Feathered Friends in the Lion City: A Guide to Pet Birds in Singapore

Pet Birds

Parrots make fascinating, engaging pet birds with their vibrant personalities, sociable nature, and impressive intelligence. Their ability to integrate into various aspects of social life, similar to the pet culture embraced by dog and cat owners in Singapore, enriches the lives of their caretakers. Parrot owners actively participate in pet events specifically tailored for bird enthusiasts, and they enjoy the welcoming atmosphere of pet-friendly venues across the city, where their colourful companions can sometimes join them.

In a 2023 survey by YouGov, data shows that dogs and cats are the most common pets in Singapore, comprising a combined 25% of the pet owner population (13% dogs, 12% cats), and just 2% of the pet owner population keep pet birds. While the figures are not surprising, there is a thriving community of pet birds owners who are very passionate about these feathered creatures.

Large and colourful macaws can be seen free-flying at Lentor Gardens; local pet bird groups such as Birdies and Family Sg and Cockatiels/Our Love are active throughout the community, organising educational sessions at schools and informal gatherings, contributing positively to the pet-friendly atmosphere in Singapore. Not much is known about pet birds in the non-bird-keeping community in Singapore. We are more than familiar with pigeons and mynas trying to steal our food, or the Asian koel whose loud call in the morning annoys many. But it is the parrots, prized in many homes, that are enigmatic and spark curiosity.

When I am out with my white-bellied caiques, I am often met with surprise that a bird is taken out like a dog would be. I would encounter follow-up questions, asked with wide-eyed fascination, about what it is like having them as companions.

Common classifications of pet birds species in Singapore

Psittacines are commonly known as parrots or “hookbills” because they have a downward-pointing beak that is strong and curved. Their feet have two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backwards. They often have colourful plumage. Some common parrot species kept as pets are budgies, lovebirds, parrotlets, cockatiels, sun conures, African greys, Eclectus, amazons and scarlet macaws.

Passerines, also known as “softbills”, are characterised by three toes pointing forward and one toe pointing backwards. Their beaks are usually pointing straight. Passerines are also commonly referred to as songbirds and some examples are canaries, zebra doves, mata puteh and white-rumped shama.

Parrots are incredibly sociable pet birds

In a study by BirdLife International titled “Understanding Singapore’s Dynamic Parrot Trade Ecosystem,” 54% of parrot owners cited companionship as the primary reason for ownership.

Many parrots are affectionate and can be cuddly with people they trust. Caiques exhibit a unique behaviour known as “surfing” – the bird will vigorously rub its face, chest and wings on a soft item such as clothes or a blanket. When I am winding down for the day, and after my caiques have had their fly, hop and run around the house, they would be perched on me surfing or cuddling.

But not all parrots exhibit such gestures of intimacy. Other parrots display their interactive behaviour through varied modes of communication such as talking, singing, whistling or even throwing a tantrum to express frustration or displeasure.

Parrots have long lifespans

One of the top three considerations owners take into account when buying a parrot is lifespan (along with intelligence and trainability). Macaws can live between 35 to 50 years, a conure 15 to 20 years, a cockatiel 15 to 25 years, and the Amazon, a whopping 40 to 70 years.

The oldest parrot ever is a male pink cockatoo (also known as Major Mitchell’s cockatoo) called Cookie, as listed in the Guinness Book of Records. He died on August 27, 2016, and was at least 82 years and 88 days old.

Parrots reaching these advanced ages is possible with dedicated pet care, proper husbandry, a well-balanced diet and the firm understanding that pet parrots are a long-term commitment.

Parrots are highly trainable pet birds

Training a parrot can be as engaging as training a dog in a park, with parrots capable of learning tricks and tasks that are both entertaining and stimulating. An African grey can learn up to 1,000 words or more. They are known to be one of the best-speaking parrots. Apollo, a three-and-a-half-year-old African grey has a popular YouTube channel with 1.21 million subscribers who tune in to watch him describe the various properties of an object or just have a conversation with his owner.

In one video, Apollo says, “It’s a bell” when asked what object his owner is holding. “Metal,” he responds to what it is made of. When asked the bell’s colour, “red”, he says before promptly breaking into a pistachio treat he was rewarded with (which he calls “pistasch”).

Ellie is an eleven-year-old Goffin’s cockatoo who has been trained to use a program on a tablet to express how she is feeling physically and emotionally. She can tell you that she’s feeling physical pain (when she once lost a toenail), or that she is feeling sad (that a bird friend had died). She also expresses her wants and needs, such as asking to read a storybook or using the tablet to make a few calls to her grandma (her owner’s mother).

Closer to home, Wolfie and Sharky are parrotlets who can skateboard, complete an obstacle course, sort colours and play football.

Parrots are very loud!

Cockatoos, macaws, sun conures, amazons and quaker parakeets are some of the loudest parrots. The nanday conure is touted to be the loudest parrot and is leading in the noise ranking at 155 decibels. In comparison, normal human speech is at 60 decibels and a rock concert or ambulance siren at 120 decibels.

Unfortunately, this is also a leading reason why parrots get rehomed. It takes a lot of training and understanding of bird behaviour to work through the challenging nature of parrots. As birds are highly social companions, they require a lot of attention and enrichment activities to keep them engaged and feeling fulfilled.

While screaming is part of a parrot’s repertoire in nature calls, they also scream when their needs are not met. When one of my caiques takes a bath in the water bowl, the other two are screaming in protest over being in the splash zone. They continue to scream until I change the water in the bowl so that it is fit for them to drink again.

Fun fact: a group of parrots is called a pandemonium. That speaks loudly about the noise they make as a flock!

Powerful Mouth Anatomy

A 2024 research published by the New York Institute of Technology delves into the powerful strength of birds’ beaks. In a test where birds had to navigate perches that got smaller and smaller, the birds used their beaks to help them hang from a perch and swing to another. Through the locomotion of seemingly using their head and beak as a third limb, this demonstrates how powerful their heads and their necks are.

A bird’s beak is hollow with fine bony struts inside to make it strong. The exterior is covered in keratin (which is what our fingernails are made of) and continues to grow. The beak gets worn down by eating, chewing and grinding the top and bottom parts together.

The tongue is equally as strong and contains a bone and cartilage. For parrots, a distinctive feature is how muscular their tongue is, which helps them replicate complicated sounds, and grasp and manipulate objects or food. Parrots’ tongues are dry at the tip which allow them to hold small items or bits of food in place and their salivary glands are located at the base.

Birds have an average of 300 taste buds, as compared to a human adult who has between 2,000 to 9,000 taste buds. Their taste buds are located mostly on the roof and back of the mouth rather than on the tongue.

Fun fact: bird tongues are missing the receptor that reacts to capsaicin thus, do not experience the burning sensation from consuming chillies and peppers!

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