I try to cover this topic at least twice a year because it’s so important. I never have to look hard to find an event to inspire one of these posts.
I needed some supplies the other day and went to the local bird store where they have a few parrots for sale, among them a female eclectus and a cherry headed conure. Both of the birds had been in the store for several months awaiting purchase. They were, by this time, well adjusted to strangers gathering by their cages for a closer look, and sometimes little fingers would poke through the bars. They always handled the intrusions without a fuss.
This day, there were two women admiring the birds. One was a young woman, probably in her early 20’s looking at the conure. She was set back about three feet from the cage, kneeling. The other woman was older, perhaps in her 40’s, and had a toddler in a stroller with her. She had her hands resting on the cage bars as she spoke boisterously to the eclectus.
I stood back and observed the two women interacting with the parrots, and watched each parrot’s response. I remember feeling very impressed with the young woman. She had positioned herself so that she and the bird had level eye contact and she stayed at a non-threatening and respectful distance.
It seemed that she was intuitively aware the the dynamic between herself, a much larger predatory animal, and the bird, a small, caged prey animal. She spoke quietly, but engagingly, to the bird, who was clearly taken with her. It moved to the side of the cage closest to her and turned its head to the side to get a better look. The bird’s body language said comfort.
The older woman, the one with the apparent child rearing experience, was far less impressive. She was forceful and discourteous. She made no attempt to connect with the bird and it sat tensely at the point furthest from her in its cage.
She talked with the man accompanying her about how important it is for a child to have the responsibility of a pet and that this one would be a perfect choice. I hoped that the child she referred to wasn’t the toddler. When the man protested about owning a bird, she reminded him that “birds live in cages. What could be easier than that?” He didn’t disagree.
I was suddenly nervous for the future of this bird and felt inclined to say something, so I joked that birds no more “live” in cages than people do in bedrooms. I mentioned their need for out of cage time and human interaction and exaggerated the behavioral issues that result from inadequate care as best I could.
She smiled at me politely and then excitedly turned to the man and anounced that the red on the ecletus was a perfect match for the drapes – now they HAD to get it. I think that’s when the gloves came off for me. Imagine the deciding factor being compatibility with the home decor! At that time, I MIGHT have made up a horrible story about someone’s extensive plastic surgery nightmare following the bite of an angry parrot. I’m not admitting to anything, but if I DID fabricate that story, I’m not at all ashamed.
I am pleased to announce that they left empty handed! That lady, who I don’t fault for her ignorance about parrots, is not someone who should own one, at least not at this point in her life. Her energy level and body language were stressful to the bird, and she never even noticed. She was clueless about the needs of a parrot. She was ready to make an impulse purchase that might have had horrible consequences for this very sweet bird.
By contrast, the younger, much wiser, woman looking at the conure would have made an ideal home for a parrot. She was, by nature, exactly what a bird needs in a human: she was thoughtful, and deliberate and had clearly taken the time to check out parrot ownership. I had a chance to talk with her for a moment. Her reason for not getting the conure was the best one there is: she wasnt ready for the commitment.
We are parrot owners. And we are GOOD ones, I will venture to say, since I am taking the time to write this and you are caring enough to read it. We love our birds, and, in fact, everyone else’s too. It’s who we are.
But, we have a responsibility. While we are singing the praises of our beloved companions, we must be certain to avoid “selling” parrot ownership to the wrong people. Parrots do not make good pets for all people. Whenever we are faced with the opportunity, we must let prospective new owners know the real truths: while parrots are beautiful, intelligent and fun – they are also loud, messy and destructive. Their basic care is costly and very time consuming.
If you are able to get across only a single idea, let it be that, aside from providing the aspects of care that are necessary to maintain life, failure to provide the care necessary to promote good mental health can result in emotional issues ranging from biting and screaming to feather destruction and self mutilation. Hopefully that will give some people pause.
Try to remember that every time you let someone walk away with the notion that a bird makes the perfect pet, that person might just go out and get one. If you don’t inspire caution, some pet store parrot could begin a life of constant rehoming as one owner after another fails.
With the right education, even the lady who wanted a bird to match her drapes might be taught to be a good owner, but first we have to guide her. Let’s make that our mission in 2012. Let’s help birds by helping people understand their needs – or understand that they are unable to provide them.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.