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First Feathers: The best bird breeds for beginners

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When you are thinking of what type of bird is best for a beginner, start simple. They say you've got to learn to crawl before you can walk. But when it comes to choosing the right pet bird for first-time owners, you've got to start small before you can squawk, say the experts.

Indeed, if you've never owned a pet bird before or are considering a fine feathered friend for a child, it's probably best to think about what type of bird is best suited to your lifestyle.  

Pecking order

"Historically, the best beginner birds have been cockatiels and budgerigars, which are a kind of parakeet,'' said Angela M. Lennox, DVM, of the Avian and Exotic Animal Clinic of Indianapolis. "These smaller birds have outstanding pet quality and provide fewer challenges than bigger birds, and novice owners tend to be less fearful of smaller birds.''

Thomas Bankstahl, DVM, of Parkway Small Animal and Exotic Hospital, in Clinton Township, Mich., said that while some pet lovers go directly to owning a bigger breed, a large bird can be very intimidating for the first-time bird owner.

Beginners often "do not have a feel for normal versus abnormal behavior, and a large bird's behavior issues often lead to an owner who is afraid of the bird or who gets bitten,'' Bankstahl said. "This results in mutual disruption in the trust between animal and owner and a bird that does not receive time outside of its cage and proper exercise.''

Larger birds like macaws and cockatoos, Lennox said, "exhibit more severe manifestations of behavior problems. Many owners decide they enjoy the challenges of bird ownership and ultimately own a larger bird. But a beginner may want to avoid these species and learn with a smaller, less challenging bird.''

Good things come in small packages

Smaller size doesn't necessarily mean smaller personality, Bankstahl said. Consider these advantages of a cockatiel or parakeet:

  • Their animated behavior and willingness to interact make them popular pets.
  • Cockatiels are relatively easy to teach, cost-effective to own, and avid whistlers.
  • They both enjoy a slightly longer lifespan than other small bird species: Depending on their health, diet and care, pet cockatiels usually live between 15 and 20 years, while budgerigars typically live up to eight years or longer.
  • Male cockatiels and many budgerigars learn to imitate and talk at least to some degree.

On a wing and a care

But if you're willing to "talk the talk,'' you also need to be willing to "walk the walk'' in terms of dedication, attention and upkeep, according to Lennox.

"All birds require a similar commitment in terms of time to clean, prepare food and socialize and train,'' she said. "Smaller birds usually make smaller messes and may require less time for training and socializing than large species.''

Bankstahl said you should count on:

  • Spending a minimum of 15 minutes twice a day interacting with your bird.
  • Changing the cage lining regularly.
  • Thoroughly cleaning out and refilling food and water dishes daily.
  • Scrubbing down the cage once a week.
  • Paying for regular expenses, such as a recommended formulated diet for your species, appropriate toys for your breed that encourage behavior enrichment, occasional grooming by a professional (ie, nail and beak trimming, if necessary), and a yearly veterinary check up.

"Also, be aware that all birds can carry a bacteria called Chlamydophila psittaci, which can be contracted by humans and cause flu-like symptoms. Your avian veterinarian can test for this important disease,'' Bankstahl said. "Additionally, some people are also sensitive to the amount of dust or dander produced by cockatiels.''

Beak clique

Lennox said that while the physical part of bird ownership - like feeding and cleaning - may appear straightforward, "it's not as easy to get good information on bird training, socialization and enrichment.''

An avian veterinarian is a good source, as are credible bird rescue organizations and resources like the Association of Avian Veterinarians  and the Gabriel Foundation.

Lastly, Bankstahl said that it's important for the ownership of a small bird "to be a family responsibility. In my practice, I see people get these small birds for children at very young ages and expect them to care for them on their own. This often result in improper care. Instead, I encourage people to make it a fun way to teach children about responsibility, compassion and animal care.''

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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