Birds are terrible gifts to give

Chilli, the 19-year-old Congo African grey.

I am utterly owned by three African greys, two budgies and two zebra finches. They are a font of laughter and awe: every day they teach me something about them, the world or myself.

I absolutely adore them and because I do, I implore you not to buy a bird for Christmas.

Birds are an awful idea to give as gifts, and here’s why.

African greys in particular are the number-one most misunderstood and most often surrendered “pet”.

I use the term pet begrudgingly because it defers all power to the human and ignores the separate individuality of the animal, but I digress.

Parrots (of any variety, including the little ones) are not for everyone. Congo African greys and their smaller cousins Timneh African greys are hard work.

They live an average of 20 to 80 years (and should be included in your will). They need fresh veggies and fruit daily, as well as good-quality pellets. That pet-shop food loaded with black sunflower seeds and peanuts in the shell? That’s not food, that’s poison. The peanut shells can carry a black mould called aspergillosis and if your bird ingests that, they can die. And it’s a horrible death.

Birds need proper avian vet care, which is both expensive and very hard to find; they need big cages, fresh safe toys (think choking hazards for children) and lots of attention. Every day. They need direct sunlight and they need showers/baths. They have a lot of dander, so asthmatics or people with allergies are likely to suffer. They are routine-based creatures. They cannot have any cookware with Teflon in it used near them, or scented candles, or aerosol-based cleaning products because of their delicate respiratory systems.

Their needs are expensive. They are loud. They are definitely not flat-friendly, unless your neighbours are deaf or very kind. Not all of them speak. But they do all replicate sounds you probably haven’t noticed before, repetitively and at terrible decibels. Ask all parrot people who have microwaves, or smoke alarms. They are messy and destructive and have mercurial temperaments.

Congo African greys are particularly phobic because in the wild, they live with their parents, and then have a nanny bird who teaches them what’s safe, how to negotiate the flock and the wild. Breeders have nothing of the sort, so the bred birds have absolutely no guidance which compares. And please do not think because they are “hand reared” they are tame.

Uli, 36-year-old Timneh African grey with his chew toy. Timnehs have peach beaks and maroon tail feathers.

Parrots are not domesticated. They retain a wildness, always, which is why they deserve our respect. They require training, and any dominance-based training will ensure you build a lifelong battle of distrust, fear and anger with your bird.

They have the intelligence of a 4-year-old but the emotional intelligence of a 2-year-old, so they get jealous and possessive. And parrots, unless taught otherwise, will often choose one person in the family. You may buy a parrot for your daughter and the bird decides it likes her brother who wants nothing to do with it. You don’t get to tell the bird who it bonds with.

Consider that puppies grow out of teething. Parrots chew everything they can get their sneaky beaks onto, and if that’s your TV remote, your brand new laptop or your great grandmother’s dressing table, it is all the same to them. And they’ll do that for their lifespan (hence the need for toys)

And they bite. Those beaks can do severe damage to fingers, toes, faces too close by. Other pets, a single dog or cat, bite in reaction to that and may traumatise or kill your bird. Unless you learn your bird’s body language, which requires a lot of focused attention, you may never learn the triggers, and therefore how to avoid the bites (which usually happen out of fear).

Each of my birds has come to me as a re-home. In three cases, people gave us their bird because they were leaving the country, and they couldn’t take their birds with.

There’s another factor. Many captive birds have their wings clipped – to prevent the birds being startled, and flying off in fright. It’s a truly contentious issue among bird people. Some clip, others advocate fiercely for free flight.

When Chilli, my Congo, came home to us, she had been clipped her whole life, so we kept her that way to start with. She was given to me by a family who said she was a healthy 6-year-old male bird. Turned out, she was a desperately ill 16-year-old female who laid an egg to correct us on that point.

Her wings have fully grown out now, but she’s never learned to fly. To fly, birds need amazing muscle strength and obviously excellent respiratory health.

Chilli has never built up the muscles and has also suffered terrible respiratory issues, which still require medication by beak twice a day, three years on.

I don’t expect she will ever fly, but, she can glide… which is a safety risk.

When birds have been clipped and they try to fly (sheer instinct), they often land badly. There are some tragic accidents where they literally split their keel bones open, from crash landing. Or break wings or legs.

Added to that, consider the dangers the open skies here hold: they are filled with predators. And not just in the sky. Imagine the damage a dog could do if an exhausted bird, inexperienced at flying, is blown into the neighbour’s garden or a busy road?

Birds can also suffer ill-treatment by someone who finds them in a tree, thinks they are lost and captures them with no knowledge of how to care for them.

There would be rampant moral outrage if a human child was locked up with no toys, no education, told to shut up every time it made a noise and fed rubbish every day. But people do that to parrots all the time.

This applies equally to the little birds: budgies and cockatiels etc whose price tag often makes them seen as disposable, so they are kept in awful conditions and simply replaced as they die.

Parrots are sentient, intelligent and deeply individual beings. Regardless of their size, they deserve better than being seen as a quaint Christmas present.

If, however, you do hold the kind of madness which would welcome a parrot for life, please take in a rescue or re-home bird. There’s no such thing as a bad bird, just a scared one.

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