For the Birds: Your Guide to Owning a Feathered Friend

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Are you considering an addition to your family, perhaps one of the feathered variety?

That’s great! Birds make delightful companions. Some sing; others whistle; and some even talk! They come in various sizes, shapes, and many vibrant colors.

However, well-intentioned people often see a parrot or cockatoo that captures their heart and, without considering the ramifications, impulsively take the animal home.

The expense of owning a bird is probably the most overlooked consequence of any bird-human relationship. Advances in care, especially in the development of foods and medical research, have caused ownership costs to increase substantially over the last 10 years. Since it’s not likely that this trend will reverse itself any time soon, potential “bird parents” should consider their finances before taking home a new bird.

Depending on the type, quality, and age of the bird you choose, variations in costs will be extreme. Different regions of the country also have an affect on cost.

You, of course, can’t put a price on companionship, but all owners must provide the basics of professional medical care, quality food, and adequate shelter. The only other essential necessity for a responsible owner to provide is love — and that’s free.

Here’s what else you need to know about owning a bird.

A Bird’s Life

Before you run out to the neighborhood aviary or pet store, you need to ask yourself the following question: How much time will I need to care for and nurture this bird on a daily basis? With life spans that can last longer than many marriages, birds are often a long-term commitment.

In fact, most birds don’t require that much time. They’re not as demanding as dogs, who require daily walks and some playtime outdoors. An hour of attention a day is probably sufficient time for most bird species. However, some birds require more “play” time than others.

Whatever bird you own needs daily care and you need to consider the following as a part of your routine:

  • Feeding (offer pellets, fruits, vegetables, and seeds)
  • Fresh water (daily)
  • Cage cleaning (daily)
  • Veterinary checkups (twice a year)
  • Socialization and playtime (daily)

Birds that require the least amount of time are canaries and finches. These birds are a good choice for first time owners with a busy schedule because they do not require a lot of socialization. They are normally kept in pairs and there is a minimum handling time out of their environment.

For owners with some previous experience in handling birds and more time to offer, abudgies (parakeets), cockatiels, and lovebirds are excellent options. These species can be handled easily if hand-raised. They are playful and eager to learn, and they need daily attention and some time out from their cages.

Finally, if you decide to own a bird from the parrot species (conures, cockatoo, macaws, or Amazons) be ready to dedicate quality and quantity time for their care. If you have a busy work schedule or if you enjoy traveling a lot, these may not be the right species for you. Parrots are very demanding birds; they need daily interaction for training and socialization. Without you, they will become bored. In the end, you will own a bird with a behavior problem like screaming, biting, or feather picking.

Raising a Baby Bird

Hand-rearing a baby bird can be quite difficult and requires feeding every few hours by an experienced foster mom. On the other hand, purchasing just-weaned or about-to-be-weaned birds who have no problems and eat readily can be a very rewarding experience.

Most baby birds thrive on a commercial hand-rearing formula made especially for your species of bird. These complete diets are convenient since they’re easy to prepare. It’s important to mix these as directed; do not add ingredients unless directed by your veterinarian. Formula that’s too thin won’t have the appropriate nutrients, and formula that’s too thick can become a hard ball in the crop and won’t be digested appropriately.

A baby bird should be eating 10 percent of its body weight per feeding. A 500-gram bird would need 50 milliliters of formula per feeding. A baby this age should be fed approximately three times per day.

Your bird will be used to being fed by his human foster mom at the pet store or the aviary. Ideally, you should receive instructions from this person and copy his or her technique as closely as possible.

You’ll need to weigh your bird on a gram scale daily. This will help you determine how much to feed him and it will help you monitor whether he’s gaining or losing weight, which can be a sign of your bird’s overall health.

Playing Doctor

Birds can be difficult to medicate. They do not take pills well; they can find and spit out cleverly hidden tablets in food; and they can be quite a challenge to hold while trying to administer medication.

Adding medications to drinking water is controversial but sometimes is the only practical method available, especially in aviaries. The goal is that the bird will self medicate throughout the day as he periodically drinks water.

There are several disadvantages of this method. The first disadvantage is that not all drugs can be placed in drinking water. Some drugs make the water bitter or bad tasting and the bird will not drink. Instead of just a sick bird, you’ll end up with a sick and dehydrated bird. Some birds may even refuse to drink the water if the medication changed the color of the water. Another disadvantage is that the water and medication mixture must be prepared fresh daily.

Adding medication to food is another method. It is more reliable than the water method, especially if you are able to hide the medication in a favorite treat. Usually, liquid mediations, crushed tablets, or the contents of a capsule are mixed in the food. As the bird eats, the medication is ingested.

The disadvantages are that some birds won’t eat the food with medication since the medication can alter the taste of the food. Medication can be difficult to properly mix with the food. You may need to add water to make the medication moist. This will help adhere the medication to the food pieces.

The most reliable method of medicating your bird is through administration of liquid medications directly to the bird. Most oral suspensions are well-liked by birds, especially if flavored.

Another method of medication delivery is through repeated injections. This is not a very common method due to repeated stress on the bird, pain, and other alternatives available.

Keep them Clean

When it comes to grooming, birds are fussier than a lot of people. A bird likes a regular bath, an occasional manicure, and — if there’s no avian love interest around to provide it — a bit of a haircut from you.

An important rule of thumb: healthy birds groom themselves. A parrot who has been happily preening away and suddenly stops fussing with her feathers or changes her preening routine may be ill and need veterinary attention.

A healthy bird will care for her feathers, beak, and feet pretty much on her own. Birds learn how to groom their feathers early in life. In her daily preening ritual — her version of a comb-out — she’ll preen her feathers, or those of a mate, every day, often just before bedtime.

Your bird may have an oil-secreting gland at the base of her tail, from which she takes oils with her beak to spread over her feathers. Some birds, including cockatoos, may have a powder or dust on their feathers instead. It keeps the feathers in good shape, but some humans are allergic to this dust, so check to see if it bothers you before taking the bird home.

While birds do groom themselves, there are other things you must be aware of, including molting and stress bars (lines that appear on new feathers that are growing in), as well as the need for regular beak and toenail trimmings.

Resources for Owning a Bird

Want more useful advice on how to care for our fine feathered friends? Check out our featured articles:

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