Birds! What are they good for?
October 14, 2013 10:02 AM   Subscribe

My loving husband gave me a pair of birds. I was able to quickly google how to take care of them, and am doing fine in that regard, but am wondering: how do bird people enjoy them? Bonus question: how do I get my cats to not want to eat them?

These are zebra finches - a male and a female. The internet tells me that I can breed them and make baby finches, but I am concerned that this may be coming more from my love of Viva Pinata than anything sensible. Also the only thing I could think of to do with baby birds is either free the and watch them fly away or give them to other people, thus continuing the cycle of bird-gifting. My only experience with people with pet birds is watching Disney princess movies: these neither sit on my finger nor sing. What do I do? My husband is really, really hoping I enjoy my present, but I'm kind of nonplussed.

I should note, we also have Very Interested cats, which means, I think, that we can never, ever, let the birds out of their cage. Currently it means we're not allowing the cats onto the floor with the birds. But is there a better way? I miss my cats and don't want to exile them forever.
posted by corb to Pets & Animals (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Can you return them to wherever he got them? I know it will come across as rude, but otherwise you are committing yourself to 5+ years of caring for some creatures that you are not very interested in, and finding other people to care for them every time you want to go on a trip, etc.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:04 AM on October 14, 2013 [43 favorites]

Return them.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:10 AM on October 14, 2013 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I love birds, but I would never ever ever ever ever get any because I have two cats.

I rolled this one backwards and forwards about five years ago because I really wanted to get a bird, but I just couldn't square it because of the cats.

I, too, think you should give the birds back or gift them to someone else.

I'm sorry.
posted by jbenben at 10:11 AM on October 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: As a non-birder, I spent a week in Alaska with a birding group. You either get birds, or you don't. It's OK if you don't.

I think the best thing to do is return them. Animals are not gifts. And baby finches should not be set free in NYC.
posted by mochapickle at 10:11 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Uh, zebra finches are very *eager* breeders. If you aren't into that, you should return them asap.

They aren't the out-of-the-cage sort of birds, and they will likely always be cat entertainment (which might or might not be OK with you).
posted by janell at 10:13 AM on October 14, 2013

I tried bird keeping and it just wasn't for me. I ended up rehoming my pair with a volunteer from a bird rescue organization. When she came to pick them up, it was really interesting to see how she related to them. She clearly connected with them in a way that I didn't. I tried, but I never could see my birds as more than ambulatory plants. It is not that way with bird people. Perhaps you aren't one.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:18 AM on October 14, 2013 [7 favorites]

Yeah, my sister had some zebra finches when we were growing up, and while they were cute and made an appealing "peep peep peep" noise, there really wasn't much more to them (from my perspective, at least, as a person who really likes birds but doesn't quite "get" them as pets). We also had two cats, and the poor little birds always looked rather stressed out from their presence. My sister eventually gave them away but the friend she gave them to knew no more about caring for them than she did, and both birds met unpleasant endings they did not deserve.

I'd vote for returning them now while you can, in the hope that they can be rehomed with someone who wants zebra finches and knows what to do with them. Sure, your husband might be disappointed, but the welfare of two living creatures really should trump his temporary disappointment.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:19 AM on October 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Finches are basically ornamental. My grandfather kept them in large outdoor aviaries in FL when he was alive. There's not a whole lot you can do with them except look at them and admire their birdiness: activity and chatter.

Having said that, there was a period awhile back when little self-contained aviaries were being positioned as alternates to aquariums. You'd see them in doctors offices and whatnot and the birds were usually finches. If you're so inclined, you could keep them in something large enough for a decent amount of flight, and furnished as naturally as possible - plants, branches, water, and so on.

Even without the cats, you wouldn't be able to let them out. And echoing the sentiments above that you should not turn them loose.

I've kept birds on and off for years. They're neat, if you get them, but they're messy and loud. I wouldn't have them now that we have cats (chickens are an exception - they can fend for themselves quite well now).
posted by jquinby at 10:20 AM on October 14, 2013

Yeah, finches are not the kind of birds you really interact with like they're pets. You look at them and admire their beauty.

There are birds that you can interact with but they tend to be a big commitment. Budgies are probably the entry-level pet bird, but they still live for long enough that you have to really want to have pet birds.

I also vote for returning if you're not into spending time cleaning their cage and spend money to feed them and get them vet care when they need it, just to admire them.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:29 AM on October 14, 2013

Response by poster: Note: While I am not inherently opposed to the idea of rehoming them, any suggestions on that score would be most helpful either accompanied with data/reasons for why that would be useful, suggestions for having husband feel better about the whole thing, or similar such. At the moment, I'm operating on the idea that we will be having these birds (and apparently, their babies, depending on how prolific they are) until they die a natural death.
posted by corb at 10:34 AM on October 14, 2013

In my experience with having both cats and prey animals as pets, it might just be a matter of time until the cats eat one. I've been acquainted with a finch or two; they seem to get out of their cages a bit more often than my childhood parakeets did. Knowing my cats, I would never get a pet they would love to kill.
posted by Coatlicue at 10:42 AM on October 14, 2013

Best answer: Having a prey animal living trapped with a predator is really unhealthy for the prey animal, IMO. We had similar birds and one died of a heart attack after being terrorized by our cat.

I'm not sure how to make your husband feel better--honestly, it is a really goofy and inconsiderate gift and I'd try to be light and humorous about the whole thing and hope that he can laugh at himself.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:49 AM on October 14, 2013 [31 favorites]

Best answer: Having birds in a house with cats would be approximately like what it would be like for you if you had a lion chained up living in your house. Even if you believed that the chain would keep the lion contained, you'd still be in a constant state of low level anxiety, and your heart would race every time the lion roared, and whenever the lion got close to you, you'd be incredibly stressed out. You might survive, but it certainly wouldn't be good for you. And you would never stop believing that the lion was about to eat you, regardless of precautions.
posted by decathecting at 11:00 AM on October 14, 2013 [26 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, also, you know that you have to get rid of all your nonstick cookware, right? Because the fumes, even in small doses, can kill birds. Also look through all of your cooking and cleaning products, because birds are really sensitive to airborne fumes.
posted by decathecting at 11:01 AM on October 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Keep them in a room where the cats don't go. I liked having finches; it was relaxing to watch them flutter around and eat seeds. I liked their incessant peeping. The most interaction you get out of them is adding things to their environment (millet branches, perches) and seeing them react. They're the bettas of the air. The peeping, for me, was a welcome level of noise.

if you keep them, put them in a room with no predators (cats) and keep the boy and girl apart. Divide the cage or get two cages and an additional same-sex friend for each finch. They're social, but breeding is hard on the girls, messy, and you generally don't get live chicks.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:07 AM on October 14, 2013

My grandmother kept birds for a long time. She liked their singing, and she liked watching them fly around (AFAIK they never came out of their cage) and interact with each other. She would chat to them all the time, so I think they were good company for her when my aunt was at work, without being too much work to care for (she is reasonably mobile, but only by 90-year-old standards - she is not gonna run after a dog or scoop up cat litter).

So...I kind of think they are something you either enjoy or you don't - if you are not into watching them fly around and sing, they are not the right pet for you. (Also since you have cats!! Yikes.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 11:08 AM on October 14, 2013

Best answer: Finches tend to be in the same pet category as an aquarium - pretty and potentially soothing to watch if you, well, feel that way about them. If we ever get out of our one bedroom apartment situation, my husband dreams of an aviary or at least a big cage full of finches, because he finds them deeply charming to watch and would probably sit next to the cage making peeping noises back at them all the time. Right now we have three cats and one bedroom, so I couldn't keep the cooking fumes and the cats away from them, so it's a no-go.
posted by PussKillian at 11:14 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Either you return/rehome them now, to the temporary dismay of your husband, or spend the rest of the birds' lives reluctantly caring for them, which has a good chance of breeding resentment towards your husband, and he'll be able to tell you're not into them. Short-term discomfort or long-term, it's your pick.

I don't think it's realistic to attempt to learn to like them if you're not into them in the first place.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:17 AM on October 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have had zebra finches twice, which I suppose qualifies me as a "bird person". I loved having them! They were fat, cheerful little dollops of birds who recognized me and would come over to chirp at me when I approached their cage (which they never did for my husband). They don't really do much, besides hang out being cute and bird-ish: playing on their swing, eating (messily), pecking at their bell or other toys, making a huge production of stripping a stalk of millet. Be aware that they are sensitive: I used nonstick cookware for years around my birds without a problem, but they are accustomed to warm climates and a stiff breeze can kill them. I only had one escape in the years I owned them, and it was during a transfer from regular cage to temporary cage (for regular-cage-cleaning time).

I'm not a cat person, and I've been living with two cats in a temporary living situation for the last three months. I have not become any closer to being a cat person in that time. I'm sure your husband meant well, but I have to think that if my husband surprised me with a kitten, I'd be finding it a new home. I'm sure you can find someone to take them, because there are more of us weird bird people than you might think.
posted by SeedStitch at 11:25 AM on October 14, 2013

Best answer: Finches are interesting to watch, in much the same way a fish tank is, but they need to be kept in a large cage to see their interesting behaviours. They love to make nests, they need 2 one for sleeping and one for breeding so supplying nests and nesting material is good, though I would not suggest breeding them unless you can easily supply homes for them so just take the eggs out the nest when you see them getting broody.

They will also flit around all day hunting for food if you provide it in a more interesting manner than just dumped in a bowl, or provide veggies etc for them to peck at and love to bathe so a water bath of some kind is great though the splash range they can get is impressive. A standard tiny cage with just 2 perches, no nests and no bath will just have them hoping back and forth and peeping and not be any more interesting than a small goldfish bowl to watch.

I have had finches and cat together for about a 5 year period, we got around the problem by having a large strong cage that cats could not get into with small gap wire so they could not get their paws in. The cat used to sit on top of the cage and watch the birds, and the birds got used to him and basically ignored him, though it took a few months. They do not need to come out regularly like parrots etc as they do not really bond with people and are much happier hanging out with their partner doing finch stuff.

Of course not everyone is a bird person and if you want to find them a new home and are OK with a white lie, a sudden allergy to feathers might be a nice way to not hurt your husbands feelings, assuming you don't have down pillows.
posted by wwax at 11:26 AM on October 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

At the moment, I'm operating on the idea that we will be having these birds (and apparently, their babies, depending on how prolific they are) until they die a natural death.

You don't have to have the babies if you don't want them. Just take away any eggs before they hatch. (And not all the eggs are fertilized, just in case you're the kind of person who might feel bad about "killing" all the baby birds.)
posted by Weeping_angel at 11:34 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

No words on birds, but as far as your husband is concerned: Could you make it his idea that it may be better to return them? I mean, how will you ever go on a holiday without finding a sitter? Or, how sad you would be if you came home to find nothing but feathers and a fat happy cat. Tell him they are sweet and charming and so is he, but you worry you are just not equipped to handle such delicate little creatures.
posted by MayNicholas at 11:44 AM on October 14, 2013

This may also impact your ability to turn the heat down when you leave the house during the winter--some more bird-knowledgeable person may know for sure. That would be a big added cost.
posted by chaiminda at 11:48 AM on October 14, 2013

Best answer: I currently have quite a few zebra finches. So, I guess I'm a bird person. I also have a particularly unruly, predatory cat. She was interested in the birds for about the first 2 months. At this point, she doesn't even notice them. The birds, I'm sure, occasionally notice her, but they are all robust and healthy and don't seem to be any more alarmed by her entering the room than they are by me entering the room. YMMV, but having both birds and cats is not necessarily a dealbreaker.

I personally don't think they require any more specialized care than any other pet. I keep mine in a sunny bedroom, feed them a varied diet, clean their cage regularly, change their water daily, and generally just let them be. They're nice to listen to (but they can get REALLY loud when there are more than a few in the same area). They are sensitive to drastic temperature changes, but I don't think this is particularly difficult to manage. Basically, keep them away from the AC and/or really cold breezes.

Finches are super eager breeders. If you don't want baby finches, just throw the eggs away (as mentioned by someone else above). I toss eggs every few weeks. It isn't a terribly big deal. Allowing them to breed is honestly a REALLY amazing, cool experience (both parents are very active in the care of the offspring; and watching them fledge is pretty exciting), but don't feel particularly obligated to let this happen.
posted by LittleKnitting at 12:02 PM on October 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think I'm about to out myself as a heartless and uncaring person, but here goes. I'd probably keep the birds, and if they turn up dead within a couple of years instead of their peak 5-year lifespan, not be too worked up over it, and not replace them.

Unless you go to a some amount of effort to change your apartment's environment (cooking fumes, cats, heat, etc) or re-home these finches into a bird-loving household, these two zebra finches ($10-$15 each) may die an early death. That doesn't have to bother you a whole lot. It's okay to be somewhat not attached to these pets. Consider that you will come home to find these birds dead at some point - either of old age in 5 years, or more likely it'll be sooner. Scared to death by the cat, or eaten, or accidentally poisoned (it happens easily!) or you left them enough food for the weekend and went away, but they just didn't make it for whatever reason - accidental premature death is more likely, and that's the truth.
Take a few minutes for self-evaluation. If it's something you're "at fault" for, how guilty will you feel? Are you pretty okay with the idea that these are little chirpy fluttery houseplants, and they kind of come and go? Would you feel worse about the birds, or worse about telling your husband you're not excited?
posted by aimedwander at 12:03 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Zebra finches aren't parrots or even budgies in terms of their interactivity and smarts: keeping them is definitely more like having a fishtank. They do need decent care and attention, with enough space to be happy if you want to treat them as something other than chirpy houseplants or short-lived cat toys.

aimedwander's comment is a bit bleak for me, since I like birds, but it hits a certain spot. My direct answer is that if you have to ask the question of how to enjoy their company, you ought to return or re-home them.
posted by holgate at 12:15 PM on October 14, 2013

suggestions for having husband feel better about the whole thing,

You tell him how you understand this was an entirely loving gesture but the whole thing just doesn't feel quite right because of the cats, and because they don't really fit into your lifestyle, and that you love him very much and feel terrible about maybe making him feel bad, but you think the best thing to do would be to take them back to the store.

This seems a pretty fraught gift. Dare I say banjo level? What was he thinking? It would probably be worth trying to figure out what he was trying to say with this gift--living things--and acknowledge that he had said it, and see if there's some other way for him to say it without bringing birds into a house of cats. I think that it's not really okay to give someone a living gift unless you're dead certain they want it--it's thoughtful, but a creature you live with is very intimate and I think it's one of those things people shouldn't buy for you, but with you.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:46 PM on October 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: It's often suggested that animals not be given as pets, since as living creatures that need to be cared for they present ongoing expenses and responsibilities. If you don't want a pet it's kind of difficult and smelly to just say it was a nice gift and stick it in a drawer.

It seems like maybe your husband was really, really wanting pet zebra finches, but instead of talking to you about it and deciding if it would be a good idea to add another pet to your household when you have cats, he went out and bought them as a present for you so you'd feel you had to "enjoy" them.

While I am not inherently opposed to the idea of rehoming them, any suggestions on that score would be most helpful either accompanied with data/reasons for why that would be useful

If he isn't interested in them as pets for himself, why are you keeping these animals that neither of you want, that make it more difficult to have cats which you do want? If you can explain that, people might be able to give you better reasons why rehoming would be useful. As it stands, people are suggesting rehoming because you have suddenly ended up with an animal you don't want -- the reason it's useful is because you will no longer have to care for these animals you are nonplussed about and you'll be able to enjoy your cats. If they were bought at a store you may be able to return them and buy cat food instead.

I doubt you can find much data about getting rid of zebra finches, there just aren't that many people out there who have suddenly received zebra finches as a surprise and gotten rid of them to collect much data. If your husband would only accept data-based reasons as to the usefulness of lack of zebra finches, he's being kind of unreasonable.
posted by yohko at 2:52 PM on October 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

This is not good for the birds. I had two parakeets and a cat. My cat was always trying to get at the birds, so we hung them high, from the ceiling. One aged, then died. We came home one day to find the cat dangling from the cage, hanging on with its claws. (It must have jumped to the mantel then jumped from there to the cage.) The bird was freaked out. It couldn't move the wing or foot on its right side. We think it had a stroke or seizure of some kind, brought on by the cat jumping to the cage and dangling there. The bird died less than a week later.

Do the birds a favor and either take them back or rehome them.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 4:48 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think having birds plus cats is pretty cruel to the birds. For comparison, my mom used to keep pairs of parakeets since she liked the noise she made, but never did much research on their care outside of maintaining food and water levels and occasionally cleaning the cage. We kept them in a well-traversed area of the house, which they supposedly like since they're social animals. But we also had two cats at any one moment, so the cats had constant access. And the cats never got tired of watching those birds.

I think the longest any one of them lasted was two years, maybe. They never had any visible illness, they'd just end up stone-dead on the bottom of the cage. We thought that's just what happened to birds. She stopped getting them when I found out the average lifespan of parakeets in captivity is five years, minimum, with many reaching 10+. Though our cats never actually got inside those cages it's pretty clear they were a constant source of stress to those birds. They were a big reason why those birds had lives that were considerably shorter than they should have been.

Finches don't demand the high levels of interaction and hands-on care as parakeets (another area where we failed). But the predator-prey relationship remains the same. Maybe since they're not as social with people you can put them in rooms where the cats can't get to? Otherwise I would just re-home and do what my mom did: get big-ass birdfeeders to put outside the window. Both she and the cats enjoyed it, and the outside birds gave no shits.
posted by Anonymous at 5:55 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

suggestions for having husband feel better about the whole thing

The way you frame this is "It's not fair to the birds." Tell him you think the birds are sweet and beautiful, but having them in a house with cats means a life of danger and stress for them, and for their own good it would be best to find them a better home.
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:41 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: An update on the birds: with thanks to all the secret bird lovers memailing and chatting me!

On their advice, we have provided the birds with Things in their cage to play with and build with, and I now find Watching Them Build A Nest to be totally fascinating.

We have attached a heavily-rated hook to the ceiling and hung the cage from it, so the cats can't really get in. They are treating it like Finch TV, the finches seem indifferent at the moment though who knows if that will continue if the cats start jumping.
posted by corb at 1:26 PM on October 25, 2013

Mod note: Final update from the OP:
A final update on this: I have gone and marked all the answers as 'best' that say that having cats and birds in the same house is a terrible idea. What ultimately happened was that the cats terrorized the birds, and like an above poster, we found dead short of their natural lifespan.

To anyone in a similar situation, I suggest just bringing the birds back.
posted by taz (staff) at 1:14 AM on May 15

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