Owning a Bird
A well designed and built aviary provides ideal housing for birds, as it enables them free movement and flight. Outdoor aviaries must be as large as possible, protected from the weather (including access to shade at all times of the day), and provide a dark area for sleep, along with shelter from predators.
Indoor cages should be as large as possible, to give birds the chance to move around freely. Ideally cages should be wide (rather than tall and narrow), as this makes it easier for birds to fly (birds do not fly like helicopters!). As a guide, the Code of Practice for the Housing of Caged Birds states that the minimum length and width of any cage should be at least twice the length of the wingspan of the largest bird in the cage. However, this is a bare minimum, and owners should really be aiming to provide the largest cage they can afford and have the space for.
Bars of the cage must not be so far apart that birds can get their heads caught between them.
The wire used for large aviaries is generally galvanised wire, and the most common hardware used in cages (such as nuts, bolts, chains and quick links) are galvanised too. Galvanised materials are left with a powdery film of zinc, which if ingested, can give birds heavy metal poisoning, otherwise known as "New Wire Disease". Birds who are heavy chewers are particularly at risk of this. Zinc powder can be removed from wire by allowing it to weather outside for 3 months or longer before birds are introduced to the cage, or by scrubbing the wire with a vinegar solution to accelerate the oxidisation process which renders the zinc non toxic. Alternatively, New Wire Disease can be prevented by purchasing cages made from stainless steel, or powder coated wire. Note that PVC coated wire (which is a cheaper option to 'cooked on' powder coating) can still cause problems as the plastic coating is very thin and can be easily chewed on and removed by birds.
To ensure healthy feet, perches of different materials and widths should be provided.
Flooring of cages should be covered with something that can be removed daily for cleaning eg newspaper, sandpaper, wood shavings. The cage and furniture will require total dismantling and washing/disinfecting about once a week, to minimise the risk of disease. Always use bird safe cleaning products (i.e. no human cleaning sprays or bleach).
Water and food containers should be kept off the ground, and not placed under perches, so they won't be defecated in.
While toys are important for mental stimulation, don't overcrowd the cage with too many toys at one time, as this may pose a risk of entanglement for the bird. It is better to have a large number of different toys that you rotate weekly (e.g. only a few of them in the cage at any one time).
The location of the cage is also very important - birds are very sensitive to fumes and gases, such as from cleaning products, new paint, cigarette smoke, cooking gas, air fresheners, scented candles, self cleaning ovens, etc. Cages shouldn't be in the kitchen as fumes from everyday cooking can prove fatal (including from highly heated non stick cookware like teflon). Cages also shouldn't be placed in the window or near door ways, because of the risk of draughts, and not in direct sunlight as the bird may overheat.
The ideal position for a cage is in a well lit area, where birds will have frequent human contact, and in which it will be safe for them to be released for exercise.
At night, cages should be covered to permit the bird to rest (they need approximately 12 hours of sleep per night) and to protect from draughts.
If possible, move indoor cages outside for half an hour a day, so your bird can get natural light (but ensure he/she has access to some shade and cover to hide from predators). Birds without access to natural light, risk Vitamin D deficiency (even those by a window will not benefit from the sun because windows block necessary UV rays). An alternative to natural sunlight is giving birds access to full-spectrum lighting.
Some types of birds, like rainbow lorikeets, have very specific dietary needs e.g. fruit nectar. Always check with your vet, or your bird's breeder, to ensure you are feeding an appropriate diet.
Obesity is the biggest killer of pet birds. A common mistake made by bird owners is to feed only seed. Seed is actually very fatty, and lacks many essential vitamins and minerals (this includes the seed mixes and sunflower seeds available from supermarkets). Seed should only be fed as a treat. Instead, feed your bird commercially prepared bird pellets, plus fresh vegetables daily.
Birds should have daily access to Cuttlefish bone – this provides them with trace minerals, and also helps keep their beaks trim. A calcium bell is also a good supplement – both can be hung from the side wall of the cage, to allow the bird to nibble on them.
Toxic foods for birds include: avocado, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, peanuts, apple seeds, stone fruit pits, raw dairy (milk, fresh cheese, ice cream), raw onions, rhubarb, raw mushrooms, salty items, junk food, lettuce, lemons, potato, and beef.
Cool clean water must be available at all times, and refreshed daily.
It can be fun to create recipes for your bird to enjoy – search online for ideas, for example: Recipes for your bird.
Birds should be treated for both internal and external parasites. The parasite control will differ between species, housing systems, number of birds and exposure to new or wild birds. Your veterinarian will be able to assist you in choosing the right treatment.
Mites feed on birds at night, and can cause significant irritation. Signs of mite infestation are found on the floor of the cage early in the morning. To treat, dust birds with an insecticide and thoroughly clean cage.
Scaly face is a grey infestation caused by mites, which gradually spreads around the beak, eyes, feet and legs. It is contagious. Special insecticidal solutions are needed to treat this condition.
The use of rough, uneven diameter perches, and the supply of cuttlefish, should help prevent overgrown toenails and beaks. The base of the cage can be covered with sandpaper sheeting to help keep nails trim too (don't put sandpaper on perches though – this can cause abrasions of the foot pads). If you need to trim overgrown beaks and nails, do this carefully to avoid haemorrhage – your vet can help with this if unsure.
To help keep birds' feathers healthy, offer them a warm water bird bath once a week, or spritz them with a warm water spray bottle (ensure the room is warm, e.g. heater on, while birds are drying off).
A sick bird will often hide its symptoms until it is very ill. Be aware of the signs of a sick bird, and seek immediate veterinary attention if you notice the following:
- Changes in: the appearance (colour, consistency) of droppings, food or water consumption, attitude or behaviour (e.g. quieter than usual, sleeping a lot), appearance or posture (e.g. feathers fluffed up, sitting on the floor of the cage or drooping on perch), or weight;
- Enlargements or swelling of body parts;
- Vomiting, injury or bleeding;
- Discharge from nostrils, eyes or beak;
- Laboured breathing.
Note that it is normal for budgies to regurgitate food as part of a courtship ritual – this should not be mistaken for vomiting.
Information is available online regarding emergency bird care, for instance, see Emergency bird care.
Exercise, enrichment and social needs
Birds are a lot smarter than most people realise! And most birds (excepting those such as male Canaries) are highly social, flock animals. They require the company of another bird/s of a similar or the same species, unless you are available to provide company for most of the day.
In addition to companionship, birds also require an interesting variety of toys. In the wild, birds spend about 80% of their time foraging for food (the rest is spent socialising and grooming). Parrots in particular are very intelligent, and enjoy learning and doing new things. Without things to do, they can develop serious psychological and behavioural problems, such as pulling out their own feathers, or adopting repetitive movements such as head weaving.
Toys should be rotated regularly, to prevent boredom. Bird safe toys are available to purchase from pet shops, and online. You can also provide cheap and destructible toys for birds to chew, like fresh cut (non poisonous) branches, paper towel rolls, paper to shred etc.
Another option is to get your bird to work for its food. You can wrap food in a paper bag with a small tear in it, wrap it in paper and twist off the ends, like a lolly, or event put it in a light cardboard box. You can find additional ideas on foraging activities for birds online.
Most indoor / non aviary birds enjoy free exercise time outside the cage. Birds have evolved to fly – in the wild often fly up to 20km a day! They find flying enjoyable and it is a good source of exercise. Consequently, wing trimming or clipping is generally not recommended, unless there is a high likelihood of escape or misadventure within the home.
Always supervise your bird during free flying time, and ensure you have 'bird proofed' the area first. This includes closing blinds or placing decals on the inside of windows (so birds don't fly into them), turning off ceiling fans, removing pots of water from stove tops, removing any toxic house plants, and ensuring that there is no furniture the bird can get trapped behind or under. Only allow birds free flight during the day, when rooms are well lit. You can provide perches, non poisonous tree branches or a commercially available 'play gym' outside the cage for birds to rest on. While birds are out of the cage, leave the cage door open so they can return when ready (usually when hungry!).
While providing companionship is preferable, if you must have a solitary bird, some species such as budgies will benefit from the provision of a mirror in their cage. They think their reflection is another bird, which goes a long way towards keeping them company when the humans are out!
Deprived of things that are natural for them, such as companionship, flying and exploring, many birds left alone in cages can become depressed or neurotic. Boredom, fear, frustration and anxiety can result in a number of behavioural problems. These include feather mutilation (plucking), aggression (biting), screeching, head weaving, or other stress induced behaviours.
Birds will attack people for a number of reasons. Territorial aggression can occur in the cage or in the home, e.g. in a bookcase. Birds that are strongly bonded to their owners can develop mate aggression. This can be against the owner or be directed towards another person in the household or visitors. Fear and pain and discomfort are other causes of aggression.
For behavioural problems, your vet will need to perform a health check and disease testing to rule out any underlying medical problems in your bird. If medical causes are ruled out, you will then need to seek expert advice from an animal behaviouralist (contact details can be found in the Yellow Pages).
Introducing a new bird
Most birds need a companion of the same or similar species. However, introducing a new bird must be done carefully, to avoid stress, health and aggression problems between the birds.
It is important to quarantine your new bird, for approximately 6 weeks, before introducing it to your existing bird/s. Quarantine means keeping the bird in its own cage, in a separate room. Wash your hands after handling the new bird, clean its cage last, and schedule a vet check for the new bird during the quarantine period.
After the quarantine period (once you have established the new bird is healthy and free of disease), it is time to introduce your companions. Move your new bird's cage into the room where your older bird lives, and allow them to observe each other from a distance for a week. If they seem friendly to each other, allow both birds out into neutral territory (for instance, on their own playstands), under supervision. If this goes well, you can then leave the doors of both cages open, for the birds to come and go as they wish. Finally, once you are sure they have adjusted to each other's presence, you can put both birds in the same cage (ensuring it is large enough).
Birds can be tamed when handled regularly. It is best to handle birds daily from a young age so they become accustomed to humans.
Start taming your bird by speaking softly to him/her, without making direct eye contact. Once your bird seems comfortable in your presence, sit by the cage with the door open and your hand in the cage, to get your bird used to your hands and fingers. Next, place some enticing food in your palm (such as millet, or sunflower seeds), and hold still until your bird nibbles at the treat in your hand.
Once your bird will eat from your hand, you have established trust, and you can move on to teach him/her to "Step Up" onto your finger. A bird who knows "Step up" can be transported out of harm's way immediately by his/her human companion should the need arise, and the bird is much more manageable in the household environment.
With your index finger, press lightly on your bird's stomach just above the feet, to stimulate a "stepping" response. If your bird is too timid, you can try using a stick (dowel) instead of your finger. The aim is to eventually 'finger-tame' your bird, so you can remove him/her from the cage whilst still perched on your finger. It is important not to rush the process as birds can bite when they feel stressed.
If you need to relocate your bird before it has been trained to sit on your fingers use two hands to gently wrap around its back and wings and put your index finger gently around its neck. If your bird is not tame enough to be picked up catch it with a net when it is perched, preferably when it is resting in the dark. Do not net your bird mid-flight.
Psittacosis is a highly contagious zoonotic disease. The disease occurs mainly in the parrot family, but can be found in pigeons, pheasants, poultry, geese, ducks and turkeys. Spread of the bacteria occurs during close contact between infected and uninfected birds. The disease is acquired by inhaling dust from the feathers of contaminated birds. Dried droppings can also contain highly resistant bacterial spores. Carrier birds may appear healthy but excrete the bacteria in their droppings for long periods spreading the organism to other birds and humans.
The symptoms of psittacosis in humans are variable but often resemble those of the flu. Ensure you wash your hands after handling birds.
For more information about the disease and its prevention visit: Zoonoses - Animal diseases that may also affect humans - see Psittacosis.
More information about bird ownership can be found online, through sites such as Avianweb and Bird Channel, or try a web search using terms such as "bird ownership", "parrot care", "bird behaviour" etc.