders and pet stores, but there are many needing adoption. Sanctuaries struggle to care for animals with such long lifespans and complex needs, including diet, space, intellectual stimulation and emotional bonding. Lacking proper care, birds may develop mental illness and pluck out feathers or bite, but happy birds can be snuggly, social and fun.

Rosemary Wellner, of Mountainside, New Jersey, has owned parakeets, cockatiels and lovebirds. Currently, she has two parrots, the oldest is 24. “Many people do not understand… but birds feel true attraction for their companions—and who doesn’t want to be loved?” she says. 


Julie Peterson is a health and wellness writer. Reach out at [email protected]

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