Small Parrot Success
With parakeets and cockatiels making up the vast majority of bird sales in the U.S., retailers need to be prepared to inform and supply new parrot owners to help them be successful with these species.
When people think of great companion animals, dogs or cats are often the first to come to mind. Unless they have owned a tame bird, they may not even consider their potential. In fact, new parrot owners often comment on just how friendly, intelligent and fun their feathered pet is. Although smaller species like parakeets and cockatiels are sometimes considered less engaging than larger birds, they prove that great parrots come in all sizes.
Parakeets and cockatiels make up approximately 80 percent of the birds purchased in the U.S., and these two parrot species are great first choices for pet owners. Both are small, so they don’t require large cages, and are relatively inexpensive. They can be left alone during the day, unlike large parrots, so they are perfect options for those with full-time jobs or busy schedules outside the home.
A pet store should carry a complete line of supplies and equipment for these two species, since they are the most popular. Cages can take up a lot of space, but it is worth it to have samples on display because boxed cages will not sell otherwise. The nice thing about smaller parrot cages is that they can be hung from the ceiling, so they won’t take up precious floor space.
Although cockatiels and parakeets don’t need super strong bars on their homes, the bar spacing needs to be small enough that they cannot fit their heads through. Round, square and rectangular cages can all work, but the cage needs to be large enough to allow the ‘keet or ‘tiel to flap its wings freely, and the bigger the better. Retailers should have a variety of colors and styles available for new owners to choose from.
If the cage does not have a built-in seed catcher to contain the mess, then one needs to be sold to the new bird owner. The easiest type to use with parakeets and cockatiels is the flexible netting that can be put around the cage where the food dishes are located. Unfortunately, birds are extremely messy, so the store needs to sell products that help keep more debris in the cage than out.
One way to keep the area around the bird’s home cleaner is by putting the food bowls low in the cage or even on the floor. Most cages have dishes built in, and usually these are toward the bottom to reduce the mess. If the cups are small, retailers should recommend adding more dishes as needed. Dishes with a removable cover can be used, but owners should offer the food without the cover first, as sometimes birds will not initially put their heads in a covered cup to eat.
With cockatiels and parakeets, a high-quality seed mix can be fed as the main diet. A good supplement with vitamins, minerals and amino acids should be added. However, if about 60 percent of a bird’s diet is made up of pellets—and it should never be more than 70 percent—then no additional supplement is needed.
Although seeds and/or pellets can be the main part of a parakeet or cockatiel’s diet, the rest needs to be fresh greens and other veggies, grains, healthy treats, some protein (such as from egg food) and a little fruit. It’s important that any caged bird eats a variety of foods to keep them healthy. Sometimes new food items need to be offered many times over a period of weeks before a bird will try them, and any larger pieces should be cut up for smaller birds.
Cuttlebones and beak conditioners should be placed above perches in the cage to help keep the bills in good shape and provide extra minerals, especially calcium. These two items must be offered at all times and should be replaced when they have been chewed away or get dirty and old, usually about every six months.
Bird owners should place perches of varying diameters in the cage, which helps keep the feet healthy. There should be at least three perches in the cage made of different materials, such as plastic, wood and rope. Anything that is porous like wood and rope should be thrown out and replaced every six months. Plastic perches have the advantage of being washable and even dishwasher-safe. Perches should never be placed above each other or any dishes to keep everything cleaner. To help keep nails trimmed down, some perches are made from gravel or have a rough surface. However, the bird may still need the nails trimmed occasionally at a pet store or bird/exotic animal veterinary clinic. Never use sandpaper perch covers as they can injure the skin if the covers roll around.
Litter or paper can be used at the bottom of the cage, although it’s best not to use “gravel” paper. If litter is used, stick with a paper pellet or crumble instead of shavings, which can fly around too much when a bird flaps its wings. Corncob should not be used unless the cob bedding is three feet below the cage grate, as it can carry a disease-causing fungus. Ground walnut shells can be used, but only if there is a grate, because birds may eat the shell pieces, causing digestive issues.
Paper can be the best option, especially when birds are new to a store or home as any health issues may show up in the feces, which can be hard to see in a litter. Special paper for birdcage use is ideal and can sometimes be bought pre-cut or in a roll where the width matches one of the tray’s dimensions. Newspaper with colored ink cannot be used because it can be poisonous, although black and white newspaper is usually safe. As with keeping any pet, the tray, cage, dishes and accessories need to be cleaned regularly or, if made of a porous material, replaced every six months to avoid illness.
Last, but certainly not least, in cage accessories are toys. Some are designed to be chewed up, while others provide a puzzle or are just to be played with to keep the bird mentally stimulated. One type, called foraging treats, can have food or treats put in them. Parrots are very intelligent, no matter what their size, so owners should place at least three types of toys made of different materials in the cage at all times and change them out every month, or when chewed apart, to avoid boredom.
It is important to give cockatiels and parakeets that are kept singly a toy with a mirror. The bird will consider it a friend when their owner is away but will not become as attached to it as they would another bird. Mirror toys can be a problem with larger species, as they may get too fond of them and ignore or even attack their owner, but this is extremely rare in cockatiels and parakeets.
Stores will always sell more bird products if they sell birds as well. Those offering playful parakeets and sweet cockatiels that are tame and easy for customers to interact with will always outsell stores with birds that are not very friendly or kept behind glass, giving the impression that they do not make good companions. Having employees who know what wonderful pets birds can be, handle them every day at the store and preferably have pet parrots at home can go a long way in making your bird department a fun and profitable place.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.