The Ethics of Keeping Pet Birds/Caged Birds
Since I became a bird owner (or "parront," as some bird people like to say), I've encountered some people who disapprove of my animal companion. It's not that they don't like my cockatiel, but they don't like the fact that I keep a bird. I've heard, "keeping birds as pets is cruel," "pet birds should be set free," "birds don't belong in cages or in our homes," "people who keep birds are ignorant," and so on and so on. I even encountered one individual who seemed to think keeping pet or caged birds was doing pure evil.
Perhaps our ancestors should have admired the birds from a distance and left them in the wild. However, they brought them into their homes and bred and raised them, and in doing so, took away their ability to survive in the wild. Now we are responsible for keeping these birds safe.
Wild Caught Birds
Let me get this out of the way first. I do not believe in taking a wild bird out of his natural habitat and putting him in somebody's home or a zoo (unless the bird has a permanent injury making him unable to survive in the wild*). Capturing a healthy wild bird is like kidnapping. It stresses the bird and contributes to the decline of wild bird populations. Please do not take a bird out of the wild to make him your pet, and please don't support those who do by buying one of these birds. There are already too many captive-raised birds that need homes, so if you want a bird, please adopt a bird that is already used to living in captivity.
*If you find a wild bird that appears sick or injured, please contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator or nature center for advice.
Why Can't You Just Let Them Go?
When people say that nobody should keep pet birds, I always ask what they believe should happen to the birds that are already pets. More often than not, the answer I hear is "set them free."
Birds that have been raised with humans simply do not know how to be wild birds. They are not accustomed to dealing with weather. They don't know how to look for their own food. They never learned how to watch out for predators, and if they lived in a house with a friendly cat or dog, they may make the deadly mistake of assuming any dog or cat is friendly. All this means that if you set one of these birds free, you would likely be sentencing him to a horrible death. Is that really better for the bird?
Also keep in mind that many pet bird species are as intelligent as young children, and they form strong bonds with the members of their human flock. Sending them out to fend for themselves causes them separation grief and anxiety. Imagine how terrified a 4 year old child would be if you sent him off to live on his own. That's pretty close to how a loved and well cared for pet parrot would feel.
I volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center where I work with all sorts of birds. People occasionally bring us budgies, lovebirds, cockatiels, and white doves they found in their yards. These birds had obviously been pets, and they come to us stressed, confused and upset. Whether they were "set free" or they flew out an open door, we don't know. What we do know is that we need to try to find their owners or get them into new homes because they are what we call "non-releasable," meaning, they generally can't survive in the wild.
What Can We Do to Keep Our Pet Birds Happy?
Bringing a bird into your family is a huge responsibility, and something that should not be taken lightly. As with any pet, you need to do your research before adopting your bird. Different species of birds have different needs, but in general:
- Make sure your bird's cage is large enough to give him plenty of room to fly, jump, and/or climb.
- Provide toys. Most parrot-type birds enjoy puzzle toys and chew toys. Try different types of toys to see what kind your bird prefers, and make sure he has some available at all times. Inspect the toys regularly to check for damage or hazards (sharp bits of metal, frayed strings in which toes could be tangled, etc).
- Let your bird out of the cage every day. The amount of time required varies from bird to bird, but plan on a minimum of a couple hours (several hours if you have a larger or more active parrot such as an African Grey or macaw). My cockatiel's cage door is open whenever I'm home and awake so he can come out if he chooses (I close the door when I'm not home for his own safety). Some people let their birds roam free through the house at all times and cages are primarily used for sleeping. If you choose to go this route, you must make sure your entire house is free of hazards, and you must always watch where you step, and look before you sit down. This method is also dangerous if you have dogs or cats, unless you can keep your pets in separate areas of the house.
- Keep the cage clean. Change the papers and spot clean every day. Give the cage and perches a good wipe down with unscented soap and water every week, and take everything out for a complete cleaning and disinfecting at least once a month (more often if your bird is particularly messy).
- Interact with your bird. Finches and canaries don't require human interaction, but it's important for doves, and vital for any type of parrot. Talk to your bird, whistle with him, play games with him, let him cuddle under your chin while you watch TV, etc. If your bird is new to the household and is still learning to trust you, just hang out near him while you read or use the computer. If your schedule doesn't allow for much interaction time, you may wish to consider getting a second bird so he doesn't get lonely.
- Watch out for any signs of stress or anxiety, such as plucking or screaming. Sometimes the cause is obvious (your schedule changes, a family member moved out, your new neighbors are noisy, etc), and sometimes the cause may be a mystery. In any case, a consultation with your avian veterinarian may be in order to rule out any medical causes and to help your bird adjust.
- Provide a balanced diet. A bird seed mix from the pet store usually isn't enough. Include formulated pellets, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables.
There are bad bird owners out there who keep their birds caged 24/7 and don't take the time to interact with them (my own cockatiel was rescued from such a situation). I suspect this is the image many people who are against keeping pet birds have in mind. However, there are also plenty of GOOD, responsible bird owners who provide lots of interaction, love, and exercise. These bird owners shouldn't be judged based on the behavior of the bad ones.
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