It is all too common that you walk into a pet store and see a cockatiel alone in a cage. Or a single, breathtaking blue-and-yellow macaw up on a perch by itself. As pet birds have become more and more popular in the United States, it is critical that owners remember that these animals are not only highly intelligent, but extremely social creatures.
Dr. Trevor Zachariah is a member of the Chicago Zoological and Aquatic Animal Residency Program, which is operated through the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. Over the course of a three-year training program, he rotates through Brookfield Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, and Shedd Aquarium, treating everything from beluga whales to lovebirds.
"If you look at the natural history of psittacines [parrots], they have evolved to be very social animals." He says, "In the wild they are almost always found in groups." In essence, interacting with another parrot on a daily basis is what these birds are hard-wired to do. It's just as essential to their well-being as a nutritionally balanced diet.
Where owners start to run into trouble is when we take one of these birds and put it in an environment that is devoid of social interaction, whether that be with another bird or a human. "Lack of socialization within a bird's environment can lead to a whole host of behavioral and medical problems, such as screaming, biting, feather picking, or self-mutilation," notes Dr. Zachariah.
In short, a less than stimulating environment doesn't just affect the bird's mental health, but actually has been shown to lead to medical problems as well.
The best way to prevent any of these issues is to look critically at your lifestyle before adopting a bird. They can live for several decades and require a huge time commitment. If you work 9 to 5 and the bird will be left alone during those hours, you should reconsider your choice of pet.
When it comes to the question of whether to get one bird or two (so they can keep each other company) Dr. Zachariah says, "Ideally it would be great to have two." However, he first recommends that owners consider whether they have the financial resources to care for two birds, and not just one. Parrots are a long-term investment--veterinary, food, and housing expenses add up quickly, and with two birds you are doubling those costs.
If you do have just one bird, it is even more critical that you make sure the animal leads a socially enriched life. Because these birds are programmed to be social in the wild and we are preventing them from that lifestyle, "The onus is on the owner to make up for that loss in social interaction," says Dr. Zachariah.
In the end, although it's easy to throw a few toys in your parrot's enclosure, there is a big difference between that and another feathered friend to cuddle with, or the shoulder of a human companion to perch on and talk to. "Social interaction is really what these birds need," stresses Dr. Zachariah.
For more information on enriching your bird's life, contact your local avian veterinarian.
An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at www.vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Mandy Barth, email@example.com.
Veterinary Extension/Office of Public Engagement
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine