California Bird Nerds Windy City
Frequently Asked Questions

Should I get a parrot?
What kind should I get?
Breeder or pet store?
What kind of cage should I buy?
What do parrots eat?
Will the bird get along with my dog/cat?
How do you tame a bird?
Should I take a sick bird to the vet?
How do I teach my parrot to talk?
Does my bird need a mate?
Should I clip my bird's wings?
Anything else I should know?

Should I get a parrot?
Imagine having a crazy housemate. He screams, gnaws furniture and throws peanut shells on the floor. But he can also be smart, funny and surprisingly affectionate, and this actually makes up for all the weird and annoying stuff. If this sounds appealing you'll probably like having a parrot.

Smart, curious, loud and messy.   (Owen, an Amazon, courtesy of Foster Parrots.)

Like any self-respecting being, the parrot has needs. A real foodie, he needs more than bourgeois seed. You must cook for him. He needs a big cage, a shoulder to ride on, and a neck to nuzzle.

The parrot needs a a long lease, because even if he's small, he might live for 10 to 20 years. Amazons, cockatoos, macaws and other big parrots have human lifespans- up to 80 years. The next time you draw up your will, you might want to include your parrot.

Whoever coined the saying, "A sick bird is a dead bird," probably didn't bother to take his bird to the vet. Parrots need a healthplan that includes regular checkups.

When you go out of town, the parrot needs a pet sitter or a friend whose house he can visit.

Above all, parrots need to chew. If not provided with wooden objects of your own choosing, the parrot will happily eat your end tables and floors and kitchen cabinets. Any reasonable substitute for tree bark will do. Parrots never outgrow the need to dismantle. Destruction is their job.

What kind should I get?
Cockatiels are the number-one pet bird in America. These small crested parrots are great for novice bird owners, apartment dwellers and people with kids.

Budgies, aka parakeets, are delightful too but not as hardy as they used to be because of overbreeding. Sadly, they often develop malignant tumors after just a few years.

Small parrots make fairly good pets for kids.   (Cocoa the Quaker parakeet courtesy of Foster Parrots.)

Quakers, conures and lovebirds are also nice choices for people with limited space.

Amazons, macaws and cockatoos have dramatic plumage, talk the most, and can be quite affectionate.

But they have the largest hooked beaks of all the parrots, and aggressive individuals can deliver serious bites.

Lories and lorikeets have challenging requirements. Nectar eaters in the wild, they need a special liquid diet and special cages to contain their droppings, which they spray up to six feet away. Still, some people prefer lories for their devotion and comical personalities.

The macaw's hooked beak can be dangerous.   (Psycho the scarlet macaw courtesy of Foster Parrots.)

Read more about the different types of parrots and what experienced owners have to say about them. The more upfront research you do the better your chances of a long happy relationship with the right bird.

Pet store or breeder?
Pet stores are fast and convenient, but employees are rarely knowledgeable enough about birds to offer helpful advice. It's impossible to know for sure a pet-store bird's age, background or health.

Breeders sell young, tame birds and can tell you everything you need to know about care and behavior. However, there is no guarantee that a hand-fed bird will stay tame, and some breeders engage in cruel practices you do not want to support.

Rescue birds
Walk-through aviary at the Foundation Dutch Parrot Refuge.

Consider adopting a bird. Believe it or not, there are hundreds of bird rescue groups in this country. These organizations, which sometimes have physical buildings you can visit but are usually loose networks of foster homes, care for thousands of unwanted parrots.

If there's no rescue near you, try the local animal shelter. Most dog and cat shelters always have a few birds available for adoption, too.

What kind of cage should I buy?
Get the largest cage you can afford. At a minimum, it should be big enough for the bird to completely extend its wings. However, the bars should not be so big or far apart that the bird can stick his head through.

The cage should be square or rectangular and made of a powdercoated rust-resistant metal. Avoid round cages, which are hard for parrots to climb; ornamental wooden cages; and ones made of hardware cloth. Parrots will destroy wooden cages and hardware cloth is coated with zinc, which is poisonous.

Place the cage in the living room or another room near family activities. Birds like to be part of the action. Install two or three perches of varying diameters to prevent foot fatigue and pressure sores. Small tree branches make a nice alternative to commercial dowels. (But first check for plants that are safe to chew.)

box in cage
Parrots appreciate a nest box they can retreat to for sleeping or privacy.

Hang at least a couple of interesting toys in the cage to keep your bird occupied when you're not around. Rotate toys every couple of weeks to keep things interesting.

Birds need to bathe at least once every couple of weeks to keep their feathers in tip-top shape. Small parrots such as budgies can use the small plastic bathtubs that can be attached to the inside of the cage.

For larger parrots, use a heavy ceramic dog dish as a bathtub. (Big parrots will tip over anything lighter.) If your bird won't bathe on his own, lightly spritz him with lukewarm water from a plastic plant-misting bottle.

Line the bottom of the cage with newspaper. You don't need anything fancier. Newsprint doesn't hurt birds, even if they shred the paper. Change the paper every day for a nicer smelling house and an easy way to spot a change in droppings.

Experts recommend parrots get 12 hours of quiet and darkness every night. Covering the cage with an old towel or light blanket helps most birds sleep better.

What do parrots eat?
It was popular for a while to feed parrots nothing but seed, which they love. But an all-seed diet is high in fat and deficient in vitamin A, calcium and protein, and will eventually cause serious health problems such as liver disease.

Good food
Parrots can thrive on people food as long as you leave out the salt and sugar. Feed grains, vegetables and fruits.

There are a number of good formulated bird diets on the market today. However, parrots are notorious for refusing dry pellets. (Can you blame them?)

If your bird won't eat formulated food, you can feed him people food, but it has to be healthy - no potato chips, gummi bears or quesadillas. In other words, no salt, no sugar and very little fat.

The recommended ratio is 50 percent cooked grains such as rice and oatmeal, 20 percent fresh fruits, 20 percent fresh vegetables, and 10 percent nuts and beans.

All these people foods are fine for parrots: whole-kernel corn, cooked pasta, plain popcorn, cooked oatmeal, barley, wheat bread and unsweetened no-salt breakfast cereals such as Kashi. Parrots can be taught to like spinach, broccoli, cooked yams, squash, sprouts, and carrots. Most birds love apples, pears, plums, oranges and grapes. Even bits of cooked beef, chicken or fish are okay.

If your bird has eaten nothing but seed all of his life, you can convert him to a better diet. Start as soon as possible, because fondness for a variety of foods could help save his life if he ever gets sick and loses his appetite.

Gradually introduce new foods while leaving the bird's old seed diet in the cage for a few hours every day. As it learns to like the new menu, feed less seed. Never abruptly and completely change a bird's diet. A parrot suddenly and completely deprived of familiar foods can starve itself.

Tip for first-time cockatiel and budgie owners: Check your bird's seed dish daily to make sure it's full of seeds, not seed husks that have fallen into the dish as the bird eats. You can separate shells from whole seeds by lightly blowing over the dish. (To make it easier for the bird to find whole seeds and for you to check the dish's contents, fill the dish only a third of the way.)

Never give birds avocado or chocolate. Avocados contain a toxic chemical called persin. Chocolate contains theobromine, a caffeine-related alkaloid that animals cannot metabolize. Also, remove all seeds from fruits; some pits are toxic to birds.

Will the bird get along with my dog/cat?
Many dogs can be taught to leave birds alone. And lots of people swear their cats are harmless. However, instincts run strong, and a sudden impulse can quickly result in tragedy. Even birds that survive initial cat attacks usually die from their wounds. Cat saliva contains a bacteria called pasteurella, deadly to birds.

Use common sense. Never let a bird out of its cage in the same room with a cat, ferret or other natural predator. Never leave dogs unsupervised around birds.

Never leave a bird unattended outside, even if its wings are clipped. It takes only a few seconds for a predator to attack.

In rare cases, hawks have been known to pluck parrots off their owners' shoulders as they walk outdoors. Raptors also can seriously injure birds through aviary mesh. Protect aviary birds with double walls.

Parrot buddies
Different species might get along if similar in size. These close buddies had to be separated after the macaw cracked the smaller bird's beak. (Wally the macaw and Bill the conure, courtesy of Foster Parrots.)

Thinking about adding another bird to the family? Go slowly. Never force your bird to share the same cage with a stranger, even one of the same species.

Many parrots become fast friends but there's no guarantee. In this respect parrots are just like people. Some get along, others just don't.

Introductions should be gradual. Start by placing cages side by side and work up to allowing both outside their cages at the same time.

Some species can't be with other birds in the close confines of captivity. Lories will kill smaller pet birds in the household if given a chance. Male cockatoos often kill female cockatoos. Never leave these parrots alone with other birds.

How do you tame a bird?
If your new bird is afraid of you, don't worry. He probably just needs time.

Don't try to make friends right away. Let your bird watch the comings and goings of the new household for a couple of days.

After a settling-in period, place your hand inside the cage and say "up" while offering one finger to a small parrot and your entire hand to a large bird. If the bird doesn't respond, gently press the back of your finger or hand against its lower abdomen to encourage it to step forward.

If the bird panics at your approach, take it down a notch. Try just sitting and reading in the same room to start with. As the bird becomes calmer, gradually move your chair closer to the cage. Offer a treat through the bars.

When a bird has been mistreated or never handled, it can take days, weeks, even months of consistent, patient, daily interaction to earn its trust. Don't give up. You'll know you're in the day your bird bows his head to ask for a scratch.

Should I take a sick bird to the vet?
Absolutely. Line up a good avian veterinarian before you need him. Pick out a nearby after-hours emergency clinic as well and keep the numbers handy.

Watch for any changes in your parrot's behavior that might signal illness. Don't wait even a day to see if things get better. Call your vet immediately and describe the symptoms.

Gram scales are the best way to track a bird's weight.

Sick parrots sit fluffed and listless on their perches or, if an illness has progressed to a serious stage, on the bottom of the cage. A parrot with pneumonia or other serious problem might make a barely audible wheezing sound. A bird's singing or speaking voice might sound different.

Droppings are normally shaped like a target and consist of firm white and dark green parts. A sick bird might have runny or discolored droppings for several days in a row. (An occasionally runny dropping after a fright or stressful event is normal.)

Weight loss or gain can also indicate illness, but by the time your bird looks thin a condition might be serious. You can monitor weight more closely with a gram scale, available at online pet-supply companies. Weigh your bird every six months and call your vet if weight fluctuates 10 percent or more.

sick cage
Keep a sick bird warm by placing a heating pad against one side of the cage and wrapping the cage in plastic.

Sick or injured parrots should be kept in a warm place between 78 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Commercial incubators make good infirmaries but can be expensive.

You can make your own hospital cage out of plywood, with a plexiglass front and a false bottom equipped with two or three light bulbs. Experiment with air holes and bulbs until you achieve the desired temperature.

For a quick-and-dirty hospital cage that doesn't require carpentry skills, place a heating pad against the side of the cage and wrap it and the entire cage in plastic wrap. Seal loosely along the bottom with towels and cut openings in the front for fresh air and access to the bird and food cups. Adjust the wrap as needed to maintain the desired temperature.

Place a thermometer inside the cage so you can monitor the temperature. Overheated birds hold their wings apart from their body, pant with an open beak, or both.

Keep plenty of food and water in the hospital cage. If the bird is very weak, remove all perches so he doesn't fall and hurt himself.

How do I teach my parrot to talk?
Most parrots are capable of saying at least one or two words. You can increase the odds that your parrot will talk by choosing a chatty species, such as an African grey or Amazon parrot.

However, there's no guarantee a bird will talk. It depends on the individual. Some African greys don't say much, while some talented parakeets talk a blue streak. Other birds never utter a word, but might mimic the beep of a microwave.

Some people swear by training tapes, which repeat words and phrases over and over. However, most parrots learn phrases they hear their owners say frequently, such as "hello" or "come here."

A pet parrot will prefer a mate of the same species over a human companion.   (Photo of military macaws General and Mrs. B courtesy of Foster Parrots.)

Does my bird need a mate?
Not necessarily. Parrots that get lots of human attention, toys and other distractions seem to lead emotionally fulfilled lives.

But if you travel a lot or just can't spend as much time with your bird as it seems to need, a mate or a companion of the same species can be a kindness.

Will you lose your bird's affection if you provide it with a feathered friend? Yes, to a large degree. Once paired, a parrot largely abandons its human relationships.

You can still handle it, but its feathered partner will come first.

Should I clip my bird's wings?
There are two schools of thought. Most people clip because it helps prevent escape and makes taming easier. Trimming undoubtedly saves lots of birds from flying into windows and mirrors, frying pans, toilets and cactus plants.

However, many bird owners prefer not to clip. Parrots allowed to fly do get more exercise. They probably benefit psychologically as well. Some people even believe in letting their birds fly free outdoors. However, this is highly controversial and not recommended for the average pet owner.

unrestrained trim
Very tame birds like this lory might accept a nail trim without restraint.

If you decide to clip, you can take your bird to the vet to have it done professionally or you can do it yourself. Trimming a bird's wings isn't hard, once you get the hang of it, and can save a lot of money, not to mention the stress of a trip to the vet's. Watch someone else do it a couple of times before trying it yourself.

You'll need a small pair of blunt scissors, a light towel, and a second person to restrain the bird.

The helper should drape the towel over the bird's back and grasp him firmly but gently by the back of the head. Never completely cover the head or squeeze the body. The bird's air sacs can collapse and cause suffocation.

Trim all of the primary feathers, the first grouping of feathers before the wing bends, half to two-thirds of the way. Never cut the secondary wing feathers, the second set beyond the bend and closer to the body. Trim both wings for balance.

A pair of notched scissors (bottom) can be used to trim a small parrot's nails. Use guillotine-style clippers for larger birds.

To extend a wing, hold it by the edge, never the tips of feathers. Before cutting a feather, carefully examine it to make sure its not still growing in.

These "blood feathers" have swollen, purplish lower shafts. This means they're still being nourished by a small reservoir of blood. When cut or accidentally broken a blood feather bleeds profusely.

Bleeding usually stops on its own; if it doesn't, staunch blood by applying gentle pressure or corn starch. Remove the remaining feather shaft as soon as possible as leaving it can lead to renewed bleeding later.

If you're squeamish about removing a feather, have your vet do it. Otherwise, have a helper restrain the bird while you firmly grasp the feather as close to the birds body as possible with a pair of pliers (or tweezers, for small feathers).

With your other hand, gently hold the area around the base of the feather so that when you pull the feather out, the action does not tear the skin. Extract the feather in one clean movement. Once the feather's removed the bleeding should stop.

Keep newly trimmed birds on low perches over carpet until they're used to their new wings. A crash onto a hard floor or pavement can result in serious head or keel injuries.

Most birds need regular nail trims. Overgrown nails can snag in clothing and make walking and climbing awkward for the bird. For nail trims you'll need a good pair of notched or guillotine-style nail clippers, found in most pet stores.

clipping yourself
You can trim a small parrot's nails without help by wrapping it in a washcloth and gently holding it between your knees.

For very overgrown nails, snip off the tip only. You should be able to see the vein inside light colored nails. Wait two or three weeks between sessions to let the vein recede and trim again.

If you accidentally cut the vein, stop bleeding by applying styptic powder to the end of the nail with your finger. Styptic works by chemical burn, so never apply it anywhere else on your bird or let him taste it.

If your birds beak has grown so long that it interferes with eating or grooming, try giving him hard wood to chew. He should be able to break off the tip by himself.

In birds like budgies an overgrown beak can mean a serious underlying medical condition, such as an enlarged liver. Consult your vet.

Beaks should be trimmed only as a last resort. If your vet insists on using a sanding tool, which terrifies most birds, you can try clipping the beak yourself. But trim ultra conservatively to avoid hitting the vein. Bleeding can be hard to stop and open beaks can become infected.

Anything else I should know?
Yes, and this is extremely important: birds' lungs consist of multiple air sacs that are extremely sensitive to fumes. Aerosols, overheated Teflon-coated cookware, plug-in air fresheners, cigarettes, even fingernail polish remover - anything that has an odor - should be considered potentially deadly to your parrot.

Dangerous items
Parrot no-nos: avocados, chocolate and plug-in air fresheners.

Watch out for other dangers. Parrots chew electrical cords. Keep cords out of reach. Don't let birds chew on house plants or shrubs outdoors, either, unless you know they're safe. Consult our list of safe and toxic plants.

Know the signs of poisoning. Birds that have been poisoned might have seizures or vomit. A vomiting bird whips its head from side to side. Pumping the head up and down is the motion used to regurgitate food, an affectionate behavior, and nothing to worry about.

If your parrot acts poisoned or you think it's eaten or inhaled something harmful, call your vet or the poison control hotline of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at 888-426-4435. A veterinary toxicologist will instruct you on what to do. Have your credit card ready to pay the $60 charge.

Don't place cages directly against a drafty or overly sunny window. Birds are just as susceptible to heatstroke and sunstroke as any other animal.

An overheated bird pants with its beak open and may hold its wings slightly apart from its body. Always provide shade and cool water to drink.

electrical cord
Parrots and electrical cords don't mix.

Keep toilet lids closed to prevent accidental drowning, turn off ceiling fans when your parrot is out of its cage, and don't use flypaper or mouse traps.

Finally, a word about store-bought toys. Check on toys in the cage often. Make sure ropes aren't unraveling; they can wrap around a bird's neck or foot, causing strangulation or the bird to chew off toes to escape.

Avoid jingle bells and chain links; these can snare toes and beaks. And keep an eye on plush toys and huts to make sure birds aren't ingesting the material.



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