Although the number varies with every survey, there are an estimated 40 to 50 million pet birds in the United States, in 10 – 15% of households. The Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 mandates that the domestic avicultural industry must supply the demand for pet birds, common and exotic. Avian companions include a wide range of birds such as Budgerigars, Canaries, Macaws, Cockatoos, Cockatiel, Conures, Caiques, and Amazons.
- Parrots are complex, intelligent, and highly social beings.
- Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex the Congo African Grey has led to the conclusion that parrots have the intellectual capacity of a gifted five year-old child, and the emotional level of a 2 – 3 year old child. Further work with a Congo hen has confirmed this.
- Birds have a complex social structure in the wild, with communication based primarily on body language.
- Most people are unprepared for this and have underestimated the complexity and intelligence of their bird.
- The owners will become the birds’ flock; a bird isolated in a back bedroom is unacceptable.
- There are many stages of life, the most trying of which may be adolescence.
- Environmental enrichment and handling early in life is very important to the physical and psychological well being of a bird. This supports obtaining a pet directly from the breeder so the environment may be assessed.
- Early enrichment and handling may reduce later behaviors related to stress of captivity and provide the bird with better ability to adjust accordingly.
- Family = flock; a bird needs to be part of and involved in the group.
- Young birds in a home should be exposed to and meet many new people in a controlled manner. However, precautions need to be taken to promote positive experiences such as:
- People interacting with the bird should be coached on bird handling and etiquette.
- Proper etiquette includes introducing oneself vocally to the bird, with proper body language (quiet, calm, relaxed), official “step up” command (not withdrawing the hand).
- Birds do not understand physical aggression in the way that dogs and humans do. Their communication is >90% nonverbal.
- Birds can and should go out for car rides (properly secured in a carrier); not always to a negative place. Weekends away with primary people are great, provided this is a safe thing to do.
|Sanitation and general cleanliness cannot be emphasized enough. Remember that there are very few vaccinations for avian diseases. Bird feces is an ideal growth media for bacteria and fungi, both of which can spread through the air easily (slight draft, movement of bird in cage, etc). They can be inhaled either by the bird (which, having no means of escape, repeatedly breathes contaminated air), other animals, and people in the environment. A great example of a zoonotic disease spread via aeresolization is chlamydophila, otherwise known as psittacosis.|
- The cleanest materials with which to line a cage bottom are newspaper or paper towels. Droppings can be easily assessed, evidence of food consumption can be evaluated, and paper is easy to pick up and dispose.
- Cage papers need to be changed daily, as well as any other fecal material on the cage or play gym/tree/T-stand.
- The cage itself should be cleaned weekly with mild dish soap and monthly with a dilute disinfectant, such as bleach, taking extra special care with regards to fumes and inhalation by the bird. Remove the bird first, then rinse and dry the cage thoroughly before allowing the bird back in.
Two cages are recommended for companion birds. One is a for nighttime or roosting (naptimes, quiet times) and the other is a daytime playpen (the larger the cages the better for the bird). This sort of arrangement is thought to decrease territorial behavior by more closely imitating the wild (birds go in their nests to sleep).
- The old guidelines for minimum cage sizes for a bird (able to extend its wings fully without touching the sides) are outdated. This is much too small and would be comparable to a human living in a small bathroom. Birds have evolved to fly and cover a lot of area in a day; they are not intended to sit around and only be able to spread wings in one position.
- New cages need to be thoroughly cleaned prior to placing the bird in them. Old cages should not contain any peeling paint, sharp edges, converging bars, or galvanized metal. Round cages are not recommended.
- Place day cages in a well-ventilated, but not drafty, location where the bird can observe daily life but not be right in the middle of it. Birds are not to be placed in the middle of a room or anywhere they may feel exposed or vulnerable. Generally, corners are ideal locations for cages. The area should not be so busy that the bird cannot nap.
- Solid cages have no room for climbing the sides, as so many birds like to do. There are also concerns regarding ventilation.
- Cages should be constructed so that cleaning and changing cage papers is easy to do. Access to food and water bowls should also be easy and should not involve actually opening up the main cage door.
Remember, a bird is always on its feet. Round, wooden dowel-type perches are the equivalent of a human standing in the same shoes on a concrete surface day in and day out. Pressure sores may develop on the bottoms of the feet, leading to serious disease/problems.
- In nature, a bird has a wide variety of perches from which to choose.
- Acceptable perches include apple branches, birch, manzanita (debate over this, as manzanita is so hard and unforgiving), and other perches such as sisal rope and cotton bendable types. Perches made of wood containing sap, such as pine, are not recommended.
- Branches should provide different diameters, angles, and heights.
- Perches should not have been exposed to any pesticides, herbicides, or insecticides and should be washed with a mild detergent or baked, prior to first use.
- Sandpaper is still sold in stores with the idea of keeping nails short, or at least from overgrowing. Really, they result in abrasion of foot bottoms.
Food and Water Dishes
- Dishes should be “Parrot proof” materials and designed specifically for parrots (no metal, not breakable by beaks or by being tossed onto the floor).
- Birds are naturally “chewers” and may easily destroy and ingest pieces of lightweight dishes.
- Dishes should fit snuggly into the openings provided in the cages.
- All dishes should be washed daily in hot soapy water or in an automatic dishwasher.
- Fresh foods, if offered should be in a dish all their own.
- Position perches so that dishes are not “in the line of fire”.
Toys may be divided into functional types, with one toy serving more than one function: climbing (chains, ladders, swings), chewing (goal-oriented or otherwise), foot toys, puzzle toys, and foraging toys.
- More than one type in the cage at all times.
- Rotate toys periodically; introduce new toys at regular intervals.
- Chewing toys should be destructible.
- Play with the toys oneself; demonstrate to parrot how the toy works, etc. Some species enjoy interacting with people and toys together, other species do not.
Studies since the late 1960’s and early 1970’s have demonstrated that animals prefer to forage for food (express natural behaviors) versus eating food out of a dish or off a plate. More specifically, studies in Orange-Winged Amazons and others have shown that encouraging foraging behaviors reduced self-mutilation/feather picking and resulted in birds that seemed “happier”. Current thought is that some abnormal and self-mutilatory behaviors in birds relates to lack of environmental enrichments/stimulation and the inability to express natural behaviors. What seems like a pretty good life to humans may actually be very stressful for what is essentially a wild animal. Unlike dogs, birds have not been bred for thousands of years to be human companions, or to perform specific jobs with or for humans.
Clicker training encourages learning, exercise, and can replace some behaviors humans exhibit towards birds (heavy petting) with healthier behaviors (time spent encouraging and developing a bird’s intellectual and physical skills).
A seed diet by itself for nongranivorous psittacines is not a balanced diet. Neither is a “fortified” seed diet or a diet consisting of a mixture of seeds and dried fruits, nuts, and pellets. Contrary to popular belief, seeds (even sunflower seeds) are not addictive, they simply taste “yummy”. Nongranivorous birds on all-seed diets develop nutritional deficiencies and live shorter lives. Feeding only “people foods” may easily result in nutritional imbalances as well. For more information regarding nutritional requirements, please visit the following link on psittacine nutrition.
- Annual physical exam with a review of diet and husbandry.
- Annual bloodwork.
- Baseline radiographs.
- Nail trims and wing clippings performed as needed.