So you want to get a pet bird…

A pair of scarlet macaws

Birds make wonderful companions, since they are such social and vocal animals. However, there are some considerations that every new bird owner should make before deciding to take on a lifelong, feathery companion. Yes, birds can live a long time, so owning a bird is a long-term, sometimes even lifelong commitment! Smaller species such as budgies and cockatiels can live for 20 years, while larger parrot species can live up to 50 years. Additionally, birds tend to have extremely social natures, and can therefore, develop self-destructive or aggressive behavioral problems if they are not adequately socialized.

Different species of birds have varying needs, and depending on your lifestyle, one type of bird may be a much better option for you than another. So before you purchase the toys, bird seed, and housing, you have to decide on which bird you’d like to make your companion. Here are some common pet bird species and some things you should consider before you choose the bird that you want to share your home with.

A pair of wild budgerigars

Budgerigars and cockatiels are, by far, the best companions for novice birders, due largely to their small size and ease of care. They are very clever and social birds, and a lot of fun.

Budgerigars (budgies) are the most abundant psittacine species in the world. Originally from Australia, these small birds are generally easy to keep. Their needs are easily met in captivity, and they tend to be great pets. Adult males have blue ceres (the fleshy covering just above their beak that includes nostrils), while adult females have tan colored ceres.

Cockatiels are the smallest of all the cockatoo species. They have a characteristic, movable crest on their head. Also from Australia, these birds are highly social and often live in large, nomadic flocks in the wild. Like the budgie, their needs are easily met in captivity. Because of their gregarious nature, they bond and interact with humans very well and tend to be great pets. Adult females are grey in color, while adult males have a yellow face with a grey body. Females have a tendency to become chronic egg layers, but be advised that you should not remove the eggs. These birds have a feedback mechanism that tells them to brood over a clutch of eggs and to stop further egg laying, but if the eggs are constantly being removed, the hen continues to lay them, resulting in depleted calcium reserves. Also, sexual activity in these birds can be stimulated by dark nesting places or mushy food, which can sometimes lead to aggression.

Sulfur-crested cockatoo

Cockatoos are both much larger and louder than cockatiels. There are about 30 different species of cockatoos, each with their own characteristics. Generally speaking, these birds form very close pair bonds, and their highly social nature can make them more difficult to care for in captivity. They are very smart, and can learn that loud vocalizations result in receiving attention, making them one of the most commonly relinquished pet bird species. Cockatoos may also develop some negative behaviors, such as feather picking. Also, if someone in the household has allergies, be aware that these birds tend to have lots of powder down feathers, which can produce a lot of dust.

Conures are a group of small to medium sized parrots, but don’t let their small stature fool you, it is not representative of their volume. These birds are very loud, and, like the cockatoos, are also often given up within the first year of ownership.

Eclectus parrots and lovebirds tend to have more aggressive females than males. Wild female eclectus parrots are typically the birds that defend the nesting cavity, while the males forage and bring back food. Hence, the hens tend to be more dominant and aggressive than the males. Lovebirds in general tend to be aggressive towards other bird species as well, so avoid keeping them together with other bird species.

Amazon parrots are intelligent, outgoing species. Potential amazon owners should be aware that male amazons, around the time of sexual maturity and each subsequent breeding season (springtime), can become aggressive. They can also be aggressive when stressed. African grey parrots, on the other hand, are a more introspective species, and when they are stressed, tend to develop self destructive behaviors, such as feather plucking/destruction, rather than become aggressive towards other animals and people.

Macaws are the largest of the parrot species. They are highly intelligent and full of energy, which can make them a challenging pet for an inexperienced bird handler. They also have a very strong bite, so housing and toys need to be selected carefully.

An African grey parrot

Remember, when looking for your bird companion, to look for reputable breeders. Illegal poaching and smuggling of many of the above named species is a real issue, and contributes to the decline of wild populations. A good and reputable breeder, however, will properly care for and socialize the chicks to humans prior to your obtaining the bird, which reduces risk of the development of aggressive behaviors.

Once you’ve made the decision on which bird you want to love and interact with at home, then you can think about your bird’s toys, food, and housing. Remember that a lot of the husbandry is based on the bird’s natural history.

More social species tend to do well with companions, but remember that the birds need the ability to move away from each other if necessary. If they cannot move away from each other because their housing is too small, the birds can become stressed and develop disease.

When considering cages, always remember that it should be large enough for the bird to completely spread its wings without touching sides of cage. The bird should be able to move around and exercise within the confines of its home. One should also consider the strength of the cage if one is bringing home a bird with a strong bite, like a macaw. Make sure it’s a cage that you can easily clean and keep hygienic for the animal.

Stock the cage with toys and perches appropriate for the species that you are housing. Provide a box or nest area for the bird to hide when it is stressed. Provide perches without abrasive surfaces and made out of a safe, untreated wood material, because sometimes birds may chew on their wooden perches. The perch should be large enough that when wrapping their toes around it, the bird’s toes cover 75% of the perch’s circumference, allowing for even distribution of the bird’s weight. Never place their food and water directly below a perch, because birds will invariably poop in it.

A pair of rainbow lorikeets

Make sure you understand and provide the optimal environmental condition for your species of bird. The vast majority of psittacine species come from tropical locations around the world, so generally, keep them warm and provide a heat source. However, different birds have different requirements, so make sure you understand heating, lighting, humidity, noise level, and nutritional/dietary specifications for your bird. For example, while most parrots are granivorous, meaning that they feed on fresh fruits, veggies, and seeds, the lory and lorikeet species are nectivorous, so they require a specialized nectar diet. Remember that seed alone is not a sufficient diet for any parrot species. Make sure you speak to your veterinarian about how to provide an adequately balanced diet for your avian companion.

Remember that psittacine species tend to be very highly social and active birds. In the wild, they spend much of their time looking for food and communicating with conspecifics. Therefore, in captivity, they need to be given lots of socialization time, as well as challenges to solve to reduce any chances of development of destructive behaviors. Providing food in foraging toys or challenge boxes will help provide some enrichment for your feathery friend.

Always remember to consult your local exotics veterinarian with any husbandry or health related questions about your new companion!


I would like to acknowledge the various professors and veterinarians that I personally have learned about bird care from, who have enriched my avian education, and especially Dr. Donna Muscarella, who inspired the idea for this article, and aided my writing it.

For more information please check out the following websites:

The World Parrot Trust:  – Check out his website for more detailed information regarding characteristics and care of various parrot species.

Good Bird Inc. http:  – Check out this website for information on companion parrot behavior and positive reinforcement methods to reinforce the parrot-human bond.

Note: All images were taken from the public domain.


Mary Nasr, class of 2020, is from Staten Island, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science from Rutgers University in 2016, with a major in Animal Science. She is passionate about zoo and wildlife medicine, conservation, and education, and aspires to build a career around zoo/wildlife surgery and anesthesia.

What Wildlife Workers Should Know About Avian Anatomy

Figure 1: Motion of the keel and ribs during inspiration (white arrows) and expiration (black arrows). Credit: König et al.

As veterinary students, virtually all the anatomy that we learn in the core curriculum is mammalian anatomy, but most of the patients coming into the Janet Swanson Wildlife Health Center are birds.   To help fellow veterinary students and other wildlife workers, I have created this post as a brief guide to avian anatomy, focusing specifically on aspects which are directly relevant to providing routine avian care at a wildlife hospital.

Figure 3: Example of a good hold for a raptor. Notice how, like the blue jay, this great horned owl is restrained from the back and by the feet. Credit: Jonathan Gorman

Figure 2: Example of a good hold for a passerine. Notice that this blue jay is primarily restrained from the back and by the legs so as not to put pressure on the sternum. Credit: Jonathan Gorman

Respiratory Anatomy


In birds, the sternum exists as a large fused structure called the keel.  Unlike mammals, birds do not have a diaphragm; during inspiration they rely on the external intercostal and levator costarum muscles which move the ribs laterally and the sternum cranio-ventrally (Figure 1).  When handling birds, it is very important not to put pressure on the keel since this prevents these movements and can potentially cause asphyxiation.  It is therefore necessary to use appropriate restraining methods that don’t place pressure on the keel (Figures 2 and 3).  During inspiration, the weight of the viscera helps to pull the sternum in the cranio-ventral direction.  However, when a bird is flipped on their back, the viscera weighs the sternum down making inspiration more difficult.  For this reason, extra caution must be taken when placing birds on their backs for long periods of time.

In the mammalian respiratory system, air enters the lungs during inspiration and exits the lungs during expiration in a bidirectional manner .  Birds instead have a unidirectional system of air flow that relies on thin-walled cavities attached to the lungs called air sacs. This allows fresh air to pass through the lungs during both inspiration and expiration (Figure 4).  The air sacs extend throughout most of a bird’s body cavity (Figure 5), covering the viscera, and even projecting into major bones.  This is important to keep in mind during subcutaneous injections, so that one does not inject into an air sac.  Pulling back on the plunger to check for negative pressure before giving a subcutaneous injection will ensure that an air sac has not been penetrated.

Figure 4: Schematic of avian respiration. (A) During inspiration, air in the trachea flows to the caudal air sacs (caudal thoracic and abdominal air sacs) while air in the lungs flows to the cranial air sacs (cranial thoracic and clavicular air sacs). (B) During expiration, the air in the caudal air sacs flows through the lungs while the air in the cranial airs sacs flows out the trachea. Credit: König et al.

Figure 5: Visual representation of the air sacs in a chicken. Credit: König et al.

Figure 6: Subcutaneous injection into the inguinal fold. Courtesy of Dr. Childs-Sanford

Subcutaneous Injections

For birds, there are two main sites of subcutaneous injection used at the Wildlife Health Center.  The preferred site for subcutaneous fluid administration is the inguinal fold, which is located at the proximal aspect of the femur (Figure 6).  Another site used for injections in large birds is the interscapular region, which is over the back and between the shoulders.  If injecting here, it is important not to get too close to the neck, since this would risk puncturing the cervical air sac.

Figure 7: Anatomy of the avian oral cavity. Credit: König et al.

Gastrointestinal Anatomy

When giving food or medications to a bird by gavage  (i.e. using a tube or crop needle that goes down the throat), it is very important to place the instrument down the esophagus and not the trachea.  The esophagus in birds has a very broad opening at the back of the mouth.  In contrast, the glottis (i.e. tracheal opening) appears as a slit on the floor of the mouth just caudal to the tongue (Figure 7).  In order to avoid aspiration of fluid when giving liquid medication, the medicine should be administered where it will not enter the glottis, either behind the glottis or at the tip of the beak where it will flow to the sides of the mouth.

Unlike in mammals, the avian esophagus runs down the right side of the neck.  When inserting a tube or crop needle, correct instrument placement can be verified by palpating the instrument through the esophagus to make sure it is not in the trachea – if it is in the correct place, one should feel two tubes: the gavage tube or crop needle in the esophagus, and the trachea.  If only one tube can be felt, the instrument may be inside the trachea.  Additionally, if the instrument is placed correctly one should be able to see that the opening of the glottis is clear (Figure 8).

Some species of birds have an enlargement of the esophagus at the level of the thoracic inlet called a crop.  The crop temporarily stores ingesta before it enters the proventriculus (i.e. the glandular stomach).  When using a tube or crop needle to gavage a bird, the tip of the instrument should be all the way in the crop to avoid aspiration.  It is therefore a good idea to take note of how much length is needed to reach the thoracic inlet so that the instrument is placed far enough down the esophagus.

Figure 8: Correct placement of a crop needle for a great horned owl. The needle is entering the esophagus and the glottis is clear. Credit: Jonathan Gorman

Anatomy of Elimination

The final part of the gastrointestinal tract in birds, the cloaca, is divided into three parts: the coprodeum, the urodeum, and the proctodeum (Figure 9).  Gastrointestinal contents enter the coprodeum from the rectum.  They then pass through the urodeum where the urinary and reproductive tracts open.  The proctodeum is the final segment of the cloaca, and it houses the copulatory organ (phallus) in males, something important to note when sexing some species of birds.

Figure 9: Anatomy of the avian cloaca. Credit: König et al.

Because the ureters open into the cloaca, birds pass their urine with their feces; this is important to note when evaluating feces and urates.  For instance, a bird with excessively watery excreta may have diarrhea or it may have polyuria.  Diarrhea would present as liquid feces while polyuria would present as an excess of liquid surrounding a relatively firm fecal mass.  One must take into account that the normal appearance of feces and urates varies significantly by species and diet (Figure 10).

Figure 10: Different images of ‘normal’ feces and urates from different types of birds. The one on the left from a pigeon is typical of granivores; the feces is firm and easily distinguished from the urates which are thick and pasty. The middle image from a great horned owl is typical of raptors which have thick or thin viscous feces mixed with urine. ‘Soft-feeders’, namely insectivores and frugivores, produce feces and urates like that presented on the right from a blue jay. The feces is thin but the color and consistency can vary greatly depending on diet. Credit: Jonathan Gorman

Integument System

The beak is covered in a hard keratinized  sheath, the rhamphotheca.  Most birds have an aggregation of sensory receptors at the tip of the beak known as the bill tip organ.  This organ is especially well-developed in ducks and geese but is absent in pigeons and sparrows.  It is important to note when working around the beak that this can be a sensitive area.

While birds do not have sweat glands, some of them do have an important gland located above the tail called the uropygial gland.  The uropygial gland produces an oily secretion which certain birds, particularly waterfowl, spread around over their feathers during preening to create a waterproof film.  This waterproof film can be degraded by urates, which is why it is important to keep housing for waterfowl clean.  This is especially important for birds that can no longer preen themselves due to injury.


I would like to thank Dr. Childs-Sanford for providing feedback and advice on this post.   I would also like to thank Isabel Jimenez (’19) for helping me come up with ideas and for sharing her knowledge on wildlife care.  Lastly, thank you to the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center, its staff, and its volunteers, for providing me with the inspiration and photo opportunities for this post.


König, Horst E, Rüdiger Korbel, Hans-Georg Liebich, Hermann Bragulla, Klaus-Dieter Budras, Romay A. Carretero, Gerhard Forstenpointner, Corinna Klupiec, Johann Maierl, Maren Meiners, Ivan Míšek, Christoph K. W. Mülling, Beltrán M. Navarro, Alexander Probst, Sven Reese, Jesus Ruberte, Ingrid Walter, Gerald Weissengruber, and Grammatia Zengerling. Avian Anatomy: Textbook and Colour Atlas. Sheffield: 5M Publishing, 2016. Print.

Lunch Lecture: Linking migratory bird conservation with agroforestry and coffee cultivation in Latin America

What: Ruth Bennett will be presenting a seminar entitled “Linking migratory bird conservation with agroforestry and coffee cultivation in Latin America.”  This is co-sponsored by IP-CALS and Tropical Biology and Conservation.

When: Wednesday, March 28, 12:20-1:20 pm

Where: Emerson Hall 135

Event: Avian Soft Tissue Surgery Lab

ZAWS has an exciting opportunity to learn about Avian Surgery in another hands on  lab! The event will include a demonstration by Dr. De Matos followed by the opportunity for students to practice suturing, incisions, biopsies, placing esophagostomy tubes, toe amputation, celiotomy, and so much more!

Due to limited space and resources, unfortunately the lab will only be open to the first 20 dues-paying second, third, and fourth years.

Please wear scrubs/lab coats and bring gloves and your dissection kit!

Sign up through the email notification on the ZAWS listserv.

When: February 1st, 5:30-7:30pm

Where: Belinski Wet Lab, vet school