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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Introduction to Birds

By Otto M. Radostits, CM, DVM, MSc, DACVIM (Deceased), Professor Emeritus, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan ; Delores E. Hill, PhD, Parasitologist, U.S. Department of Agriculture ; Barton W. Rohrbach, VMD, MPH, DACVPM, Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Medicine, Veterinary Teaching Hospital, University of Tennessee ; Charles J. Issel, DVM, PhD, Wright-Market Chair of Equine Infectious Diseases, Gluck Equine Research Center, University of Kentucky ; Max J. Appel, DMV, PhD, Professor Emeritus ; David A. Ashford, DVM, MPH, DSc, Assistant Area Director, International Services, APHIS, USDA ; Daniela Bedenice, DVM, DACVIM, DACVECC, Assistant Professor, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University ; Farouk M. Hamdy, DVM, MSc, PhD, MPA (Deceased), Animal Health Consultant ; Kenneth R. Harkin, DVM, DACVIM, Associate Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, Kansas State University ; Johnny D. Hoskins, DVM, PhD, Small Animal Consultant ; Eugene D. Janzen, DVM, MVS, Professor, Production Animal Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary ; Jodie Low Choy, BVSc, BVMS, IVAS Cert, Menzies School of Health Research; University Avenue Veterinary Hospital, Northern Territory, Australia ; John E. Madigan, DVM, MS, Distinguished Professor, Department of Medicine and Epidemiology, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis ; Dale A. Moore, MS, DVM, MPVM, PhD, Associate Professor, Veterinary Medical Teaching and Research Center, University of California-Davis ; J. Glenn Songer, PhD, Professor, Department of Veterinary Science and Microbiology, University of Arizona ; Joseph Taboada, DVM, DACVIM, Professor and Associate Dean, Office of Student and Academic Affairs, School of Veterinary Medicine, Louisiana State University ; Charles O. Thoen, DVM, PhD, Professor, Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, Iowa State University ; John F. Timoney, MVB, PhD, Dsc, MRCVS, Keeneland Chair of Infectious Diseases, Gluck Equine Research Center, Department of Veterinary Science, University of Kentucky ; Ian Tizard, BVMS, PhD, DACVM, University Distinguished Professor of Immunology; Director, Richard M. Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center, Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University ; Brian J. McCluskey, DVM, MS, PhD, DACVPM, National Surveillance Coordinator, Centers for Epidemiology and Animal Health, National Surveillance Unit APHIS ; Bert E. Stromberg, PhD, Professor, Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota ; Peter J. Timoney, MVB (Hons), MS, PhD, FRCVS, Professor; Frederick Van Lennep Chair in Equine Veterinary Science, Gluck Equine Research Center, University of Kentucky

There are some 35 to 45 million pet birds in the United States. Modern bird owners are continuing a pet bird tradition that goes back at least 4,000 years to the ancient Egyptians, who are often credited with keeping the first pet birds. The ancient Chinese are known to have kept pheasants. From writings dating back almost 3,000 years, we know that both Persians and Indians kept parrots and other birds as pets, as did the ancient Greeks. Aristotle studied and wrote about his pet bird, Psittace. The name of Aristotle’s bird is the root of the scientific name for all parrots, Psittacine. The Alexandrine parakeet is named for Alexander the Great; tradition has it that one of Alexander’s generals granted him one of these birds as a gift following the invasion of northern India in 327 a.d.

Birds have often performed important tasks for their human owners. For example, the breeding and use of pigeons for rapid message delivery was widely practiced in the Middle East and northern Africa from ancient times, spread to Europe and the New World, and continued well into the 1900s. Most individuals are familiar with the use of canaries in mines to detect dangerous coal gases and carbon monoxide. If the canary fainted or died, the miners knew that the air was dangerous and they should get out quickly. The use of canaries in mines started as early as the 15th century and continued into the 20th century. Canaries were also used to detect poison gas following the terrorist attacks in Japanese subways in 1995.

During the Medieval period, interest in bird keeping of all kinds was keen. Parrots in particular were highly prized and often kept by royalty and high ranking clergymen. Marco Polo saw many types of parrots during his journey to China, and Christopher Columbus brought Cuban Amazon parrots back to Spain as gifts for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.

Canaries were brought to Europe by Portuguese sailors about 1478. These birds originated on the Canary Islands, the location for which they were named. In some countries, such as Germany, the birds were bred for singing capabilities. In other areas, the interest was in body shape, body type, or feather color. Today, there are 3 general types of domestic canaries. There are those bred for color (such as the well-known yellow canary), those that are bred for their song (the Roller Canary), and those bred for characteristics of shape, plumage, and size (the Frilled Canary).

Interest in owning birds has been strong for hundreds of years. In Europe, bird shows were first organized in the 1600s. Both canaries and parrots were popular in these early events. Today, bird fanciers hold over 200 shows each year in the United States alone.