Starter Pets: What makes a good beginner pet?

I’m tired of people acting like starter pets aren’t a thing. Cockatiels and budgies do well in just about every household. Cockatoos and lories absolutely do not. Would you recommend a macaw as a first bird? I didn’t think so.

Starter does NOT mean disposable. It means easy to for beginners to keep. Starter pets are your most laid back, your most versatile. They’re the chill animals who go with the flow while their owner learns the ropes, and they’re an essential entry point for budding bird people. So stop acting like “starter pet” is an insult. Starter pets are AWESOME. That’s what makes them starter pets.

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What makes an animal a good starter pet?

  • hardy
  • easy care
  • few behavior problems
  • good with children
  • inexpensive
  • (relatively) short lifespan

Hardy

People are going to make mistakes, even if they are trying their best. No one starts out an expert. Some knowledge is gained best through experience than reading (bird body language for one). Researching everything prior to purchase can still leave someone with conflicting advice, thanks in part to the many armchair experts that give misleading information online.

Starter pets are physically hardy. They’re able to withstand mistakes here and there. Budgies and cockatiels are native to the Australian outback. Their bodies are designed to deal with food and water shortages, and greater temperature extremes. They’re tough, unlike kakarikis, who can pass out or have a heart attack if stressed.

Easy Care

All animals have a baseline of care, but for some, this baseline is higher than others. Starter pets are at the lowest possible bar. If an animal has a specialized diet (lories, eclectus) or needs heavy-duty equipment (macaw), then it’s not a starter pet.

Few Behavior Problems

Why are cockatiels starter pets but cockatoos are not? Because cockatoos turn into a neurotic mess if handled wrong.

Some animals are more likely to develop behavior problems if incorrectly handled. Perhaps they are nippy, flighty, or tend to attach to one person. Maybe they don’t take commands easily and need a person who can handle their strong will appropriately. Such animals do not make starter pets. Behavior issues are not the fault of the animal, but simply a byproduct of an inexperienced owner reacting inappropriately to certain innate behaviors.

Good with Children

This quality is important if the pet is intended for a family with children or access to grandchildren. Starter pets should be reasonably tolerant of handling, especially as children tend to be overzealous even when coached. You want to avoid species which are nippy when excited (green cheek conures) or bite hard when their personal space is invaded (Indian ringnecks).

Inexpensive

Budget absolutely matters. Not all families can afford expensive pets. There’s a vast difference between setting up a budgie vs a macaw. Larger birds have larger long-term costs as well. Working within your means is not a crime. It’s sensible.

Short Lifespan

This one is hard, as outside of rodents, you’re going to have a starter pet for at least ten years. Some people may find that birds are not for them, and in this case rehoming is best. A longer lived pet is more likely to run into the problem of major life changes. What happens when a child grows up and moves to college? Gets married? Has kids of their own? Moves? What happens if your job changes and you have less time to spend with your pet? What if your bird outlives you?

The longer a pet lives, the more likely it will encounter situations like these and the more likely it will be rehomed. We can’t always plan for the future, but lifespan should definitely be taken into account when acquiring a pet, especially if there’s a good change it might outlive you.

What a starter pet is NOT.

Disposable.

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Any time you purchase an animal, even if it is a starter pet, you need to consider your life situation and do your research. While starter pets are a good way to find out if a particular type of pet is good for you, that doesn’t mean they should be discarded the moment you feel like you can move on to something better. This is an animal that is bonded with you and your family. It isn’t going to understand why it is being cast aside, and few pets are rehomed just once. Pets, even starter pets, should be purchased with the intent to keep them for the long term.

© 2019 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

The Best Enrichment: A Flock

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One of the things I typically ask potential customers is “do you have any birds now?” If they do not, I try to convince them to get two. Wild psittacines live together in large flocks or small family groups. They are not mentally designed to live alone and when you have a single bird, even if you spend a lot of time with it, there are going to be times when you’re not around- work, school, weddings, vacations, running errands. When you make yourself your parrot’s only source of social interaction, you unintentionally set it up to have a stressful life. Toys can keep birds busy, but they only do so much and they don’t satisfy any of the bird’s social needs. When a bird has to rely on humans to be its only flock, it will scream when they are out of the room (contact calling, a bird version of “where are you?!”) and can develop stereotypies (purposeless, repetitive behaviors like pacing or plucking). Stereotypies are an indicator of poor animal welfare.

I have kept birds for 27 years. In my professional opinion, a bird housed in a large aviary with a flock of its own kind is far more psychologically healthy than a single bird kept in a pet cage with a zillion toys. Aviary birds have the benefit of exercise, flight, and socialization. The research agrees with me. A UC Davis study found that: “Paired parrots used their enrichments more, and spent less time screaming, less time preening, and less time inactive than singly housed parrots. . . . Isosexual pair housing resulted in a more active and diverse behavioral repertoire, eliminated the development of stereotypy and reduced fear responses to novel objects without imparting significant risk of illness and injury or jeopardizing the ability of parrots to relate positively with humans. Thus, it appears that pair housing can significantly improve environmental quality and positively affect the welfare of captive parrots.”

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Access to conspecifics, flight, and foraging are all excellent methods of enrichment.

Many people are concerned that if they have more than one bird their bird won’t love them anymore, or that they won’t have as deep a bond. The latter is true, but context is important. When humans speak of bonding to their parrots or being chosen by their parrots, they think of their parrot as their “baby” and themselves as a parent or caretaker. That is not how the parrot sees it. When a parrot bonds to a person they see the human as a mate. This can lead to all kinds of behavior problems when the parrot’s sexual advances are rebuffed or intentionally squashed. It can lead to aggression when the human prefers their spouse, or shows affection to their child. It definitely leads to stress, as mates are typically not apart during the day unless one is incubating eggs. It’s not a psychologically healthy relationship and it’s unfair to the bird. However, if the bird has a mate (same sex is fine!) you won’t see the same issues. (Please note: a mirror is NOT a substitute for a real bird and can be detrimental).

Will the bird still be tame once it has a companion? Yes! Birds still enjoy interacting with humans even if they have a buddy. You can see evidence of this every time I walk into my aviary:

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Vita and her mate.

The relationship won’t be less, it will just be different. You will be someone they enjoy spending time with. Do people stop loving their parents or siblings every time they enter a romantic relationship? Do they love their spouse less because they had a child? Their child less because they had another? No. Love is not a finite resource. People (and birds) can have multiple healthy, loving relationships that are all somewhat different. Each relationship has its own dynamic and fulfills various needs.

To me the ideal is that birds be raised and housed with their own kind from the start- if you’re buying a baby bird, get two. If you do not wish to breed I recommend a same sex pair. Even a mature solo bird that prefers humans can benefit from having a buddy. They don’t have to be housed together, be the same species, or even particularly like one another. They just have to be kept in the same room within sight of one another. My pets ten years ago were my Goffin cockatoo, Loki, and a mitred conure, Verde. They disliked one another. When I first started having children I had little time for my birds. I’m sure Loki and Verde missed me, but they never developed any psychological issues from lack of human contact. In fact, over time I saw their poop piles move towards each other’s cages. When Verde passed away Loki immediately began to scream more. I gave her as much attention as I could but it didn’t really die down until I got her a replacement buddy (my pionus, Lando).

This is something very serious to consider: Birds are long-lived and regardless of how much time you have now, there will always be a point (or more likely, many points) in your life when you just won’t have as much time as you’d like to spend with your birds. These periods are temporary, yet many people rehome their birds anyway, mistakenly believing it is the best interest of their bird. A bird with a companion is easily able to weather these patches of reduced attention, where a solo bird will feel isolated and forgotten and start to show it by screaming, plucking, or otherwise acting out.

If you are on the fence about getting a second bird, know that your concern is quite common, but the best thing for birds in the long run is to have access to other feathered friends. It will reduce their stress, frustration, contact calls, and help alleviate boredom. It will also reduce your urge to rehome unnecessarily when you find you suddenly have a life event that takes a majority of your time.

Copyright 2018 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted without author’s permission.