Parrots are intelligent, complex, beautiful birds. They are also extremely popular as companion pets, with birds coming in third place in pet popularity in U.S. households, ranking just behind dogs and cats.
When most people think of parrots, they think of smart, entertaining, brilliantly-colored creatures who talk, provide companionship, and can perform tricks. But what most people don’t realize is that unlike dogs and cats, parrots are still wild animals – although they can be tamed, they are not truly domesticated. This makes them fascinatingly complex, but it also makes them rather challenging pets.
Parrots And People
The ancient Egyptians were most likely the first humans to keep parrots as pets, although cave paintings of parrots have been found in Brazil dating to 5,000 years ago. Parrots became exotic and highly desirable pets in Europe in the early 1500’s after Christopher Columbus returned from the Caribbean with a pair of wild parrots for Queen Isabella of Spain. They gained popularity in the U.S. in the 1970’s and 80’s, when they first started to appear in mainstream pet stores. Parrots’ brilliant plumage and their ability to mimic human speech and other sounds in the environment made them an instant hit.
Parrots are highly intelligent, rivaling chimpanzees, dolphins, and young children on the intelligence scale. Studies done on African Grey parrots have proven that they can verbally identify dozens of objects and colors, and even add numbers together – similar to the cognitive ability of a 3 to 5 year old child.
Parrots are also extremely long-lived compared to other pets, with the average natural lifespan of a parrot ranging anywhere from 20 to 85 years. Parrots come in all sizes, from the compact African Grey to the imposing and statuesque Macaw. Other types of parrots include Amazons, Conures, Senegals, Cockatoos, and Cockatiels, as well as the smaller members of the parrot family, Parakeets and Lovebirds.
Why Parrots Can Be Challenging Pets
Parrot’s intelligence, inquisitive nature, and their charming ability to interact with people make it much too easy for pet lovers to fall in love with them without realizing how difficult they can be to live with. But this is definitely NOT the fault of the parrot!
Because parrots are wild animals (even if they’ve been bred in captivity, they are only 2 or 3 generations removed from their wild ancestors), it’s more difficult to build a relationship with them than it is with a domesticated animal. And parrots retain their wild instincts and behaviors, including loud vocalizations, which in the wild helped them communicate with their mates and members of their flock from a distance, but in the confines of a home can be nothing short of ear-splitting.
Also, types of parrots are not like different breeds of dogs – they are completely different species with their own emotional, physical, and nutritional needs, as well as diverse communication styles and body language. This requires a pet parent to have a thorough understanding of his or her parrot based on exactly what type of species they are.
Finally, since parrots are highly intelligent and emotionally sensitive, they can develop physical and behavioral problems if they’re not given the proper attention and mental stimulation. Dr. Sophia Yin once said, “Since parrots are a sort of avian Einstein, restricting one to a life of solitude and boredom can create a feathered delinquent.”
Sadly, aggressive behavior resulting from boredom, isolation, or mishandling by humans is one of the primary reasons why very few parrots find “forever homes”. Statistics show that most parrots are surrendered or sold at least 5 times in their lifetime, and many die prematurely due to stress.
What To Know Before You Bring Home A Parrot
Parrots can be fun and amazing companions if their guardians understand them and know ahead of time what needs to be done to keep them physically and mentally healthy. Sometimes knowing what to expect if you want to share your life with a parrot can make all the difference.
Here’s what you need to know before adding a parrot to your family.
- Parrots are loud. As in prolonged, repetitive, screaming loud. However, most screaming is the result of parrots trying to get their guardian’s attention.
- Parrots are not accessories. You can’t just leave an intelligent creature in a cage all day and night and expect him not to verbally ask for attention. Parrots who are played with daily are much less likely to be frustrated and act out. They can even be taken on “outings” in crates or on harnesses to let them interact with the outside world. However, keep in mind that all parrots will still be vocal – it’s just in their nature.
- Parrots can be messy, at least in our standard way of thinking. In the wild, parrots use their beaks to strip bark, make nests, hollow out trees, and forage through debris and foliage to find food. This doesn’t exactly lend itself to neat eating habits and being respectful of home furnishings.
- To keep your parrot happy and non-destructive, provide plenty of safe toys for him to play with that allow him to use his beak and feet.
- Parrots bite. They just do. Even the sweetest parrots can become alarmed or feel threatened and bite, and because we are not always the greatest at reading bird body language, these bites can seem to come out of nowhere. And they really hurt!
- One tip – the smaller the bird, the weaker the bite, and vice versa. Macaws can inflict a bite that requires stitches. If you have a low pain tolerance, you might want to go with a smaller parrot.
- Training your parrot is a necessity. Although most people think of a new puppy when they think of training sessions, training for your parrot is just as important. Through training, you build a stronger bond between you, your parrot learns how to interact with humans, and he gets the attention he needs. A trained parrot tends to be much happier all the way around.
- Parrot nutrition can be complicated. A healthy diet for parrots is not just birdseed and water, which is what most kids with parakeets were told when they were growing up. Parrots in the wild eat a large variety of fruits, foliage, nuts, grubs, and even small amounts of soil and clay. Pet parrots need a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Just be sure to do your homework, since some human foods (such as avocado, onions, and rhubarb) are toxic to parrots.
- Taking care of a parrot can be expensive. Cages, toys, food, and veterinary care for parrots can add up. Veterinarians who specialize in exotic birds had a fair amount of additional schooling to learn those skills, so if your parrot ever becomes sick, medical care is usually more costly than it would be for a dog or cat.
Parrots require a consistent time commitment just like dogs and cats. They need homes where they’re mentally and emotionally stimulated. Designing a safe play area for your parrot will give him the chance to play and interact with you, keeping his mind and his body busy while strengthening the communication between you.
- Most parrots need at least 2 hours out of their cages daily, and some experts recommend up to 6 hours of daily interaction. And you thought walking the dog daily was a commitment!
- Parrots (like all other birds) are extremely sensitive to second-hand smoke. Not only can they get sick from breathing in cigarette, cigar, or pipe smoke, but parrots can also become ill from perching on hands or clothing that contain nicotine residue. Therefore, it’s best for parrots to live in completely smoke-free households.
- Parrots need to stay busy throughout the day. Provide lots of toys for your parrot to play with when you’re not at home, and rotate his toys daily so he doesn’t get bored. Try to find toys of different shapes and colors to keep him interested, but avoid ones with very bright colors. Since bright colors are not natural in the wild, they tend to make parrots nervous.
- Parrots require a life-long care plan. Since some parrots can live up to 85 years, it’s important to prepare for your parrot’s care should he outlive you. Many people provide for their parrots in their wills for this reason. Try to prepare your parrot for potential change during his life by exposing him to different people and positive experiences whenever possible.
Is A Parrot The Right Pet For You?
Parrots can be amazing companions. They’re fun, learn quickly, and can grow to be affectionate and cuddly with their guardians. However, the downside to sharing life with such a social and intelligent animal is that parrots demand a tremendous amount of attention and mental stimulation in order to be happy and healthy.
Unfortunately, this is why parrots are one of the most misunderstood, discarded, and re-homed pets in the U.S. Many people adopt a parrot only to find that their new family member is much more than they bargained for, and they aren’t up to the intense, decades-long commitment.
If you decide that you are up to the challenge and ready and able to enjoy life with a parrot, please make sure you adopt from a parrot rescue organization rather than purchase your parrot at a pet store. Importing wild parrots is no longer legal in the U.S., so many pet stores get their supply of parrots from domestic breeders. With all the parrots out there who have outlived their former owners, or who are surrendered because people don’t realize how much work is involved in their care, you are sure to find a wonderful bird who is waiting for a home!
Have you ever shared life with a parrot? If so, what were the biggest pro’s and con’s? Please share your experiences with us in the comments below!