Pet birds are popular in the United States with good reason. These avians are lively, charming, and make for delightful companions. So which type of bird species is for you?
Humans have a long, time-honored tradition of keeping pet birds. The Sumerians, the oldest civilization known to keep written records, had a word for birdcage: subura. Domesticated pigeons date back more than ten thousand years, and pigeon keeping is still prevalent in many parts of the world. The Romans, ancient Macedonians, and people of the Indus Valley also kept captive pet birds. Some species have been prized for their beauty, others for their song, others for their intelligence, and still others, like pigeons and doves, for their ability to perform tasks.
Today, birds are one of the top five most popular pets in both the United States and Great Britain. They can make excellent pets. Who wouldn’t be tempted by the idea of a brightly-colored, sweetly singing companion? Or intrigued by the opportunity to train a highly intelligent pet to perform tricks and repeat snappy phrases?
But every breed of pet birds has a different set of needs that pet owners should be aware of. Some require hours of daily attention from their human companions, while others can live alone or with other birds. Larger types require more space than smaller species. Some breeds are prone to various illnesses. Some make a lot of noise. Others are sensitive to your racket. Some are very long-lived—think 50 years or more. Some require loads of exercise or mental stimulation or both — that’s enrichment in zookeeper-speak — while others entertain themselves quite well.
A bird might not be the best pet for everyone — cat owners, for example. But if you’re ready for a feathered friend, you have many to choose from. The best pet birds are the ones that fit well into their owners’ lives. To select the right breed of bird, bird owners have to know themselves, their needs, and their boundaries.
Six Things to Consider When Choosing Birds for Pets
A bird isn’t decoration—it’s a companion, like a cat or a dog. And while there are many types of pet birds, the best pet birds for beginners are often in the eye of the beholder. Just as a person in a studio apartment wouldn’t—hopefully—adopt an enormous Great Dane or a high-energy working dog like a Border Collie, a potential bird owner needs to take a serious look at their lifestyle, and think about what kind of bird would be a good fit.
The most obvious consideration is space. Large pet birds, such as the medium large parrots called the Blue-headed Pionus, need a large cage. At a minimum, a Blue-headed Pionus will need to be able to turn around without touching the bars of his or her cage, or hitting the floor or the bars with its tail feathers. If you’re not planning to provide out-of-cage flight time, the enclosure needs to be much, much bigger than that.
For a large macaw — that’s what most people see in their mind’s eye when they think about a colorful parrot — the smallest cage you should consider is 60” high by 48” deep by 36” wide. Yes, you read that right. Five feet by four feet by three feet. Minimum. If a bird’s cage is too small, it can damage its feathers and may even begin to self-mutilate out of frustration.
Small pet birds can live quite happily in a much smaller space. Finches, for example, can live in a cage 30” wide by 18” high by 18” deep. You can find a handy guide to birdcage size recommendations on The Spruce.
This is probably the most important consideration, both for your bird’s happiness and for your own. For the right owner, a brilliant bird like a macaw, a cockatoo, a budgie, or conures — all members of the parrot family — could make a fantastic pet. Many smart birds thrive on human attention. They can be talkative and many enjoy learning tricks and figuring out puzzles. The Timneh African Grey is among the best pet birds that talk. If you want an engaging companion who will bond strongly with you, one of the highly intelligent breeds like macaws, green-cheeked conures, cockatoos, and budgerigars might be just the thing.
On the other hand, if you don’t have the time or the willingness to provide your new friend with the necessary mental stimulation, he or she will be miserable—and will make you miserable in return. Think of an ignored toddler. Members of the parrot family have intelligence ranging from that of a three-year-old child to that of an eight-year-old child. As any parent knows, a bored child will find mischief. A child who feels neglected will lash out. A bored bird with a child’s intelligence will not only get into mischief but will also often engage in self-harm or destructive and aggressive behaviors. If you’re not willing or able to give your bird sufficient attention — sometimes several hours per day of it, depending on the breed — then a bird with human-level intelligence might not be right for you.
Some birds, such as the African Greys, live for human interaction. Others are happier socializing with other birds. Some, like cockatiels, have been described as “cuddly,” while others, like canaries, suffer from being handled. Before bringing home a new feathered friend, it’s important to know that you, and they, desire a similar kind and amount of affection.
Quaker parrots and cockatiels have a reputation for being friendly, easy to care for, and forming a solid bond with their owners. Doves and budgies enjoy interacting with their owners, but are reasonably independent, and don’t require constant attention. Finches prefer the company of other finches, and, as long as they have enough room in their cage to fly around, don’t require a lot of out-of-cage flight time or additional enrichment.
When looking for a feathered friend, ask yourself whether you want a companion with whom you can form a deep, long-term bond, or whether you would prefer a more independent pet.
When a person adopts a cat or dog, they hopefully do so with forever in mind. Potential bird-owners should take the same care. But what that means can vary from breed to breed. Generally speaking, the larger a bird is, the longer its lifespan. Some members of the parrot family can live fifty to seventy years—or even longer with the right kind of care. That’s as long as a lot of humans! Medium-sized pet breeds, like canaries, lovebirds, and budgies usually live between 10-15 years—comparable to a cat or dog. Finches, one of the smallest of the pet breeds, live only about five years.
Ask yourself: is your current life settled enough to make a decades-long commitment to a pet? What will become of your feathered companion, should you no longer be able to take care of him or her? Pets are family members. If we make them a part of our lives, we owe it to them to make sure their lives are, and remain, stable and safe.
5. Large vs. Small
You might have noticed that characteristics of the different types of pet birds break down according to size. While variations exist between breeds and between individuals of the same breed, it’s possible to make a few generalizations.
The larger the bird, the more intelligent it will be, the longer it will live, and the more space it will need. Smaller birds need less space, have shorter lifespans, and often require less mental stimulation. Which type is better for you is up to you to decide.
Most birds are granivores. They mostly feed on seeds or grains. Other birds, such as orioles, toucans, or waxwings, are frugivores. Their diet is mostly composed of berries and fruits. Carnivorous birds such as the shorebirds, wading birds, and corvids feed on amphibians, mammals, rodents, reptiles, and fish. Avivorous birds, on the other hand, eat other birds. An example of an avivorous bird is the accipiter.
Here’s an excellent video from Howcast on how to choose the pet bird that’s right for you.
Six Common Types Of Pet Birds.
Now, let’s take a look at some common pet birds and their characteristics.
Small Pet Birds
When it comes to small pet birds, zebra finches and canaries are highly popular types of pet birds. They’re also great choices when you don’t have a lot of space, and both are hardy and easy to care for. Zebra finches are sociable and need to be kept in pairs, while canaries prefer to live alone.
- Size: Finches are one of the smaller pet breeds—about 4.5” long.
- Cage Size: Finches require a cage that is at minimum 18″ wide by 30″ long by 18″ deep, with 1/4″ to 1/2″ bar spacing. If their cage is large enough to permit flight, then they typically won’t need out-of-cage flight time.
- Intelligence: Though finches are bright, they don’t require the constant interaction and mental stimulation that some other breeds do.
- Sociability: Finches live in flocks, and are happiest with two or three other finches. Be aware, though, that they breed readily. Finches don’t require a lot of handling or human interaction. They tend to be quiet and undemanding.
- Lifespan: Around five years. Up to twenty has been reported, with luck and excellent care.
Size: About five inches in length.
Cage Size: Canaries and finches need a similar enclosure: 18″ wide by 30″ long by 18″ deep, with 1/4″ to 1/2″ bar spacing.
Intelligence: Like finches, they don’t require constant interaction and mental stimulation.
Sociability: Canaries are not particularly social, and can happily live alone. They are known for their beautiful singing voice. Males sing more, though neither males nor females may sing during molting.
Lifespan: Around ten years.
Medium-Sized Pet Birds
Parakeets and Budgerigars
Parakeets and budgerigars (budgies) look similar and are often classified together, but they’re actually different types of pet birds. As Petcha explains, a “parakeet” is a smaller parrot with a long tail and a slender body. Budgies are a type of parakeet, but not all parakeets are budgies. Like parrots, budgies are intelligent and can learn to talk.
- Size: Seven to ten inches in length.
- Cage Size: Minimum 18″ wide by 18″ long by 24″ high, with 1/2″ bar spacing.
- Intelligence: Parakeets and budgies, as members of the parrot family, are intelligent and trainable. They can learn to talk and perform simple tasks. They enjoy interacting with humans and can bond quite closely with their owners.
- Sociability: Parakeets are flock animals. They can be kept alone, but, unless their human is around all the time, they can get lonely. Parakeets and budgies enjoy being handled, and enjoy interacting with their owners. Although they do require daily socialization, if you provide them with enough space and enough interesting bird toys, they can occupy themselves quite happily for extended periods of time.
- Lifespan: Parakeets live, on average around 15 years. Budgies tend to live 5-8 years.
Doves and Pigeons
Pigeons and doves have different names but are basically the same type of pet bird. As the Pigeon Rescue website notes, many are too domesticated to survive in the wild and wind up in animal shelters along with the usual cats and dogs.
- Size: About twelve inches in length.
- Cage size: Minimum 24” tall by 18” deep by 36” wide.
- Intelligence: Although they cannot be taught to speak, doves and pigeons are quite intelligent, and can be taught complex action-and-response sequences. Think of the famous messenger pigeons during the two world wars—several of which even received military decoration for their heroic service.
- Sociability: Doves and pigeons are very affectionate and enjoy spending time with their owners. However, they are generally undemanding and are content to spend much of the day entertaining themselves. They should not be left alone for long periods of time, and are happiest with a friend.
Large Breed Pet Birds
- Size: 13”-18” in length.
- Cage size: Minimum 36″ wide by 48″ wide by 48″, with 1″ to 1.5″ bar spacing.
- Intelligence: As members of the parrot family, cockatoos are smart and social—about as smart and social as a three- to a four-year-old child. They are not great talkers, but they love to learn tricks and perform them. They enjoy toys and tools and are quick to figure them out.
- Sociability: Cockatoos are known to be sweet, affectionate, and playful. Typically less loud and demanding than a macaw, they still want to be part of the family. They love to play and need daily interaction with their humans. They can also live happily in pairs.
- Lifespan: 40-70 years.
- Size: Around 40” in length.
- Cage size: Minimum 36″ wide by 48″ wide by 60″, with 1″ to 1.5″ bar spacing.
- Intelligence: Among the smartest breeds, macaws have demonstrated the intelligence of a three-year-old child. They are curious and social and can be taught both to repeat phrases and to perform tricks. They love mental challenges—a puzzle, a food toy, a task—and need them to remain happy.
- Sociability: Macaws bond happily and readily with their owners. They require a lot of socialization, interaction, and mental stimulation, as well as four to six hours a day outside of their cage. They can be very loud and demanding, and love to mimic the voices around them. They have big hearts and boisterous personalities and can be a force to be reckoned with. These birds need to be full family members, and never made to feel as if they’re being ignored.
- Lifespan: 50 years or more.
Birds are one of the most popular types of pet, both historically and today—and with good reason. They are intelligent, affectionate, beautiful, and make engaging companions. What’s more, there are as many different kinds of birds as there are bird fanciers. But it’s important to choose a bird whose needs most closely match your own—whether you’re looking for a highly interactive family member with near-human intelligence, or a quiet, undemanding friend. Talk to people, do your research, try to spend time with different kinds of birds. Once you have your pet bird, ensure his health by visiting an avian veterinarian annually. Avian veterinarians are individuals who have knowledge about domesticated birds. Always remember—a bird, like any other pet, is forever; hence, you will never go wrong with a routine check-up.
Featured image: CC0 Public Domain via PXHere.