- Posts for parrots tag
Life With Birds or Our Feathered Family | Our Prairie Nes
Our Feathered Family

“I want a bird,” you might say. Or think. Or you might go out and get one. And, for the most part, people imagine a pet bird as a tiny yellow canary, sitting in a cage, chirping quietly or not at all. Or maybe a parakeet that’s just cute and sweet, and the perfect accessory. However, the reality of owning a bird is very different than the imagined dream.

First of all, there’s a lot of information out there about which birds are “best for beginners” or most affectionate or least noisy or less likely to make a huge mess. The truth is, these ideas aren’t applicable in every situation. In fact, the most you can generalize about owning a bird is as follows:

  • They are messy.
  • They are noisy.
  • They aren’t cuddly.
  • They are also expensive.
  • They’re probably going to outlive you, especially if they’re a larger parrot.
  • Their care takes more research and education than a dog or cat ever will, so you’re better off with a dog or cat. Really.

And these generalizations are going to vary from bird to bird and person to person. If I’m starting off sounding negative, it’s because the cold, hard truth about birds is that they aren’t easy to have in your home. It’s like having a 3 to 7-year-old that never grows up, never leaves, never goes off to start their own life without relying on you (and even some humans don’t do that!). However, if you want one, here’s a glimpse into our feathered family and how we got here.

“Hold birb gentle like hamburger.”

Our First Bird

We started off with bird ownership because they’re, like, soooo cute! Okay, that wasn’t the only reason my husband practically begged me to go to a bird breeder when we lived in England. But what were the reasons for bird ownership, really, and were we ready? My husband knew more about birds than me. Just as some people are dog lovers or cat lovers or horse lovers or snake lovers, or whatever, he was a bird lover. I wasn’t sure about having a bird in a house with cats… or at all. So I did the same thing I did when I was expecting my first child: I researched the heck out of having a parrot. Especially because our first bird was going to be one that was considered not a beginner’s bird – a black-headed caique.

Here’s what I learned from countless books, websites, and forums – as with children, nothing will be the way you expect. This bird is going to come to you with pretty high-level intelligence, and the ability to both melt your heart and surprise you every single day.

We picked up Avery in a small English town right before Daniel had to go TDY at the time. That meant I was left all alone to care for a new bird with only recently-acquired knowledge, while the bird-lover who’d been into the idea of owning a parrot for at least several years was gone!

Avery and I became the absolute best of friends. He melted my heart from the moment he first fell asleep on me. Black-headed caiques are, as we would say back home in Massachusetts, wicked smaht, and he caught on fast with potty training. He was also a snugglebug (something I didn’t expect), talked to me while I showered if I let him come in the bathroom with me, and basically turned me into the bird mom I’ve become today.

Caique love.

He is now 9 years old, a sweetheart some days, a holy terror other days. If his hormones are surging, he thinks I’m his girlfriend and my husband is the enemy. If he’s feeling content, he’ll fall asleep nestled down on my chest or in the crook of my neck. He says his own name and “Step up.” He growls if he spots danger… or if he thinks you’re coming too close while he’s nibbling on a walnut. He’s smart enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong, but just as his intelligence is on par with a 3-year-old toddler’s, so is his self-control!

And I wouldn’t have it any other way. For me, birds are superior to dogs (though I’m still a cat person, as my head-butting, scritch-demanding, terrified-of-the-parrots felines can attest). I don’t have to go outside to clean up the birds’ poop. In fact, we don’t have to set foot outside on cold days for any of their needs. Warm days are another matter, in which case they get to spend the majority of the day outside, soaking up the sun!

Also, unlike dogs, birds don’t smell bad. Avery smells like wet cardboard, which is the telltale sign of a healthy caique who eats a good diet. They fly around the house freely, but trust me – there’s no pooping on your head mid-flight. Or at all if you’ve potty-trained your parrots.

A case of the zoomies…

Our Second Bird

In the summer of 2019, a friend reached out and let us know she was looking to downsize her flock. This is how Apollo, an approximately 12-year-old Congo African Grey came to us. I had no intention of buying another bird in the near future, but maybe to foster or adopt one after we finished renovating our home. I also had no intention if that bird being larger than Avery. Daniel said time and again that he wanted an African Grey, but I thought they were immense, like larger Macaw breeds.

However, just as Avery turned me into a bird mom, Apollo has me saying, “Hey, how about a Macaw in a few years?” Because this new addition to our family has also brought many lovely surprises.

Here’s another thing: if you aren’t ready to stand still and be calm when you hear the sound of flapping wings, you aren’t ready for a bird. Avery’s flight is more of a rapid flutter and he can almost hover like a hummingbird, but Apollo sounds like a helicopter! His body size is roughly equivalent to some of the smaller hawks out there.

When Apollo first came to us, he was an uncertain flyer. Now, he gets the zoomies on a regular basis. And when you have an almost 1-pound feathered missile darting around your home, you might want to duck for cover! But that’s something you absolutely cannot do, because a parrot is smart enough to look for the safest perch. That just might be you, so this is your second reminder that being able to stay calm when something is flying around or at you is important. If the very idea of a bird flying toward you terrifies you, you are probably better off with four-legged family members.

Parrots pick up many of their emotional cues from their environment. A calm, stable environment, with a steady routine of feeding, play time, flying time, and alone time (yes, even parrots need quiet and time to themselves) is important.

As with human toddlers, a bored parrot is often a loud and/or destructive parrot. An unsocialized parrot can become a sad or even spiteful one. And while you might think flighting a parrot (clipping their wings) is going to help them “behave,” it’s no more humane than declawing a cat. I’m going to put this bluntly: If you have to physically alter an animal to fit your personal preferences, you shouldn’t own an animal.

Having parrots is a lot like having children. They’re unique. They’re individuals. They have distinct personalities, likes and dislikes. They need to have some control or they’re going to give you a hard time. They need choices and options, and also the ability and freedom to refuse you. If they don’t want to be with you, they should be able to fly away from you. If they won’t eat their broccoli, you need to be open to trying different greens with them, because a well-balanced diet includes fruits, veggies, and pellets, with fatty treats like nuts and seeds kept to a minimum, and used for training or as special rewards.

Keep in mind these birds have cognitive ability ranging from that of a human toddler (a parakeet or caique, or other small parrot) to that of a kindergartner or first grader (an African Grey). Yes, a first grader. And that’s only based on what little we know about bird and parrot behavior.

You’ll clean up after me, won’t you, human?

Oh, and let’s not forget about those long life spans. When we get a dog or a cat, we figure on about twelve to twenty years with them. Even now, I joke that my eldest cat is an “old man” because he’s thirteen. But Apollo is also roughly thirteen or so… and this is barely a quarter of his life. Since I’m forty-five and he’s thirteen or maybe fourteen, a calculation of “possible years left” basically shows that either of us could outlive the other. And that’s not taking into consideration something happening to me or my husband sooner. Who gets the bird(s) if you die?

That isn’t a fun question to answer, but it’s something to have in mind before you commit to a parrot. Even worse is the fact that social media will be happy to remind you of that. “We welcomed an African Grey to our family!” I shared one day on Twitter. Someone decided it was then their duty to scold me about the fact that said African Grey will probably live to be sixty, and that I needed to think about that. My response was that my parrots are written into my Will and there is a home waiting for them, should something happen to me in the foreseeable future. I will also change my Will accordingly, as necessary (i.e. if my daughter still expresses a desire to have our birds when she reaches adulthood).

More Birds?

So after being a bird mom for nearly ten years (which isn’t a lot, but sometimes it feels like we’ve been a family forever), what’s in my future? More birds. My daughter wants a bird. We’ve told her that we know they look like a lot of fun to her and we realize she’s had birds in her home her entire life, since she just turned seven. However, we want her to be absolutely sure. If she still wants a bird when she’s twelve, we’ve agreed on a cockatiel (not to be confused with a cockatoo).

She is also taking an active part in training our caique. She works with him on step up, step down, and his continued potty training, as well as treating him for good behavior.

I also want to add a medium to large macaw to the mix but, again, not just yet. Our home renovation needs to be completed first and then we would like to build an outdoor aviary. But I might be about fifty-years-old by then, and I’m not sure I feel comfortable committing to a bird at that point in my life. It won’t be fair to a bird, unless we go for a much older rescue, which we’re open to. Knowing what I know about parrots, I wouldn’t get a baby again, simply on principle. But I’m glad we had Avery from his early days and wouldn’t change a thing!

Having parrots is a lot like getting a tattoo. The first one is exciting and you feel a little rebellious for doing it. It’s like a gateway into getting more and more. But, it’s more like a cross between getting a tattoo and having children, because it’s a living creature with needs and feelings. It’s something you have to really think about, because meeting their needs is so important. Give yourself time to consider what it would be like, because your life will change once you enter parronthood.

Welcoming a New Bird | Our Prairie Nest
Welcoming a New Bird

Life with one bird is interesting. Life with two is like leveling up.

Avery is challenging. He was our first bird, hatched in 2011 and ours since spring of that year. Having a Black-Headed Caique – or any bird – is like having a baby, toddler, or pre-schooler. You can read up on it all you want, but until you experience it, you can’t know what it will be like. Because just as every child has a different personality and way of interacting with you, so do birds.

Over the years, we’ve trained Avery, kept him entertained with assorted toys, and also learned he enjoys quiet cuddles. He is at his most positive with interaction and trick training, like many birds. We’ve also taught him good shoulder manners, i.e. you only get mommy’s (my) shoulder if you’re willing to step up and come off when someone says so.

My husband always wanted a second bird, preferably an African Grey, but I thought they were too large. Let’s face it, those beaks are a heck of a lot bigger than a caique’s, and I’ve seen the damage an angry, hormonal, territorial small bird can do to a finger (by the way, you should not get bitten if you’ve learned your bird’s signals; respect their space and don’t push/force interaction; that’s a great way to lose their trust).

But I agreed that Avery could use a companion… if they got along. That’s always a chancy thing, too, bringing home a pet that may or may not jive with your existing household. Case in point: our cats. Kobold can’t stand Shiva, and Shiva seems to think it’s hilarious that all he has to do is look at her, and she runs from him.

However, I said yes to a second bird, which is my limit, and asked a friend about finding one who was being rehomed. She was rehoming some of her birds, because as her kids had grown up, gotten full time jobs, and moved out, she and her husband found they couldn’t keep up with the demands of their own full time jobs, plus outside commitments, plus birds. We met their Congo African Grey, and my husband was smitten. He wanted “his” bird, because Avery is bonded to me. Thus, Apollo the 12-year-old Congo African Grey came to us.

Right away, we learned that our birds have two different personalities: Avery is a spaz, playful, strong-willed, and cuddly. Apollo is shy, uncertain, and sweet. He won’t allow petting, but he will express himself with the various sounds he learned living with his previous family and flock.

After a few days of getting to know Apollo, establishing a routine, and also seeing the dynamic between both Apollo and Avery, we’ve determined some new goals for Avery and training goals for Apollo.

They’re both wicked smart birds. Both know the “step up” command, which is appropriate for all parrots to learn. Apollo needs to develop trust in his new family, as well as self-confidence, so training sessions with his new family should instill this in him.

Goals for Avery

I’ve been training Avery ever since we got him 8 years ago. This includes potty training and trick training, but Daniel will also target train him to give him focus. We will also use Avery to demonstrate flying for Apollo as a way to get from point A to point B. Avery flies wherever he wants, usually my shoulder or head (permitted because he has good manners about stepping up when told). We would like Apollo to feel like it’s okay to fly, too.

It’s not that he can’t fly, but when he tries, he just sort of… descends. 🙂 We will also continue trick training Avery, as caiques are clownish little guys who love to play.

Goals for Apollo

Daniel will use target training with Apollo to teach trust and focus, and also help him stop his aggressive preening. He came to us with some plucking and we don’t expect to see that stop right away. If anything, it might get worse, because he’s in a new home with new people, and that’s scary as heck for anyone. But redirecting his focus while building a bond should help.

We would like to teach him enough trust for us to pet him. Daniel is doing this very slowly and, so far, Apollo will let him touch his wing and pet just above his beak. No pushing this. When Apollo uses his beak to gently move your finger, he means no. We respect his no.

Flying will come with time and trust, we think. We hope using Avery to demonstrate will help.

We also hope dietary changes will help Apollo. He enjoys sinking his beak into something substantial and really shredding it, so we have him on a fresh diet of fruits and vegetables (loves his broccoli stems!), with a homemade chopped/blended veggie/fruit/boiled eggshell mix every other day, and seeds and pellets for treats. We will introduce more formulated pellets for a balance between fresh food and optimized bird nutrition.

Like Avery, Apollo is encouraged to forage and shred. They get seeds as treats and stuffed inside foraging/shreddable toys.

A daily routine is in place that we also hope will help instill trust – a morning shower, breakfast, training, some quiet time with this toys, more training, more quiet time with his toys. And then the kids come home from school (4 days a week) and I come home from work (5 days a week), which means BUSY time. We all eat our dinner in the kitchen, birds and humans. All of us are in bed fairly early, because parrots need about 8 to 12 hours of sleep themselves.

And that is life with birds. I think having one stay-at-home person is important when you have pets that need this much attention. That isn’t doable for every family and I know how privileged we are that we can have one stay-at-home parent for the kids and birds!

As I said previously, it’s like having a toddler. Except you have that toddler for 20+ years. Maybe even 40, 50, or 60. Like parenthood, “parronthood”/a bird’s life isn’t for everyone. But those of us who embrace it find it immensely rewarding to watch our “babies” grow.