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

Providing a Home for a Pet Bird

By Teresa L. Lightfoot, DVM, DABVP (Avian), Avian and Exotics Department, Florida Veterinary Specialists

Understanding your bird and providing an appropriate habitat can go a long way toward building a good relationship with your pet. Learn everything you can about your bird, its normal habits, and how to keep it healthy and happy. This knowledge will help you provide a home that supports your pet’s needs. Libraries, books you purchase, and the Internet offer many helpful sources of such information.

Housing

The cage you provide must be large enough to allow the bird room for movement. Overly small cages can cause stress, which often leads to behavior problems. An absolute minimum cage size for larger birds is one and a half times the bird’s wingspan in width, depth, and height. These dimensions give the bird room to stretch and move without damaging the wing or tail feathers on the cage bars. Of course, if you plan on housing more than one bird in the cage, the amount of space should be increased appropriately. Birds of the same species will not necessarily be compatible when placed in the same cage. Cagemate trauma is fairly common, and the individual birds’ personalities will dictate whether they can live together peacefully. Larger birds can potentially inflict serious or even fatal injuries on other birds, even those of their own species. Conversely, some birds of different species may be successfully housed together. Check with your avian veterinarian or an experienced bird owner for methods of introducing birds prior to attempting to place them in the same enclosure.

The cage should be large enough to allow plenty of room for movement.

Cage location can also be critical. Some birds are very social and need to be in the middle of the family as much of the day as possible. Some nervous birds need to be in a quieter room, but one that is still occupied by the family for social interaction. Placing the cage so that one side is against a wall or providing a hiding place in the cage may relieve stress as the bird is able to relax and stop looking for predators. It is not advisable to place the cage in front of a window as a permanent location because the bird cannot relax its search for enemies.

Covering the cage each night may not be necessary. Except for eliminating drafts, covering a cage will not significantly increase the ambient temperature. If a bird’s cage is suitably large, a bird will not generate sufficient body heat to warm the air in a cage that is simply covered, so other means of generating heat must be provided if needed. The advantage of covering the cage at night is that it can give your bird a daily period of privacy and, for some birds, a sense of security. However, some birds find the presence of a cage cover frightening, possibly because it prevents them from sensing the presence of a dangerous animal. In general, whether or not to cover the cage should be based on your pet’s reaction. If your bird quiets down and goes to sleep when the cover is on the cage, then go ahead and use it. If your bird becomes agitated when the cage is covered, you should leave it off.

Diet

By providing a pet bird with a healthy, nutritious diet, and by practicing good sanitation and hygiene, combined with preventative veterinary care, owners can increase the likelihood that their bird will live a long, disease-free life. An unbalanced diet is the main cause of disease and early death in pet birds. The understanding of the nutritional needs of birds has improved greatly over the past decade, but the precise nutritional requirements for individual species are still mostly unknown.

Diets for Pet Birds

Formulated diets for pet birds are available from many reputable manufacturers, pet stores, and veterinarians. The food is a blend of grains, seeds, vegetables, fruits, and various types of proteins, as well as additional vitamins and minerals. The ingredients are mixed and then baked. The food may be in the form of pellets, crumbles, or nuggets. Unlike a seed mixture, the bird cannot select particular components out of a formulated diet, so nutritional imbalances are much less likely to occur. There are commercial foods for different species, so be sure to select one appropriate for your particular bird.

Specialized Diets

Diets for lories and lorikeets, which consume nectar naturally as a large part of their diet, are available in commercially prepared formulas. Some of these may be fed dry or moistened; others must be made into a solution and fed as nectar. The nectar needs to be replaced several times daily and at least every 4 hours in hot weather. The diet should also include some fruits, such as apples, pomegranates, papaya, grapes, cantaloupe, pineapple, figs, or kiwi. Some lory diets contain excessive vitamin A and this may contribute to iron storage disease in the liver in these species. Check with your veterinarian or other reputable source for current information as more research is completed on the dietary needs of lories.

Other Nutritional Needs

Fruits and vegetables can be added to a formulated diet in moderation to provide psychological stimulation and variety. Caged bird owners can add appeal to fruit and vegetables by hanging food from the cage top or sides, weaving food into the bars of the cage, or stuffing food in the spaces of toys. This creativity helps entertain the bird and provides physical and mental stimulation.

For most adult birds, supplements are not necessary and should only be provided if recommended by a veterinarian. Using vitamin supplements could result in overdoses of certain vitamins and even poisoning.

Grit is necessary for proper digestion in some passerine birds. Not all birds need grit. If grit is overeaten, blockages can occur in the digestive system. Finches and canaries may benefit from having periodic access to a very small amount of grit, but most budgies, cockatiels, and other parrots do not need it.

Providing Food and Water

Natural feeding times for many wild birds occur at about half an hour after sunrise and again just before sunset. Following these feeding times will be the most natural routine for your pet. Some birds may enjoy having fruits and vegetables left in the cage throughout the day for snacking and entertainment. Smaller birds may need to eat more frequently throughout the day due to a higher metabolic rate.

Birds should be offered only what they can eat in a day in order to easily monitor daily intake. A decreased appetite may be the first sign that a bird is ill. Feeding dishes should be washed daily in hot, soapy water. No food should remain in the cage for longer than 24 hours as the risk of contamination or spoiling is high.

Fresh, clean water should always be available. If a water bottle is used, you must first determine that your bird knows how to get water from the bottle. The water should be changed daily and the tip should be checked daily to make sure it is working. Dehydration is a serious problem that can occur within 1 to 2 days if water is unavailable.

Exercise

Like people, birds need exercise to stay healthy and fit. Be sure your bird has sufficient room in its cage to exercise its wings and has perches and toys to encourage activity within the cage. However, just providing toys is not enough stimulation. Interaction, especially in the form of training, will use the bird’s mental and physical energies and decrease the likelihood of abnormal behaviors.

Most parrots must be allowed time outside of their cages in order to provide sufficient exercise and psychological stimulation; many other birds also enjoy the opportunity to venture outside their cages. However, ensuring a safe environment and close supervision of the bird when it is out of its cage is necessary to avoid potential dangers.

Temperament

Many birds are sociable and can develop close bonds with people. However, they require a certain amount of training and attention to help prevent the development of behavior problems. Although such behavioral problems can usually be treated over time, treatment is much more difficult than prevention. Behavior problems such as biting, screaming, feather plucking, and phobias are common reasons that owners give up their pet birds.

Parrots should not be allowed to perch on shoulders. Although this is a favorite position for many birds, it gives them an equal height advantage with the owner, and it is difficult if not impossible to control a bird in this location. Birds perched on a human shoulder are within easy range of the owner’s eyes, ears, nose, and lips and can cause severe injury. The bird may cause damage intentionally (biting or pecking) or unintentionally (grabbing onto something to keep from falling). Either way, the damage to the owner and to the owner-pet bond has occurred.

Boredom is a major factor in behavior problems. Birds are intelligent and need an outlet for their curiosity and energy. In the wild, a bird divides its time between interacting with its flock and mate, finding and eating food, and preening. If family members are gone most of the day, they must provide toys and other items so the bird can entertain itself. Food can be hidden in toys, hung in the cage, or provided in large pieces that must be broken up before eating. Having routine times for training and interaction with household members can give a bird a sense of purpose and position within its surrogate “flock”, serving to prevent or minimize behavioral problems.

Many companion birds are native to the tropics, which have 10 to 12 hours of darkness year round. Adult parrots should receive 10 to 12 hours of sleep each night. This sleep requirement is best satisfied by moving the parrot from the center of family activity to a quiet, darkened room for sleeping. In the morning, the bird is then moved back to a room where it can interact with the family. A small “sleep cage” can be set up and left in a quiet place and the regular cage left in the family’s activity room.

Birds are not necessarily compatible when placed in the same cage, even those of the same species. Cage mate trauma is fairly common, and the individual birds’ personalities will dictate whether they can live together peacefully. Larger birds can potentially inflict serious or even fatal injuries on other birds, even those of their own species.

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