Buying a pet bird? What to expect

by Bob Doneley BVSc FANZCVS (Avian Medicine) CMAV

Sharing your life with a feathered friend can be incredibly rewarding. The intelligence of birds, until recently vastly underrated, and their basic flock behaviour makes them truly sharing companions. A pet bird will want to share its life with you, and in that regard is comparable to the most loyal dog.

But, as with any purchase of a pet, there are traps and pitfalls for the unwary and the inexperienced. Some of these can be avoided by good common sense; for others you will need the advice of more experienced bird owners.

What sort of bird should I get?

This is an area where you need to do a lot of good research. There is a great deal of information available in libraries, on the Internet, and in Australian Bird Keeper publications. Talking to other bird owners is an invaluable research tool. The type of bird you eventually own should be able to fit into your lifestyle with the minimum of fuss and disruption for both you and the bird.

If you just want a bird that can stay in a cage, provide company, but not be demanding you might want to consider a canary or a finch. If you want a small companion, able to come out when you’re home and interact with you, consider budgies, Princess parrots and cockatiels. More exotic birds, such as King parrots, Eclectus parrots, conures and the small macaws can also fit this bill. Larger birds, such as cockatoos and the large macaws, are more demanding, but may give more in return.

Hand reared birds are becoming much easier to obtain. These birds are used to human contact, and bond quickly with their owners. Parent reared birds can be tamed, but rarely make as good a pet. A good hand rearer will make sure his/her birds get plenty of socialising before sale, so their birds are used to humans and are not frightened by human contact.

How much do these birds cost?

There is a lot of work in hand rearing birds, with much higher expenses than allowing the parents to rear the chicks. People who hand rear birds have the expense of feeding formulas, incubators to keep chicks warm, veterinary expenses if something goes wrong, and that’s not even mentioning the weeks of effort they have put in. So a well socialised bird, hand reared since its eyes opened (or even from the egg) will be a lot more expensive than a bird out of an aviary.

Just as some examples; a hand reared cockatiel should cost you about $80 (parent reared $10 – $30); a Princess Parrot $80 – $150 (parent reared $20 – $40); a galah $400- $500 (parent reared $100); a cockatoo $800-$1,000 (parent reared $100-$200). Exotic birds such as conures (from $200) and large macaws (from $7,000) are much more expensive because of their relative rarity.

If you are offered supposedly hand reared birds at prices well below what I have suggested here, I would recommend caution. Would you think it a bargain to be able to get a near-new car for under $2,000? Or would you be just a little suspicious? Some breeders unfortunately choose to use cheap poor quality hand rearing formulas, or home made formulas, and claim them to be as good as more expensive high quality formulas. This unfortunately usually results in stunted or deformed chicks, prone to disease and other problems. Others take the chicks from the nest just before fledging, feed them for a week, and then claim them to be hand reared. While these birds can make good pets, they often never tame down fully.

How do I know if it’s a good quality bird?

Points I would recommend you look for when purchasing a bird include:

a) does it look healthy?

b) what is its personality like?

c) What sort of guarantee is the vendor offering?

When you first inspect your potential purchase, take some time to watch it in its cage. Is it fluffed up? Is the feathering tight and sleek? Does the tail bob excessively with each breath? Does it have clear shiny eyes, with no discharge or closed lids? Is there any discharge above the nares (nostrils)? Are the legs and wings symmetrical? Are the droppings well formed, without excessive fluid or abnormal colouration? Is there any sneezing, or wiping the face on the perch? Don’t accept any assurances that the bird is just moulting, or has a cold.

When you are satisfied that the bird appears healthy, approach the cage. Does the bird come up to the front of the cage to greet you? Or does it hiss at you, or cower in the corner, or try to bite you, or fly around in a panic? If the bird is curious, place the back of your hand in the cage, and see if the bird will step up on your hand. (Check that all windows and doors are closed, and ask the vendor’s permission first.) A well-socialised bird should exhibit curiosity, not fear, and be more than happy to step up on your hand. Once out of the cage, does the bird try to escape you? Or is it content to sit on your hand and be scratched?

A reputable breeder or vendor should be more than happy to offer some sort of guarantee. For more expensive birds, the purchase price may include an examination by an avian veterinarian. Other vendors may recommend you have the bird checked by an avian vet within 2 3 days, and offer a no-hassles return policy if the bird fails a physical. You would pay for the veterinary examination but, even if the bird fails, you will learn some more about selecting a healthy bird. Don’t expect to get your money back if you have neglected the bird, failed to follow the breeder’s recommendations, or are claiming for an illness many weeks after purchase (unless you have a veterinary certificate stating the disease must have originated from the breeder). Ask the vendor to clearly state what his/her policy is if the bird is found to be unhealthy or flawed within a few days of purchase. If the vendor refuses to make a commitment or take responsibility in such circumstances, walk away from the sale.

Why should I take my new bird to the vet?

Many problems that avian vets see in birds are the result of chronic disease and malnutrition. A lot of birds go through months or even years of unnecessary suffering, often because their owners are simply unaware that the bird is ill. This is because birds are expert at masking signs of illness. (This is a natural instinct for birds if they look sick, they will attract predators.) For this reason, you should have your new bird examined by a vet within a few days of purchase, and then each year. Pet owners already do this with their dogs and cats, so it is not a new idea.

At the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery, we will examine and weigh your bird, and conduct tests for worms, other parasites, infection or disease. You will receive advice on diet, behaviour, training, and caring for your bird. With this advice, you will be well prepared to take excellent care of your new bird, and make it a part of your life.

Keeping a pet bird is a challenge. It requires a lot of dedication and love. Doing some basic research, getting the best bird, and then the right advice can make a huge difference in how you and your bird get along together.