AN ONLY BIRD IS A LONELY BIRD

By R.R. Holster

Slowly but surely we humans are coming out of the dark ages when it comes to bird-keeping. Not so very long ago it was considered standard care to keep a parrot in a small cage or chained to a perch, feeding it nothing but seeds or crackers. Thankfully, most parrot-keepers have evolved far beyond that unenlightened age.

Nowadays, many of our parrots live in $400-plus cages, equipped with a variety of expensive toys... are allowed out of their cages to freely roam the house for extended periods, and are nourished with scientifically-designed diets, including fresh fruits and veggies. We've come a long way, folks. And that is something to be proud of. It shows that we, ourselves, are opening up to an awareness beyond our own self-consciousness and into a state of mind that takes into account the true welfare and feelings of other beings that share our world.

Yet there is one area in which too many are still stubbornly stuck in the bird-keeping dark ages. That is the common practice of keeping just one pet bird. As a result, there are far too many "only birds" suffering a life of prolonged and unnatural loneliness.

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule that an only bird is a lonely bird. But not many. For the most part, the birds that we commonly keep as pets are social birds. That's what makes them good pets in the first place. In their natural place in the wild, they would be a part of an extended social group, the flock. Within this flock they would have parents and siblings and buddies and, usually, a truly bonded partner.

The flock structure offers an individual bird its community, in which it learns everything it needs to learn, and receives everything it needs for a happy, well-adjusted life. The sheer size of the flock also offers great security and real protection for all of the members. Moreover, the flock creates an "aliveness" that keeps the members attentive and interested all of the time.

In the wild, birds are not bored or neurotic. They don't pluck their feathers. They don't scream all day. Unfortunately, caged birds do these very things all too often. In most of these cases, the pet bird is trying to express through these various abnormal behaviours it is: "I'm lonely!" or "I'm scared!"

To your pet bird, you and perhaps the other members of the family are its flock. That would be OK if you were around all the time. But you cannot be. So what happens when you leave... for hours at a time... perhaps day after day? You place your only bird in a very unnatural and scary situation. In the wild flock birds are rarely or never alone. They know instinctively that to be alone is to be in danger. So they stick within calling range of each other almost always. Imagine then what your bird goes through when everyone has left the house and it is trapped alone! It calls and calls for you -- the flock -- but no answer comes.

At PetStation, we are firm believers that pet birds (and many other types of pets that naturally derive from social groups, including dogs) should not be kept alone, except under very unusual, positive, circumstances. It is the very rare human partner who can allow the time and attention to a pet bird that is necessary to completely neutralize the loneliness and boredom that is ever-present in an only bird's life.

Do you spend enough time with your only bird to keep loneliness and boredom at bay? Many otherwise well-meaning and dutiful keepers of only birds believe that they do. But do they really? An hour a day with your bird is laughable. Four hours a day is not enough. Eight hours might be enough... perhaps not.

See what we mean about rare exception? Who can spend even close to eight hours with their pet? Basically no one. And, sorry, dogs, cats, aquarium fish, etc. do not qualify as competent bird-sitters. That's why another bird in the family is called for.

The most common objection to acquiring more than one bird is that "the birds will bond to each other, and not to me." Another objection involves the multiplication of noise factor. "My bird screams all the time... another bird screaming would be intolerable."

Both of these assumptions are basically false. If the birds are acquired at different times, with each bird having the opportunity to bond with the keeper, the birds may or may not ever bond to each other. They never have to become best buddies to keep each other company and create a more interesting living environment.

As for noise... yes when they do engage in racous calling (birds will be birds), it will be louder. However, much of the screaming of an only bird relates to its loneliness and boredom. With another bird around, the root problem of this screaming is relieved, which usually results in dramatically reduced overall screaming.

At PetStation we have eight parrots... six different species... each acquired at a different time. Four out of the eight are rescue projects. All are bonded to us. Only two are really bonded to each other... our Eclectus pair and our two male blue-crowned conures. The others tolerate each other, more or less. They squabble a bit, but never violently, and occasionally they will even preen each other.

Six of the eight live in the same large room, each with its own cage. We try to spend a little quality time with each bird daily... but sometimes our schedule doesn't allow it. So the birds keep each other company. It is a nice little flock. Not perfect, but infinitely superior to any of the birds living alone.

We have to keep our military macaw away from the other birds because he is so much larger and could do serious damage. He is in a different room from the smaller birds, but has the company of the latest arrival to our flock, an African Grey. The Grey was a plucker, who almost instantaneously stopped pulling out his feathers when removed from a situation of boredom and loneliness and brought into this communal environment.

One of our blue-crowned conures was also a plucker... and a self-mutilator... as an only bird. Even though its keeper loved it dearly, fed it well and showered it with attention when she was home... she simply wasn't home enough to prevent the bird from slipping into a self-destructive funk. Immediately upon coming to live with us, this bird bonded with our blue-crowned, stopped self-mutilating (though it still does a bit of feather-picking) and became a much more happy fellow. It is one of our daily joys to watch these two play and clown with each other.

Our situation is far from unique. Many avian households around the world count more than one bird as family members. "Parrot fever" prompts many folks to acquire three, four or more birds, often of different species. The vast majority of these veteran bird keepers would concur that bringing in a new bird did not adversely affect their bond with the bird kids they already had. Sometimes it can actually enhance your bond, as the birds vie with each other for your affection.

If you are considering another bird as a companion for your only bird, please put a lot of thought into what type of bird would be best. Yes, it's probably true that any bird is better than no bird. I'm certain our macaw would appreciate the opportunity to watch and listen to an aviary full of finches all day rather than twiddle his toenails in abject boredom all day by himself. Yet it is possible to use a bit of creativity to provide a more compelling and compatible partner for your bird so that they might be able to relate in more than an across-the-room manner.

Same or ultra-close species matchups will be the most likely to produce close bonding. These pairings often produce the most interesting and rewarding interactions between the two buddies. If you are considering a companion for your bird, attempt to stay within the same general size and temperament realm if you want to allow your birds physical contact with each other. For instance, our sun conure, blue-crowned conures and bronze-winged pionus get along pretty well. Be careful of combining really disparate species where one could harm the other. Budgies and cockatiels just don't have the weaponry to spar with larger parrots, for instance.

Introducing a new bird into your family can be tricky. Your original bird might at first resent another bird coming into its tidy, though thin, social structure. It will likely perceive the other bird as a rival for your affection. Squabbles may be inevitable. They probably should not physically interact for an extended period of time after they are placed in the same room. Separate cages are a must... perhaps permanently, unless they are the same or very-close species.

Slowly, over a period of a few months, the birds will work out their distrust of each other, and settle into a toleration of each other... and perhaps a friendship of some sort. This friendship can range from preening and playing with each other, to pretty much ignoring each other when you are around to divert their attention.

Even if they do not seem to enjoy each other that much, don't assume that your two birds (or more) are not keeping each other company when you are gone. And the more you are gone, the more important the birds are to each other.

A wonderful side effect of having more than one bird is that aspects of their personality come out that you would never have seen if they had remained only birds. As a member of a flock, your bird may become less insecure and more outgoing. You'll witness it interacting with the other bird in ways it could never interact with you. In short, your bird has a chance to become more natural.

The bottom line is that pet birds are flock birds. One bird does not make a flock. Two does. With even a pseudo-flock for security, interest and companionship, your bird will live a healthier and happier life. Isn't that a worthy goal for all bird keepers?