For the Birds Radio Program: Pet birds

Original Air Date: Aug. 26, 1987

What differentiates domestic birds sold as pets from wild ones? (3:45) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Canary)

People have been keeping birds as pets since ancient times. Kings snared birds to bring home alive. Ancient Greeks kept finches, nightingales, and starlings. During the Renaissance, canaries became popular in Europe–today they’re the world’s leading cage bird. Birds in the parrot family are almost as popular, but since most parrots breed only in the wild, they’ve always been toys of the rich. Poachers have endangered many species just to satisfy the whims of acquisitive humans. It’s illegal to smuggle wild parrots and macaws into the U.S., although many are shamefully bought and sold by Americans even today.

Two small parrots do breed readily in captivity–the parakeet, more properly called the Budg’erigar’ or budgie, and the cockatiel. Canaries also breed in captivity, and the same goes for Zebra finches–those tiny finches breed so readily that they’re frequently used in laboratories in the U.S. and Britain, and some scientists think they’ll soon overtake the mouse as the most used laboratory creature.

Birds may be popular pets, but most people don’t know what they’re getting into when they get a bird. Larry Anderson, the Duluth veterinarian who has taken care of my own mammalian pets through thick and thin, says the worst problem he sees in pet birds is poor nutrition. Most people don’t realize how much variety birds need in their diet to get all the nutrients their bodies need. Most parrots are native to tropical forests, not plains or fields where grains are abundant. Cockatiels, budgies, and bigger parrots need a well-balanced diet with nuts, fruits, and greens to stay fit. They need shells to crack, too. Canaries and finches do eat mostly seeds, but dimestore seed is often so old that many of the vitamins and other nutrients have degenerated. All pet birds need vitamin supplements, calcium, grit, and clean water.

Parrots are very sensitive to drafts. Budgies survive seasonal temperature changes better than other parrots, but even they should be protected from cold temperatures and drafts.

Canaries thrive with company, and Zebra Finches absolutely need it. Parrots are intelligent and gregarious. Cockatiels and budgies are happiest with their own kind for company–in the wild they live in big flocks. If you like to hear twittering and chirping, or if you want your pet to be as happy as possible, get two or even more. If you want to train a budgie, cockatiel, or parrot to talk, you’ll have to substitute yourself for more natural companions by spending a lot of time with it every day. Sandra Nixon of the Plantasia bird and plant shop recommends getting a hand-raised bird if you want a talker.

Pet birds are an expensive investment, and a long-time moral committment as well. A budgie can easily live for 10 years with proper care, a cockatiel for 20, and larger parrots much longer. If you want a happy and pleasant companion, take good care of your pet. If you want a decoration for your house, buy a painting or a carving, or put a rutabaga in your fancy cage, not a living creature.

(Recording of a Canary)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”