Because of recent articles in the Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka -- Pet Bird Report) as well as discussions had at the first Pet Bird Information Council Convention (held in the Fall of 1998) I felt it necessary to write this article explaining apparent inconsistencies in our information.
In the issue #42 of the Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka --Pet Bird Report) an article entitled "The Myth of the Starter Bird" (by Pamela Clark on P.12) has the message that an inexperienced potential bird owner should start out with whatever bird they want - including African Greys, Cockatoos, Macaws, Caiques, etc... Because Parrot Island's philosophy (primarily because of my 29 years (that's scary) experience as an aviculturalist and 12 years as a veterinary technician) differs substantially from this I would like not to so much "rip on" this article or it's author but to step by step explain the apparent differences.
In the first paragraph entitled "A Good First Bird" the author states that nowadays we have all heard about certain birds that make "good first birds." She then cites Birds USA (a pet industry produced publication by the publishers of Bird Talk -a magazine that most Parrot Island customers have heard me rail against for years) as recommending Senegal Parrots as "a great first bird for someone who wishes to start with a small bird that really acts like a large parrot." Now I must admit that when I first read the Birds USA article referred to I saw several good (surprisingly) points as well as many things that I did not agree (not so surprising) with. While I did agree that for an inexperienced bird owner a Senegal is most likely a better choice than a Macaw, I have a problem with this publications lack of information on the behavioral training and general care needed to raise a happy, healthy bird of any type. The other problem with the Birds USA article is that it can give the prospective bird owner the notion that it is O.K. to purchase a bird that you can "learn on" with the intent of later replacing it (either literally or figuratively) in your household with the larger parrot you really wanted all along. This is also the slant that the Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka --Pet Bird Report) article uses as one of its main arguments against the purchasing of a "first time bird." I agree with the author wholeheartedly that purchasing one bird as a "bridge" to getting another bird when the first bird then takes a "back seat" or is discarded is a horrible situation.
Next the owner relates her experiences with her first bird - a Blue Headed Pionus named "Socrates." The author claims that she raised Socrates "according to all the behavioral principles I found in the Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka -- Pet Bird Report) and other quality publications." She then relates several instances that in my opinion seem to disprove that statement. She relates how one night her son picked up Socrates from the top of his cage (allowing a bird on top of its cage is cautioned against in many PBR articles - ask us why if you don't already know) using the "step up" command and then kissed the bird on the beak before putting it into the cage. Socrates reacted by biting him hard on the lip, drawing blood. She then writes, "Until then we hadn't known about the trance like state that Pionus often enter at dusk." So, the situation in its basic form is - a child (short of stature) reaches up to a bird on top of its cage where it had been dozing, and then immediately puts the bird up to his face. This situation has several blatant mistakes that anyone reading the Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka --Pet Bird Report) should have seen coming a mile away. Besides the apparent "asking for trouble" situation of reaching up to a parrot on top of its cage and then sticking it directly in your face (especially a child), I also see the apparent excuse of not knowing about the "trance like state Pionus enter at dusk" as another example against the author's statement of having done everything "according to all the behavioral principles found in the PBR and other quality publications." I have worked with Pionus as long or longer than anyone in this country (Sally Blanchard has in her words "pestered me for years" to write several articles for the PBR including one on Pionus - it should be done later this year) and have seen nothing to make Pionus different than any other member of the parrot family (from Parakeets to Macaws) with respect to being downright ornery if they are "messed with" when they have settled in for the evening. I have seen many articles in the PBR and other publications mentioning this fact repeatedly. When I am dozing off I have to admit to having much the same feelings that I would guess that Socrates felt when Troy, Shari's son, comes into the room and pesters (I think he is pestering whereas he thinks he has something of the utmost importance to tell) me about something.
In the next situation described the author explains how as an adult bird Socrates would "seek out small dark places in which he would fan out his tail and whistle beguilingly." She then states "I didn't know enough to understand the warning inherent in this behavior and continued to allow him on my shoulder at all times. All the articles I had read about Pionus and their wonderful "first bird" qualities had failed to alert me to the fact that male Pionus can become extremely aggressive during breeding season when sexually mature." After Socrates bit her on the face "badly" one day the author stopped allowing him on her shoulder. The situation described above once again points out serious mistakes (not recognizing blatant sexual display behaviors and allowing a bird on her shoulder) that anyone that had done the reading and research on birds from "quality sources" should have, in my opinion, been very aware. In fact, her description of some of those behaviors as "beguiling" leads me to believe that she not only did not recognize them but also probably unknowingly encouraged them.
The author does, in the next section of the article, take "full responsibility" for the difficult times that she had with her Pionus and goes on to state that they have required the same level of skill, patience and commitment that any of her larger birds have. She also states that she learned a lot from Socrates that helped her to understand Pionus better. Now, although I agree with the author's point that her "starter bird" needed the same behavioral understanding that her larger birds needed, I would also state that if it were a larger bird (especially a Macaw or Cockatoo) instead of a Pionus in the earlier described situations the damage done to the author and her son would have been more severe. Undoubtedly the possibility of changing that behavior would have been harder to achieve. The author in stating that she "learned a lot" from Socrates that helped her with her other birds makes my point - that we can learn a lot from our birds that will help us with other possibly more difficult species we might eventually add to our households. I have no doubt that for the average, inexperienced bird owner it is more likely that they, especially a child, would be more likely to be fearful of a larger bird. They would be hesitant (surely to cause most birds, large or small, to exhibit more aggressive, dominating behaviors) to pursue proper interactive training with that bird -- more interaction, not less, is needed to remedy the situation. Also, I have definitely seen that as a rule the larger more intelligent species of parrots are much quicker to take advantage of our mistakes than their smaller cousins.
The author goes on to cite statistics from the parrot Education and Adoption Center, a nonprofit organization devoted to the placement of found or unwanted parrots (which Parrot Island contributes to), that 99.9% of the birds they take in are first time birds. The author chooses in her "examination" of this statistic to conclude that it is not related to any type of bird but that the owners of these birds should have been better companion bird owners. I agree with this statement completely, but I also would suggest that upon further examination of this statistic it would be found that an overwhelming amount of these birds were large parrot species - especially if we consider how many more inexpensive small birds are available for sale in this country than their larger, more expensive relatives.
She also states that Phoebe Linden (an excellent breeder) recommends that people purchase a Macaw or Cockatoo - "a conscientiously developed one, of course - for a first bird because people will commit to what they really want". Unfortunately, I know of perhaps 3 or 4 breeders in the entire United States who have people "jump through the hoops" that Phoebe Linden does before she considers letting one of her babies go home. The problem I see with the idea that this article promotes is due to just that. I feel it has far more potential at this time for harm than good. It is a sad fact that the vast majority of people that will soon be purchasing a bird in this country will get it from a breeder or store that does virtually no education of that new bird owner. My experience has convinced me that more times than not the prospective bird owner really does know what they want. The most common items I hear on their want list are whether or not it will talk, how big will it get and how brightly colored will it be as an adult. These can be part of why someone would want a bird but as any experienced bird owner would admit there are many other concerns that could outweigh the benefits of talking, size or a particular look. For instance, in my experience (I will also be attempting to get detailed statistics from The Parrot Education and Adoption Center) there are two reasons that outweigh others 10 to 1 for people getting rid of their bird: 1) Noise and 2) Aggression. In other words, if you have a biting, screaming bird it will probably not be compensated for by the bird's look or the fact that it can talk. I have seen this happen repeatedly, especially as the bird's initial appeal or newness wears off.
After spending most of this article doing what I originally said I would try to avoid (ripping it apart), I do feel this article has some excellent points. The end of the article is an excellent discussion of what a potential new bird owner should be aware of before ever taking a bird home. As I mentioned earlier, I totally agree that no bird should be sold as only a means to get a more advanced bird. This is particularly bad when the "starter bird" is placed or takes a big back seat to the new arrival. I think that someone who begins with a generally easier type of bird to keep content, who learns from that bird, and then goes on to find a more advanced bird has an advantage as far as their success potential with the new bird. In the last 10 years I have come to the realization that multiple-bird households can be a wonderful situation for both the birds and their owners. These are, after all, flock animals and they benefit greatly from being around other birds (without needing to ever touch them) - watching and listening to each other as they would do in the wild. I do not think having more than one bird is mandatory to keeping them happy (as long as you and your family become the birds flockmates) but I do see its effects as only positive when done properly.
At Parrot Island we feel we have a huge responsibility to both our customers and the birds we have in our store to use every method we can to make sure that when we send a baby bird home that both parties will be happy for the lifetime of the bird. This is an extremely difficult thing to determine in the time we have to talk to people at our shop. Most of our customers would agree that we spend more individualized time with each person than any store or breeder they know. The method that I have developed over the last 28+ years of working with birds has proven to be the most effective. The method is based on trying to determine the potential bird owner's ability to succeed with a certain type of bird. We use their experience (or lack of it), interest level, family and work situations as well as their actual ability at handling and interacting with our birds to try to determine that. Although I am very sad to admit that I have had a few birds (5 that I know of) in the last 11+ years that did not work out with their owner, I can say that in each of those situations I was able to determine why it did not work out and use that information to lessen the chance in the future.
In conclusion, the last five years have seen the widespread distribution of more quality information then all the years before. And I believe the next five years have the potential to bring our understanding of these wonderful creatures on par with that of dogs and cats. After 10 years of waiting for Sally Blanchard's book The Companion Parrot Handbook is now available. It cost is $39.95 and I think that it is the best money anyone with a bird, or anyone considering the purchase of a bird, could spend. I have the hope that the information in Sally's book as well as the better overall information available recently will change the face of bird care in this country. I can see a time when many of the concerns that I have had about what bird to sell to whom will be lessened greatly - and I can hardly wait! In the mean time we at Parrot Island will always "err in favor of the bird" rather than compromising our principles to make a sale.