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Answer by John Buginas:
This applies to macaws and other large parrot-like birds.
My wife has a macaw she got about 30 years ago as a baby bird. The bird adores her. The bird is pretty and has some charm. It is very cute, especially when she and my wife interact. I met my wife six years ago. I’ve tried for about six years to win her bird over. It’s not working.
Some things you may want to consider:
Large birds can live a very, very long time—50-70-plus years is not uncommon. Unlike dogs or cats, they don’t die in a few years. Unless you are 5, your bird could well outlive you.
It may be hard to find the bird a suitable home when you die, because a parrot may bond well with only one person. This means it sees that person as a partner, and it may not get along with other family members, which means it may bite other family members. Big birds bite hard.
Parrots are very smart and have a long memory. They can be trained using positive reinforcement techniques. Some birds can be trained to talk or do tricks. They are also known to train their owners.
These birds require a modest amount of daily care. You must, of course, provide food and water daily and regularly clean their cages. They generally keep themselves pretty clean; our macaw enjoys a shower now and then. I do most of the work with my wife’s bird; it’s less work than my dogs, by far.
They are also social animals and will not appreciate being stuck in a cage in a corner when you tire of them. If they are unhappy, they will squawk. If they are very unhappy, they may pull out their feathers.
As part of their social behavior, they squawk loudly for about 30 minutes a day—very loudly. It’s normal behavior. It drives me and our two dogs out of the room. They also will squawk to get what they want. (They are smart and can train humans!) For example, our macaw trained me to bring her food when she squawked. This was because I brought her some yummy lettuce a few times when she squawked. I thought she might be hungry. (I didn’t yet know that they instinctively squawk every day at sundown for 30 minutes.) She then started squawking endlessly and at all hours until I brought food. The only way we could break the habit was to completely ignore the squawking for about an hour until she gave up. It took several days of this for the habit to be broken.
I’ve been trying to charm my wife’s bird. I made a plan of working with her frequently. I gave her treats for good behavior. I talked to her pleasantly and tried to play or otherwise engage with her. I was making some progress; I even got her to stand on my finger and take food. But I made one mistake. I bowed to the bird, which I didn’t realize was a threatening bird gesture.
Since then, the bird has continued to do little but threatening gestures toward me. She has snapped at me when I’m near the cage and bit me (hard) on my foot when it was out of the cage and I made the mistake of looking away from her.
The way I reckon it, this bird will outlive me. I’m about 60, and I expect to live another 20-30 years. The bird will likely live another 40-50 years.
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Answer by Rick Klugman, third-generation parrot caregiver:
Parrots do not make good pets, and I strongly advocate against anyone who has no previous experience with the larger birds from getting one. My wife and I support several parrot rescue organizations, and they all tell the same sad tale. They are booked to capacity with birds that were given up by people who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into or birds that have outlived their caregivers. My vet will even tell you sadder tales of coming into work and finding birds abandoned on her doorstep. She calls them “dumps.” Let me share with you some things to consider before thinking about bringing a parrot into your life.
Parrots are not a novelty item. Not all parrots talk. If this is your reason for getting one, get a cat.
Parrots are not domesticated animals. They are wild animals that have adapted to captivity. Unpredictability is to be expected. I have been bitten more times than I can remember by misreading a bird’s intent. And these are the ones I’ve shared my life with for more than 30 years! A parrot bite can be severe enough to require medical attention. My wife and I have the scars to prove it.
Parrots are exceptionally intelligent with the mental capacity of a 2-year-old human and share many of the same traits. They throw food. They throw tantrums. They bite. They scream for attention, loudly (a cockatoo scream is 100 db compared with 130 db for a jet engine at 100 feet). And they’re not potty-trained.
Because of their intelligence, they require constant interaction. I recommend at least eight hours a day. My wife gave up her career several years ago to be a full-time mom to our small flock and wouldn’t have it any other way. If you ask her, she’ll tell you it’s a full-time job with plenty of overtime and no pay, but the rewards are great.
When you’re not entertaining them, they must be entertained. Toys aren’t cheap, and you’re going to need plenty of them. Most will run between $15-$20, and my cockatoo can reduce one to woodchips in very short order.
Just like kids they require annual checkups. I can’t overstress the importance of this. Parrots hide their illnesses extremely well, and by the time they become symptomatic it may already be too late. Your average vet bill for this starts at around $85 and goes up from there depending on whether your vet thinks further testing is in order. If they recommend it follow their advice. Bloodwork can run $300. If you can’t afford this, get a cat. Also, make sure you visit an avian vet. Birds have an entirely different anatomy than dogs or cats, and you need a qualified avian vet who is familiar with their anatomy. My vet tells me there are only about 200 board-certified avian vets in the U.S., of which she is one, and I’m extremely lucky to have found her. She’s amazing!
Parrots have an extremely long lifespan. The larger the bird, the longer it lives. My other vet has a scarlett macaw that’s confirmed to be at least 65 years old. If you’re considering taking in a parrot, you’ll be making a lifelong commitment. Are you willing to do this? If not, get a cat.
If I still haven’t dissuaded you, I implore you to adopt. As previously mentioned there are many rescue organizations looking to rehome birds willing to share their lives with you. Be prepared for a backround check with follow-ups. All responsible rescue organizations will have a very thourough screening process to avoid having a boomerang bird.
Please give careful thought and do your homework before bringing home a feathered friend. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’d rather you got a cat!