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Caring for Exotic Birds in the Shelter

Carrie Allan, HSUS

Flocking Together
Caring for Exotic Birds in the Shelter

The arrival of homeless parrots and macaws can throw the typical dog-and-cat oriented shelter into havoc—unless you’re prepared to wing it. Here’s how some shelters handle the care of their feathered friends.

“Hope,” wrote poet Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers.” Echoing centuries of human fascination with birds, she imagined hope—the most sustaining of human emotions—as a winged and feathered animal. Birds’ ability to fly is a talent we envy and have often sought to emulate; early aviators based their mechanical designs on the structure of bird anatomy, trying for years to create wings as perfectly suited to flight as those of birds. Birds have long been symbols not only of hope, but also of freedom.

But for millions of exotic birds caught up in the American pet industry, flight and freedom aren’t part of the picture; many of these birds don’t even receive adequate care. Frequently faced with substandard living conditions in pet stores, the birds who end up going home to good families are the lucky ones. Birds have very particular needs, and they require diligence on the part of their human companions, a diligence seldom immediately understood by the folks who fall in love at first sight with the bright colors of bird plumage or the funny mimicry of bird voices. Like the “love at first sight” experienced by two people, the relationship between a bird and a human can only last with genuine care, compassion, and hard work. And while a bird may feel great affection for his caretaker, the reality is that most of the hard work of a human-bird friendship falls onto the shoulders of the mammalian partner.

When such relationships fail, many pet birds end up in shelters, victims of the same ignorance and carelessness that leads to the annual surrender of millions of cats and dogs. Shelters across the country care for birds as small as finches and as large as macaws; some groups have even sheltered traumatized and abused emus.

Because the majority of animals in shelters are of the canine and feline persuasion, avian guests present special challenges to the staff who care for them. But meeting those challenges can be extremely rewarding for those shelter folks who’ve developed their birdbrains; learning to meet the dietary, housing, and social needs of our feathered friends exposes shelter staff to a whole new version of the human-animal bond.

As Valuable As the Maltese Falcon

Exotic birds, most of whom would be more at home in the jungles and rainforests of Africa, Australia, and the Amazon, end up in your shelter for very familiar reasons: Many breeders and sellers are indiscriminate in their placements of birds, and the knowledge levels of many bird buyers are very low. Exotic pet birds frequently become homeless for the same reasons dogs and cats do.

The same kinds of companies that continue to sell puppies and kittens—with little regard for the eventual fates of these animals—can be found behind the domestic breeding of exotic birds. While some responsible bird breeders do their utmost to place birds with responsible and educated caregivers, others provide birds to pet stores—and, as shelter employees know too well, too many of these stores pay little heed to the importance of screening protocols for ensuring that birds go to good homes. Profit is the bottom line, and the profits to be made from sales of these beautiful birds can be enormous. While smaller birds like cockatiels and parakeets can be found for under $20, larger parrots, cockatoos, and macaws can fetch sky-high prices in stores. A trip to your local pet store can be revealing: At a Washington, D.C., branch of a nationally known pet retailer, an African gray parrot sells for $1000; a smaller conure is $500.

It’s less likely now that a bird caught in the wild will end up at your shelter: Legislation passed in the late ’80s banned the import of most wild-caught exotic birds, substantially decreasing the number of birds brought legally into the United States. Under the Endangered Species Act, some species of birds are protected from importation and sale, but their domestically bred offspring may not be. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which since 1975 has worked to protect endangered species around the globe, maintains a Web site ( where you can find more information about which exotic bird species are in real trouble. Numerous types of macaws and Amazon parrots appear on the CITES list of the most endangered species on earth.

There is still a black market for rare and endangered birds, so it’s possible that the parrot who ends up in a local backyard may have begun his life under the canopy of the Amazon rainforest—but it’s less likely now. A good clue about a stray bird’s origins can be found in the type of leg-band he wears: If the metal band on his leg is one solid piece of metal, like a ring, then he was probably captive-bred. Breeders of birds put those rings on very young birds; as the birds get bigger, they grow into their leg rings. If a stray bird’s leg-band is open, or split like the metal ring of your key chain, it’s possible he was wild-caught; the arrival of these birds at your shelter should be reported to the law enforcement division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the majority of birds encountered in U.S. shelters are captive-bred, arriving through the same avenues as other animals: as strays, as surrenders, and sometimes as seizures. In Clearwater, Florida, Rick Chaboudy sees a great many birds whose owners have let them go, and who’ve joined up—temporarily or permanently—with flocks of wild birds. “Some of them escape, some people just turn them loose,” says Chaboudy, who serves as the executive director of the Humane Society of North Pinellas. “Particularly your parakeets, cockatiels, and Quaker parrots—they do fairly well in the environment. They can survive a while.” The problems arise when the birds are too tame to revert to the ways of the wild; left to fend for themselves, few retain the instincts necessary to survive for long, and many maintain their attachment to the human creatures they first saw as their families.

Even in the colder climate of northern Virginia, exotic birds come into shelters as strays. Suzanne D’Alonzo, humane educator at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (AWLA), sees stray birds regularly. “Lots of people have said, ‘Oh, a parakeet comes every afternoon at four to the birdfeeder with all the sparrows,’ ” says D’Alonzo. “They don’t know whether he’s with the sparrows, or whether he just happens to be there at the same time. Because most stray birds have a schedule: They go to different areas at different points in the day.” But the meager pickings out in the wild leave some birds longing for the ease of life as a companion animal. “Little parakeets say, ‘Oh look, it’s a human. I’ve had enough of this, I’m going to go down and land on it,’ ” says D’Alonzo.

A Little Bird Told Me … to Shut Up

Other birds come in as surrenders, usually because their humans are tired of dealing with their messy cages and the daily cleanings the cages require. And behavior-related relinquishments are not uncommon—especially with the noisy, chatty, personality-filled parrots, says Debra Boswell, director of the Mississippi Animal Rescue League (MARL) in Jackson.

A Little Birdie Told Me…

If you’re doing a home visit—or investigating bird mistreatment—there’s a good way to determine whether the size of the caging an owner or potential adopter has for his bird is adequate. Aside from the “room enough to stretch his wings” factor, you can look for the cage’s serial number (usually located on or near the food and water tray) and call the manufacturer or check the cage catalogs to find out what kind of bird the cage was designed for.

Mornings at MARL are louder than those at many shelters, but it’s not the yapping dogs who create the most piercing noise. It’s Jewels, the double yellow-headed Amazon parrot who considers it his sacred duty to tell the dogs just what he thinks of their racket. “Shut up!” shrieks Jewels, in his own inimitable dawn chorus. “Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!”

Jewels has served as the mascot for the League for the past two years. Surrendered by an owner who could no longer care for him, Jewels now enjoys a cushy life surrounded by admirers, an audience made up of both shelter staff and members of the Jackson community. Boswell speaks of Jewels with amused, affectionate irritation. “When the phone rings at the shelter, he calls out ‘I’ll get it!’ ” Boswell says. “His imitation of human voices is so good, we used to miss phone calls until we started realizing what Jewels was up to.”

Bird lovers everywhere will tell you: those voices can be truly uncanny. Richard Farinato, director of captive wildlife protection for The HSUS, remembers when he and an assistant were addressing a crowd of children about the needs of birds and a cockatoo gave the assistant’s finger a little bite. “When he bit her, she tapped him on the beak and said, ‘Bad bird,’ ” says Farinato. “And the bird leaned up to the microphone and squawked, ‘Bad bird? F—you!’ ” The bird was hustled offstage quickly, as Farinato tried to explain to a crowd of angry parents and delighted children how unpredictable bird behavior can be. “Scientifically speaking, we know that what these birds say is just rote memory—they’re repeating what they’ve heard people saying in similar situations,” says Farinato. “But it really is incredible how often their vocalizations are totally appropriate to the situation—or inappropriate, as the case may be.”

While birds are occasionally surrendered for swearing—or, more frequently, for biting or incessant shrieking—Jim Tedford, executive director of the Humane Society of Rochester and Monroe County in New York, says that often the surrender is caused by the opposite “problem”: the bird won’t talk. “These folks buy them because they think it’s a cool thing to do, to have a talking bird,” says Tedford, “and when the bird doesn’t immediately jump out of the cage and say, ‘Ahoy, matey,’ they get disillusioned.”

Spreading Their Wings
Whether the bird in your shelter comes in as a surrender, a stray, or a seizure taken in with dozens of other rescued birds, you need to be prepared for his arrival—and as Chaboudy and his staff found out in late 1997, that arrival can be a shock to the system.

A Little Birdie Told Me…

Those nostril-like holes at the top of bird beaks are called nares.

Called out to a local home after social services employees had gone in to deal with a domestic violence situation, Chaboudy and humane society staff were greeted with a horrific scene. “I didn’t have to go any further than the front room to see the enormity of the problem,” says Chaboudy. “There were all kinds of birds—parakeets, lovebirds, conures, cockatiels—inside and outside the building. None of them had food or water, and it was just filthy. Some of the cages didn’t even have bottoms. They were sitting on the carpeted floor and the birds were nesting in the carpet.” The humane society ended up seizing and sheltering 225 birds, at a time of year that was already one of its busiest seasons. The case left the staff scrambling to find proper caging and supplies for their new guests.

The sudden appearance of 225 birds is an extreme example of one of the primary challenges of bird care in shelters: Since the arrival of birds needing shelter is so erratic—you’ll have no parakeets one day and seventeen the next—how do you stay prepared for their particular needs?

Keeping good caging in storage is very important, advises Chaboudy. “A lot of times we’ll have people who’ll have a parakeet or a cockatiel who passes away, and they’ll donate the caging to us,” he says. “If it’s decent, the best thing you can do is store it away and have it available when the time comes.”

Exotic birds of all shapes and sizes come into shelters, and every new size, shape, and species presents new challenges. “A tiny finch can be the size of your thumb,” says D’Alonzo. “If you get one of those in, you have to be very careful because he could get his head stuck between the bars of a cage that’s too big.” On the other hand, D’Alonzo’s shelter once had a large cockatoo surrendered; because no stores were open at the time, staff had to beg the bird’s relinquisher to also relinquish the large cage the bird had been living in.

Beyond cages of different sizes, there are countless other supplies shelters need to have on hand when a feathered friend needs help. “You never know what you’re going to have one minute to the next,” says Tedford. “Keeping food and supplies, supplements, vitamins, bedding, and all of that on hand is challenging.” You may have plenty of fresh pellets and seeds when your shelter has no birds on hand who need them, but Murphy’s Law dictates that bird food will be stale or absent when you take in a bunch of neglected cockatiels. “It’s not like with dogs and cats, where there’s a specific inventory you know you’re going to go through,” says Tedford. “Most of the feeds are species-specific—all these birds have slightly different nutritional needs, and nutrition for birds is a fine art. …With the macaw we have right now, our vets have told us that it’s very important that we give him an ample supply and selection of fresh produce. And that’s not the kind of thing most shelters have lying around.”

It’s up to you to counteract Murphy’s Law, and that means making advance preparations. If your shelter publishes a newsletter or maintains a Web site, basic bird supplies should be on your shelter’s wish list. Many members of the public think of shelters as a place for cats and dogs, and your supporters may not be aware of your need for bird supplies. If you get that list out there, donations will start coming in, and you’ll be better prepared for a rainy—or feathery—day.

Smaller shelters may not be able to keep a constant supply of bird materials on hand, and if your organization handles only three or four birds a year, you probably don’t need to have a basement full of bird stuff. But it helps to prepare: Make contact with local pet supply stores, groceries, and markets—many of them will provide discounts or donations for bird food and supplies if you get into a pinch.

The Parrot Has Landed

A Little Birdie Told Me…

Bird flocks in the wild will perch in trees hierarchically, with the more dominant members in the upper branches. In a domestic setting, a bird kept at waist level will feel insecure and may be nervous around people. A bird placed above shoulder level will feel dominant and may attempt to boss his human companions around. Keeping the bird at mid-chest level is generally thought to be ideal for the development of a good human-avian relationship.

When birds come into the shelter, they should be handled in accordance with how people-friendly they are. Incoming stray birds should be separated from any other birds in the shelter for at least a week or two to ensure that no health problems are passed on; exotic strays and surrenders should never be housed with wild birds. Like other animals entering the shelter, birds should receive a basic health and behavior assessment when arriving at your facility. Staffers handling birds should make sure to brush up on their bird know-how by reading a primer on bird breed identification and bird husbandry.

When examining a bird, leave no feather unturned, says Natasha Rathbun, exotic animal program coordinator at the Peninsula Humane Society (PHS) in San Mateo, California. “You should check their feathers, the condition of their skin, the way their eyes look, their activity level,” says Rathbun. “If they seem down and lethargic, that’s a big sign they may not be doing too well. …When birds get here, we give them physicals. We trim their wings, we trim their nails, and we see how they are. Sometimes they go straight into the bird room, but usually we give them a little time in separate housing, just to make sure they’re okay.”

Signs of a sick bird include weight loss, ruffled feathers, and dull or partially closed eyes. Birds have a tendency to try to disguise their illnesses; if a bird in your care has lost weight, he’ll puff up his feathers as much as possible to make himself seem fatter. But if you’re aware of your birds’ health conditions and weights when they enter the shelter, it will be easier to monitor whatever changes may occur—and to figure out what could be causing them.

The art of bird handling is a fine one. Some shelter folks have found that keeping a bird in a darker room prior to handling her makes the bird calmer during her initial examination; regardless of the light level, you should make sure that the room is small and enclosed so the bird won’t pull the great escape. Most tamer parakeets and cockatiels will endure examinations without much fuss, but many birds who are normally friendly may be nervous when they come into the shelter. A small, lightweight net is a good tool to have on hand; it may help when you have to catch a loose canary or finch. The netting should be like that of mosquito nets; the wings and toes of little birds may become entangled in a net with larger holes.

Depending on the size and activity level of the bird, a regular towel can be your best equipment in bird handling. With the guidance of an experienced bird handler, you can use a hand towel to approach a skittish bird who’s reluctant to come out of his cage. If he sees the towel approaching, he’ll bite it and not you. Wrap the towel around the bird, so he’ll be bundled up like a baby and you’ll have control of his movements. The opening of the towel should be up front so his head can stick out. You can control the movement of his head by cupping the head in your hand and applying gentle finger pressure on either side of his jaw. Make sure not to hold the bird too tight, as you could suffocate him. Once he’s bundled up comfortably, you can also adjust the towel to expose his feet.

This bundling process will allow you to inspect him for possible health issues, clip his nails (so they don’t get so long that walking becomes awkward), and check for a leg-band. Depending on how cooperative the bird is, you may also be able to trim his feathers; feather trimming is a painless process in which the bird’s longest wing feathers are trimmed down in small increments, rendering the birds less able to reach great flying heights. (You can learn how to feather-trim a bird from an avian veterinarian; a future “How To” in Animal Sheltering will also show you how to do this.) Bundling the bird will also make it easier to find identifying markings that can help you ascertain whether the bird in your shelter is the one a distressed owner has called about. Remember to be gentle, and remember that larger birds will have bigger beaks; a parakeet’s nip isn’t that serious, but if a cockatoo or macaw bites your finger, he can break your finger bone.

A Cozy Nesting Ground

The Peninsula Humane Society is lucky enough to have an ideal setup for its birds: a bird room specifically for exotic pet birds. The room has plenty of caging for smaller birds; larger birds are housed in another room where the organization has bigger cages it can customize for its feathered visitors. “Our room is heated, so it’s nice and warm for them,” says Rathbun. “We encourage staff to talk to the birds, and it’s kind of neat, because working with wildlife—which is mostly what [our department does]—we can’t cuddle the animals or talk to them. When you’re rehabbing wildlife, it puts their lives in danger if you interact with them too much. You don’t want them to become tame. But with our exotic birds, we can talk to them, sing to them—they love that. They love the human contact.”

Having staff members and volunteers interact with your birds is a great way to increase the birds’ friendliness toward humans; it keeps the birds happy and prepares them for meeting all kinds of potential adopters. Regular socialization and handling can also help birds become more trusting of people, and may decrease problem behaviors such as biting.

If you’re not lucky enough to have a bird-specific housing facility like PHS, there are other options. It’s usually best to keep birds in the quietest part of the shelter. At the Humane Society of Rochester and Monroe County, birds are often housed in the offices of various staff members—there, they can happily interact with one or two people regularly, getting the attention they crave without the constant chaos of passing adopters and visitors. But this can have a downside for staffers: If they’re trying to figure out next year’s budget, having a cockatoo constantly informing them “I am so pretty. I am a pretty bird!” may interfere with their concentration.

At the Alexandria shelter, the quietest and warmest room for the birds has turned out to be the cat room. The room is warm and has plenty of natural light, and staff ensure the comfort of the birds by placing their cages on top of the cat cages, or in blind corners where the kitties can’t see them. “Some cats will stare at them and they’ll feel somewhat uncomfortable,” says D’Alonzo, “but you can hang a towel on one side of the birdcage so they don’t see the cats. And I’d prefer to have the birds somewhere warm and quiet—our dog room is really drafty, and noisy too.”

The setup is one of the main reasons that all birds entering the shelter get their feathers trimmed, says D’Alonzo. “We feather trim everybody immediately, because it’s so easy to forget once that phone rings or you start doing something else, and then there’s always a visitor who says, ‘I’m going to try to meet this bird.’ … And they stick their hand in and the bird flies out into the room, and then you get this wonderful game of tag where all the cats say, ‘I’ll help, I’ll reach for the bird, I’ll help.’ “

If your space and resources limit your ability to provide good housing for birds, you may want to form working relationships with local exotic bird groups. Relationships with bird groups work much the same way as relationships with breed-placement groups; the Mississippi Animal Rescue League, for example, places birds with a local bird club when shelter staff are unable to handle them. Bird lovers can provide the space, supplies, and expertise necessary when sick or other special-needs birds require shelter. If the shelter or the club finds a good adopter for a bird, the adopter comes to MARL to fill out the adoption application and all other paperwork.

A Little Birdie Told Me…

You can tell if a bird’s nails need trimming by watching him stand on a flat surface. His nails should not be so long that they cause his toes to arch up; if his toes are arched and not flat on the ground, he probably needs a manicure.

At Peninsula, birds enjoy their groovy pad within the shelter, but some still end up with local bird groups. Rathbun says serious health or behavior issues usually mean that a bird will be better off with a bird group that is able to provide intense, individual attention. “If a bird is really sick, if he needs long-term care, that’s when we call. … Or [if he’s] a very aggressive bird,” says Rathbun.

Wherever you decide to keep your feathered visitors, keep in mind how quiet, private, and warm the area is. The more secure a bird feels, the happier she’ll be, and the less likely she’ll be to develop any stress-related illnesses or behaviors. If your organization is considering building a new shelter, keep birds and other small animals in mind when you plan your design; when possible, it’s always best to keep birds separated from cats and dogs.

Polly Want a Cracker?

But a cozy and stress-free nest isn’t all that’s required to keep a bird healthy and happy: the phrase “eating like a bird” doesn’t mean the same thing for birds as it does for humans. A person with a birdlike appetite eats very little, but birds, due to their lightning-speed metabolisms, may consume more than their body weight every day.

Veterinary advice about what should make up a basic bird diet has changed substantially in the past decade—but the public remains, for the most part, unaware of those changes. Whereas it was once thought that seeds should comprise the bulk of the avian diet, today seeds are considered the junk food of the bird world: Recent studies have indicated that a diet too heavy in seeds can substantially decrease a bird’s life-span. Most veterinarians now recommend a diet of commercial pellet food, which has more nutrients and less fat than seeds, along with assorted fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy foods appropriate to the species.

Pellet foods are species-specific and can usually be bought in bulk. But, says Tedford, “We’re primarily feeding seed here still, only because it’s much more palatable for those birds who haven’t been accustomed to the pellets. The bottom line, the goal in the shelter environment is: ‘Get that tummy full.’ We can put the highest quality feed in the world in front of them, but if they’re not eating it, then we aren’t doing them a lot of good.”

But if the birds are willing to eat the pelleted foods, stick to the pellets, especially when it comes to larger birds, whose long life-spans dictate a high-quality diet. Shelters holding these larger birds for long periods of time should make every effort to transition them onto a pelleted diet. “If people only lived a few years, we could eat Twinkies all the time and it wouldn’t make much difference,” says D’Alonzo, “because our life-span would already be so short that the Twinkies wouldn’t matter. But if we live 80 years and eat nothing but Twinkies, we’d really notice it. It’s the same with little birds—you don’t notice the health benefits from the better diet the way you do in the bigger, longer-lived birds.” The difference in bird life-spans makes transitioning birds away from a seed-based diet far more important for larger birds; shelters should aim to feed these birds a diet that will allow them the longest and healthiest lives possible.

Problems can arise when birds who are used to eating those sunflower seed “Twinkies” don’t want to change their ways; birds can be very stubborn about their food. “We try to get them off the seed and onto the pellets,” says Rathbun. “It’s hard, because they love the seed so much. …You just slowly give them more pellets and less seed, and then as soon as you see them eating the pellets, they shouldn’t get seeds anymore.” Adopters should be educated about the dangers of the seed diet, Rathbun says, noting that many people who’ve owned birds before feel bad when they find out they’ve been feeding their pets the equivalent of potato chips as a dietary mainstay. “Most people get their information from books sold at local pet shops that were written a zillion years ago, and don’t have the correct information. …We educate the adopter about how the bird needs to stay on pellets after he goes home with them, and we can tell them, ‘Hey, we did all the hard work for you,'” Rathbun says.

Stubborn birds can be a problem, though, and some of them will stop eating if they stop getting the foods that suit them. If you get a bird who balks at the notion of pellets, then you may be fighting a losing battle. It’s always most important to ensure that the bird doesn’t go hungry, so if your transition efforts seem to be failing, you have to let the bird win. Birds have to eat regularly in order to stay healthy. If you need extra help, a veterinarian who specializes in exotic birds can provide invaluable advice about birds’ dietary needs.

Canaries, finches, parakeets, lovebirds, and cockatiels naturally eat a seed diet, along with flower parts, insects, and some fruits. In a shelter setting, then, these birds can thrive on either a pelleted diet that’s intended for them or a good quality seed mix accompanied by fruits, vegetables, and occasionally a mealworm. But be mindful of “softbills” like toucans and mynahs, who require a very special diet. While it’s okay to continue feeding seeds to very stubborn, pellet-loathing parrots, softbills simply cannot eat seeds at all; they’ll starve if proper foods—commercial softbill feed and fresh fruits—aren’t provided.

Lories also have special needs. While lories belong to the parrot order, some of them have specialized feeding needs—they may need a liquid diet of nectar and other tasty blended foods. Lories can be difficult to identify, but a good avian veterinarian can help you with identification and suggest appropriate feed needs. (For more information on feeding of birds, read the article Birds of a Feather in this issue of Animal Sheltering.)

Spray Misty for Me

For the health of your birds and your staff, it’s important to make sure your feathered friends don’t become dirty birdies. Imagine what it would be like to live in a chicken coop, and you’ll get an idea of the conditions that can result from sloppy or irregular cleanings.

Many birds enjoy taking baths; at home with people they’re comfortable with, birds will often splash happily in a shallow bathtub, and many larger birds love to shower with their human buddies. “Unfortunately, it’s something we don’t have time to do here, because hey, if I’m a bird, I want you to be my good friend before I jump on your arm and play in the sink,” says D’Alonzo. “But you can mist a bird with a plant mister, and especially if he came in kind of grubby, and he’s oily-feeling or dirty, he’ll love it if you mist him with water—he’ll start preening and get a lot of his cleaning done by himself.”

But your birds can’t clean their own cages, and they won’t stay clean if their surroundings don’t allow them to. Cages should be cleaned daily; you should wear surgical masks and gloves when cleaning to reduce the risk of inhaling particles of biological matter that can lead to illness. Keep the cages lined with newspaper, and discard the soiled liners daily. Take care to remove all organic material—feces, shed feathers, seed husks, and contaminated food—before thoroughly cleaning all cage surfaces with a solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent bleach. Birds should be kept far away from the area while cleaning is going on-many chemical fumes in disinfectants can be harmful to birds.

When cleaning cages or handling birds, wash your hands between visits to separately housed birds. This will prevent the spreading of germs and parasites among birdie neighbors. There are also some bird diseases, such as psittacosis, that can be transmitted to people—yet another reason to keep bird areas clean. “We clean our bird room every day,” says Rathbun, “and when we give our birds spray baths, it sort of dampens the whole area. …It’s the fecal contamination that’s most dangerous [to human health], but the danger comes from when it dries up and becomes airborne and people breathe it in. The spray baths we give the birds keep that from happening.”

If you keep your birds clean, they will appreciate it, says Chaboudy, who still remembers the inspiring aftermath of the horrible hoarding case involving 225 birds. “It took us about three or four hours every morning to clean the birds and clean their cages … and then another hour and a half in the afternoons,” he recalls. All the hard work was aggravated by the fact that the shelter’s biggest annual fundraiser was already taking up huge amounts of staff time. But among the 225 seized birds were 77 cockatiels with a hidden talent. The cockatiels were pretty quiet at first, when they were coming out of the house where they hadn’t been cleaned or fed regularly. They were miserable little birds. But after a little while in the shelter, says Chaboudy, they perked up, expressing their appreciation in a way that bordered on sexual harassment. “We had those 77 cockatiels in one room, and every single one of them knew how to do the wolf-whistle,” he says. “They were so happy to have someone paying attention to them and feeding them and cleaning them that whenever you walked into that room, 77 cockatiels would wolf-whistle at you. It really did a lot for your ego.”

Giving Them the Bird: Adoption Protocols

Many people seem to think of birds as “easy pets” who exist solely for their entertainment value, and it takes some serious educating to let them know that’s not the case. Birds are not like tropical fish; you can’t just feed them and clean their housing occasionally and still expect them to be fine. “We have people come in who see our birds, and they’re like, ‘Oh, a bird, I had one of those a while ago!’ and they want to adopt a bird,” says Boswell. “And we ask them, ‘Well, what happened to the bird you had before?’ and they say, ‘Oh, I let it go,’ or ‘I gave him away,’ or something like that. And we’re like, ‘And you think we’re going to give you another bird? Are you kidding?’ “

A Little Birdie Told Me…

A person who yells or scolds his bird when she misbehaves may be inadvertently reinforcing the negative behaviors he seeks to correct. A bird thinks human vocalizations are fun and neat, and if she figures out “Hey, when I shriek, he shrieks too!” she’s liable to shriek all day. The best way to teach a bird to slow down her chatterbox is to isolate her and cover her cage with a cloth. Birds should be frequently rewarded for good behavior with food and conversation.

The same sort of precautions you take when adopting out purebred dogs and cats should be applied when adopting out exotic birds. Some of the larger macaws, parrots, and cockatoos can cost up to $2,000 when purchased from a breeder or pet store, and too many potential adopters come in thinking they can get a bargain on an expensive bird, says Tedford. “You have to have a screening process to weed those people out,” he says. “You have to make sure that they understand that we’re not Wal-Mart, and that this is not—pardon the pun—a fly-by-night decision.” Home visits should be conducted when possible, and all measures should be taken to ensure that the adopter plans to keep and care for the bird-not turn around and sell him for a huge profit.

Most shelters will place canaries and parakeets with people who don’t have extensive backgrounds in bird care, as long as they believe the adopters will do the necessary learning and provide responsible homes. But the adoption protocols for larger birds are much stricter. The intelligence levels of parrots, cockatoos, and macaws means that care must go far beyond the physical—adopters must satisfy the mental needs of these birds by spending great amounts of time talking, playing, and interacting with them. The financial expenses of larger birds are also more extreme; between seed mix, pellet food, fresh produce, toys, and other supplies, the owner of a macaw can expect to spend between $90 and $100 each month on her bird. “Larger birds usually go to experienced bird people,” says Rathbun. “We just educate, educate, educate, because so many people think these birds are easy-to-care-for pets, and they’re not—they’re expensive, they have special needs, they have special diets. If they aren’t experienced bird people, we tell them to read up on the birds, just [to] read every book they can find.” A bird believed to be wild-caught should never be placed with a novice bird person.

Inexperienced people are often unaware that, unlike parakeets and canaries, larger birds can easily outlive their human companions. Parakeets have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years—an estimate that’s generally accurate for smaller birds. But parrots, macaws, and cockatoos can live to the ripe old age of 70 years or more, giving a whole new meaning to the term “lifetime commitment.” With smaller birds—and with dogs and cats, for that matter—”lifetime commitment” means the span of the animal’s life. But for larger birds, a commitment to the full lifetime of the animal can also mean the adopter commits his own lifetime as well. “My birds are in my will,” says Farinato, who keeps an Orange-winged Amazon parrot, a Mexican redheaded Amazon parrot, and two lovebirds, and has converted one of the rooms of his house into an aviary. “The parrots will outlive me for sure.”

Just as with any animal, adopters should expect a transition phase when taking home a new bird. Birds get stressed out easily, and their true personalities won’t become apparent until they’ve been in their new homes for around a month. “It takes a while,” says D’Alonzo. “You take them home, you just kind of get them comfortable and then leave them alone. Then gradually, you talk to them more, you introduce your routine without inflicting it upon them.”

Adopters should make that first month as stress-free as possible, gradually introducing the bird to his new surroundings and building up a relationship of trust. Unlike dogs and cats, who’ve for the most part become acclimated to humans and their peculiarities, birds are not truly domesticated and require a good amount of time before they come to see us loud, slow, food-bearing creatures as friends. But with a little bit of patience and work, these funny, flighty, sometimes fractious, feathered fellows can become great companions for the humans who are willing to hold up their ends of the relationships.

Back to Exotics and Wildlife

Courtesy of
Animal Sheltering Magazine
From the March-April 2001 Issue

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