You may be a pet person. You’ve had a dog or a cat for a pet, and maybe several of each. But now you’re a bird owner. Wow! This is a different kind of pet. Here are some of the things that make companion birds interesting, and things that make them different from dogs and cats.
Prey vs. Predator
Dogs and cats are predators, while birds are prey species. You can see this by looking at eye locations. Predators have eyes facing forward, while prey species, whose lives may depend on seeing a predator coming, have eyes on the sides of their head.
So our parrot companions have a much larger field of vision than we do. They can see almost all the way around themselves and can move their eye in its socket to see even better. They also have a higher resolution throughout that field of vision compared to people. Our vision is concentrated in the center of our field of vision. Besides that, birds can turn their heads around up to 180 degrees to look for danger. Don’t even attempt that yourself!
Behavior Note: Building trust with a companion animal is always important, but especially so when you are working with a prey animal like a bird. If your companion bird is a little shy, try approaching it with your head to the side, so he sees just one of your eyes. That’s less like a predator. And do not leave your predator dog or cat pets alone with your prey-animal bird. If the bird is being stalked, move him or provide him with a curtain of toys, a piece of plywood, or some other way to be out of the line of vision of a predatory species with which he shares the house.
Unlike dogs and cats, parrots generally cannot be neutered due to the location of their vital organs. There are times of the year when their hormones rage. In these times they can be aggressive and territorial and a female bird could start to lay eggs. Birds might mate with or “incubate” a toy, defend their cage as though it’s a nest, and be unpredictable in their biting behavior. Bird owners need to be understanding about this. It’s most likely to happen in the spring or fall. Sometimes it seems to be all of the time. Some birds become hormonal when daylight hours are lengthened. This happens artificially if we watch movies past sunset, or stay up with lights on in the area where a bird is.
Behavior Note: If your bird is excessively hormonal, try covering the cage so that he or she gets only 10 to 12 hours of daylight each day. If that doesn’t work, consider having a separate sleep cage for you bird or birds that is in a dimly lit, quiet room of the house. Move your bird there so that he or she spends 12 hours in the dark and quiet and gets a good nights rest, without lengthened days that stimulate hormones.
Some of the signs that a bird is becoming broody include excessive chewing and looking for a dark place to nest. Female birds may feel heavy – they store calcium in their leg bones preparatory to laying eggs. It’s also normal for a broody bird (especially female budgies, both sexes of cockatiels) to withhold feces overnight, and evacuating one large, smelly dropping in the morning. That’s how a parrot keeps the nest clean.
Behavior may include lunging at you to defend the cage or other “nesting” area. There will be lots of vocalizing. Males try to impress the females with their vocalizations, and some birds will call loudly, trying to get a mate to answer. The bright side? These behaviors don’t last long. Put up with them for a couple weeks or a couple months and you and your bird will be back to normal.
Living With No Teeth
It’s obvious that our companion birds do not have teeth. Both dogs and cats do. Parrot beaks are appropriate for cracking seeds, and for applying pressure to a hard nut in order to crack the shell. Another term for the parrot family is “hookbills,” which refers to the hooded shape of their upper beak. Parrots do a fair job at chewing up wood and anything else in their path. Beaks can be used for defense as well, though most birds will try to communicate displeasure or avoid trouble before resorting to biting.
Behavior Note: In order not to be bitten, be observant of your pet bird and his moods, as well as the season. Don’t frighten a bird by moving suddenly, and if you see aggression or fear (hissing noise, stepping back and away, flying away, pinning eyes, flaring tail feathers) don’t push your bird. Learn to tempt your bird with treats or act in a non-threatening way to gain your parrot’s trust.
Built for Flight
Our companion birds are lighter than dogs or cats. We appreciate that when they perch on our fingers! Birds attain this with hollow bones and a lightweight outer covering of feathers built to trap pockets of air and insulate their bodies. We appreciate them again when we don a down jacket, of lightweight but insulating feathers.
Parrots see in color (again, unlike dogs and cats) and can even see colors in the UV spectrum, beyond what people can see. It’s possible that some of your outfits fluoresce to these birds.
Behavior Note: if your birds are flighty when they see you, for no particular reason, note what you are wearing. I find my flock shies away from me when I wear purple. To me it’s purple, to them it could be glowing and menacing.
Has anyone mentioned that you will lose your heart to your companion bird? That you’ll know quickly why people become so attached to their pet birds? The personality and love and curiosity in our small, feathered friends are beyond description. There’s no explanation how that happens, but it does for many of us.