Avian Expert Articles

Could a Pet Parrot Be Happy in Captivity?

umbrella cockatooIs it possible for a pet parrot to be as happy in captivity as they would be in the wild? Is parrot ownership more like prison … or could it be like a happy, perpetual childhood experience?

As a bird mom to three cockatoos and a parrotlet, it is a question with which I wrestle day-by-day, and even moment-by-moment—and over which I’ve lost sleep, plagued with guilt.

It’s a feeling that never goes away, really, this nagging in my heart and stomach. Would my genius and high-energy Goffin’s cockatoo, Ellie, have been happier if she were wild? Is she her happiest self, here with me?

Here are my thoughts about the question, “Is it possible for a parrot to be as happy in captivity as in the wild?”

The first bit of my research was practical. A survey of baby songbirds showed that 83% of them die within the first year. I know Ellie isn’t a songbird, but research is limited on wild Goffin’s so … I’m going to go with these parameters.

If Ellie were wild, she’d probably also be dead in some horrific way.

If she’d made it past the first year, about half of the adult (songbirds) die per year. The average life expectancy of a tit bird is 2.6 years, for instance, although their actual life span is 21 years. You can read more about that in this interesting article. I had no idea life-expectancy of wild birds was so short.

The next thing she’d have to deal with are the elements. Many animals pass away in the harsh weather and winter, and dehydration is actually more likely than starvation. The beautiful wild is also really, really harsh.

(Stay with me! I promise there’s a happy ending here!)

Drought, injury, disease, infestation and predation also kind of suck for wild birds.

When I was desperate with owner-guilt, I googled and read a bunch of articles. Christine Wilcox also wrote an interesting piece about this very thing called “Bambi or Bessie: Are Wild Animals Happier?” in Scientific American. It’s an excellent essay, and worth reading.

In a nutshell, Christine believes that animals that are relieved from exposure, given basic care AND are allowed to express themselves naturally (with socialization and enrichment) are a lot happier than their wild counterparts and she’s got some good data for that idea too.

So here are my humble bird-mom thoughts on it.

Florida Atlantic University student, Jolie Reisner, is our brilliant research assistant on the literacy work we’re doing with cockatoos. She sent me an interesting article about whether animal captivity could be considered incarceration.

The thought—and, yes, I think it sometimes some animal captivity could be likened to prison—makes me nauseous with sadness. Certainly the analogy sticks when animals lack love, nurturing, freedom of choice, and especially enrichment.

This is particularly an absolute concern for birds. It’s so easy to drown their voices, to shut them away. To keep them as decoration. To force them here or there, to hurt them. To ignore them as they numb away…

AND YET.

Goffins cockatooI don’t think it’s always, or often necessarily, that way at all. My friend, Dr. Clubb of Rainforest Clinic and Exotics, an avian veterinarian with a career spanning over 30 years, says avian care and enrichment is getting better and better.

I think parrot captivity could also be likened to childhood, in a sense. Humans can have very, very happy childhoods, notwithstanding limited major life choices and some of the bumps that come along the journey when someone else is in charge of your life.

Children have toys and activities, they have enrichment and experiences, they can be so very deeply loved, and I think absolutely deeply happy too.

Is a trade-off of wildlife living for something akin to a beloved childhood experience worth it?

When it comes to Ellie (and so many of your birds, too), I’ve come to believe that it is possible for her to be very happy in captivity, in a world free of predation and pestilence, free of winter chills and starvation.

She lives an existence of profound love, a home with sisters and toys, friends who care about her, a mother who loves her fiercely. I think parrot “captivity” really could be very much compared to a perpetual happy childhood—perhaps a few challenges along the way—but filled even with the kinds of choices children make: their friends, their favorite foods, games, learning, and activities.

When bird parronts are sensitive to their little charges’ preferences and fill their lives with a rotating assortment of enrichment, a variety of things to taste, experiences to be had, training and guidance for those bumps. When I look around at so many of you bird mom and dad friends who absolutely adore your little bird kids…I still struggle so much with guilt (don’t all mothers?), but I do actually think a life in captivity can be a very worthwhile life indeed.

Cheers to all you awesome moms and dads!

 

10 thoughts on “Could a Pet Parrot Be Happy in Captivity?

  1. I have two much loved cockatiels. I have a huge cage that they do not think has anything to do with them,. Maybe I am fooling myself but I think they are perky and happy and are certainly totally in charge of me.

  2. Thank you so much for writing about this topic. I just adore my babies and they adore their loving home. Personally I believe they are happier in captivity. When I see the birds outside I worry about them during the bad weather or when I hear the hawks out hunting just hearing the birds screeching to warn the other flocks of danger breaks my heart. The wild is a very dangerous for such loving creatures.
    I see how content and playfull my conuers are in their warm loving protective environment. Never have to fear the dangers of the wild or the harsh elements makes me proud to be a bird mom.
    We see the odds when a pet bird flies outside, if ever found they are either so beaten by the wild or tramatized it’s heart breaking.
    God Bless
    And
    Thanks again
    Linda Luechtefeld

  3. I sometimes ponder the same question; I being a bird mom to a female African Grey Congo, Raphaelle. However, I love and enjoy her so much and Raphaelle seems to feel the same way, at least I hope she does. She’s 20 years young is very vocal, adjusted, playful, etc. and I would miss her bunches if she packed up and left.
    But when I think of getting another parrot, I still stop and hesitate if I’m doing an injustice. I enjoyed your article.

  4. I have a cockatiel and a parakeet. My cockatiel just loves to hang around with me and near me but the parakeet loves to fly around the room. When he’s tired he flies right back into his cage on his very own. It is the cutest thing. It’s a beautiful and large cage so he must consider it his penthouse and sanctuary. I can’t even imagine either one of them preferring a wild to their life of luxury.

  5. A very nice read, thank you. I have a Yellow Crown Amazon “KIWI” who is about 38yrs old and I’ve had for about 35yrs now. I have had similar feelings especially after visiting Best Friends Pets Society out in Kanab,UT where literally they house about 100 unwanted birds of various types there and it is really sad.
    “Kiwi” lives his life on his feet locked up in a cage,(mostly at night when I got to bed) never gets to fly and I am the only flock he or she knows. I talk to him throughout the day in my comings and goings and when I’m just sitting around watching tv which I leave on for him sometimes also. He does however get to ride all over the country in the front seat of my van as I pull my Airstream and visit places unknown.
    Thank you for the article,
    Paul

  6. I certainly hope they are happy. One issue is that we are all built to procreate. Unless you plan on letting your bird nest and copulate and raise young, I’m not so sure they are happy since they are not for filling their destiny. Your other point about parents not suffering through winter is quite lost on me. What does have to do naturally with parents other than New Zealand ones or Ferrell ones like Monk parakeets?

  7. This is a good read. It was nice to see the real take on all the dangers that birds face in the wild and that it is not all roses out there .The one thing that I did not see mentioned is the fact that if people did not want birds as pets they would never be born. To all the caring mom and dads keep up the loving
    Chris

  8. Excellent article and I really do agree 100%. 🤗 I know my rescued feathered kids are happy and love me as much as I love them.

  9. Thank you for this article. I couldn’t agree more. I know that many people would disagree with you but that’s just the way it is. If our hearts are pure then we know that we made a good choice:)

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