Birds For Dummies
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Love at first sight? Slow down a little! When it comes to buying a bird, you need to be a savvy consumer, with your head more in control than your heart, and your wallet firmly in your pocket — or better yet, left at home — until you have good answers to some crucial questions.

Restrain your urge to buy until you’re sure what kind of bird is the right match for you. If you go to a bird shop or breeder without a solid understanding of the differences between species, you may well end up falling in love with a pretty bird who doesn’t really agree with your personality and lifestyle.

Where do you get your birds?

The world is full of people selling pets who are better suited for another line of work. To them, a bird (or a puppy or a kitten) is nothing more than a product to make as cheaply as possible and sell as profitably as possible. Aside from the philosophical question of whether a living creature should be treated like an object — we certainly don’t think so — birds who are produced in a strictly bottom-line manner may not make good companions.

Healthy bird babies come from healthy parents, are raised in healthy environments on healthy foods, and are lovingly socialized by human “godparents.” They’re not the stressed-out “production units” you may find with a mass producer. For a bird to have a chance as a good companion, he needs to have an idea of what a human being looks, sounds, and smells like, a chance to bond to a species that doesn’t look very much like his own.

Because we’ve seen the sick and unsocialized babies who are the direct result of poor-quality breeding and marketing practices, we think your best bet is dealing with an experienced local breeder or a shop that buys from one. (Brian, for example, sells his macaw babies through reputable bird shops because he doesn’t want people dropping in at his home.)

Ideally, you want to deal directly with a seller who either breeds her own birds or buys from locals she has confidence in. Most shops are happy to share the sources of their birds; an ethical and principled operation is proud of the quality of the birds it has for sale. Other shops prefer not to reveal the names of their breeding sources — sometimes at the request of the breeders — but can assure you that they’re local, can provide references from other buyers and from veterinarians, and stand behind the quality of the birds they sell.

An individual or shop that cannot or will not tell you the source of its pets — or that makes some vague reference to a large production facility — is probably not your best bet for a healthy bird with good potential as a companion. “We get our birds from lots of local breeders and from a few large producers” may not be a sign of good quality control; the health of the babies is often only as good as the health of the poorest-quality supplier, because of the highly infectious nature of some types of disease. In general, the fewer the number of breeders supplying a store, the better.

Depending on where you live and the type of bird you’re hoping to buy, a reputable aviculturist may not live in the same state as you are. In some areas — California, Florida, and Texas among them — breeding and selling companion birds is a big industry, with lots of participants, both large and small, professional and hobbyist. Trying to find a breeder in the Midwest, though, may be as difficult as finding beach toys during wintertime — they’re around, but not that common. A reputable bird store deals only with good breeders, whether they’re in the same city or hundreds of miles away.

How many birds do you sell per year?

With this question, the idea is to ensure that a seller is able to pay attention to birds as individuals. Although a reputable shop may sell 200 to 300 birds or sometimes more per year, all healthy and well-socialized, any retail outlet that moves markedly more than that number ought to set off alarms in your head.

Socialization and health are everything in this game, and in our experience, large-scale operations aren’t able or willing to pay as much attention to these factors as quality care requires. And how can a breeder, with hundreds or thousands of breeding pairs housed in colonies without any concern about who’s mating with whom, possibly be in tune with a bird’s predisposition to congenital problems or current state of health? Get 'em hatched, pack 'em up, and ship 'out by the thousands isn’t the way to produce a healthy new family member, in our opinion.

Even though you’re taking a risk with a mass-produced bird — and possibly supporting some questionable businesses — you also have to remember that smaller isn’t necessarily better when it comes to bird breeding. A careless, sloppy, or uninformed breeder can mess up one clutch of baby birds just as surely as a mass producer can ruin thousands. Some small-scale hobbyists are excellent; others aren’t. Some large breeding operations are excellent; others aren’t. Health and socialization are key!

A clutch is bird-speak for what you find in a nest — eggs laid at the same time from a particular breeding pair, incubated and hatched at one time.

What are the terms of the sales contract and post-purchase warranty?

A bird who may appear perfectly healthy at the time of sale may, in fact, be harboring an infectious disease or birth defect that can limit the quality of her life, if not eventually kill her. Such a situation can be heartbreaking, of course, but it can also be financially devastating. Some parrots carry price tags into the thousands — and tens of thousands — of dollars, not to mention the significant expense of cages and other must-have equipment for a bird you may not have long and can’t afford to replace.

Make sure the sales contract spells out what happens if something goes wrong — if the bird gets sick or dies, for example. Nothing can make up for the sadness of losing a bird, but a contract spelling out terms of replacement or compensation with a good post-purchase warranty can at least offset some of the financial burden and provide a measure of protection to both buyer and seller.

Expect a seller who has the bird’s welfare in mind to strongly recommend or require you to have the bird examined by a qualified veterinarian of your choice within a certain time frame — 48 to 72 hours is a common recommendation. The veterinary exam ensures to your own satisfaction that your new bird is healthy. The seller should lay out the ground rules if the bird is not healthy — full refund, store credit, or other alternative that is acceptable to you.

What are your references?

Ask the seller for names of recent buyers (within the last year or so). Call a couple of previous buyers and ask what they thought of their dealings with the shop or breeder, as well as what kind of companions their birds have turned out to be. A good sign: Aviculturists or shops that stay in touch with buyers and are always available to help out with behavior or husbandry recommendations. Satisfied customers continue to patronize a bird shop for boarding, grooming, and supplies.

A veterinary reference is important, too. Ask store owners or breeders for the name of the veterinarian who treats their birds. If the business can’t provide one, don’t buy. A seller who treats her own birds or who doesn’t believe in or practice preventive veterinary care isn’t the kind of person from whom you can safely buy. Who knows what illnesses are brewing in birds with such precarious beginnings? The seller certainly doesn’t, and you’re smart to skip the opportunity to find out.

How old is this bird?

Most novice bird owners are better off with a young bird, one without the “baggage” of past relationships. But because of their real or perceived value, problem parrots are often sold time and time again, with each owner hoping to recoup at least part of the purchase price while dumping an unmanageable bird on someone else. Although finding older birds who make wonderful pets is within the realm of possibility, the only sure way to know a bird’s history is to buy a weaned baby (one capable of eating without assistance) from a reputable source.

A reliable seller knows the age of the bird; ideally, a hatch date appears on the paperwork that comes with the bird. If a bird was raised by parents, not by human hands — perfectly acceptable if he has been socialized — an exact hatch date may not be known, but the seller should be able to give you an estimate that’s pretty close. Good breeding practices include good recordkeeping: When you see evidence that the paperwork has been taken care of properly, most often so has the bird!

In some species, you can determine approximate age by markings or eye color — both of which change as a bird matures. For instance, male African ringneck parakeets develop a black ring around the neck when they’re 18 to 36 months old.

Keep in mind that young is good, but unweaned babies often are not. Few new bird owners have the expertise to hand-feed, wean, and socialize an unweaned baby, like the one shown. Don’t buy into old-fashioned thinking suggesting that your bird is destined to bond better if you buy him unweaned, and don’t fall for a lower price for an unweaned baby. Too many novices who buy unweaned babies end up with dead birds. Cockatiels and budgies are weaned by 6 to 8 weeks of age; larger parrots range from 14 weeks up to 6 months.

unweaned Amazon Photograph by Brian L. Speer, DVM

Cute as they are, unweaned babies, such as this blue-fronted Amazon, aren’t the best pets, especially for first-time buyers.

Some nonprofit organizations work not only to rescue birds with problems but also to educate prospective adopters so they have a better chance of making the newly forming relationship work. By requiring classes for adopters, these organizations help to ensure educated bird owners are prepared to deal with any health or behavior problems in their new pets.

Does this bird have any medical problems, past or current?

This question may require some tact — you don’t want to accuse someone of trying to sell you a sick bird. Still, you have a right to know — and a need to know — the bird’s medical history. If the bird you fancy is currently being treated for an illness, don’t buy her until a veterinarian has certified the bird’s return to good health. Not all problems are easily remedied, so don’t take a chance. If the bird recovers and you still want her, fine.

You want to feel confident that the seller has a history of using a veterinarian. Overreliance on home remedies and guesswork is a red flag. A tactful way to find out whether the bird’s illness has been properly addressed is to ask for a copy of the medical records so your own veterinarian can review them. If there are no medical records because the seller hasn’t used a veterinarian for care, beware!

Does this bird have any behavioral problems?

Many birds end up in new homes because their owners can’t deal with behavior problems. In general, a novice bird keeper is better off avoiding birds with behavior problems, but if you feel capable of taking on the challenge, be sure you understand what you’re likely to face.

Feather picking is pretty obvious, because the afflicted bird may look more like a plucked chicken than a parrot in full, colorful plumage. Don’t fall for that old line, “He’s just molting.” He may not be. Other potential problems may not be so straightforward. Some birds don’t like men; others don’t like women. Some are afraid of people with glasses or have no basic training in good behaviors, such as stepping onto a hand or perch. Others scream constantly for attention — usually because that’s what their previous owners have inadvertently taught them.

Go into any such a situation with your eyes open and be determined to work on the problem in full knowledge that some sad situations can’t be fixed. Others require a great deal of time and patience. Some birds get passed around more than a football, growing more unhappy and insecure with each change of family (wouldn’t you?). If you aren’t willing to put some time and effort into a problem bird, don’t consider taking one on. Parrots are highly intelligent — it’s one of the reasons they’re so popular. But it’s also one of the reasons “recycled” birds are such an iffy proposition. When a bird has had a rough life, he often bears psychological scars that can make him a challenging companion indeed.

How have you socialized this bird?

If the answer to this question is “Huh?,” consider looking elsewhere when shopping for anything except birds who aren’t meant to be handled, such as members of the finch family, canaries included.

Birds don’t have to be hand-fed to be socialized — that’s a myth we’d like to correct. Parent-raised birds have wonderful pet potential, as long as they’re handled, played with, and talked to by humans while they’re growing. You don’t expect every kitten or puppy to be bottle-fed from birth, do you? Of course not! Mother dogs and cats do a wonderful job of raising their own offspring, and as long as the babies are handled and exposed to humans, they have no problem transferring their affection from their mothers and littermates to members of their new, human family. The same is true of birds: It’s perfectly fine to let a bird’s parents do the raising, as long as the babies are socialized by humans.

If the bird you’re thinking of buying has been hand-raised, that’s fine, too, provided you realize that the overall handling, not the hand-feeding, makes the difference.

A dependable breeder or bird shop can explain how the birds have been socialized, how they’ve been handled, and how much time they’ve spent with people. You don’t want to hear, “She’s a nice bird, and if you can get her out of the cage, she’s yours.”

Because of the economic realities of hand-feeding less-expensive birds — the profit margin just isn’t there — many budgies and some cockatiels aren’t socialized at all. From an economic perspective, nurturing an Eclectus parrot or hyacinth macaw (both with price tags in the hundreds to thousands of dollars) makes more sense than to lavish that much attention on a parakeet who may fetch as little as $10. If you find a socialized budgie or cockatiel, you’re in luck! But if you end up with a bird who’s largely wild, you can work toward building trust and a good relationship.

What have you been feeding this bird?

If the seller says, “Seed,” run! All-seed diets are not healthy for birds and shorten their lives in the long run. You have to wonder what else could be wrong with a bird whose seller doesn’t know this basic fact. Some bird folks make their own diets from a nutritious blend of “people food” and seeds. Others feed one of the balanced pelleted diets, supplemented with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Our recommendation is to support a seller who already has the bird on one of these commercial diets and to stick with it when you take your bird home. Research shows that pelleted diets keep birds healthy. They make caring for a pet bird easier, too, because you won’t have to figure out your bird’s nutrition needs every day and fix meals from scratch. The makers of commercial pellets have already done that job.

Pellets aren’t the whole story — you need to supplement commercial foods with a healthy dose of fruits, vegetables, and other foods. Don’t worry, though: Avian nutrition isn’t that complicated.

May I visit and get to know the bird before buying?

We include this question because it’s a good idea to spend some quiet time observing any bird you’re considering before bringing out your wallet. You need to look at a bird as an individual, not just go by what you think is normal for each species. A Pionus parrot may, indeed, have more in common with another Pionus parrot than with an African grey, but that doesn’t mean personality differences don’t exist among individual birds.

One of Brian’s favorite stories is from the first clutch of blue-and-gold macaws he raised — Uno, Dos, and Tres. Dos literally hatched with an attitude problem, and she still pretty much has one, 38 years later. Fortunately, she lives with a person who’s a good fit for her personality, but getting her through her “childhood” was a challenge from the first crack in her egg! Although they had the same parents, she and her nestmates were very different.

Look beyond the beautiful plumage and try to pick up clues from the bird you plan to share your life with. Observe quietly, and see how the bird responds. Is he interested in your attention? Afraid? Indifferent? If you let him perch on your hand, does he seem to relax? Can you get a sense of the individual bird? Do you like him? Do you think he likes you?

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Gina Spadafori is the pet care columnist for the Universal Press Syndicate and the award-winning author of Dogs For Dummies and Cats For Dummies. Brian L. Speer, DVM, is the owner and director of the Medical Center for Birds in Oakley, California, and a past president of the Association of Avian Veterinarians.

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