The Ups and Downs of Owning Pet Birds in Urban China

On returning home each day, Wu Junhui promptly lets his three parrots out of their cages, calls their names, and watches as they fly to land on his hand.

“They are like flying dogs,” said Wu, a 25-year-old game concept designer based in the southwestern city of Chengdu. “And I don’t need to walk them every day and pick up their poop.”

Once a cat lover with four pet felines, he was introduced to birds when he babysat one for a friend after sending his cats to stay with his sister. He never looked back. “My home has never been so clean, so I made up my mind to change pets,” said Wu.

In China, bird-keeping is traditionally linked with older generations, who are often seen strolling with their feathered companions in bamboo cages. But in recent years, an increasing number of young Chinese have begun to embrace birds as pets.

They are low cost to maintain and companionable with a minimum of effort. Parrots, especially parakeets and cockatiels, are the most popular pet birds in China.

Searches for “exotic pets” on e-commerce giant Taobao increased by five million in the first nine months of 2022 and ranked second on Taobao’s 2023 list of “new trends of interest” among consumers.

According to a 2023 industry report from Asia Pet Research Institute, birds account for 41% of the exotic pet market, second only to small mammals like rabbits and hamsters.

Cost is a factor in the trend. On Taobao, a small parakeet, also called a budgie, costs as little as 40 yuan ($5.50), and is even cheaper to buy in markets that sell birds. On the secondhand trading platform Xianyu, it’s easy to find parrots, claimed to be homebred, selling for prices ranging between tens to hundreds of yuan.

“One of the reasons why the price is so low is the absence of any clear regulations related to domesticated birds,” Angelina Ye, the founder of parrot rescue platform Birdlove, told Sixth Tone, using a pseudonym to preserve her privacy.

Feeding birds is also relatively cheap. Their food is usually some mix of corn, vegetables, fruits, and nuts instead of the more expensive fare for cats and dogs.

Wu bought his first parrot from an online breeder for 150 yuan and then later added two purchased from home breeders for 800 and 1,500 yuan.

Cages for his feathered friends cost 200-400 yuan, and various “bird toys” are about 100 yuan each. All in all, it’s a lot less expensive than keeping cats, he said.

“I used to spend around 1,500 yuan for a three-month supply of food for my four cats, but the three-month bill for my three birds is less than 20 yuan,” Wu said.

He finds parrots are his perfect companions. “If I let the birds out, they will always stay around me,” he said. “They stand on my shoulder or chest when I am watching TV. And if I am feeling a bit low, I stroke their feathers, and that cheers me up.”

However, bird owners also face unique challenges, particularly the susceptibility of birds to illness and the difficulty in accessing specialized veterinary care. The issue is compounded by the scarcity of veterinarians equipped to treat birds, especially outside major cities.

Because of their small size and fast metabolism, parrots are prone to illnesses. For instance, during the recent Spring Festival, Wu gave one of his parrots to a friend to look after. The bird fell sick and died in three days.

“I think the bird became depressed by my absence,” Wu said. “It happened so fast that there was no time for treatment. Bird illnesses come on very quickly.”

Making matters worse, it’s often difficult to find a veterinarian who treats birds.

Sun Huicong, a 26-year-old kindergarten teacher in the southern city of Foshan, encountered that problem when her parrot Facai, whose name means “get rich,” contracted a fungal infection when only 1 month old.

Then, in March, at 8 months old, Facai encountered difficulties laying an egg, and the surgery to extricate it cost 1,180 yuan.

Taking the bird to a vet required days off work and a 90-minute drive to an animal hospital in the nearby metropolis of Guangzhou. A closer veterinarian service to Sun doesn’t treat birds.

Last August alone, she traveled four times to the animal hospital to treat Facai’s infections. Altogether it cost more than 3,000 yuan.

“The cost was indeed expensive, but not for the medical fees, which were just a few hundred yuan,” Sun said. “There were additional costs like travel expenses and taking leave from work.”

According to a 2023 report from pet database platform PetHadoop, exotic animals — classified as any animals that are not cats or dogs —  accounted for only 2.2% of pet surgeries, and medical resources were available only in large cities.

Founded in 2021, Birdlove is an online parrot rescue platform focusing on rescuing birds that escape homes and go wild. The group finds volunteers to adopt the birds, helps transport them to animal hospitals, and provides food stocks to more than 400 parrots across the country.

Birdlove has established ties with 29 animal hospitals in 20 cities to offer limited free examinations for birds and discounted medical fees. Additionally, it provides a list of 323 veterinarian services in China that treat birds.

The list shows the geographic disparity in bird care. Beijing has about 15 animal hospitals that accept birds, but there is only one listed for the nearby city of Tangshan in Hebei province.

“There are very few full-time, specialized exotic pet doctors,” said Birdlove founder Ye, attributing this to the relatively small number of birds kept as pets.

“For example, if you are from a small city and you complete a course on veterinary care for birds, you may return to your hometown and find fewer than 100 people who keep birds — and they might not all call on your services,” she said.

Apart from saving birds that have escaped to the wild, Birdlove is also trying to promote scientific knowledge about raising birds, including publishing information on social media.

People wanting to join Birdlove must complete a questionnaire on common care, such as feeding. Only two of 10 people pass the examination, Ye said.

Misinformation is rife, she added. Some people feed their birds small amounts of sand, believing it will aid digestion when, in fact, it can lead to disease. Then, too, some bird owners dodge veterinarian fees by buying medicine for their pets online, following digital advice, when the birds should really be taken to an animal hospital.

“The overall quality of birdkeeping is so low because many people don’t take it seriously enough,” she said.

Sun lives with her parents and sister, and the family happily keeps birds. Yet, when one parrot fell ill, she took it to an animal hospital without telling her parents.

“I was afraid they would think raising birds is too troublesome,” she said. “My dad would think a veterinarian was too costly, amid the general perception that birds can simply survive with just a little millet.”

Despite all the trouble she has had to go through to get treatment for her parrots, she is thankful they all recovered and that there is professional help not too far away. That is not something all bird lovers can avail.

Ye said she is trying to find more recruits since most Birdlove volunteers are now unable to adopt more birds.

“If the day comes when our volunteers can no longer adopt more birds, and we can no longer do rescue work,” she said, “I will shift my focus to promoting the scientific rearing of birds, which would save birds indirectly.”

(Header image: Wu’s Lovebird Naonao, Chengdu, Jan. 20, 2024; A green-cheeked parakeet named Tengteng (left) and cockatiel Pupu (right) on Wu’s hand, July 1, 2022. Courtesy of Wu)

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