Written by Jenni Davies and photography by Emma O'Brien
Parrots are beautiful birds and can be fun, talkative household companions who entertain us with their antics. But, in order to live happily ever after, doing your homework is crucial...
A life-long love affair
Ask yourself: “Do I want a two-year-old child – for the next 20 to 60 years?” Because that’s what pet parrots are like. They are loving, affectionate, funny, entertaining, sociable, clever and interesting; they’re also needy, high-maintenance, noisy, expensive and need meals prepared for them and a proper routine. The specialised care they need over many years can also be costly. They need lots of input from you to be the wonderful companion you envisage them to be. Wild parrots live in large social groups and mate for life. In the absence of other parrots your family becomes their flock, and you their ‘mate’ with whom they bond and upon whom they want to lavish all their attention and affection, 24-7. You need to live up to this honour.
Pet parrots can live to ripe old ages – Cockatiels reach 20 years, African Greys and Amazons 50 years, and Macaws and Cockatoos 65 years or more. Recently, a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo at Tasmania’s Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary turned 100.
Parrots left alone, ignored or constantly confined to the cage, or those deprived of attention, mental stimulation, exercise and fun will become depressed and problematic. They must be part of your family – even being in the same room while you eat your food, watching TV or just relaxing. Sending your parrot out of the room while you eat, or sticking its cage in some distant corner, makes it feel that its ‘flock’ has rejected it. In fact, most parrot problems are caused by loneliness and/or boredom. Feather plucking, self-mutilation (chewing of skin), loud screeching, falling feathers, attention-seeking behaviour, biting people, behaving aggressively, as well as lethargy and depression are all signs of a stressed or bored parrot. Good parrot parents can prevent all of this.
Talk the talk
Everyone knows that parrots talk, right? Not always. In fact, some parrots never speak, no matter how much time and effort you put in. What they all will do, however, is make noise – lots of noise – especially first thing in the morning and in the evening. This includes whistles, screeches, clicking, beeps and other calls, and is your parrot’s way of communicating with its flock (i.e. you) that all is well. Some parrots screech loudly – a lot. Be prepared to accept this. A silent parrot is a sick or sad parrot.
If your parrot is going to learn to talk, patience and consistency is needed. Speaking to them all the time, repeating certain words, and interacting with them is important; the actions should match the word (for example saying ‘tickle’ when you tickle it under the chin). However, even if your parrot is never going to ‘speak human’, you should still talk to it as they thrive on this interaction. Of course, if you adopt a parrot, you can find one that does speak already.
The human touch
Parrots can be amazingly affectionate and demonstrative with those they love. They crave this physical interaction as much as they crave your presence and voice. Parrots that are used to attention, love having their heads scratched, feathers ruffled, being tickled under the chin, and so on. Many will happily sit on your shoulder and snuggle into your neck. It all depends on the individual bird and what they want at the time.
Picking your parrot
So, you’ve done all your research and lots of soul-searching, made sure that every family member is keen, and have decided that getting a parrot is going to work. Firstly, being a responsible parrot parent also means not supporting the wild animal trade. Not only is it cruel to birds stolen from their homes and transported inhumanely, the impact on the ecosystem they’re taken from is also negatively impacted. Get your parrot from a rescue or, if you must buy, a reputable, responsible breeder.
Regardless of where you get your parrot from, do your homework. Find out why a parrot has been surrendered. Is it a behavioural issue? Does it have any medical conditions? Does the parrot get on with children? Is it ok around other animals? Consider its age and the impact of this. It is possible – and very rewarding – to rehabilitate a parrot that’s been neglected by its owners and has behavioural issues as a result, but this can require lots of work. If you don’t feel confident enough to take this on, look for a parrot that’s been part of a normal household instead.
Think carefully about species that range in size and behaviour and do not just go for looks. Cockatiels are great for families with children as they’re gentle and quite cuddly; Lovebirds are fairly quiet and really pretty but shouldn’t be kept alone; African Greys are highly intelligent and more likely to talk but need lots of interaction and stimulation and aren’t ideal for young children. Choose carefully; remember, this companion is going to be with you for a long time.
Always remember that parrots are not domesticated animals; they are still wild creatures, although we can tame them and get them to live long, happy lives with us. They live in cages and their happiness and health are entirely reliant on you. Be the best parrot parent possible by giving them the love, attention, treatment and care that these wonderful birds deserve – and you’ll be rewarded with a true best friend forever.
- A large, strong cage with perches. Remember the ‘three by three’ rule: The cage’s height should be three times the length of the parrot (head to tail), the width three times its full wingspan (tip to tip), there must be at least three perches and platforms of varying heights and textures, and three bowls for fresh food, water and seeds. Keep one side clear of anything. Allowing your feathered friend to come out daily for lengthy periods so that it can interact, explore and fly is crucial. (Keep windows and doors closed.)
- Things to do. Parrots are intelligent and inquisitive; they are life-long learners. Supply them with plenty of interesting toys (rotate them so there’s always something new), varied textures, and things to ‘chew’ on.
- The right food. Leftovers, mouldy or rotten food, and wild bird or chicken feed is not good parrot food. A healthy diet includes parrot-specific pellets, nuts and seeds, and fresh fruit and vegetables every day. Never feed avocado, chocolate or asparagus as these can kill parrots.
- A specialised vet. Check your area in advance for a vet who treats birds – if there isn’t one, then you won’t have anyone to help if something goes wrong. Aside from behavioural issues, parrots are susceptible to fungal infections, as well as dry, itchy skin (usually due to low humidity), various viruses and bacteria, and overly long beak and claws. Veterinary care can be pricey, so it’s worth investigating pet insurance.
- Other bits and bobs. A proper travel carrier, parrot stand, grooming supplies (e.g. claw clippers and misters), cage cover, cage disinfectants, supplements and a host of other necessities should also be considered.