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Two Birds, or Not Two Birds?

by Kate
If you think you need a companion bird for your bird, here's some things you should know.

Many people feel that all captive birds should have companions to play with, communicate with and preen with. In theory, that's a super idea. However, there are many issues with that as far as safety goes.

I love the idea of having a buddy for your bird. My Moluccan Cockatoo (M2), who was wild caught, would honestly die from heartbreak if he didn't have another bird around. However - I'll stress that he was wild caught. He wasn't handfed and never imprinted on humans.

My other Cockatoo is a handfed Umbrella Cockatoo (U2). Just like you see in the movies, baby birds imprint on their 'parents'. Since he was fed by humans he thinks he's human. He wants to mate with and be with humans - not birds. That's the case with most handfed parrots.

While it can have it's perks, having two birds is very dangerous. I cannot stress that enough.

There are certain types of birds known for hurting and killing other birds. Above all the rest, Cockatoos and Lovebirds. A young (read: baby) lovebird can bond to another lovebird, but I do mean BOND. If you want an interactive pet you can generally forget about it unless you provide serious one-on-one time with that bird every single day. Even then, most lovebird owners never suggest you get two. Handfed Lovebirds just like people.

Generally speaking, lovebirds don't hurt their mates if they are introduced as recently weaned babies. However, lovebirds usually don't accept other mature Lovies. Lovebirds can and frequently do hurt other birds, and sometimes get themselves killed in attempting to do so.

Cockatoos are dangerous in a different sort of way. Few will be outwardly hostile or aggressive to other birds. They'll run around with other birds, get into trouble together, preen together, nap together, but one day, something may go wrong. Usually they don't even need anything to be set off. A microsecond is all it takes for a bird to loose a toe, a beak, or a piece of their skull. Cockatoo-on-Cockatoo attacks are startlingly common.

I know people personally with cockatoos who have killed other cockatoos, a cockatoo who seriously injured (almost killed) an eclectus, a cockatoo who has bitten off another 'toos toes, a cockatoo who so seriously damaged another 'toos beak that it entirely fell off, and so forth.

But they aren't the only dangerous ones.

I know several macaws who have bitten off other birds' toes, a macaw who took off an amazon's beak and nostril, an amazon who broke out if it's cage and slayed a few lovebirds when the owners were out, a budgie who killed it's FOUR cage-mates overnight, a sun conure who removed the maxilla (upper-beak) of a smaller conure, and the list continues.

Unless I stated otherwise all of these attacks happened during a normal day, and the birds were being supervised. Even with careful supervision things can take a horrible and deadly turn for the worst.

Caging most large birds together is highly dangerous. Many cockatiels, budgies and conures can get on well enough, but should one ever set it's mind to it, they CAN kill other birds in their cage.

To house a bird with another bird special considerations must be taken. A bird should be housed near another bird for many months, as well as be allowed to interact with it with exceptionally diligent supervision. After awhile, both birds can be placed into a new cage together for short periods of time. This new cage should be larger than a normal cage for a single bird. For two budgies, lovebirds, and other birds of that size, the cage should be at least 25" wide by 25" deep. For conures, poicephalus (smaller african parrots), quaker parrots, and other small birds, it should be at least 35" by 30". For small amazons, pionus, and timneh african greys, 40" by 30". For macaws, 63" wide by 36" deep or even larger for the bigger ones (Greenwings, Buffons and Hyacinths).

Cockatoos take these dimensions up many notches. I'd never house two small cockatoos (Lesser sulfur crested, goffins, ducorps, etc) in anything smaller than the largest standard cages (4' by 3' or more). Medium to large cockatoos (Umbrella, bare eyed, medium sulfur crested, moluccan, etc) should have enclosures about as large as small bedrooms. Bird-proofed spare bedrooms actually work out pretty well.

In all situations the birds must have ample room for flight! If a bird can't escape from it's attacker it will almost certainly die. If a bird is known or thought to be more aggressive than it's mate it's a very good idea to give it a slight wing trim to slow it down. Obviously this can't be done unless you know for sure it's the more aggressive bird.

Also, it's been said that it's great to let your bird socialize with other birds.

'Not a good idea. Not at all.

Birds are masters of hiding illness. Psittacine Beak and Feather disease, Polyoma, Psittacosis, and the ever-dreaded PDD can be spread from bird to bird after just one meeting.

The scary thing is that PDD can't even be tested for or treated. A bird looking healthy and being vet-tested is no reason to let your bird be around it! When you know another bird-person for years and years, know that they practice strict quarantines, regularly vet check, don't shop at bird shows, and disinfect new toys and bird supplies before introducing them to their own birds...generally, if you know they're super careful about disease and are responsible, trustworthy bird people, it can be okay to allow your birds to be around their birds. Use good judgment and don't be overly trusting.

A woman who has broken the hearts of hundreds with the tales of her beloved African Grey's passing because of PDD has said "There are two types of bird owners. The ones that have dealt with PDD, and those who are going to". It's a scary and all-too-real statement. Fun bird parties sound like a great idea, but there are too many things that can happen. A bird could attack another with no prior signs of aggression and end up killing it, and, of course, your bird could contract a terrible and incurable disease.

When you have two (or more) birds in the same home you need to be more than cautious. It's crucial that you're downright paranoid sometimes. You shouldn't turn a corner away from your birds when they're out playing together. I couldn't number the bird-on-bird attacks that took place when the owner "just stepped out of the room for a second". A second is all it takes.

The dangers involved with keeping two birds are very real. Before suggesting that people keep birds in pairs, you need to make sure that those people can keep their birds safe.

Handfed birds usually just don't care about other birds. They might help them pass the time, and they might enjoy 'chatting' from their separate cages, but that's about all. For most handfed birds a companion is never needed or even desirable. It's been said, and it's true, that if you can't keep one bird happy, you can't keep two birds happy.

To keep a bird entertained during the day you need the following things:

-A big, safe cage. One unclipped-wingspan deep, and two wingspans wide. That means 60" wide for most macaws, 48" wide for umbrella and moluccan cockatoos, 40" wide for smaller cockatoos and large amazons, about 36" for average amazons, african greys, eclectus, etc, 24" for most cockatiels, conures and lories, and 20" for budgies, lovebirds, and parrotlets. It should be powder coated or stainless steel. Not galvanized metal, brass, or any "mystery metals". Cages should not be rusting or have chipped finishes, and the bars should be spaced close enough to prevent birds from fitting their heads through.

-Tons of toys of all different types. For most birds this means hard wood to chip, soft wood to chew, soft plastic to tear up, safe rope (no cotton, which tangles) to preen, leather to gnaw, mechanical toys to work their brains, foraging toys to find things in, and a bucket of all sorts of foot toys and toy parts. Get really creative when it comes to finding new toys. Venture beyond the bird store! Baby toys are awesome, some birds adore chewing on fabric, pens with the ink removed are super...use your imagination and find a potential toy in everything! Remember to watch out for glues, unsafe metals, super hard plastic (which can break into sharp shards), batteries and other unsafe things.

One type of toy gets it's own paragraph: foraging toys. Foraging in general, actually. Some foraging toys can be bought, some can be made, but foraging is absolutely essential. It can't just be a part of a list. All my birds have treat cages, hide-a-treat type cups, mentally challenging toys meant to dispense little dowels or treats if the bird works for it, and so forth. In addition to that I wrap things up in newspaper and stash them around the cage, roll them up in newspaper and weave that through the bars, tuck things into parts of toys, put them in upside-down paper cups, stash them in their foot toy buckets...A good rule: If a bird will work for something, MAKE them work for it! I never serve seeds, nuts, or dried fruits in bowls, because my birds hunt for them.

-Sound. I have a radio and CD player on timers in the bird room. One will go on to play a child's CD. Another plays the classical music station. I also give them baby toys that play music or sounds when a button is pushed. Supervise your birds for a long while with these types of toys to observe their playing style. If they're mostly interested in the interior components (batteries and such) skip them altogether.

If you need to be gone for long periods, get a TV for visual stimulation as well. Most birds like kids shows with bright colors and fun voices and songs. Only leave on G-rated programs, or you may end up with a bird that repeats off-color phrases and sounds at awkward times!

-Color. Some say birds don't care about color. I disagree. In food and toys, color just stimulates. We humans would go nuts living in a black and white world. It's thought that human babies love sharp contrast, and I think this holds true for the birds as well. However, you need to be careful to not overwhelm a bird with 'visual noise'.

-A rich diet. Humans wouldn't like waking up to a bowl of grape nuts every day. A varied, healthy, organic diet is important for both nutritional and psychological reasons. Many birds develop behavioral issues when they are fed diets which contain synthetic vitamins. Most commercial pellets contain these, with a few exceptions (such as Totally Organic or "TOP" pellets). I always suggest avoiding the fruity, preservative loaded, artificially colored pellets in large pet stores. Buy an organic, dye-free, preservative-free pellet to make up the bulk of your birds diet...It pays off enormously.

You can really add another dimension to your parrot's life with exciting foods. Birds should wake up to a fresh breakfast and go to sleep with a crop full of yummy, wholesome foods. Rice, lentils, veggie pastas, fresh organic fruits and vegetables, organic whole grain cereals and more things can be used to build up a varied diet. "Wet" foods (produce, cooked grains and such) usually start spoiling within a few hours in your birds cage, and being such sensitive creatures your bird shouldn't eat things that are getting 'colorful'. You can offer non-pelleted foods in the cage for long periods in the form of cereals, uncooked pasta, seeds and nuts (in moderation), and the many types of readily available dried fruits and vegetables out there. And remember - get creative by making your bird forage for the yummy stuff!

If you have enough of these things to stimulate your handfed parrot, the last thing your bird is going to do is stop and look at the cage a few feet away. If your bird isn't the most interactive with people a companion may in fact be a super idea, but start the birds out as "neighbors" rather than "roommates". Once you've been observing their interactions for several months and have seen them work out little spats on their own without getting violent, it may be time to move them in together. But go slowly, be cautious, and if you have any apprehensions then stop wherever you are and back up. Remember - better safe than sorry.


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