In 2018, the American Veterinary Medical Association published its first-ever position statement on companion animal euthanasia. The AVMA is one of several organizations that have spoken out against “zoom” euthanization (that is, killing animals via methods such as gas chambers or electrical shock), which has seen a recent surge in popularity among veterinarians across the country.
The AVMA believes that these practices may cause undue pain and suffering to pets before death, particularly because many dogs do not experience psychological distress prior to dying.
Other groups, including the Humane Society, believe that zoom euthanasia could even be considered cruel due to the fact that some animals remain conscious during the process. These groups recommend humane end-of-life care for pets, including physical restraint and sedation until shortly before death.
But what if you were able to engage your beloved bird in conversation while also providing them comfort and attention? What would happen then? According to Dr. Lorna Morrison, director of research at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this scenario is exactly what she set out to study in 2014.
Dr. Morrison was curious about whether parrots who are often called “the smartest animals on Earth” would bond with people more easily than other types of domesticated animals, like cats and dogs. To test her theory, she began by training two cockatiels named Tawny and Sophie to play fetch using treats.
Afterward, she brought the birds into her office so that she could observe how they interacted with her. She found that both birds quickly learned to associate certain behaviors with rewards.
For example, Tawny became accustomed to sitting near a window where she knew there was food waiting for her every time she came back to work after playing fetch outside. But Sophie wasn’t so lucky. Although she did learn to recognize the treat location from the outside, once she got close enough to grab it, she’d fly away.
Dr. Morrison concluded that it might be beneficial for parrots to receive human companionship, rather than just having someone give them treats. This led her to conduct an experiment where she trained four African grey parrots to mimic specific actions associated with receiving affection from a person.
In one instance, she taught the birds to sit still and wait for their owner to pick them up. Another task required the birds to stand quietly in front of their owners while their owners read books to them.
Although the results weren’t perfect, according to Dr. Morrison, they showed that it’s possible to train birds to act like pets. Parrots are already highly intelligent creatures that can exhibit complex emotions, so why shouldn’t we let them enjoy life with us in ways that are similar to how humans enjoy it?
What’s it Like Being a Pet Bird
While zoos and aviaries provide opportunities for birds to live in an enclosure, most people don’t have spaces large enough to house entire flocks of birds. And although it might seem counterintuitive, keeping a flock of hundreds of birds together may actually make it harder for them to coexist harmoniously.
When kept in small cages or pens, each bird becomes dependent upon others around it for survival, forming tight-knit bonds based on common needs. However, when they aren’t all vying for resources like food and water, the relationships between the birds begin to deteriorate.
That’s why a better option is to keep pairs or groups of birds together in larger enclosures where they can establish their own hierarchies. By doing so, they’ll become less reliant on each other for sustenance, allowing them to maintain healthy relationships.
This concept is exemplified by the Budgie, a type of South American native bird that lives in smaller homes called budgies. They tend to be more independent and self-sufficient than other species, preferring to spend their days exploring their surroundings instead of relying on others for food. Their natural curiosity and adaptability makes them popular as companion animals.
According to Dr. Morrison, it takes a lot of time, energy, and effort to properly train birds to perform tasks. While Sophie had no problem learning to fetch treats from her cage, teaching her to walk upright on a leash took months. As a result, she recommends only choosing parrot species that are easy to handle and require minimal training in order to help them feel safe and secure.
To further encourage bonding between birds and their owners, Dr. Morrison suggests incorporating familiar sounds and smells into daily routines. One way to accomplish this is through aromatherapy. Aromatherapy involves inhaling essential oils that contain volatile organic compounds, which produce calming effects in our bodies.
Some aromatic plants, such as lavender, chamomile, rosemary, mint, jasmine, ylang-ylang, eucalyptus, hyssop, vanilla, neroli, bergamot, sandalwood, patchouli, and orange blossom, release scents that are pleasant to humans and animals alike. These fragrant substances are absorbed by the skin, causing dilated blood vessels and increased heart rate, thus producing feelings of relaxation and well-being.
Once the birds become comfortable with people, it’s important to create a routine that will allow them to stay calm throughout the day. This includes feeding them at consistent times, offering them fresh water, and giving them regular interaction.
Keeping birds as pets isn’t without risks. They may unintentionally hurt themselves when trying to escape from their containers, and they may peck at one another if allowed to roam freely indoors.
Additionally, the amount of space needed to accommodate a flock of birds varies depending on the size of the group and the number of adults present. For those reasons, it’s best to consult with experts before making any decisions regarding the housing and care of birds.
Making an Impact on Birds via Social Media
One of the easiest ways to connect with birds is through social media. There are numerous accounts dedicated to sharing information about different species, as well as encouraging people to adopt, foster, and donate to rescue organizations.
For example, the National Aviary & Biotope Museum in New York City maintains an online shop where visitors can purchase items featuring photos of its feathered residents. Proceeds go toward funding conservation efforts for wild birds.
On Instagram, users can follow @save_our_birds for updates on birds’ causes, as well as view content created by nonprofits working to protect birds and improve their conditions. Users can also visit #SaveOurBirds hashtags on Twitter and Facebook to see posts about various birds, along with informative articles about the threats facing their populations.
Despite the many good deeds taking place behind the scenes, public awareness tends to focus on the negative aspects of owning a pet bird. Most people probably wouldn’t want to take on a bird that acts aggressively towards others, for example. If a newbie adopts a bird that doesn’t fit their lifestyle, they may soon abandon it or find another one that does better.
That said, Dr. Morrison says it’s easier than ever for anyone interested in rescuing birds to get involved. Through her lab’s website, researchers can list birds available for adoption, and potential owners can fill out an application requesting contact information from the organization.
Then, the team will reach out to the applicants to assess whether the birds are suitable for them. Once a match is made, the researchers will arrange a meeting to evaluate the birds’ suitability and determine whether they should join the breeding program.
If you’ve never owned a pet bird before, Dr. Morrison advises prospective owners to consider everything they need to know about parrots beforehand. For starters, they eat a high percentage of protein, so they should have plenty to eat regularly.
Unlike most other birds, they don’t typically roost together at night in nests or caves, so they must have access to shelters with perches. Finally, since they communicate primarily through vocalizations, it’s imperative that owners understand how to correctly interpret their calls.
Is It Worth Having a Pet Bird as Your Companion Animal?
Whether it’s a cat, dog, or bird, it’s difficult to say definitively that owning a pet improves the quality of life for the individuals involved. That said, it’s worth considering the pros and cons of pet ownership before making any decision.
As mentioned earlier, there are lots of benefits to interacting with birds via social media. But there are also downsides. For example, while watching videos of baby chicks getting raised inside incubators is undeniably cute, it’s hard to ignore the fact that chickens are often killed inhumanely after reaching maturity.
It’s true that captive birds are treated poorly by some owners, but Dr. Morrison emphasizes that the main reason why parrots are sometimes labeled “birdbrains” stems from misconceptions about their cognitive abilities.
She explains that the phrase originated in the 1800s when scientists attempted to classify birds based on their brain sizes. At the time, scientists believed that bigger brains equaled smarter minds. However, birds have much greater capacity for growth compared to mammals, meaning that their brains can expand significantly over the course of their lives.