Comprehensive Parrot Care Guide for Beginners

Updated April 7, 2022
Pet Parrots

Pet parrots are popular household companions for many reasons, including their beauty, intelligence, long life span, funny antics, and talking potential. However, these spectacular creatures require a lot more time, patience, and specialized care than many people realize, so it's important for potential owners to understand what they're getting into before they acquire one of these amazing birds.

Understanding their Needs

One of the most important things to understand about caring for a parrot is that these birds are not domesticated like dogs and cats. In the wild, birds spend much of their day flying around, foraging and eating, and engaging in social interactions with each other. Parrot owners need to provide their pets with ways of carrying out their natural behaviors within the confines of their homes.

Physical, Mental, and Social Stimulation

Parrots need a good deal of stimulation and daily exercise to keep them from becoming bored, so provide them with as much supervised out-of-cage time as possible. Spend time playing with them and their toys, teaching them tricks, or just including them in your daily routines, such as watching TV or reading a book.

Setting up a play stand in another room offers a great way to give your bird time out of their cage and also gives them a change of environment. There are a wide variety of play stands available at pet supply stores and online, so make sure to get one that's suitable for the size of your bird.

Tricks and Talking

Teaching your parrot a variety of behaviors also stimulates their mind, and there are a variety of fun tricks parrots can learn. If you have more than one parrot, you just might notice that the others quickly pick up on the tricks you teach the first parrot. Parrots can learn how to shake the left foot and right foot, wave, give a high-five, and turn around. Some species, like conures, can even learn to roll on their backs.

Many species can learn to talk to some degree, but that doesn't guarantee they will. You can increase the likelihood your own bird will talk by talking to them frequently. Talk to the bird while you are going about your daily routine and tell them what you are doing. Ask them questions. Tell them what you are feeding them. If you want your bird to learn specific words, make sure to use the same word or phrase each time, and make sure to use it in context, or else the bird will just learn to mimic words.

While some types of parrots are more prone to talking than others, each bird is unique and abilities differ from one parrot to the next, even within a species. Consistency is key to training, as is patience. Once your parrot does say a word you're training them to say, be sure to reward them lavishly with praise and a treat.

Basic Parrot Care

Different species of parrots have unique needs, but overall the care and feeding of all types of parrots meet similar guidelines. Owning a parrot is a big responsibility and you should familiarize yourself with all of their needs before taking one on as a pet.

Water Requirements

Birds should have access to fresh water at all times, and water bowls and food bowls should be washed daily. It's a good idea to keep an extra set of food bowls on hand so you can switch them when it's time to clean. Parrots tend to drop a lot of their food in their water, and sometimes they'll also soil in it. This means the water must be changed frequently during the day to prevent a buildup of harmful bacteria.

If you find it difficult to keep up, you can train your bird to drink from a water bottle instead. First, hang the water bottle on the cage and show your parrot how to play with the tip of the tube to make the water release. This could take some time, so remember to be patient and keep the water bowl in the cage until you see your parrot has learned how to use the hanging bottle. Refill the bottle with fresh water every day.

Diet and Nutrition

Many types of parrots are kept in captivity, and nutritional requirements vary by species, so you should research the proper diet for the type of parrot you have. However, there's one thing all parrots have in common; a seed-only diet will not give your bird all the nutrients they need.

Parrots need a mixture of nutritionally balanced pellets, seeds, cooked grains, and cooked legumes. You should also offer fresh fruits and vegetables as well as organic walnuts and almonds, in moderation.

What Not to Feed Your Pet Parrot

Rainbow Lorikeet birds

There are some foods that are toxic to birds and must be avoided. While not a complete list, some foods to avoid are:

  • Chocolate
  • Coffee or anything else with caffeine
  • Avocados
  • Apple seeds and the seeds or pits of other fruits
  • Peanuts
  • Mushrooms
  • Peanuts
  • Onions and Garlic
  • Anything full of salt, sugar, or fat
  • Poisonous plants

Dairy can be given sparingly, if at all. It's alright to give your pet a small piece of cheese now and then as a treat, but for the most part, avoid dairy products. Birds' systems are not capable of digesting lactose. In addition to the type of food you feed your bird, be careful not to overfeed your pet or they will become obese.

Bathing Preferences

All birds have their own preferences for taking a bath. Some enjoy being misted with a water bottle, whereas others would rather bathe in their water bowl. Other parrots enjoy taking a shower with their owner. Shower perches are available for purchase from various pet stores and online.

Observe your bird and see which method they seem to prefer. Bathing should be enjoyable and not seen as a punishment, so never use a squirt bottle as a way to reprimand your bird.

Sleep Needs

Parrots need about 12 hours of sleep each night. Some decisions regarding sleep include whether to cover a bird at night, use a separate sleeping cage, or have a dim light to avoid panic caused by unknown sounds or movement in the room. Each decision should be based on your individual parrot's preferences.

Routine Parrot Care

All parrots need a bit of grooming in addition to daily baths.

  • Trimming nails: Depending on your comfort level and your bird's reaction, you might be able to trim their nails after watching the vet do it a few times. If you choose to trim your bird's nails, make sure you always have styptic powder or another clotting agent on hand to stop the bleeding if you cut a nail too short. In an emergency, cornstarch or flour will work.
  • Trimming wing feathers: Should you trim your bird's wings or not? That is a personal choice that you must make. Consult with your avian vet on this topic because there are pros and cons to each option.
  • Beak trimming: A parrot may need to have its beak trimmed occasionally, and this is best left to your avian veterinarian or professional bird groomer.

Cage Size, Placement, and Care

Parrot Perching On Cage

It is important to make sure that every bird has the correct size cage for their species. Always buy the biggest cage you can afford and make sure the bar spacing is appropriate. Always include a variety of perches in the cage. They should vary in size and material. Perches range from those of rough materials like cement, designed to help keep a bird's nails trimmed, to wood, rope, and Manzanita branch perches.

Clean your parrot's cage regularly and change their paper daily. Place the cage in an area of your home where your bird will get to be involved in ongoing activities of the family, but avoid transition spaces, such as hallways, which can be stressful. Keep the cage out of direct sunlight. If the cage does receive some daily sun, make sure there are places in the cage where the bird can go to avoid the sun if they choose.

In the wild, birds are exposed to natural sunlight on a regular basis. In captivity, they usually don't receive that kind of exposure unless their owners take them outside, and they do not get the exposure they need through windows or screens. To remedy this situation, some owners provide their birds with indoor lighting via a full spectrum bulb that simulates the light from the sun.

Place the cage where at least one or more sides of the cage are against a wall. A bird can feel insecure if all sides of a cage are exposed. Avoid round cages with wires that meet at the top because a bird's toes can easily get stuck in those tiny spaces.

The kitchen is never a good place for a birdcage because there are too many potential hazards.

Finally, don't ever buy a used cage. No matter how well you clean it, you can never be sure that there are no lingering bacteria or diseases from the previous bird. It's not worth the risk.

Toys are a Requirement

Toys are not a luxury; they're a necessity. Parrots need toys to enrich their environment. Buy toys from a reputable source and ensure they are the correct size for your bird. If you aren't sure what size toy is appropriate, ask your avian vet or an experienced parrot owner.

Clean toys regularly. Some toys, such as wood, can't be washed and must be discarded when they get dirty. Check toys on a regular basis for any loose parts, hanging strings or fabric, or any other unsafe conditions.

Rotate toys on a regular basis to maintain mental stimulation and keep the parrot engaged. If a bird has a favorite toy, it's okay to leave that one in there all the time. Include a variety of toys of different sizes and materials (plastic, wood, safe metals), and purposes (foot toys, foraging toys, activity toys, and toys meant for destruction).

Over time, you will figure out which types of toys your parrot likes best. Don't be discouraged if your bird is afraid of new toys or avoids playing with them. Sometimes it takes days, weeks, or even months for a bird to get used to a new toy. If your bird is really scared of a toy, try hanging it on the outside of the cage until they become accustomed to it.

How to Handle Your Bird

Parrots can become easily startled and stressed when you reach inside their cage or attempt to get a hold of them. They also can bite if they're fearful. The proper way to handle a parrot is to get them slowly used to you around their cage. Begin by talking gently and placing your hands outside of the cage until your parrot appears calm. Slowly reach your hand in while continuing to talk in a calm voice. If your parrot becomes fearful, back away and try again later. Go at your parrot's pace.

When parrot lovers first handle a bird, they begin by wrapping a towel around them. Be sure that you utilize a towel of the appropriate size. This will help you wrap your bird.

Be careful not to cover the parrot's head. They can be easily frightened if they're unable to see what is around them. The towel should cover the wings without a significant amount of extra length to prevent the bird, or you, from becoming injured. Hold them gently and firmly but not tightly, as this can injure a parrot. Absolutely do not press on their chests as this can impair their ability to breathe.

If you're unsure at all about this type of handling, ask your avian vet to show you how to do this properly. Most will be happy to demonstrate this to you or have a member of their staff train you.

Teaching Your Parrot to Step Up

Once your bird is comfortable with you near their cage and putting your hands inside, a very useful skill that's easy to teach is "stepping up." This means that the parrot will go onto your finger, hand, or arm when asked. Smaller parrots like parakeets will go on your finger, whereas you will want to use your hand or forearm for a larger parrot like a cockatoo or macaw.

When the bird is comfortable with you putting your hands in the cage, teach them to step up on your finger or hand by placing the finger or arm by the bird's feet. Move your arm or finger gently against the bird's feet and say "step up" while pressing against the feet. The idea is that the pressure of your finger, hand, or arm will cause them to lift their feet up and onto you.

You can also have a spray of millet or another treat on your other hand to encourage them to move forward and step onto you and reward them for doing so.

Safety and Emergencies

Before you even purchase your bird, you should try to locate an avian vet. General veterinarians are typically not equipped to handle the unique requirements of parrots, so check with the Association of Avian Veterinarians to find an avian vet near you.

Make sure to have all your bird's information readily available in case an emergency arises. Keep your avian vet's number in a prominent location, along with the name and phone number of any after-hours emergency clinics. Be sure to ask your vet what to do and who to call after-hours if you have an emergency during those times.

If you experience an emergency, call your avian vet immediately. Keep your bird as calm as possible to avoid shock. Keeping the parrot in a dark, quiet room can help, and it's important to keep the bird warm. Listen carefully to the vet's instructions and try to provide as much info as possible. The vet or technician will tell you what to do until you can come to the office.

Having a first aid kit is very important. You can make your own or buy a complete kit. Your first aid kit will also include items you need for routine care of your bird as described above. Store the kit in an easily accessible location.

Travel Carrier

Each bird you own should have their own travel carrier for trips to the vet and for emergencies. Make sure these cages are always clean and ready to go. Practice putting your bird into their carrier so you won't have to struggle when you really need to use it. It's also helpful to place your bird in their carrier and take them on short car trips so they get used to the carrier and don't associate it only with going to the vet.

Outdoor Parrot Safety

Anytime you bring your bird outside, make sure the bird is wearing a halter and leash made specifically for its species. It only takes a second for a bird to escape and quickly get lost. Even birds that have had their wings trimmed can still fly if a gust of wind blows up, so always use a halter no matter how long you plan to be outside with your bird.

Stay Aware of Household Dangers

African Grey Parrot

Having a parrot is similar to having a toddler in that your home needs to be bird-proof. Parrots are smart, inquisitive, and curious. While you should always supervise them when they are out of their cages, parrot owners can tell you that it only takes a few seconds for an accident to happen. Fortunately, there are many precautions you can take in your home to help avoid emergencies.

First, ensure all windows and doors are either closed or have screens that are secure. You should also be cautious when allowing your parrot to walk on the floor. This can be dangerous for both the parrot and their owner. If you do allow your parrot to wander around the home, keep your toilet seats down. You should also supervise your parrot at all times. Common household items can cause more damage than one would think. Keep in mind, your parrot will:

  • Chew on wires and electrical cords
  • Hide under seat cushions, behind throw pillows, or under blankets
  • Fall into open vessels of water
  • Fly into fan blades
  • Injure themselves in the kitchen on anything from hot burners to sharp knives
  • Ingest unsafe food or medications left out in their reach

Avoid using non-stick cookware and other products containing Teflon (or PTFE) or PFOA, which give off fumes that can kill a bird instantly. Do not use the self-cleaning feature on ovens because this also gives off unsafe fumes. Be careful when using anything with a fragrance, such as candles and air fresheners. Avoid them when possible or buy products that are guaranteed safe for use around birds.

Keep your birds away from any other household pets. Let them have out-of-cage time while other pets are locked up. Supervise any interactions between birds of different sizes. Even birds of similar size but of different species (or sometimes even the same species) may not get along and need to be supervised while they interact. You may need to take them out at different times.

Monitor any interactions between birds and children. Some birds are fine with children, while other birds are scared of their sudden movements, loud voices, and high activity levels. If you have children, you can teach them how to interact with the parrot in a calm, quiet way. There are many children who develop excellent relationships and bonds with family pet birds.

Illness and Health Problems

Some of the most common health problems stem from malnutrition and lack of exercise. Make sure your bird is getting the proper diet, receiving regular vet check-ups, and getting enough exercise and sleep. It is critical that you learn to recognize the signs of illness in your bird. If you notice anything unusual, contact your avian vet immediately. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and make the call. The best ways to reduce illness are prevention and early detection.

In the wild, weakness attracts predators and usually leads to death. Since birds are still wild creatures with natural instincts, they will try to hide an illness as long as they can. By the time a bird shows significant signs of illness, it is often too late. That's why it's critical to look for any changes in your bird.

Early Detection

Early detection is one of the ways pet owners can reduce the chances of severe illness. As soon as you get your parrot, take them to your avian veterinarian immediately for a wellness visit. The vet will make sure your bird is healthy and does not have any serious illnesses, such as Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, which is highly contagious and fatal.

If you have other birds, make sure to quarantine your new bird for 30 to 45 days to ensure they do not have any hidden illnesses that could be spread to other flock members.

Lung Sensitivity

Keep in mind that birds have extremely sensitive lungs. Things that don't affect humans or other pets can have harmful or deadly effects on parrots. In addition, be careful when toweling or restraining your bird. You don't want to put so much pressure on their chest that they can't breathe.

Long-term Planning

Make sure your parrots are included in your long-term plans and your emergency plans. Depending on your age, there is a possibility of your parrot will outlive you. Putting them in your will to ensure they are taken care of in case of your passing is important. Consider what would happen if you become ill and can no longer take care of your parrot. Is there anyone willing to take your parrot in case of an emergency?

Don't wait until these situations happen before you have a plan in place. If you do need to give up your parrot, make sure you contact a reputable rescue or sanctuary to make sure your parrot goes to a good home.

You should also have emergency plans for any natural disasters, such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, or even fires. This is important for every pet owner, but especially for those who live in evacuation areas.

Parrots Are Excellent Pets for the Right Owner

Parrots are amazing, beautiful, intelligent creatures that can make excellent pets. However, they do require a large amount of time, patience, and training. Yes, keeping these birds is a lot of work, but the rewards are priceless. With proper care, parrots can make great, lifelong companions.

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Comprehensive Parrot Care Guide for Beginners