Parrot 101: Do they make good pets?
Or: What to consider when considering a parrot.
I am frequently asked if parrots make good pets, but the answer to this simple question is actually kind of complicated. Obviously, I love parrots and keeping them actually led me to become kind of obsessed with them (although I’ve always been a nature enthusiast). I’ve written several articles about them and have even made excursions to view them in the wild. I’m certainly not unique and I’ve met others who have become die-hard parrot fans after getting one. However, I never outright tell people that parrots make good pets. They can be quite a challenge to keep happy and they have some habits (e.g. they are noisy and messy) that could drive a lot of people up the wall. Many parrots end up being rehomed shortly after purchase once their owners tire of them or realize they really don’t have the time or desire to provide such a complex animal with what it needs to thrive.
My intention with this post is to outline what living with parrots is really like and what prospective parrot owners should consider before taking the plunge and adopting a parrot. I think a lot of the problems captive parrots face has to do with the fact that a lot of people who keep them have no idea how to care for them or had unrealistic expectations of them. This “Parrot 101” post is about life with parrots – the good, the bad, and the messy – and the follow up post will outline the basics of parrot care.
First, why own a parrot at all? They are, of course, very beautiful, social, and fascinating animals. One of their biggest attractions is that they talk…sometimes. As I tell all prospective parrot owners, not all parrots talk, so don’t get a parrot just because they are known for talking! Additionally, parrots live a long time and the novelty of an animal that talks will eventually wear off so one must truly appreciate parrots for what they are to successfully keep one over the long term. I think a parrot that cannot talk can make a nice companion and I don’t really care that none of my birds are good talkers. None of my three conures can talk at all, but they’re playful and friendly. All of them can be taught new behaviors quite quickly and like to be with me while I work or read. Ripley the Red-lored Amazon is also very pleasant to be around and is content to be out wherever her favorite person (my husband) is. She laughs a lot and is so calm that we can often take her out on picnics and to certain shops (including aquarium and movie shops). Mitri the Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo is incredibly intelligent and is simply a fascinating creature. He uses tools, can take the nuts and bolts out of his cage, is extremely affectionate, and learns very quickly. All of my parrots are incredibly beautiful and Peggy (a Jenday Conure) in particular has startlingly bright and beautiful colors.
Of course, living with the parrots does come with a big cost and a prospective parrot owner should consider if the cost is something they are willing to (or can) bear. It’s a lot of work to keep a parrot happy and healthy. Additionally, it’s important for those considering a pet parrot to research the different species and figure out which ones (if any) would best suit their living situation and which would mesh best with the household. Parrots range from the relatively docile, small and quiet Lineolated Parakeets to incredibly loud, destructive, large, and sometimes aggressive cockatoos.
Noise is a big factor to consider. There are no silent parrots, so before getting a bird, find out what the different species sound like and if it’s something you find tolerable. A small handful of parrots (Bourke’s Parakeets and Lineolated Parakeets, for example) have pleasant voices they use primarily at dawn and dusk and these are the best birds for apartments or people who have a low tolerance for shrill calls. Budgies aren’t terribly loud either, but they can produce some low-level chirping throughout the day. I personally like the sounds my budgie, Bourke’s Parakeet and Lineolated Parakeets make. Pyrrhura conures (such as Maroon-bellied or Green-cheeked Conures) are also reasonably quiet but can produce some squawking. One the loud end of the spectrum, there are the cockatoos, Aratinga conures, and macaws. These are among the loudest of all parrots and are frequently rehomed due to their powerful voices. The below video demonstrates what a cockatoo can sound like:
I think that mess is another one of the big factors to consider. Even my small parrots produce some mess and manage to get crumbs and some molted feathers outside of their cages. When they come out of their cages, they make more mess under their play stands (in the form of crumbs and poop) that needs to be cleaned daily. Placing a large rubber mat under a bird’s stand or cage can make clean up easier and I actually tiled the room of the floor where my Amazon, conures, and finches are. My messiest bird, by far, is Mitri. He loves to chew wood and rip up paper and not all of the debris from that actually stays in his cage due to his habit of going to the floor of his cage and kicking out the mess. He actually likes to throw things around as well. A Blue and Gold Macaw I bird sat for a while was also quite outstanding at getting food and debris everywhere.
Outfitting a parrot with an appropriate living space isn’t always cheap or easy either. A parrot needs more than a cage, a perch, a cup of seeds and a cup of water to thrive. First, good cages can be costly, and expect to spend at least $100 for a cage for even the smallest of parrots. Good-sized cages for the big parrots can run up to $1000 or more. A cage will also need a variety of perches of differing diameter and material. A good perch will allow a parrot to wrap his foot about 3/4 of the way around it, so most perches should be around that size, with a few a bit bigger or smaller. I give each of my birds a dowel perch, one or more rope perches (except Peggy who unravels them), a concrete perch, and some natural wood perches.
Parrots love to chew as well and need to have items they can chew on. One can buy wooden chew toys for parrots, but clean, safe items from the outdoors (branches and pine cones) can make nice chew toys for parrots as well. One must learn what plants are safe before giving a bird items from outside. Some birds can be like rodents in the amount they chew. Mitri, for example, needs his dish of chewies (branches, popsicle sticks, etc.) replenished almost daily. There are also a variety of other toys for parrots, including bells, swings, and foraging toys (that birds can get food from) that can all enrich a captive bird’s life. A parrot cage needs to have room for around four perches, three toys, food and water dishes and still give the parrot room to move around and flap without hitting any toys or perches. Remember as well that bigger is always better!
Feeding a parrot also isn’t as simple as dumping seeds in a dish. Seeds alone are not a sufficient diet for a parrot, as the seed mixes available in pet stores lack a lot of nutrients that parrots need. I feed my parrots pellets supplemented with healthy natural food like grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. A few parrot species have very specialized dietary needs, so again, prospective parrot owners need to research the type of parrot they are interested in. Lories and lorikeets, for example, are nectar feeders and do not digest seed well, as their crops are not as tough and muscular as those of other parrots. These birds need nectar (commercial mixes are available) and fruit.
A lot of birds are very messy with their water as well and eat food over their water dish and get crumbs and other stuff in there. Water dishes in a bird cage need at least daily changing and sometimes twice or thrice daily changing. For example, Chiku!, my Green-cheeked Conure, dips quite a lot of his food in water before eating it, and he often outright deposits food in there. Thus, his water gets changed a few times daily. He likes to bath in his water dish as well and I’ve noticed he only does that with fresh, clean water.
Like a dog or horse, parrots do need a certain amount of training to adapt to living with people. They also need daily handling to remain tame. I recommend that prospective owners read up on how to train parrots using kind, positive reinforcement-based methods. I also recommend that prospective owners learn all they can about natural parrot behavior and parrot body “language.” Pet parrots are often rehomed for things like biting, screaming, or generally being unmanageable and I think owners who educate themselves about parrot behavior and how to train parrots before getting one are far less likely to encounter serious problems with their birds. Note that this requires a certain degree of time and effort on the part of the parrot owner. There is a big learning curve involved in keeping birds as pets and I think they are best suited to true animal enthusiasts who enjoy learning new things about birds. Patience with animals is a necessary virtue for keeping a parrot. Even very well-behaved parrots may be noisy at times and many parrot owners get bitten from time to time.
It’s important to have realistic expectations when considering a parrot as a pet. For example, as stated, not all parrots learn to speak well and the only way to guarantee that one will get a talking parrot is to buy an adult that already knows many words. Many people also want pets that they can pet and handle all over but not all parrots enjoy being touched. Many like head scratches and that’s it. Cockatoos are an exception as most enjoy being petted. However, cockatoos are also incredibly demanding and are quite prone to problems like feather plucking, screaming and biting so they need patient, understanding owners. Feather plucking is actually something that can happen in any species (but it seems most common in greys and cockatoos) so a parrot keeper must be willing to deal with that, which should involve taking the parrot to the vet.
That’s all for this post, and I’ll be doing a second about basic parrot care. Stay tuned!
For those interested in wild parrots, there’s a full-length documentary on keas at this site:
I’ve been to New Zealand and have seen keas and they are fascinating birds. I’ve written more about them here: