Parenting: Pet Birds

David Murphy's pet bird, "Bandit".

February 3, 2011 2:36:57 AM PST
Want to get your kid a pet? A surprisingly fun choice could be a bird. But there are special considerations.

In the Murphy household, I pay the mortgage but my kids and wife actually run things, as is evidenced by the fantastic number of pets we've had roaming our and hallways and occupying counter space over the years. Cats, fish, rodents, crabs, and even a snake have all enjoyed my home. So have various types of birds. My bird-loving daughter actually started this when she picked up a couple of parakeets and then supervised the hatching of four more. We gave one away (which promptly died about a year later), but in our house, they flourish. Nine years later (a record for parakeets, I figure), two of the little brood are still kicking---and chirping.

Birds may not be the first thought that comes to mind when thinking about a pet for your kids. Small birds (like parakeets) are noisy and nervous, tending against handling in the initial stages. Like fish and gerbils, they often don't last long in captivity, which can make for some tears when the unhappy days arrive. They're also messy, prone to flipping seeds outside the cage and their habitat needs regular cleaning, as does the floor beneath it. But small birds can be lively and fun to watch, and if your child has patience, parakeets and other small birds can be trained to sit on a finger. They also like flying around a room and will happily land on a shoulder or a head, if this sounds like fun.

But a more involved and potentially more rewarding purchase is often a larger bird, like a parrot. These are more expensive, but they last a lot longer, are more intelligent and can relate to their owners on a deeper level. Done snickering? Seriously, you and your child can actually have a affectionate relationship with a parrot, something that non-bird owners often find hard to believe. Bandit, our nanday conure (a medium-sized green bird with a black head and red feathers on the legs) has made friends out of everyone in the family. My daughter and two sons seem to be his favorites, and he loves climbing around on their shoulders and making sounds the kids have taught him. His favorites include "Yoo-hoo!", a "kissing" noise and an amazing imitation of my wife laughing. Some birds can grow to consider certain people as members of their flock, causing interesting "distress" calls when said member, say, walks out of the room. This mimics behavior in the wild.

Choosing a bird requires some research. Certain species have specific traits that a prospective owner should consider before the purchase. One of the largest and most stunning parrots is the African Gray, which has a reputation of devotion to an owner. Unfortunately, some of these birds can also grow to dislike everybody else. Our conure, which is very affectionate, is also very loud. It's distress call is ear-splitting and can be heard a block from our house on a nice day. Cockatiels and other medium-sized parrots are generally gentle and quieter. A pet store that specializes in birds should have someone who can provide good counsel on the different species.

Some of the cons about bird ownership become obvious about an hour into the relationship. Birds are messy housekeepers. The area beneath and around their cages will become littered with half-eaten seeds and molted feathers. Most species also go to the bathroom every 20 to 30 minutes, which means there are a lot of "accidents" to clean-up. Some birds can be trained to "let one go" over a garbage can as soon as you get it out of the cage, though, which takes care of the first 20 or 30 minutes of handling. The good news is that bird droppings do not smell and can be cleaned-up easily with a moist toilette. But plan on having plenty of those around. Birds can also become alarmed and defensive fairly easily, especially when they're molting. Scratching or petting a bird, while normally enjoyed by your pet, can draw a bite if you happen to snag or bend a feather that's still trying to work its way out. Speaking of which, being bitten by a large bird is not fun. In fact, it hurts a lot, especially when the bird is new to the family. After the first month or two, the bites tend to be less severe and far less frequent, as both animal and people get more used to each other.

In terms of care, you must be willing to take the bird out of its cage, preferable once a day for at least a few hours so that it can get exercise and have some social interaction. The cage can be filled with so-called "enrichment", made up of things the bird can play with a chew, which also serves to stimulate. Pet stores sell various items in this regard, appropriate for different species. Wings and claws must be clipped occasionally, which can be learned, or done by a vet a couple of times a year. Also (and this is a big one), birds have very sensitive respiratory systems, and owners need to be careful about using any aerosol products in the same room as the bird, or near enough for the bird to inhale the fumes. This is a big cause of health problems in pet birds.

Finally, when purchasing a parrot or other large species, find out the life span of the bird beforehand. Many birds can live 40 and 50 years, which means a long-term commitment by your family. Also, birds need to be fed daily. While some products are available that allow food to be hung in the cage ion sticks and gradually nibbled, you find it necessary to hire a pet sitter every time you're away for more than a few days, an added expense and inconvenience that should be allowed for.

In closing, birds can be surprisingly good companions for you and your kids. Arguably, our conure has become a more dear pet to my three children than the two cats, which I find pretty surprising. And by the way, no, the cats do not bother the bird. In fact, when the bird comes walking their way across the sofa, they usually move. The younger cat used to bat at the parakeet's page for the first few months, but gave up the game in fairly short order. The big bird has proved too intimidating. They've been co-existing without tragedy for about eight or nine years.

---David Murphy

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