Pet parrots are popular household companions for many reasons, including their beauty, intelligence, long life span, funny antics, and talking potential. However, these spectacular creatures require a lot more time, patience, and specialized care than many people realize, so it's important for potential owners to understand what they're getting into before they acquire one of these amazing birds.
How to Care for a Parrot in Captivity
One of the most important things to understand about caring for a parrot is that these birds are not domesticated like dogs and cats. In the wild, birds spend much of their day flying around, foraging and eating and engaging in social interactions with each other. Parrot owners need to provide their pets with ways of carrying out their natural behaviors within the confines of their homes.
Physical, Mental and Social Stimulation
Parrots need a good deal of stimulation and daily exercise to keep them from becoming bored, so provide them with as much supervised out-of-cage time as possible. Spend time playing with them and their toys, teaching them tricks, or just including them in your daily routines, such as watching TV or reading a book.
Setting up a play stand in another room offers a great way to give your bird time out of his cage and also gives him a change of environment. There are a wide variety of play stands available at pet supply stores and online, so make sure to get one that's suitable for the size of your bird.
Tricks and Talking
Teaching your parrot a variety of behaviors also stimulates its mind, and there are a variety of fun tricks parrots can learn. If you have more than one parrot, you just might notice that the others quickly pick up on the tricks you teach the first parrot. Parrots can learn how to shake the left foot and right foot, wave, give a high-five and turn around. Some species, like conures, can even learn to roll on their backs.
Many species can learn to talk to some degree, but that doesn't guarantee they will. You can increase the likelihood your own bird will talk by talking to him frequently. Talk to the bird while you are going about your daily routine and tell him what you are doing. Ask him questions. Tell him what you are feeding him. If you want your bird to learn specific words, make sure to use the same word or phrase each time, and make sure to use it in context or else the bird will just learn to mimic words.
While some types of parrots are more prone to talking than others, each bird is unique and abilities differ from one parrot to the next even within a species.
Basic Parrot Care
Different species of parrots will have some unique needs but overall the care and feeding of all types parrots meet similar guidelines. Owning a parrot is a big responsibility and you should familiarize yourself with all of their needs before taking one on as a pet.
Parrot Water Requirements
Birds should have access to fresh water at all times, and water bowls and food bowls should be washed daily. It's a good idea to keep an extra set of food bowls on hand so you can switch them when it's time to clean.
Parrots tend to drop a lot of their food in their water, and sometimes they'll also soil in it. This means the water must be changed frequently during the day to prevent a buildup of harmful bacteria. If you find it difficult to keep up, you can train your bird to drink from a water bottle instead.
- Hang the water bottle on the cage.
- Show your parrot how to play with the tip of the drinking tube to make the water come out.
- Keep the water bowl in the cage until you see your pet drink from the bottle on its own.
- Refill the bottle with fresh water every day.
Pet Parrot Diet and Nutrition
Many types of parrots are kept in captivity, and nutritional requirements vary by species so you should research the proper diet for the type of parrot you have. However, there's one thing all parrots have in common; a seed-only diet will not give your bird all the nutrients it needs.
Parrots need a mixture of:
- Nutritionally balanced pellets
- Some seed mixture
- A lot of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Cooked grains
- Cooked legumes
- Organic walnuts and almonds but only in moderation
What Not to Feed Your Pet Parrot
There are some foods that are toxic to birds and must be avoided. While not a complete list, some foods to avoid are:
- Coffee or anything else with caffeine
- Apple seeds and the seeds or pits of other fruits
- Onions and Garlic
- Anything full of salt, sugar, or fat
- Poisonous plants
Dairy foods should be given sparingly if at all. It's alright to give your pet a small piece of cheese now and then as a treat, but for the most part, avoid dairy products. Birds' systems are not capable of digesting lactose. In addition to the type of food you feed your bird, be careful not to overfeed your pet or it will become obese.
Bathing Preferences When Taking Care of a Parrot
All birds have their own preferences for taking a bath. Here are a few options:
- Mist your parrot with a water bottle.
- Let your bird bathe in its water bowl.
- Some owners take their birds in the shower with them. Shower perches are available for purchase.
- Some parrots enjoy splashing around in the kitchen sink while the faucet runs.
Observe your bird and see which method it seems to prefer. Bathing should be enjoyable and not seen as a punishment, so never use a squirt bottle as a way to reprimand your bird.
Your Pet Parrot's Natural Light Needs
In the wild, birds are exposed to natural sunlight on a regular basis. In captivity, they usually don't receive that kind of exposure unless their owners take them outside, and they do not get the exposure they need through windows or screens. To remedy this situation, some owners provide their birds with indoor lighting via a full spectrum bulb that simulates the light from the sun.
Parrot Sleep Needs
Parrots need about 12 hours of sleep each night. Some decisions regarding sleep include whether to:
- Cover a bird at night
- Use a separate sleeping cage
- Have a dim night light on to help ease any startles resulting from unknown sounds or movements.
Make your decisions by taking your bird's preferences into account.
Proper Parrot Cage Size, Placement and Care
It is important to make sure that every bird has the correct size cage for its species. Always buy the biggest cage you can afford and make sure the bar spacing is appropriate. Always include a variety of perches in the cage. They should vary in size and material. Perches range from those of rough materials like cement, designed to help keep a bird's nails trimmed, to wood, rope, and Manzanita branch perches.
- Clean cages regularly and change the cage paper daily.
- Locate the cage in a spot in your home where your bird will get to be involved in ongoing activities of the family, but avoid transition spaces, such as hallways, which can be stressful.
- Place the cage out of direct sunlight. If the cage does receive some daily sun, make sure there are places in the cage where the bird can go to avoid the sun if it chooses.
- Place the cage where at least one or more sides of the cage are against a wall. A bird can feel insecure if all sides of a cage are exposed.
- Avoid round cages with wires that meet at the top because a bird's toes can easily get stuck in those tiny spaces.
- The kitchen is never a good place for a birdcage because there are too many potential hazards.
- Don't ever buy a used cage. No matter how well you clean it, you can never be sure that there is no lingering bacteria or disease from the previous bird. It's not worth the risk.
Toys for Your Parrot
Toys are not a luxury, they're a necessity. Parrots need toys to enrich their environment.
- Buy toys from a reputable source and ensure they are the correct size for your bird.
- Clean toys regularly. Some toys, such as wood, can't be washed and must be discarded when they get dirty.
- Check toys on a regular basis for any loose parts, hanging strings or fabric, or any other unsafe conditions.
- Rotate toys on a regular basis. If a bird has a favorite toy, it's okay to leave that one in there all the time.
- Include a variety of toys of different sizes and materials (plastic, wood, safe metals), and purposes (foot toys, foraging toys, activity toys, and toys meant for destruction).
Over time you will figure out which types of toys your parrot likes best. Don't be discouraged if your bird is afraid of new toys or avoids playing with them. Sometimes it takes days, weeks, or even months for a bird to get used to a new toy. If your bird is really scared of a toy, try hanging it on the outside of the cage until it gets used to it.
Routine Parrot Care
All parrots need a bit of grooming in addition to daily baths.
- Trimming nails: Depending on your comfort level and your bird's reaction, you might be able to trim its nails after watching the vet do it a few times. If you choose to trim your bird's nails, make sure you always have styptic powder or another clotting agent on hand to stop the bleeding if you cut a nail too short. In an emergency, cornstarch or flour will work.
- Trimming wing feathers: Should you trim your bird's wings or not? That is a personal choice that you must make. Consult with your avian vet on this topic because there are pros and cons to each option.
- Beak trimming: A parrot may need to have its beak trimmed occasionally, and this is best left to your avian veterinarian or professional bird groomer.
How to Handle Your Pet Parrot
Parrots can become easily startled and stressed when you reach inside their cage or attempt to get a hold of them. They also can bite if they're fearful. The proper way to handle a parrot is to get them slowly used to you around their cage:
- Talk to them gently and keep your hands outside the cage in the beginning until your bird appears calm.
- Reach your hand in slowly and continue talking to your bird in a relaxed tone of voice. Retreat your hand if the bird becomes afraid. You want to work at the bird's pace and comfort level.
- A typical method for handling a parrot is to use a towel to wrap around them. This makes examining them for health reasons and to do nail trims easier.
- You want to make sure you use a properly sized towel, such as a hand cloth for a small parrot species and a larger towel for bigger birds, but make sure that the size is a good fit and there isn't a lot of extra towel length to deal with once the bird is wrapped.
- The towel will be used to wrap around the bird to capture and hold it. Don't cover the bird's head with it and allow them to see what's going on so they don't become frightened.
- Hold them gently and firmly but not tightly as this can injure a parrot. Absolutely do not press on their chests as this can harm their ability to breathe.
- The towel should cover and keep in the wings to keep the bird from injuring them when trying to escape.
- If you're unsure at all about this type of handling, ask your avian vet to show you how to do this properly. Most will be happy to demonstrate this to you or have a member of their staff train you.
Teaching Your Parrot to Step Up
Once your bird is comfortable with you near his cage and putting your hands inside, a very useful skill that's easy to teach is "stepping up." This means that the parrot will go onto your finger, hand or arm when asked. Smaller parrots like parakeets will go on your finger whereas you will want to use your hand or forearm for a larger parrot like a cockatoo or macaw.
- When the bird is comfortable with you putting your hands in the cage, teach them to step up on your finger or hand by placing the finger or arm by the bird's feet.
- Move your arm or finger gently against the bird's feet and say "step up" while pressing against the feet. The idea is that the pressure of your finger, hand or arm will cause him to lift his feet up and onto you.
- You can also have a spray of millet or another treat in your other hand to encourage him to move forward and step onto you and reward him for doing so.
Parrot Safety and Emergencies
Before you even purchase your bird, you should try to locate an avian vet. General veterinarians are typically not equipped to handle the unique requirements of parrots, so check with the Association of Avian Veterinarians to find an avian vet near you.
Make sure to have all your bird's information readily available in case an emergency arises. Keep your avian vet's number in a prominent location, along with the name and phone number of any after-hours emergency clinics. Be sure to ask your vet what to do and who to call after-hours if you have an emergency during those times.
Each bird you own should have its own travel carrier for trips to the vet and for emergencies. Make sure these cages are always clean and ready to go. Practice putting your bird into his carrier so you won't have to struggle when you really need to use it. It's also helpful to place your bird in its carrier and take him on short car trips so he gets used to the carrier and doesn't it only with going to the vet.
Outdoor Parrot Safety
Anytime you bring your bird outside, make sure the bird is wearing a halter and leash made specifically for its species. It only takes a second for a bird to escape and quickly get lost. Even birds that have had their wings trimmed can still fly if a gust of wind blows up, so always use a halter no matter how long you plan to be outside with your bird.
First Aid Kit
Having a first aid kit is very important. You can make your own or buy a complete kit. Your first aid kit will also include items you need for routine care of your bird as described above. Store the kit in an easily accessible location.
Parrot Health Emergency
If you experience an emergency, call your avian vet immediately. Keep your bird as calm as possible to avoid shock. Keeping the parrot in a dark, quiet room can help, and it's important to keep the bird warm. Listen carefully to the vet's instructions and try to provide as much info as possible. The vet or technician will tell you what to do until you can come to the office.
Household Dangers for Parrots
Having a parrot is similar to having a toddler in that your home needs to be bird-proof. Parrots are smart, inquisitive, and curious. While you should always supervise them when they are out of their cages, parrot owners can tell you that it only takes a few seconds for an accident to happen. Fortunately, there are many precautions you can take in your home to help avoid emergencies.
- Ensure all windows and doors are either closed or have screens that are secure.
- Keep toilet seats down.
- Be extremely careful about letting your bird walk on the floor. This is dangerous for both the bird and the owners.
- Supervise your bird at all times. It only takes a second for a curious beak to get into serious trouble. Common household items are very attractive to parrots. They will:
- Chew on wires and electrical cords
- Hide under seat cushions, behind throw pillows, or under blankets
- Fall into open vessels of water
- Fly into fan blades
- Injure themselves in the kitchen on anything from hot burners to sharp knives
- Ingest unsafe food or medications left out in their reach
- Escape through open windows and doors
- Avoid using non-stick cookware and other products containing Teflon (or PTFE) or PFOA, which give off fumes that can kill a bird instantly. Do not use the self-cleaning feature on ovens because this also gives off unsafe fumes.
- Be careful when using anything with a fragrance, such as candles and air fresheners. Avoid them when possible or buy products that are guaranteed safe for use around birds.
- Keep your birds away from any other household pets. Let them have out-of-cage time while other pets are locked up.
- Supervise any interactions between birds of different sizes. Even birds of similar size but of different species (or sometimes even the same species) may not get along and need to be supervised while they interact. You may need to take them out at different times.
- Monitor any interactions between birds and children. Some birds are fine with children, while other birds are scared of their sudden movements, loud voices, and high activity levels. If you have children, you can teach them how to interact with the parrot in a calm, quiet way. There are many children who develop excellent relationships and bonds with family pet birds.
Make sure you have emergency plans for any natural disasters, such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, or even fires. This is important for every pet owner, but especially for those who live in evacuation areas.
Common Parrot Illness and Health Problems
Some of the most common health problems stem from malnutrition and lack of exercise. Make sure your bird is getting the proper diet, receiving regular vet check-ups, and getting enough exercise and sleep. It is critical that you learn to recognize the signs of illness in your bird. If you notice anything unusual, contact your avian vet immediately. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and make the call. The best ways to reduce illness are prevention and early detection.
Birds will try to hide any illnesses or injuries as long as possible. In the wild, weakness attracts predators and usually leads to death. Since birds are still wild creatures with natural instincts, they will try to hide an illness as long as they can. By the time a bird shows significant signs of illness, it is often too late. That's why it's critical to look for any changes in your bird.
Early detection is one of the ways pet owners can reduce the chances of severe illness. As soon as you get your parrot, take him to your avian veterinarian immediately for a wellness visit. The vet will make sure your bird is healthy and does not have any serious illnesses, such as Pscittacine Beak and Feather Disease, which is highly contagious and fatal.
If you have other birds, make sure to quarantine your new bird for 30-45 days to ensure he does not have any hidden illnesses that could be spread to other flock members.
Keep in mind that birds have extremely sensitive lungs. Things that don't affect humans or other pets can have harmful or deadly effects on parrots. In addition, be careful when toweling or restraining your bird. You don't want to put so much pressure on its chest that it can't breathe.
Long Term Planning
Make sure your parrots are included in your long-term plans and your emergency plans.
- Include them in your will. Depending on your age, they may outlive you.
- Consider what will happen if you get ill and are no longer able to care for your birds.
- Determine what you will do if a situation arises and you do need to give up your parrots permanently.
Don't wait until these situations happen before you have a plan in place. If you do need to give up your parrot, make sure you contact a reputable rescue or sanctuary to make sure your parrot goes to a good home.
Parrots Are Excellent Pets for the Right Situations
Parrots are amazing, beautiful, intelligent, creatures that can make excellent pets. However, they do require a large amount of time, patience, and training. Yes, keeping these birds is a lot of work, but the rewards are priceless. With proper care, parrots can make great, lifelong companions.