There are two subspecies of African grey parrot commonly found in the pet trade – the Congo African grey (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) and the Timneh African grey (Psittacus erithacus timneh). The Congo African grey is slightly larger than the Timneh, and has bright red tail feathers. The Timneh’s tail feathers are darker (maroon), and overall the Timneh usually has slightly darker coloration than the Congo, especially over the back (although not always the case). While the Congo’s beak is grey, the Timneh’s upper mandible is bone colored with a dark edge, while the lower mandible is grey.
There is some debate over whether there are significant differences in temperament between Congos and Timnehs. Some say the Timnehs are slightly more laid back and less prone to feather picking and other neurotic behavior. Others say there is no difference. There is a lot of individual variation between birds of both subspecies and even if there is a slight overall difference in temperament, this generalization won’t necessarily hold true for any given bird.
For the rest of this article, the term African grey will be used to refer to both subspecies, as they are very similar in character, and their care is identical.
African greys have the potential to be very long lived, so be prepared for a commitment of 50 years or more. Average life spans are difficult to estimate for some parrots as the life expectancy varies widely and depends a lot on the history of the bird, stress, disease, and other factors. The range 25-50 years is often quoted for African greys.
African greys are extremely intelligent birds. The most famous African Grey is Alex, a bird studied for years by Dr. Irene Pepper berg. Alex has been shown to have the ability to process information and make appropriate choices with the correct choice of words, and understand concepts such as color or shape (i.e. he is not simply displaying previously trained behaviors).
Greys are excellent mimics, and many (though not all) are excellent talkers, with a capacity of over 2000 words. Even those that don’t repeat words are very adept at repeating household noises such as the telephone or doorbell, often well enough to confuse their owners! Most greys have a large collection of sounds they repeat. As the studies with Alex have shown, greys have a unique capacity for putting their words and sounds into the right context as opposed to simply repeating them, showing their intelligence.
Behavior and Potential Pitfalls
Their intelligence makes the African grey a very demanding pet, however. You must absolutely be prepared to spend lots of time with an African grey, providing social contact as well as mental stimulation. Greys have been described as being the emotional equivalent of a two year old human, with the intelligence of a five year old. This means they need a lot of attention and patience, along with a good deal of guidance to acceptable behavior. And, they can be a challenge to deal with at times!
African greys tend to be quite cautious with new situations and new people, although devoted to their owners. They have a reputation as one-person birds, but that is largely because often only one person in a household spends enough time with a grey to really form a close bond.
Make an effort to socialize a grey with lots of people, although you will have to give your parrot the chance to become comfortable with any new person. A grey will happily interact with more than one person as long as the effort is made by each person to spend enough time to earn the trust and companionship of the bird.
Greys have somewhat of a reputation for biting, but this largely relates to the socialization issue. Like other parrots they will bite, especially if they feel threatened in any way. However, the trust of an African grey must be earned through patience and respect, and pushing interaction with a grey that doesn’t trust you fully may result in a bite. They are also perceptive to the moods of the people around them, so they should be approached with a calm and relaxed demeanor, or the bird may become agitated or excited. Also, a bored or stressed parrot is more likely to exhibit behavioral problems including biting, so making sure the emotional, mental, and physical needs of the bird are not being met will help avoid problems. The intelligence of these birds means they must have a lot of social interaction with their owners along with and mental and physical stimulation.
African greys have a reputation as feather pickers. Parrots, including greys, will sometimes resort to feather picking or worse forms of self mutilation for a variety of physical and physiological reasons, and also if their emotional needs are not being met or they are stressed. It should be noted that any bird that is plucking its feathers needs a thorough check up with an avian veterinarian to rule out a physical cause first, and if none can be found that behavioral reasons should be explored. Any increased tendency greys might have toward this problem is likely due to their intelligence and needs for attention and stimulation.
In summary, African greys are magnificent and amazing parrots, but are not the right bird for everyone. Potential owners need to carefully evaluate their ability to commit to the needs of these birds for their expected life span, and be sure they understand the best way to care for these wonderful parrots.
Housing African Grey Parrots
- Cage size: the bigger the better. You’ll need a large cage for these guys. I would recommend a minimum in the area of 3 feet by 2 feet by 4 feet tall, but bigger is definitely better when it comes to housing parrots.
- The bar spacing should be 3/4 to 1 inch (best to get 3/4 inch spacing for a Timneh).
- At least part of the cage should have horizontally oriented bars to allow the parrot to climb on the sides of the cage. The cage should be placed in a part of the house where the bird will have lots of contact with people, but ideally not in the most hectic area of the home. Keep the cage away from windows where they would receive direct sunlight (may overheat), away from draughts, and not too close to heat vents or air conditioning ducts.
- A selection of perches should be provided – varied in size and material (e.g. natural branches such as manzanita wood, which is often available at pet stores). Smooth, slippery perches should not be used, neither should sandpaper covered perches.
- Provide a good selection of appropriate toys – the right size and checked for safety concerns (parts that could be swallowed, strangulation or entrapment hazards). Having a good selection of toys on hand and rotating them through the cage a few at a time can help to provide entertainment and stimulation.
- Should also invest in a good play gym, and plan on having your African grey spend a significant amount of time outside of his or her cage daily.
Feeding African Grey Parrots
- Variety is the key here. Pelletted diets should form the foundation of the diet, but should be supplemented with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as grains and proteins. A small amount of seed mix can be fed as well, keeping in mind that seeds have some nutritional value and place in the diet but are largely fattening and poorly balanced as a main part of the diet. “
- African greys are somewhat prone to calcium deficiency, so calcium levels should be monitored at a yearly vet check. Calcium supplements should not be used except under the advice of a veterinarian, but it can be beneficial to feed a variety of calcium rich foods such as leafy green vegetables (kale, mustard greens, swiss chard, spinach).
- Fresh clean water should be available at all times. Food and water dishes should be washed daily.
In general, finches have an expected lifespan of anywhere from 5-15 years. The wide range here can probably be attributed to species differences as well as an increased understanding of their husbandry, especially diet. Zebra finches are arguably the most popular bird species found in the North American pet trade. They are attractive birds, and the males are easily distinguished from the females. The males have black and white bars on the throat and breast, orange cheek patches and brown on the sides of the body. Both males and females have red-orange beaks, although the male’s is much brighter in hue. The above description applies to the wild type coloration; a wide variety of color mutations are now available.
As mentioned above, the height of the cage is not as vital as having room to fly horizontally, so a long but shorter cage is acceptable. While experts vary in their recommended minimum size, it a good idea to get the largest cage you can. 30 inches long, by 18 inches high and 18 inches wide is a good sized cage for a pair of zebra finches. If you are going to get a larger group, you’ll need an aviary or flight cage. This can be home built, but keep in mind that excellent hygiene is a must so any cage should be easy to clean. Wire spacing should be 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch.
Furnishing & Toys
Supply a variety of perches, but make sure the cage is not so cluttered that the finches cannot fly back and forth (keep an open flight path through the length of the cage). Also, use a couple of different sized dowels and try to add some natural branches as perches too, perhaps angling them to provide further variety so their feet are not always holding onto perches in exactly the same way. Small clip on perches can be used for some of the perches, and are nice since they do not span the whole cage and offer a little privacy in an aviary situation since only one or two finches can sit on one at a time. If possible, provide some plant cover at the perches to allow for privacy (also more important if keeping a group). You can use silk plants or non-toxic live plants. Swings and ladders can also be provided, although ladders are more likely to be used as perches than for climbing. Small bells or hanging toys can also be included, although finches are generally not very interested in toys.
You’ll want the finch cage in a quiet secure location in your home (although in warmer climates finches can be acclimated to outdoor aviaries). Avoid direct sunlight (overheating risk) as well draughts or being to close to heat or air conditioning ducts. Finches do not crave social interaction with people so unlike parrots do not need to be in a busy social part of the home, and in fact will probably be less stressed if kept in a quiet corner.
Water & Feed Dishes
Provide fresh drinking water daily. Some keepers prefer tube style water dispensers, while others use dishes either attached to the cage (with perches for access) or on the floor (place away from perches to reduce soiling with feces). Whichever you use, make sure there is always a supply of fresh clean water available, and clean water dished daily. Food dishes can also be placed on the floor (also not under perches, of course) or attached to the side of the cage. Again, these need to be cleaned daily.
A shallow dish of water should be provided several times a week for bathing. The water in the bath should be clean so remove the bath water as soon as it becomes soiled.
Some people use full spectrum lighting for their finches. This is helpful especially in controlling molting and breeding behavior, but isn’t strictly necessary for the average pet zebra finch.
Feed a good quality finch seed mix, although this should never the the sole diet of your finches. Check that the seeds are fresh by sprouting them (put some in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel) – if they will not sprout then they are too old to feed. Millet sprays are a favorite treat of many finches but should be given sparingly, or the finches may develop a preference for millet.
This is an excellent way to boost nutrition as the seeds are at the peak of their nutritional value at sprouting. Ideally they should be fed just as they begin to sprout.
Greens & Fresh Foods
A variety of green should be provided, such as romaine lettuce, dandelion greens, kale, and spinach (in moderation), along with a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits (NO avocado, though). Experiment to find what they like and keep offering a variety as it may take your finches a few tries to accept new food items. Remember, though, that serving sizes of these foods should be small.
These are excellent balanced diets and are nice to offer as part of a varied and balanced diet. Be sure to get a good quality pellet especially formulated for finches, and you may need to be persistent in offering pellets before your finches will try them if they are not used to eating them.
This is a supplement that is very important for breeding birds but that can be fed in moderation to non-breeders as well.
Cuttlebone & Grit
Some sort of calcium supplement is recommended and a cuttlebone is an easy way to add calcium to the diet, as are crushed oyster shells or even eggshells (heat thoroughly before crushing to prevent salmonella contamination). The role of grit is still highly debated. It is now quite widely accepted that parrots do not need grit, but the need for grit for finches and canaries is less clearly understood. Many avian vets now recommend no grit even for finches, as they do hull their seeds (grit is essential for doves and pigeons, for example, because they swallow seeds whole and need the grit to help hull the seeds). There seems to be a definite risk to overeating grit leading to impactions however, so this is something you should discuss with your avian veterinarian. If you do feed grit, only offer a few granules at a time and at infrequent intervals, especially mineralized grit.
Lovebirds are very social and form deep bonds with their owners. If you are short on time to spend with your lovebird, then it is best to get him or her a companion.
There are several species of lovebirds, such as the genus Agapornis. But the most commonly found species in the pet trade include peach faced lovebirds, or Agapornis roseicollis, masked lovebirds (Agapornis personata) and Fischer’s lovebirds (Agapornis fischeri). There are many color mutations found in peach faced lovebirds and several mutations in some of the other species, so there are many color variations of lovebirds available. Lovebirds are small, compact parrots about 5-6 inches in length and can live up to 15 years or more.
Very active, curious, and playful, lovebirds pack a lot of personality into a small package. They are also feisty little birds. They are very social and form deep bonds with their owners and are sometimes very cuddly birds, but their intense personalities can also make them prone to nipping and territorial aggressiveness and jealousy. Hand-raised babies make the best pets. Some experts believe that females are more prone to jealousy and territoriality than males.
Find a Hand-Raised Baby
Hand-raised babies definitely make the best pets. Still, regular handling and training are needed to maintain a tame lovebird (so a hand raised baby that hasn’t been handled much as it gets older may be hard to hand tame again). If getting an older lovebird try to find one that was hand raised and has been handled regularly and has some training. Older lovebirds that are not hand tamed may require a great deal of patience for taming.
Social Needs – A Common Myth
A common myth about keeping lovebirds is that they should always be kept in pairs. If you have more than one lovebird they may become more deeply bonded to each other that to you. A single lovebird will do well, as long as it gets the social interaction, contact, affection, and attention that it needs from its human family members. If you are short on time to spend with your lovebird, then it is best to get him or her a companion, though.
Vocalizations and Speech
While not as loud as some larger parrots, lovebirds can produce a loud high pitched screech, especially if looking for your attention. Their normal chirps and squawks are not overly loud, but they do like to chatter. As a general rule, they are not known for their ability to mimic speech or sounds, although there are exceptions. Some say females are more apt to mimic sounds or speech than males.
As a bare minimum, I would recommend a cage at least 2 feet wide by 2 feet long (and 2 feet tall), but a larger cage is definitely better (with the length being relatively more important than the height). Bars should be no more than 1/2 to 5/8 inches apart, and should be oriented horizontally to allow the birds climb the sides of the cage. Avoid round cages. Provide a variety of perch sizes (including natural branches if possible) as this is healthier for a caged bird’s feet.
Lovebirds should be fed a variety of foods. A good pellet diet can form the basis of the diet, supplemented by a variety of fresh foods and some seeds (seeds should make up less than 25 percent of the total diet). A cuttlebone can be provided for extra calcium.
Lovebirds are quite aggressive chewers, which must be kept in mind when choosing toys. Make sure there are no small parts that can be chewed off and ingested, and no clips, loose strings, or other parts in which your bird could get its beak, feet, or head trapped. Safe toys include wood, sisal, leather, acrylic, and rawhide toys (including hanging toys as long as they are not long enough to strangle your bird), bells, and ladders. As well, household items such as the cardboard tubes from paper towel rolls, paper cups, ink-free cardboard, and dried pasta shapes may also be used by your lovebird. Lovebirds are very active and playful so it is a good idea to have lots of toys on hand to rotate through the cage to keep them occupied. All toys including their hanging devices should be zinc and lead free. Cotton ropes are good too, but may be best used only under supervision since threads can come loose and entangle birds easily.
Cockatiels are among the most popular pet birds. Small parrots with a variety of color patterns and a crest, they are attractive as well as friendly and easy to tame. Because of their small size, cockatiel care and taming is easier than some other parrot species. They are capable of mimicking speech, although they can be difficult to understand. However, they are quite good at whistling and can often be taught to whistle tunes.
Choosing a Bird
It is best to choose a hand fed baby or at least a young bird that has been handled regularly. Prices will vary with color and you can expect to pay a bit more from a conscientious breeder, but a well handled young bird is worth any extra cost. Cockatiels are quite widely available at pet stores, but these birds may have an unknown history. As a result, they may be older, not used to being handled, and harder to tame.
Look for a bird that is bright, alert and active. A bird sitting quietly with puffed feathers might be ill and is best avoided. The feathers should be smooth and shiny and lay down flat on the body. The feathers around the vent/cloacae should be clean, dry, and free of fecal matter. The scales on the feet should be smooth, the nails in good condition, the beak should be smooth and well-shaped, and the nostrils should be clear and clean.
Cockatiels are active and playful and should have a large cage. Opinions on the minimum size vary, but a good rule of thumb is at least 20 inches by 20 inches wide, and 26 inches tall as a bare minimum. The spacing on the cage bars should be no more than 3/4 inches (any larger is a safety hazard). Horizontal cage bars offer the best opportunity for climbing and exercise. There should be space to place at least a couple of perches at different levels with enough space to comfortably move between them. Many cockatiel cages come with a removable bottom tray for easy cleaning.
Variety is the key to a healthy diet. Seeds can be a nutritious part of the diet, but are high in fat so should only make up a part of the diet (some experts recommend no more than about 30% of the diet). Pelleted diets are often a good choice for birds as they are nutritionally balanced and birds can’t pick out their favorite seeds and leave the rest. However, with both seeds and pellets a wide variety of other foods should complement the diet. A variety of fresh vegetables and fruit should be offered, although persistence might be needed before your bird will try new foods (particularly if they are accustomed to an all-seed diet). Proteins such as hard boiled egg, legumes, and cooked meats can be offered in moderation. Sprouted seeds are also an excellent way to add variety to your bird’s diet. Avoid avocado.
- Life span: cockatiels regularly live 15-20 years with proper care (up to 30 reported).
- Colors: wild type is grey body with a yellow face and crest and orange cheek patch. The colors on the face are brighter and more vivid in the male, and the female has bars on the underside of the tail feathers. Color variations include albino, lutino, pied, pearl, cinnamon, and silver. The differences between males and females vary in the different color variations and can sometimes be hard to distinguish, especially in young birds.
- Reputation as a gentle and docile bird; often like to be petted and held.
- Males are thought to be better at mimicking speech and whistles.
- Pairs of birds make good company for each other, but usually will not bond as well with their owners or mimic speech or sounds. A single bird is fine, as long as you spend a significant amount of time interacting with the cockatiel on a daily basis.
- Have a powder on their feathers (used in grooming) that may leave a powdery coating on cages and accessories.
- Playful and active, and while they vocalize and whistle they are not as loud as some other parrots.
The Canary species is called Serinus canaria and is actually a member of the finch family, native to the Canary Islands. The wild canary is greenish yellow over most of their body with yellow underparts. The domestic canary comes in an array of bright colors and can live up to 10 years. Male canaries sing better than females, although the canary may not sing as much during a molt. The canary does not require a great deal of attention and are suitable for beginning pet bird owners. Canaries are not social birds so a single pet canary will be happy.
Get the largest cage possible, that allows for room for flight (a pet canary should never have his or her wings clipped and should be able to fly in the cage for exercise). “Flight” type cages are the best (home built or commercial) since they are designed to provide room to move. Remember that a long cage is better than a tall narrow one (the height is not all that important). Try to get a cage at least 24 inches long. Watch the spacing between bars – no more than 1/2 inch. Wire cages are best, wood or bamboo cages are too difficult to keep clean. Wood perches of varied diameter work best (3/8 to 3/4 inches). Some canary keepers alter smooth round perches by scraping them with a saw blade or utility knife, just enough make the surface slightly irregular (easier to grip and the variety may make the perches more comfortable for the canary’s feet). Do not use sandpaper perch covers. Canaries are pretty hardy and can be kept at room temperature. Keep the cage away from draft, air conditioners and windows that receive direct sunlight (the cage and canary can get overheated). Cover the cage at night, at the time the sun goes down (unless you live in an area with extremely long nights or days such as the far north). Canaries need their rest and will do best if given a light/dark cycle that approximates natural changes. Keeping them up late with artificial light is not healthy for them. Provide toys, but place them in the cage in such a way as they do not obstruct flight space. Your canary might enjoy swings, mirrors, bells, and hanging wooden or acrylic toys. Fresh water should be available at all times. A shallow dish of water or a special bath bought at the pet store should be provided at least 3-4 times a week for bathing.
A good quality seed mixture suitable for canaries can be the mainstay of their diet. Pelleted diets suitable for a canary can be offered as well – these are not as palatable as seeds but many owners keep a dish of pellets in the cage along with a dish of seeds. Fresh foods and greens should also be offered. Good choices include apples, oranges, bananas, green peppers, canned corn, fresh corn on the cob, cooked broccoli, raw spinach, raw dandelions, raw collard greens, raw Swiss chard, pears, peaches, strawberries, cucumbers, squash, etc. Bits of hard boiled egg can also be offered occasionally. Sprouted seeds are an excellent treat for your canary. As seeds are eaten the hulls may be left in the dish, so at a quick glance the seed dish may look full when in fact it is just hulls. Blow the hulls off the seed dish at least daily and replenish the seeds as necessary.
Budgies (budgerigars) are an extremely popular pet bird, and for good reason. These small parrots make delightful pets, and are usually friendly and easy to tame. While they can sometimes be difficult to understand, they are quite capable of mimicking speech. Budgies are sometimes also called parakeets (specifically shell parakeets) as they are members of the parakeet family. There are also two types of budgies – the American budgie or parakeet, and the English budgie. The American variety is the one most commonly found in pet stores, while type often seen in exhibitions and shows is the English budgie. English budgies are larger and have a different appearance than American budgies, but all budgies belong to the same species, Melopsittacus undulatus.
Their life span is 10-15 years and they can live to be up to 20. They originated in Australia and the normal wild coloration is green with black bars on the wings, back and head. Mature females have a tan or beige cere (the fleshy part around the nostrils) and the males have a bluish cere, but this is unreliable in some color variations and young birds of both sexes have pink ceres. Young budgies have bar markings on the forehead that recede with age, and their eyes have dark irises that gradually become grey with age, but again this doesn’t necessarily hold true for all colors. Through selective breeding a huge variety of colors and patterns are available, such as violet, blue, yellow, pied, albino, and more. Gentle and docile bird, very easy to tame if acquired at a young age. Pairs of birds make good company for each other, but usually will not bond as well with their owners or mimic speech as well. A single bird is fine, as long as you spend a significant amount of time interacting with the budgie on a daily basis. Very playful and active, and quieter than some other parrots (although they can still be noisy).
Choosing a Bird
It is best to choose a hand fed baby or at least a young bird that has been handled regularly. You can expect to pay more for a hand reared or very young bird, but this is worth the extra cost. While widely available at pet stores, these birds may have an unknown history, and if they are older will be more challenging to bond with and tame. Look for a bird that is bright, alert and active. A bird sitting quietly with puffed feathers might be ill and is best avoided. The feathers should be smooth and shiny and lay down flat on the body. The feathers around the vent should be clean, dry, and free of fecal matter. The scales on the feet should be smooth, the nails in good condition, the beak should be smooth and well-shaped, and the nostrils should be clear and clean.
Budgies are active and playful and should have a large cage to allow room for toys and exercise. The minimum cage size is 18 inches long by 18 inches wide, and 20 inches tall, but larger is better. The spacing of the cage bars should be 1/2 inche or less. Horizontal cage bars offer the best opportunity for climbing and exercise. There should be space to place at least a couple of perches at different levels with enough space to comfortably move between them. Offering a variety of perch sizes will help keep the feet in good shape (using pesticide free, non-toxic tree branches for perches is another good option). Even with a large cage, budgies need play and socialization time outside of the cage as well. Keeping the wings trimmed is a good idea though, to prevent escapes.
Variety is the key to a healthy diet. Seeds can be a nutritious part of the diet, but are high in fat so should only make up a part of the diet. Pelleted diets are often a good choice for birds as they are nutritionally balanced and birds can’t pick out their favorite seeds and leave the rest, although budgies have a reputation for stubbornly refusing pellets if used to a seed diet. Seeds and pellets can be fed in combination, but with both seeds and pellets a wide variety of other foods should complement the diet. A variety of fresh vegetables (carrots, broccoli, corn, spinach, beans, etc.) and fruit should be offered, although persistence might be needed before your bird will try new foods (particularly if they are accustomed to an all-seed diet). Sprouted seeds are also an excellent way to add variety to your bird’s diet. Avocados must be avoided. A cuttle bone can be provided as a source of calcium, but contrary to the advice given in older references and by a number of pet stores, grit is not needed and can be harmful if the bird eats too much.