Knowledgebase > Birds


Last updated 25 April 2019

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The birds commonly kept in captivity as pets are either parrots (Psittacines) or songbirds (Passeriformes).

Pet bird species are not usually considered domesticated animals, even when they have been bred in captivity. This is due in part to the fact that many birds used in the pet trade are only one or two generations removed from the wild and, as such, retain most if not all of their wild instincts and behaviours[1].

In the wild, parrots are exceptionally social birds. Many species travel in large flocks, flying kilometres each day in search of various different food items and they may congregate into a nightly roost of hundreds or even thousands of social conspecifics (members of the same species). Parrots have complex social lives, large brains and advanced language skills.

Wild songbirds might be considered as social and intelligent as parrots. They learn their songs, and other vocalizations or calls, from adults of the same species. Males will sing to attract a mate and defend their territory, while females attend to these songs and singing contests to select a mate. In addition, both sexes produce calls that can contain information about predators and food. From listening to calls, songbirds can also identify and discriminate between individuals, flocks and territory neighbours or strangers[2].


The Pet Ownership Statistics in Australia for 2016 reveal[3]:

  • There are almost 4.2 million birds held in captivity as pets.
  • 53% of Australian bird-owning households keep their birds in indoor cages while 36% keep them in outdoor aviaries. Further to this, birds are often kept in small numbers or on their own.
  • The main reason for owning birds is companionship, suggesting people benefit from this situation.


Major Welfare Concerns

There are numerous ways that parrots and songbirds suffer in captivity. Their restricted ability to fly, particularly when they are confined to a cage and/or have clipped wings, causes them severe psychological distress.

Studies on stereotypic behaviour in captive parrots and songbirds suggest the development of locomotor stereotypies (e.g. spot picking and route tracing/pacing) is related to inadequate space and environmental enrichment, and oral stereotypies (e.g. feather picking or mutilation and bar chewing) relate to being denied opportunities to perform natural foraging behaviours. Social isolation appears to contribute to the development of both oral and locomotor stereotypy1.

A lack of understanding about nutritional needs sees many bird owners providing their parrots and songbirds with a seed-only diet, when they need varied diets including fresh fruits. In addition, the larger species are often long-lived animals, with some parrots living for 80 years, which means they must be relinquished and rehomed several times throughout their lives[4].



[1] M Engebretson (2006). The welfare and suitability of parrots as companion animals: a review. Animal Welfare, 15: 263-276.

[2] N McMillan, A Hahn, M Spetch & C Sturdy (2015) Avian Cognition: examples of sophisticated capabilities in space and song. WIREs Cogni Sci, 6: 285-297.

[3] Animal Medicines Australia, ‘Pet Ownership in Australia 2016’, page 11.

[4] R Grant, VT Montrose & AP Wills (2017). ExNOTic: Should We Be Keeping Exotic Pets? Animals, 47; doi: 10.3390/ani7060047.

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