Flights of Fancy: A Companion Bird that Suits You

by Tara Caimi for Pawsitively Pets magazine ~

When considering a companion animal, birds may not come automatically to mind. For Craig Wood, owner of C & C Tropical Paradise Pet Shop in Philipsburg, PA, birds have been household companions for as long as he remembers.

After decades of living with a variety of birds, specializing in birds and educating people about them through his pet store, and raising companion birds by hand, Wood is brimming with suggestions on what to consider when choosing a bird.

“Make sure you’re able to provide nutritious food, the right size cage, and have enough space for your bird,” he says. Smaller birds may require a larger cage than one might think, Wood points out, because some smaller birds need to fly for exercise.

Parrot varieties such as African greys, parakeets, cockatiels, conures, and macaws—called hookbills due to the shape of their beaks—require space outside the cage for daily interaction and play time. The wings on hookbills are clipped, so they do not fly. They use their beaks to climb around their cages for exercise, as well as to crack and crush their food.

Wood says, “Time is probably the main thing they require because they want to be with you and interact.” He feels their intelligence may surprise new owners.

Some hookbills will mimic speech and can learn a surprising number of words. Wood warns, though, that some parrot varieties can be loud. “You don’t want a macaw in a small apartment. They’re very large and very loud; you’d probably get kicked out of your place!”

The African grey, on the other hand, doesn’t have a loud squawk. Wood’s own African grey “just whistles and talks and mimics the birds outside.”

For those who would rather their birds remain in cages, softbills may be the answer. These include birds, such as finches and canaries, that have straight beaks and may be more suitable for people with less space. “Finches have the advantage that they stay in a cage or an aviary all the time. They’re not a type of bird you interact with out of the cage like you would a parakeet or cockatiel,” says Wood.

Cristol Gregory has owned Lady Gouldian finches for six years. “They’re flock birds,” she says, “so a pair is minimum. But five to eight is their preference for cage living.”

Prior to having birds of her own, Gregory “bird-sat” a friend’s conure for two months. She found the amount of time and attention the conure required to be challenging on top of her family and work responsibilities.

The finches, it turned out, better fit her household. “They’re ready to interact when you are, but they aren’t lonely or needy or anything because they interact with each other,” she says.

Canaries are popular for their vibrant colors and beautiful sound, according to Wood. “Most people think of yellow for canaries. There are whites, red, and copper,” he says, adding that male canaries are known for their beautiful songs. Because canaries and finches need to fly for exercise, Wood recommends a “flight cage,” which is 26 inches and allows ample room for mobility.

Hookbills remain the most popular companion birds with parakeets and cockatiels topping the list. They are widely available, among the least expensive, and, at approximately 10 inches, “are small enough to be handled by anybody,” says Wood. “Parakeets are good for kids around 10 years old as long as they’re supervised, and parakeets can learn to mimic words.”

Birds generally need less space than pets like dogs and cats. They don’t need to be taken outside for multiple daily walks, and they have no need for a litter box. But they do require fresh food and water every day, along with a change of paper liners in their cages and a generally clean area.

Like other animals, birds also need a lot of toys. A glance at the bird aisle in C & C Pet Shop reveals an array of bells, mirrors, ladders, ropes, and many combinations thereof in assorted and vibrant colors.

Travel frequency is also a consideration, according to Wood, as finding housing and proper care for birds can be difficult. And allergies are not out of the question. “Birds give off a dust,” he says, “a feather dust. The larger the bird, the more dander it gives off.”

Most importantly, a person considering owning a bird should know the bird’s projected life span. Parakeets can live up to 15 years and cockatiels 25. The African grey can live up to 50 years, according to Wood, and the macaw can live 70 or longer.

Owning a bird is a long-term commitment, but taking the time to find the right bird can make it a rewarding one. “They are much more companionable than most people would think. They know their names. You’ll say good morning, and they’ll perk up,” Gregory says. “I love walking downstairs on a Saturday morning and having birdsong reverberate around my house,” she adds. “They just make you happy.”

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