Parrot in a cage

If anyone knows birds, it’s Dr. Greg Harrison. He’s been a veterinarian with a passion for avian medicine since 1967. Dr. Harrison was a founder of The Bird and Exotic Hospital, the first practice in Florida’s history to be devoted exclusively to the care of pet birds. He is the creator of the world’s first organic pet food, Harrison’s Bird Foods, and is one of only seven doubled-boarded avian specialists in the world.

Vetstreet spoke with Dr. Harrison about some simple ways to make your parrot’s life healthier and happier. Here are eight things to think about if you’re interested in having a parrot.

Nurture Your Parrot's Mind

Parrots are pets, not accessories. “People should not buy a uniquely colored bird because they match the curtains,” says Dr. Harrison. Parrots take more time and effort than most people realize. “You can’t just put them in a cage with a food puzzle and leave them,” he says. An intelligent bird can be included in family outings. “Ideally, the bird should be taken on harness or put in a crate” for outings to the grocery or the park, says Dr. Harrison, “just the way you would with a good dog.” He adds, “Birds can be just as relaxing as a therapy dog if they are raised correctly.” Just be sure that if you are taking your bird outside, the harness fits your bird securely, as birds can slip out of them easily and fly away. You will also want to practice with your bird wearing the harness inside first before taking him outside.

The way a parrot is raised impacts his personality. A bird’s personality is shaped by his environment, says Dr. Harrison. “Birds will imprint on what they are around when they are young,” including humans, toys or even a mirror. This can cause the bird to rely on that object or person to an unhealthy degree. Instead, he says, parrots should be raised by other parrots, with consistent human interaction. Furthermore, Harrison says that birds raised together in the same cage will bond more with each other than with their human,and may become distressed when separated — thus, a single bird or multiple birds in separate cages within the same household may be ideal.

Parrots can suffer from separation anxiety. “When people first get a bird, they give them too much attention,” says Dr. Harrison. “Instead, parrots should be taught from the beginning to be content with separation.” When you arrive home, don’t make greeting your bird a priority; say hello and move on. “In addition, break up your daily routines so the bird doesn’t anticipate when you are coming back,”says Dr. Harrison, who suggests varying arrival and departure times each day.

Keep your parrot busy throughout the day. Like all pets, parrots love toys. especially anything they can tear apart, like tree branches. But Dr. Harrison cautions that toys should be made of “cotton or hemp instead of nylon to lessen the chance of it getting twisted on toes.” He also recommends changing your parrot’s toys two to three times a day and using different shapes and colors to keep him interested. But Dr. Harrison suggests avoiding very bright toys. "Bright colors are not natural," he says, and they can make birds nervous, especially when first introduced.

Manage His Diet and Exercise

Allow your parrot to spread his wings. “It’s not natural for birds not to fly,” says Dr. Harrison. If possible, use an aviary large enough for your bird to fly in; at the minimum, the enclosure should be large enough for the parrot to stretch his wings out fully. If letting your bird fly is not feasible, there are other ways to exercise your parrot. “You can teach your parrot to exercise himself on a Ferris wheel,” says Dr. Harrison. Your parrot can flap his wings going up and relax them going down. You can also teach him to do jumping jacks and raise his wings up and down. Dr. Harrison recommends at least one exercise session per day and ideally three sessions of 15 minutes each. “We take our dogs out on walks every day,” he says. “In the same way, our birds need exercise and interaction.”

Limited exposure to light and people may lead to feather plucking. It can also be a sign of a poor diet. Fortunately, this is an easy problem to solve. “One of the best treatments for birds with feather plucking,” says Dr. Harrison, “is to put the bird on a higher quality diet, take them outside for a minimum of 30 minutes of sunlight per day and interact with them regularly.”

High-calorie treats can trigger mating behavior. “Pet store employees often recommend nuts, seeds, sugary fruits and corn for a reward,” says Dr. Harrison, but high-fat, simple carb foods “stimulate the bird to go into breeding mode.” The bird may come to see the person offering the treats as a mate, which can lead him to become aggressive with other humans. In addition, these types of snacks can cause health problems, including heart and liver issues and obesity.  “Birds should be fed a formulated diet and treats should consist of green, leafy veggies, parsley, spinach and veggies that are dark, yellow and meaty, like sweet potatoes, given in moderation.”

A bird’s diet greatly affects his wing health. Your parrot’s wings are sensitive — and his diet can make them more so. “A diet with the proper amount of omega-3 fatty acids will lead to better wing health,” says Dr. Harrison. A poor diet, however, may  lead to health problems and potential discomfort. “Each feather is like a raw nerve in these birds,” he explains, “extremely sensitive to touch,” and feathers may form improperly if birds are fed poor diets.  Check with your veterinarian to be sure your bird is eating the right things.