Keeping Pet Birds

Julie Articles

Warren Eckstein chats with MSNBC.com about the joys and challenges of keeping birds as pets. Chat questions were answered on the phone through a typist. This is the transcript of that phone call. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.

MSNBC-Will Femia:
Ok! We’re ready to go! I have questions up to my beak, so let’s get rolling. Welcome back pet expert Warren Eckstein.

Warren Eckstein:
Good to be back.

Question from Thatwhichconcernsnone:
Hello! My brother is interested in getting a bird. What would be a great type for the inexperienced 13 year old? (perhaps inexpensive too?) Thankyou!

Warren Eckstein:
The bird I would recommend most as a beginner bird is a cockatiel. One of the reasons for that is that I call them the clowns of the bird world. They’re not as large as the bigger parrots, but they’re easier to handle. And they’re not great talkers, however the males are better talkers than the females. As a matter of fact, one of the best ways to tell male from female is that the noisy ones are usually male and the females are usually the quiet ones. And cockatiels are generally very gentle birds. As far as price, and this is a ballpark figure, $80-$200 dollars, depending on the color. Also, one other tip, an important recommendation is to make sure you get a hand fed baby.

Question from Pug:
Is it cruel to keep just one bird? Do they need a partner?

Warren Eckstein:
It’s not. If you have the type of time to spend with the bird, sometimes it’s better to have just one so they bond better with the owner. Take love birds for example. Everyone thinks love birds should be kept in pairs, but if you want the love bird to love you, one is better. 🙂 That can also work against you because some birds, like the cockatoo, who need a lot of bonding, he may bond with the owner and then get very stressed out when the owner is not around.

MSNBC-Will Femia:
Ah! We have someone with just that problem.

Question from john:
have cockatiel …. whenever i leave the room, it keeps calling to me until i return… anyway to stop this ….. also can they get along with parakeets ?

Warren Eckstein:
They can get along with parakeets, but any time you introduce a new toy or pet, you have to do it very gradually. So I would put one cage next to the other cage for several weeks, perhaps months, to see how they react to each other.

In terms of the excessive screaming, cockatiels are one of those birds that do desire a lot of attention. One of the best ways to resolve that is to keep the bird stimulated. Cockatiels are acrobats, so giving them a lot of things to climb on and play on may help. Also, as hard as it is, don’t respond to the screaming, because each time you do, you’re just reinforcing the habit. Also with the cockatiel, and any bird, the largest cage possible, provided he can’t stick his head between the bars, is best. One more tip, avoid cages with the guillotine type doors. Very often that type of door that slides up and down like that scares the bird. A better kind is the type that flops down. Also one that lets you get your whole hand in there so he doesn’t have squeeze through.

Question from Heather:
What do you think about keeping a parakeet in a dorm room? Is there any reason why they would need a bigger space?

Warren Eckstein:
No, that’s probably a good idea because there’s probably a lot of activity. Just watch what you say so he doesn’t pick up bad language. 🙂 One important note: A lot of kids who live in dorms cook in their rooms, this can be very dangerous to birds. Any kind of Teflon or self cleaning oven can be deadly to birds.

MSNBC-Will Femia:
I saw that in the article. Is it just cooking in those things?

Warren Eckstein:
Yes, when they get over-heated they emit fumes that are deadly to birds.

Question from frankie:
Is it dangerous to clean out the birdbaths using the bare hands?

Question from Ella:
I’ve been to pet stores that make you clean your hands before touching the birds. I assume that’s because they’re susceptible to disease. How does that work once you get them in the home? Also, do they carry any diseases that I should be aware of?

Warren Eckstein:
There are very few diseases we’ll get from birds. We have more to worry about birds getting them from us. Hats off to that pet store that makes you wash your hands before handling the birds, that’s a great idea. Most people don’t wash their hands before playing with the bird, but they should. Any time you’re working with any animals and cleaning up after them, it’s always a good idea to wash your hands with a good disinfectant soap.

Question from Delphi:
I have a 3-year old African Gray. She has been chewing her feathers for 2 years, but now has got two bare patches above her wings where the skin is exposed. Is there any medication that I can get to calm her down? She’s generally a happy, active bird.

Warren Eckstein:
Is it a Congo or a Timneh?

Question from Delphi:
Congo gray.

Warren Eckstein:
With intelligence comes sensitivity. When they feel emotionally lacking, the African Greys will actually bare their bodies. They become feather pluckers and feather pullers. With the African Grey, the important thing to do is keep them as mentally stimulated as you possibly can. And misting them once a day with room temperature water may be beneficial as well, but the mental stimulation is key here. And obviously, make sure he’s on a good variety diet. There are medications you can get from the vet, but the medication is not the problem, it’s the mental stimulation the bird needs. It’s very, very common, and 99% of the time it’s lack of stimulation or things to do. They’re very inquisitive birds and their diet is a little more specialized than other birds.

Question from Pug:
My cockatiel knows 4-5 phrases, such as Bon Jour, I’m a pretty bird, etc. How much more can I expect his to learn?

Warren Eckstein:
The cockatiels are ok talkers. The largest vocabulary I’ve ever worked with personally is up to 50 words or phrases, so keep talking and good luck.

Question from pilot:
I have a halfmoon conure, with the orange crest. What are his talking capabilities, and how can I train him best?

Warren Eckstein:
They’re not the greatest talkers in the world. Of all of the conures, their speaking is fairly good. The blue crowned would be the best, but the sun conure is good too. The best way to teach any bird to talk is preferably with a child or female voice. It doesn’t have to be, but they respond better to the high pitch. I recommend teaching a bird to talk at night when it’s pitch black and the cage is covered. The reason for that is this way the bird is not distracted from what you’re saying and can focus better on the sounds. Conures are the puppies of the bird world.

Question from Vickie Huelsman:
I have a Moluccan cockatoo, African Grey and Yellow Nape Amazon. They all share a one-egg cheese omelet every a.m. They really enjoy this and it is always the first item out of their food bowel that they choose to eat. My question: Is the cheese safe for the birds’ consumption? I have read somewhere that cheese is hard to digest. My birds show no ill effects, but I don’t want to do them any harm.

Warren Eckstein:
The only problem I have with the cheese is that cheese has a lot of salt, and salt is not good for birds. Variety is important for bird diet. Birds can eat almost anything that we eat, other than chocolate, caffeine, avocados, salty food, rhubarb, and mushrooms. My birds love to share pasta with me, well cooked meat occasionally for protein, omelets occasionally. Anytime you give your bird something cooked, make sure it’s cooked well. Plus the specialized food from pet stores, but make sure it’s a variety, not just pet store food.

Question from Mary Murillo:
Isn’t it important to keep a bird’s cage clean? My daughter has a cockatiel and she claims that it’s okay for the bottom of the cage to fill up with debris and droppings as long as the bird is above it on the 2nd level. I wonder if this is healthy for the bird since she hasn’t cleaned the cage out in almost 6 months!

Warren Eckstein:
The cage should be cleaned once a week, and disinfected once a month. It’s amazing what kids try to get away with. 🙂 Every day the food and water dishes should be washed and rinsed. If you’re using paper at the bottom, that should be changed every day. The cage itself should be washed down weekly, and disinfected once a month.

Question from DB:
I’ve let my macaw’s nails grow a bit too long. Can I have a vet cut them, or must I slowly pare them back, so as not to injure the quick? I’d like to get them done quickly.

Warren Eckstein:
I recommend you take them to a vet and have them done by a vet. Loss of blood is not a fun thing for birds.

MSNBC-Will Femia:
Cutting fingernails involved loss of blood?!?!

Warren Eckstein:
It can because they have a quick, which is like a vein. If they’re cut properly by a vet, the vein will recede and they can be cut back a little at a time. Once you get them down to the size you want you can do it yourself with a human fingernail clipper. Once you start trimming them, you should trim them weekly to keep them where you want them. And keep some corn starch on hand in case they bleed. It’s much more difficult to cut a bird’s nails that are dark where you can’t see the quick, so it might be best to have a vet show you how to do it.

Question from Ellen Johnson:
Hi. I purchased a Senegal Parrot as a gift for my 8 year old son. The bird loves me and my husband but really hates my child. He likes to bite him, and because his skin is softer, really hurts! Is there anything I can do?

Warren Eckstein:
Yes, it’s probably because children tend to be tougher with birds than we want them to be. So make sure you son is being gentle with the bird. Have the son take over the feeding/cleaning chores and make sure he’s spending time with the bird. Generally the Senegal Parrot is very active, and it’s not uncommon for them to go through a nippy stage. Tell your son not to move his hand away or around the bird quickly and chances are the bird will out grow it.

Question from bharn:
I mist my Cockatiels and they dance around in a bowl of water but sometimes they don’t get very wet. How wet should they get.

Warren Eckstein:
As long as they’re not in a draft, let them enjoy a bath. They can take coolness, but not a draft. I wouldn’t recommend that they be soaking wet, but if they’re bathing themselves, you’re not going to be able to stop that. As I said, cockatiels are the clowns of the pet world.

Question from Lanbo:
My pet goose has been exposed to a lot of fleas. Will fleas attach to geese?

Warren Eckstein:
Fleas almost attach to anything. I’ve had geese and chickens of my own and have not had and problems. Usually they take care of each other. Is it a single goose you have, or do you have others?

Question from Lanbo:
I have two. Just got our gander a new wife.

Warren Eckstein:
I’ve never had a problem with any of my poultry with fleas, they seem to take care of themselves, but you might want to check with a Avian vet in your area. Make sure they’re fleas and not some other kind of parasite like lice.

Question from Jim Mueller:
We have had a single male Zebra Finch as a pet for 11 years! Is this an unusually long life span for this species?

Warren Eckstein:
Yes, obviously you’re doing something right. Whatever you’re doing, keep it up. 🙂

Question from RPJ:
I have mitred and cherryhead conures paired, 1.5 years old, can they mate if M/F?

Warren Eckstein:
I’m really not sure if two different species of conures can breed, however, if one’s a male and one’s a female, you have a good shot LOL!! Conures are not real difficult to breed generally.

Question from Kim:
I have inherited a 10 year old cockatiel. Any suggestions for socialization and transition to another home? He has been virtually ignored.

Warren Eckstein:
Yes, they can make the transition easier than other birds. What I recommend doing is spend a lot of time in the evening with your hand in the cage talking to the bird, and not to force yourself. Give it a lot of time. It can take months and months for a bird in a new environment to adapt. Never lose your temper or yell and scream at the bird, they are very sensitive. Within a couple months, from my own experience having rescued several abused cockatiels, they all adapted and became fine pets afterwards.

MSNBC-Will Femia:
Warren, we’re coming to the end of our time with you, what have we missed that’s worth covering before you go?

Warren Eckstein:
Before choosing a bird, make sure you educate yourself and decide what’s important to you, talking, tameness, beauty… Like with any type of animals, it’s hard to find all of these things in one bird. I always recommend going to a breeder and getting a hand fed baby. Make sure you’re totally aware of what the bird’s diet and medical needs will be. Remember, the price of a bird is not determined by how good the bird will be as a pet, it’s determined by the rarity of the species, so many inexpensive birds make excellent pets.

Once you get your bird, make sure you bring it to a vet right away before you get too attached to it. Birds are not ornaments, they need a lot of care and a lot of socializing. Make sure you’re ready for the commitment. Some of the larger birds can live 70, 80, 90 years. So give it some thought before you decide.

MSNBC-Will Femia:
Thanks very much Warren, always a pleasure.