Birds For Dummies
Book image
Explore Book Buy On Amazon
When it comes to birds, too many people get in over their heads, choosing a pet who’s too large, too loud, too expensive, and ultimately, too much to handle. If your list of must-have birds includes only the largest and most colorful parrots, expand your horizons and consider some other birds with great pet potential before you buy.

The world of birds is large, with more than 300 species of parrots alone — although, of course, not all of them are commonly available as pets. Some of these species are perfect for the first-time owner, in different ways. Some are good because they don’t need — or want — to be handled, and some for the opposite reason — because they’re feathered love sponges.

In this article, we present an admittedly subjective list of birds — some well-known, some not — that are reasonably priced, reasonably sized, and just plain reasonable to live with.

Deal with a reputable breeder or bird store when shopping for any pet; otherwise, all those wonderful traits we attribute to birds may be nonexistent in the animals you encounter. Some pet retailers see birds as goods to be bred, shipped, and sold as quickly and efficiently as possible. Rapid stock turnover may be a great plan for merchandising widgets, but it’s not ideal for pets. Deal with people who sell healthy, well-socialized birds, and you can count on the best start possible.

You may have noticed that we don’t include any of the large parrot species such as macaws and cockatoos in our suggestions for beginners. Until you really have a good sense of what it means to share your life with a bird, it may be best to hold off committing to ownership of one of these large, loud, strong, long-lived species.

Canaries and Finches

Canaries and Finches

Photograph courtesy of Claudia Hunka, Your Basic Bird (Berkeley, California)

Canaries are actually finches, so we’ve combined them here. The canary — among the oldest, most popular, and most varied pet birds in the world — is known for his vocal talents and vibrant color. Canaries hail originally from the Canary Islands, which were not named for their most famous residents but for the dogs the Romans found there. (Canis is Latin for “dog.”)

Wild canaries are green and yellow, but when folks think of them today, they most often conjure up a brilliantly colored yellow bird, thanks, mostly, to the Sylvester-outsmarting cartoon character, Tweety Bird.

In fact, canaries come in many colors and varieties, thanks to centuries of selective breeding. Canaries can be sleek or plump in body type, smooth or puffy when it comes to feathers, with colors from yellow to bright orange to green and brown. If you want a singer, though, make sure your new bird is a male; female canaries don’t sing.

Although still one of the more popular birds in the world, the canary isn’t talked about as much for its pet potential as it used to be. And that’s a shame, because the bird is perfect for beginners who aren’t sure they want as much interaction as some other species require. The canary is happy to hang out in a cage and entertain you with beauty and song. In fact, he’d rather not be handled.

Because they don’t require or desire handling, the canary can be a good pet for kids, providing song and beauty and allowing youngsters to observe the wonder of birds close-up.

Finches, little charmers who embody the word vivacious, are also mostly hands-off birds. Finches are flashy, fast-moving, and fun to watch, with a lively, constant twittering that’s considerably below the decibel level parrots are capable of attaining. Several species of finches are available as pets, but for beginners, the most easily available are the zebra finch and the society finch.

Gouldian finches (shown), also known as Lady Gouldians or rainbow finches, are greatly admired for their brightly colored plumage.

The zebra (so named for striping, especially on the tail and face) is an Australian native who’s available in many distinctive varieties that differ in color — more variety than you can find in any other finch species. And anyone can tell the girls from the boys when it comes to the common gray zebras: Boys have bright orange cheeks and dark orange flanks, and girls don’t.

Society finches are a human creation — one of the few species of pet birds that never existed in the wild. Also called the Bengalese finch, the society comes in many colors and patterns and is an easy keeper who’s comfortable in human surroundings, as you may expect from a thoroughly domesticated species.

Finches do better in a social situation, so plan on buying two or more and giving them a cage with plenty of space to exercise their wings. These birds get around by flying, and unlike parrots, they don’t climb for exercise.

Because they’re perfectly content to live without handling, finches make an excellent aviary bird. They’re always a delight to observe. For this reason, the finch is also good for a caged bird in an older child’s room.

Because finches are small, some people believe they don’t need much in terms of cage size — and that’s wrong. Finches need room to fly, and when housed with others of their kind, they need enough space to have a bit of territory to call their own. They need enough space and subspaces in their living quarters to be able to choose to be seen or not. When they’re too crowded, territorial battles between cage-mates are common.

Budgies (parakeets)

Budgies (parakeets)

Photograph by Brian L. Speer, DVM

At last, a bird in the hand! Because of their low price and easy availability, budgerigars (commonly known in the United States as parakeets) are often treated as throwaway birds — easily purchased, easily disposed of, easily replaced. This deplorable attitude keeps people from valuing these birds for their affectionate personality. Some budgies even become very good talkers, albeit with tiny little voices.

The name budgerigar comes from Australia’s native humans, the Aborigines. Four syllables is a mouthful, which is probably why some people started calling these brightly colored birds “parakeets.” Although the name isn’t wrong, it’s imprecise. All budgies are parakeets, but not all parakeets are budgies. Many species of parakeets exist, and many of them are available as pets, including the Quaker, grey-cheeked, ring-necked, and canary-winged, to name a few.

Budgies (like the one shown) are commonly found in two major varieties, differentiated by body type: The narrow American and the huskier English. Colors now reach far beyond the green or blue of decades ago. Because these birds are sold so inexpensively (especially the American), hand-raising doesn’t pay, so few breeders invest the time or trouble. Budgies can be tamed by gentle, patient handling and can bond closely to their human companions. Others are more suited to life as cage birds and prefer not to be handled.

Hand-raised budgies are worth seeking out for their excellent pet potential.

For a child old enough to understand the need for gentle, respectful handling, budgies are ideal pets. But don’t let their reputation as a great child’s pet keep you from considering one as a companion for an adult. These active, loving, entertaining birds are easy to keep and relatively quiet.

Dealing with a good source is important when buying any pet bird, but finding a reliable seller is even more important with budgies. Mass-produced birds are harder to tame because they haven’t been socialized, and they may be more prone to life-threatening health problems.

Chickens

Chickens

Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Anderson Lopez

One of the big surprises of the past 20 years has been the rise in popularity of chickens as pets. People no longer keep them simply for their ability to lay eggs; many people have discovered the joys of cuddling a chicken or teaching one tricks. Chickens (shown) are full of personality, inexpensive to purchase, and easy to keep in any environment, including small city spaces. Cute chicken diapers allow them to be house pets as well. Outdoors, they eat bugs in your yard and fertilize it with their droppings. Bonus: delicious fresh eggs!

Chickens come in a variety of sizes, colors, and patterns. You can choose chickens based on personality, type of plumage, or the color of the eggs they produce: blue, green, brown, olive, speckled, or classic white. Some that we recommend as great beginner birds include sweet and fluffy Buff Orpingtons, friendly Barred Rocks (once described as the Labradors of chickens), Rhode Island Reds for their hardiness, and Ameraucanas, with their pretty green eggs.

The color of the eggs a chicken produces is determined by genetics. Different types of chickens lay eggs of different colors. For instance, Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds lay brown eggs; Ameraucanas lay green eggs; Easter Eggers lay blue, green, and pink eggs; and Leghorns lay white eggs. All eggs start out white; pigment, if it’s going to be there, is deposited as the egg develops. Chickens with white earlobes usually produce white eggs.

Cockatiels

Cockatiels

Photograph by Kim Campbell Thornton

Cockatiels (shown) are exceptionally popular, and justifiably so. These small parrots are flat-out loving, and they live to snuggle and be petted. If you only recognize the gray bird with orange patches, you may be surprised at how many colors are available these days, thanks to the work of some highly energetic aviculturists.

Some cockatiels learn to talk, but many, particularly the males, are better at whistling. This bird is another who can be a good choice for children, as long as the kids understand the need for careful handling.

Cockatiels can become whatever you make them. When you give one plenty of love and interaction, you can expect to come up with a real winner.

Quaker parakeets

Quaker parakeets

Photograph by Brian L. Speer, DVM

The Quaker (shown) didn’t acquire its name from any religious leanings. The bird is thought to have earned the descriptive title through one of the common noises it makes or the quivering of its youngsters when they beg for food.

Green with a silvery front, Quakers are active and upbeat, and they like to vocalize. Some learn to talk, while others love to whistle. All can be loving if socialized when young and given consistent, respectful handling.

We have to admit to little hands-on experience with Quaker parakeets, but the lack of acquaintance isn’t because we don’t like them. They’re illegal in California, where we live, because they’re considered a threat to native species and agribusiness because of their ability to adapt to a wild lifestyle. Although we can’t really say we agree with the policy, we can say the Quaker is well worth considering if you live in places where they’re legal.

Other states in the United States that ban them include Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Wyoming. A few other states regulate them in one way or another. For information on the latest restrictions where you live, check with your state’s Department of Agriculture or fish and game authorities.

Poicephalus parrots

Poicephalus parrots

Photograph by Brian L. Speer, DVM

The small African parrots known collectively as Poicephalus are an easygoing bunch. Of the species available as pets, Senegals (like the one shown) are probably the most common; they’re handsome little birds with a gray head, green back and wings, and yellow-orange underside. Other species in the group include the Meyer’s, Jardine, cape, red-belly, and brown-head — all known for their small size (a little bigger than a cockatiel) and affectionate personalities. They aren’t the best talkers, but some manage verbalization quite well. Their noise level isn’t too bad.

Poicephalus can be devoted to their owners, and after they decide you’re trustworthy, they’re especially fond of having their heads and necks scratched — in fact, they beg for it, tipping their heads and leaning over to expose their necks for a good scratch.

Parrotlets

Parrotlets

Photograph by Brian L. Speer, DVM

An even smaller parrot to consider: the parrotlet (shown). Don’t let their small size fool you; these 5-inch dynamos are all parrot — active, inquisitive, loving, and demanding. Two varieties are commonly available as pets — the Pacific and the green-rumped — but more species are becoming increasingly available. Apple-green or blue in hue, parrotlets are quieter than some of their larger relatives, but some develop the gift of gab.

Another one to consider is a newer, less aggressive little bird on the block: the lineolated parakeet. Quiet and calm, they enjoy walking as much as flying and enjoy playing in water. Approximately the same size as a budgie or lovebird, these friendly and funny parakeets can learn to talk and whistle.

Some species are better talkers than others, picking up words, phrases, and household sounds with little or no effort on the part of their owners. Other species are able to mimic a few sounds if their owners work with them patiently.

Pionus parrots

Pionus parrots

Photograph by Brian L. Speer, DVM

Pionus parrots are sometimes overlooked because they’re just not as flashy as other parrots — their beauty is more subtle. But what they lack in bright colors they make up for with winning personalities.

Several species of Pionus (shown) are available as pets, including Maximilian, blueheads, dusky, bronze-winged, and white-capped. Pionus are slightly larger than the Poicephalus, but they’re still small enough to be easy to keep and handle. Their personalities are considered among the more sedate, and they’re not excessively loud. (Nor are they considered fantastic talkers, although they’re certainly capable of learning a few phrases.) The word most connected with the Pionus is sweet, and it fits — socialized, well-handled birds are unparalleled as loving companions.

And when you’re in love with one, you can appreciate the subtle beauty of these birds — the plumage of a healthy Pionus has an almost iridescent quality about it.

Pyrrhura conures

Pyrrhura conures

Photograph by Brian L. Speer, DVM

The conures (shown) are one of the larger groups of parrots, with more than 100 species and subspecies. As pets, conures are well-represented, too, with about a dozen available, including such well-known birds as the jenday, dusky, and sun. These three belong to the Aratinga genus, but our best-for-beginners picks belong to another category, the Pyrrhura genus. (Does it seem like we always choose the ones that are hard to spell and pronounce?)

If you find it easier, call them either green-cheeked or maroon-bellied, because these are the most commonly available species in the category. Whatever you call them, though, you can look forward to a lovely pet. Both species are much, much quieter than the sun conure (but then, so are some rock bands). Enthusiasts say the Pyrrhura is affectionate and playful. Colors aren’t as dramatic as the red-and-gold sun, but the greens of the lesser-known conures still make for an attractive companion. Some may even grace you with a few acquired phrases.

Although Aratinga conures such as the sun may not be the best choice for beginners, their colorful appearance and clownish personalities have won them plenty of fans — and a starring role in the movie Paulie. (Paulie was a blue-crowned conure.)

Amazon parrots

Amazon parrots

Photograph by Brian L. Speer, DVM

Amazons (like the one shown) are a little bigger and more expensive than many of the birds we describe in this article, but they’re just too darn appealing to leave off the list. Amazons are among the best talkers around, especially the yellow-naped species. Amazons are also beautiful and brilliant, and they love to clown around. When Brian hears a bird entertaining herself and everyone around her in the waiting room of his hospital, he knows without looking that it’s an Amazon. They love to be in the limelight, and they seem to feed off the attention they attract.

Amazons are midsize parrots. They’re very active birds who truly enjoy spending time with the people they love. An Amazon appreciates his toys, too, and is one of the easier birds to train to perform certain behaviors.

Some Amazon species are easier to live with than others. For beginners, we like to recommend the lilac-crowns, blue-fronted, red-lored, and white-fronted. These smaller species are less likely to push, are generally quieter, and are all around easy to handle.

A potential problem for beginners: Amazons can be too smart. As with any parrot, you need to be sure you’re giving your bird lots of structured socialization, a fair share of toys, and plenty of exercise.

Peach-faced lovebirds

Peach-faced lovebirds

Photograph by Paul Atkinson/Getty Images

Peach-faced lovebirds are beautiful, active, and playful. Talking is possible, but it’s not what these small parrots are known for. A well-socialized peach-faced can be your best pal for years, if you don’t leave him to waste away alone in a cage. When hand-raised and socialized with humans, these little guys love to be handled, carried around in your shirt pocket or under the hair on your collar. They’re very affectionate, not overly loud, and capable of picking up a few phrases.

Lovebird species commonly available as pets include the Fischer’s, black-masked, and peach-faced, with the last being the more popular. Peach-faced lovebirds also come in many interesting color mutations, including Lutinos, olives, and pieds.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Gina Spadafori is an award-winning veterinary medical writer. She is the coauthor of Cats For Dummies and Birds 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.

This article can be found in the category: