Should I buy a Second Bird?

The last time I was at a bird club meeting the speaker was the editor of Bird Talk magazine. She brought up some of the frequently asked questions they receive. As bird club members, we all kind of chuckled at these because they were common knowledge to us. One of the questions they routinely get is “Should I buy a second bird?” She said the fact that the person was even asking the question indicated that the answer was “no.” Most people nodded in agreement at this statement. I beg to differ.

I receive this question a lot too, but most people don’t ask it out of some nagging doubt it won’t work or they shouldn’t do it. In many cases, they want another bird, but are unsure how their first will react. Will the two get along? Will their first bird lose its pet qualities? How soon can they be introduced? What species would be most compatible? To me their question shows that they know enough about birds not to jump into something blindly. They want to educate themselves first. Most people obtain their first bird without doing any research. They learn through trial and error, not really the best way for the pet or the owner, but if they’re trying to rectify the situation the second time around I can’t fault them. There’s nothing wrong with making an informed decision.

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Benefits of Keeping a Flock

I have a personal philosophy regarding this issue – I never keep birds singly. A bird that has its own cage is still kept near others and allowed play time with them. The only time I completely isolate a bird is if it must be kept in a hospital cage due to health problems. This does not mean that I think every owner should run out and buy more birds. Many people are happy with just a single pet. This article is for those of you who are contemplating buying another bird, but haven’t quite made up your mind yet.

I believe it is psychologically beneficial for birds to be kept in a flock. My adopted mitred conure responded extremely well when kept around my flock. He no longer tries to assault other birds. Many people don’t properly socialize their birds. One of my requirements of socialization is that bird know how to be a bird. A handfed reared in isolation with no avian contact may have identity problems later, particularly if its owner expects it to act like a little human. Birds are not humans and never will be. We both share many behaviors but have different motivations. Understanding your bird’s behavior is the key to getting along with it. I think new owners tend to attribute human motivations to their bird’s behavior or simply treat them as if they have no emotions at all. Both views will lead to problems.

When you allow birds to interact with one another you give them a chance to communicate in their own language and to be themselves. As an aside: One of my pet peeves is when people ask me about teaching their birds to talk or want to know if my birds talk. Yes they talk- they speak bird! You’ll get along much better with your animals if you learn to communicate with them. I’ll have you know I’m fluent in “duck” and “chicken.” I’ve made friends with wild ducks using this skill. Don’t ask me how to teach your birds to talk, ask me how you can learn to speak “bird.”

Not everyone can give their bird the attention it requires. Many people will buy their pet a mirror, thinking this will help keep it company. This is worse than keeping a bird isolated. If you can’t give your bird the attention it needs, give it up or buy a second.

I also believe that owners learn more about bird behavior when observing more than one interacting. Owners of one bird only see that single bird’s behavior. They have no point of reference and mistakenly judge their behavior as “odd.” When you see birds interact with one another it makes more sense.

I also cannot overstate how beneficial it is for birds to have another bird, even a different species, around during the day when you’re not home. Parrots are not meant to be kept in isolation.

Will my first bird lose its pet qualities?

No. If your bird is tame and lovable it should stay that way. I have never seen a bird become unfriendly just because it had a new friend. I think this myth has been propagated by owners whose birds hit puberty the same time as a new bird is purchased. Behavior changes associated with puberty have nothing to do with the introduction of a new bird.

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This guy was handfed and socialized by me. He’s an aviary bird and I haven’t handled him on a regular basis for ten years. Still tame.

Let’s say you buy a new cockatiel. You have it for a few months. It’s so sweet and wonderful you just have to get another one. Your first bird is probably around six months to a year old when you decide to introduce another. Guess what time puberty hits? That’s right, around 6-12 months. The new bird is unjustly blamed for problems that would have occurred anyway.

What species are the most compatible?

This is more of a concern if they are to be sharing a cage. Given a large enough cage, you can probably keep any birds of similar size together. I keep conures, budgies, kakarikis, tiels and ringnecks together, but then I have walk-in aviaries. Territorial issues are less of a problem when you are not breeding.

If the cage is smaller you’ll need the species to be more alike. Tiels and budgies have similar care requirements but they don’t get along well in confined spaces, especially if there are only one of each (or one tiel and numerous budgies). Tiels are mellow birds; budgies are pesky and very active. The constant movement alone can drive a tiel nuts in a small cage. Even if it doesn’t, the budgies are likely to harass the tiel endlessly.

When species are very different (in size or behavior) you need to give each their own cage. I would not keep any of the medium or large parrots together in a standard pet cage. You’d need a large flight to do that.

Supervised play is fine with most similar-sized birds, as long as you know how to read body language and prevent problems.

How soon can they be introduced?

Quarantine all new birds for at least 30 days. By quarantine I mean keep them in another room with NO contact with your current birds. You don’t want to risk bringing in any diseases. Feed the new bird last and change clothes/wash hands before handling your other birds again. I also recommend a vet check and bloodwork if you can afford it. You can see a veterinarian for disease testing or submit it yourself.

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How do I introduce them?

Some species can be thrown in together with few problems. Budgies and tiels usually fall into this category. Heck, budgies typically welcome new birds! However, birds that have established territory- especially perceived breeding territory- may have a problem with a new bird suddenly sharing it. In this case it is best to start out with separate cages, in view of each other, and supervised play time outside of the cages. How soon the two get along will vary. If you see any fighting take things back a step.

How do I keep them from breeding?

Don’t buy the same species or the opposite sex, and don’t give them a nestbox.

© 1997-2002 by Karen Trinkaus and may not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Mitred Conure: Fry

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“Butthead”

I was at the vet getting a button quail treated. Dr. Levoy walked in and told me he had a lady in the lobby looking to get rid of a conure. After my appointment was over I found her in the lobby. She was a younger woman, late twenties or early thirties, and was carrying a newborn baby. She explained that she had a mitred conure she was trying to find a home for. It had been in her care for six years. The fact that she’d just had a baby and her husband hated the bird’s noise had forced her to get rid of it. Right now the bird was staying at her parent’s house. Apparently the bird took many such “vacations” to appease the husband. I gave her my phone number and she said she’d call as soon as the bird was back at her house. After a few weeks and no call, I virtually forgot about the incident.

About six weeks after the chance meeting, I got a message on my answering machine regarding the conure. Was I still interested, and if so would I call back and arrange a time to see it? I called her back and agreed to come view the bird.

The bird’s first owner was a woman who’d caught him outdoors. Apparently he’d been dive-bombing some gardeners. He stayed with her a year and then was given to her friend, the woman I’d met. She in turn had had him for six years. The conure was also open-banded, probably with a quarantine band. Considering the history, it was at least eight years old if not more.

I wasn’t expecting much when I arrived at her home. I kept envisioning a bird in a small, dirty cage, with poor plumage and a fierce bite. Imagine my surprise to find a very healthy-looking bird. It was bright-eyed and alert and had excellent plumage. I scanned the cage. It was much too small, but at least it was clean. On top was a T stand, bathing dish, mirror and a single wooden toy. Inside the cage the conure eyed me warily. The woman let him out. I didn’t approach him but instead asked a ton of questions regarding his background.

His owner actually knew quite a bit more than most do. She knew she had a mitred conure. She’d read up on the proper diet but had been unable to convert him. The bird had become so picky that it would eat nothing but safflower seed, white bread and apples (no skin). She said he liked to hang out on the T stand by the mirror but would also climb down the cage and wander around the floor. Among her reasons for getting rid of him was her fear that he would hurt the new baby. He also wouldn’t be receiving as much attention. And of course there was the husband, who’d nicknamed the conure “Butthead.” After spending a good hour probing with my questions, I decided to take him. The bird came free with cage, T stand, mirror, toy, bowl and seed. Had it not appeared so healthy I would not have taken it.

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On the ride home my new bird was rather nervous, but let one good shriek loose. Damn, he was loud.

I renamed the bird Fry. My influence for the name came from two sources: the movie Pitch Black and TV show Futurama. Both have characters by that name, the latter in which the character is a redhead. Aside from these sources, I’d never even heard of that name. “Fry” just had a certain ring to it that appealed to me.

The first thing I learned about Fry was that he didn’t like hands. Aside from that he was fairly tame. If you offered him a finger he’d scramble to get away; if you offered him your arm he’d hop right on. Despite being the largest bird I’ve ever owned, he’s also a strong flier (or jumper) when clipped. I placed his cage on top of my dresser which, unfortunately, had a built-in mirror. The cage was still too small, but it was all I had at this point.

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Changing Diets

Jay-Jay also shared my room with Fry and helped me break his finicky eating habits. If I can get a bird that ate nothing but apple, white bread and safflower seed for six years to eat whatever I offer, YOU can get your birds on a healthy diet. Fry’s owner had tried to get him on a better diet, but he refused to eat anything but the above listed items. I got him eating anything in two weeks.

Jay-Jay’s cage was across the room from Fry’s. Every day I cooked up a meal for the two of them after I got off work. Both dishes were the same style but varying colors. Jay-Jay always dove right for the food. Fry wasn’t stupid. He knew that whatever Jay-Jay was eating in her bowl was most likely the exact same thing in his bowl. It not only seemed edible, but delicious. Jay-Jay could hardly contain herself when she saw the bowls coming. The second day after offering food in this manner, Fry started picking at whatever was in the dish. I mostly fed Crazy Corn, birdie bread and veggies. Every few days or so I’d offer apples too.

In addition to using Jay-Jay as a model, I also used myself. Some time in the afternoon I’d make myself a meal, usually fried eggs and toast or slices fruit, and bring the birds into the kitchen to share it. Fry was nervous around me and the new room so I started out by placing him on the back of a chair across the table while Jay-Jay and I ate. After a few days Fry would jump onto the table and cautiously sneak some food before scurrying back. The toast tempted him more than anything. Jay-Jay always went for the egg yolk.

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Fry cautiously “stealing” some oranges.

A quick aside on sharing foods:
Give birds their own food to eat. Do not allow them to eat anything your mouth has touched. Mammal bacteria can be dangerous for birds and human mouths in particular are bacterial cesspools. Likewise, try not to eat anything they’ve picked at or stepped on. Though it is unlikely you will catch anything, you still don’t know where those birdie feet and mouths have been. How many times have you seen your bird chewing its own dried feces at the bottom of the cage? Always practice proper hygiene with animals.

The Mirror

Fry had a mirror for six years. When I first adopted him I continued to allow him access to it on top of his cage, but draped a towel over my dresser mirror. What more harm could it do?

When he was out of the cage he spent of time just sitting in front of the mirror. He never touched a toy, but took great delight in flying across the room to torment Jay-Jay. He would barge into the cage to eat her seed while she hid inside her Happy Hut.

Fry was downright hostile towards most birds. Jay-Jay seemed to be an exception, maybe because she was larger and a conure as well. Once I had to hospitalize a breeder tiel in the same room. I left for literally a few seconds to fill the water dish when I heard shrieking. I ran back to my room. Fry had flown across the room to the tiel’s cage, pulled its leg through the wire and was in the process of shredding it. The poor bird was already ill and now had to deal with this trauma. I believe it died that night. Embarrassed and ashamed, I brought the poor thing in for a necropsy, making sure the vet knew the leg had been injured post-illness. The results revealed that the cockatiel had been ill due to gout, something I couldn’t have done anything about. I still felt awful about the incident though.

After that I took Fry’s mirror away. He quickly chewed a hole in the towel covering my dresser through the cage bars. A huge hole. Now he didn’t even want to come out of the cage that often, except to harass Jay-Jay. Eventually I re-covered the mirror with a new towel and moved the cage an inch forward, hoping this time it would be out of reach. It was. Fry began to play with his toys. He also started perching on the back of my chair when Jay-Jay and I were at the computer.

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Epilogue

Fry lived with me for several years in an upgraded cage with lots of toys. He eventually died from leukemia.

© 1997-2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

The Problem with Giving your Bird a Mirror

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You’re worried your bird is not getting enough attention from you. Or maybe it starts out more simple. Perhaps your cockatiel has developed a crush on the toaster or the bathroom sink faucet. What’s wrong with giving your bird a mirror? Everything. Mirrors are very psychologically damaging to your bird.

Birds a very social creatures. It is because of their strong flocking instincts that they can make such great pets. Many owners give their pets mirrors because they are afraid their bird will get lonely. If you are giving your bird its due attention and providing it with toys to play with while you are gone, you have no need to think your bird will become lonely.

So what exactly do mirrors do? The first thing most people notice is increased territoriality. Bird behaviorists are often contacted about cockatiels who are so attached to the toaster that they will viciously bite anyone who comes near it. They will isolate themselves from their owners and throw a fit if not near their “buddy.” Sadly, this is a lesser problem that mirrors cause.

The real problem is this: mirrors give your bird an incorrect perception of reality. They are NOT talking to another bird, they are talking to a reflection. Reflections can only mimic- they do not react in the same manner as a real bird would. Think of it this way: you have a young child. This is your only child so instead of letting him play with kids down the street you get him a mirror. The kid spends all his time talking and playing with his reflection. When he turns fifteen years old you send him to high school. How well do you think he’s going to socialize with real people who may not agree with him, may not like his looks, may look different than him, etc?

It is true that not all birds will eventually come into contact with other birds but let’s be realistic here. How do you know that down the line you won’t want another bird? How do you know that something might not occur that will force you to have to sell or give away your bird? Does the possibility that it may never meet another bird justify improper socialization?

Allow me to give you a case in point. In fall of 1999 I adopted a mitred conure, Fry. A woman had caught him outdoors in Southern California. He had been dive-bombing some local gardeners. He stayed with her a year before she ended up giving him to a friend of hers. This lady had him for six years. During that period he was fed nothing more than safflower seed, apples and white bread, at his request (never let birds or kids choose their diet). He had a mirror on top of his cage and had no access to real birds. His owner had just had a baby when I acquired him. This, and the fact that her husband hated the bird, were her motivations for giving him away.

Fry has the worst flocking skills I’ve ever seen in a bird. I’ve actually had him fly across my room to attack a bird in a hospital cage. He has maimed toes and feet and has no clue how to react to real birds. In the beginning he also had no skills at playing by himself. All pet birds need to know how to keep themselves entertained. I offered him plenty of toys but he ignored them. His cage was located on my dresser, which has a large mirror attached to the back. I covered the mirror with a towel but he chewed it to shreds to get to the mirror. I re-covered the mirror and moved the cage out of reach so he couldn’t chew it while inside. About a week later he started playing with the toys. He also became more interested in people. Instead of hanging out on top of his cage all the time or trying to steal my sun conure’s food, he’d jump over to my desk to watch me and Jay-Jay (the sun).

So what do you do if you have a single bird? Though it is not necessary, you can buy a second bird after the first one is tamed. If you do not want two birds, just make sure to give your bird lots of attention and keep those mirrors away! Birds can be kept singly just fine, but access to a mirror will teach them bad habits, as well as make them territorial and withdrawn.

© 1997-2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.