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SO - YOU THINK YOU WANT A PET PARROT?

Alan K Jones BVetMed MRCVS 2024

Adapted from Keeping parrots – Understanding their care and breeding – Crowood Press 2011

INTRODUCTION

Parrots have long had appeal as pets because of their colourful plumage, their intelligence and flair for mimicry, and their playful behaviour. With over 350 species around the world, their range of size, colour and shape is wide, from the tiny 10 gm of the Pygmy Parrot to the 1.5 Kg of the Hyacinthine Macaw. Some species are critically endangered – largely through habitat destruction – while many are kept as popular pets. The larger species are also long-lived – a two-edged sword that allows for a long-term bonded relationship with a family, but conversely may lead to birds being passed on from home to home as lifestyles change, human relationships break down, or the birds become more troublesome with maturity.

 

Thus, purchasing a parrot should never be an impulse buy! Rescue centres are full to bursting with unwanted birds passed on by owners who cannot cope with their demands. There are so many aspects to keeping parrots that need to be considered, some of which are covered in other articles this week, but this section is primarily about accommodation for your birds.

 

COMMITMENT

Because parrots are long-lived and intelligent, they have physical and mental needs that many owners find they are unable to fulfil. So many times in my working life I have met owners who have been seduced by the cuddly, silly-tame, baby cockatoo in the pet-store. These birds, almost without exception, grow in to demanding, screeching, destructive, and even aggressive adults [01, 02]. They are mentally uncertain whether to be human children or parrots.

Large macaws are noisy and need a lot of space; Aratinga conures [03] are extremely raucous for their size. Neither group is suited to suburban living in close proximity to neighbours who will soon protest against the persistent noise.

People hear that the ideal talking parrot is the African grey [04], but these also are prone to psychological and behavioural problems, including feather-plucking, and very often turn out to be ‘one-person’ birds. They will bond to one member of the household, and will ignore – or even actively attack – other people in the family.

Parrots are not pets to buy for a child on a whim. Young children should be introduced to the joys and responsibilities of pet-keeping with a gerbil, hamster, or mouse. Serious commitment to short-lived pets like these could then allow progression to a budgerigar or cockatiel [05]. A couple of years spent looking after this type of bird will give an insight into the needs of parrots, as well as identifying the drawbacks. Scattered seed-husks and feather dust; high pitched screeches and whistles while you are trying to watch your favourite TV programme; possible illnesses that may develop; and the need for alternative carers when you go away may all influence your attitude to pet parrots.

Taking on a parrot is therefore a lifelong commitment, and should be researched thoroughly beforehand. Talk to bird-keepers; go to meetings of local bird clubs; read about the hobby from books or the Internet (although one should be careful here – there is as much misinformation on-line as there is useful fact, on all subjects!); and start with something simple and undemanding.

ENVIRONMENT

Think of the space available in your home. There would be little point in taking on a large hyacinthine or green-winged macaw in a one-bedroomed apartment, but a large sprawling farmhouse could accommodate several such birds.

Think of the neighbours and the sound-proofing of your house. If you live in the middle of nowhere, you could keep as many noisy birds as you wish, but all the parrot family have noise potential, and semi-detached or terraced suburbia is not the best place for such pets. You will undoubtedly receive complaints about noise sooner or later. Even if you and the birds lived there first, new neighbours can and will complain after they have moved in, if noise is excessive and repetitive. Such things as double-glazing, heavy curtains, thick walls, and a reasonable lifestyle where the birds are put to bed (by covering the cages or placing them in a darkened room) and woken up at an acceptable hour are paramount.

If you are opting for garden aviaries to house your parrots, then you really will have to address the noise issue, with trees or shrubs to screen the flights, and pop-holes to keep the birds inside their sleeping quarters until well after dawn.

Think of your lifestyle. Is the house empty for most of the day with all occupants at work or education? Do you like to take long and frequent holidays? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you probably should not be keeping a parrot. These birds require your time and attention to have an acceptable lifestyle: those that do not get it will become neurotic, withdrawn, unmanageable and possibly feather-pluckers.

Think of the costs involved. There is not just the initial price of the bird, but you will need the largest cage you can afford and accommodate, plus possibly a travelling cage and a sleeping cage as well. Your bird will need to be fed properly, and this will include quality food, with fresh fruit and vegetables, and probably avian-specific nutritional supplements. The parrot will need toys to interest and stimulate him. These can be cheap and home-made, but there is a large market of expensive wooden, rope and plastic parrot toys available, [06] that can be destroyed by that powerful beak in a very short time!

There may be veterinary costs as well – perhaps just the occasional check-up with a beak or nail trim; or maybe more serious illness, injury or accident that could incur expensive specialist fees. Then there are holidays or illness: who do you get to look after your bird(s) while you are away, and how much will it cost? Boarding kennels and catteries for dogs and cats are commonplace, but parrot-boarding or bird-sitters are not so easy to find.

Then there is the long life of these birds to consider. What is the point of taking on an African grey parrot that could live easily for 35-40 years, when you live on your own and are 60+ years old? Tailor your choice of bird to your own life expectancy, and make provision for its further care in your will. Discuss this with friends and family in advance.

Finally, what is your reason for acquiring a parrot? Do you simply want a fascinating, rewarding, colourful, entertaining (but demanding) pet companion? Or do you wish to keep a number of these birds as a group, to pair off, breed, and raise young parrots? These aspects of parrot-keeping are widely different, and will be addressed in more detail later.

ACQUIRING THE RIGHT PARROT

Having decided on – and thoroughly researched – your chosen bird, you now have to find the right specimen. Most people will have to part with some serious money for their desired bird, and once again it is important to research the market. Birds offered for sale cheap in one-line adverts in the free newspapers, internet markets, or worse still by a stranger in the local pub, will have no form of guarantee as to age, sex or health status. Moreover, it could well have been stolen. Equally, sourcing a bird that is at the other end of the country, paying for it in advance, then having it sent to you by courier is madness. Would you buy a car without seeing and test-driving it first? Would you buy a house, an item of furniture, a TV or a music centre without looking at it, assessing it, sitting in it, trying it out? Nowhere does the phrase caveat emptor (buyer beware) apply more than to the purchase of a parrot.

 

You should visit and see the bird: ideally with its parents and siblings, if you are buying a young chick. People purchase puppies and kittens from pet stores, and often thereby court problems because there is no indication of the parents’ appearance or temperament. The ideal is the breeder who will spend time showing you his or her birds and management system, at the same time assessing your needs and abilities as a parrot-keeper.

Unfortunately, many parrot breeders – primarily for reasons of security – do not like to have too many people visit their premises and view their birds. So the youngsters are passed at wholesale prices to pet stores or other intermediaries. At least the prospective buyer is still able to see – and hopefully to examine and handle – the potential purchase, but there will be no idea of the bird’s background or parentage. A good retailer should offer a hatch certificate, hopefully a diet sheet and management advice, and perhaps a pre-purchase blood test for diseases such as Psittacine Beak & Feather Disease (PBFD), or a DNA sex test. However, there are many less scrupulous retailers that are just happy to take your money, with very little back-up or support.

Ideally, once you have satisfied yourself of a reputable supplier and found your chosen bird, handle it and examine it, pay a deposit, and come back again to review your potential purchase. Then when you finally commit to buying, do so on the understanding that you may have it vet-checked within 5 days, and a full money-back guarantee for any pre-existing health problems that manifest within 10 days. At this point, many retailers will offer temporary insurance cover. It is important to pursue this option and take out annual insurance as soon as you can.

 

Purchasing birds for breeding or outside aviaries is a whole different ball-game. The same criteria of bright-eyes, good plumage and attitude apply in both cases, but here one is usually purchasing adult birds in pairs or more. Again, it is easy to find cheap birds in on-line or newspaper adverts, but ask yourself why the birds are so cheap? The bird-keeping world includes some very interesting, honest, caring and friendly people, but sadly also more than its fair share of rogues. Sellers will say that they are getting rid of their stock to ‘move house, change lifestyle, ill-health, marriage break-up or death of a partner, change of bird species’ – all of which may be true, and certainly will sound plausible.

However – caveat emptor again – these tales have also been used by breeders wishing to pass on their old stock; egg-eaters or chick killers; infertile or incompatible pairs; or even diseased birds. Slowly incubating infections like PBFD, PDD, or psittacosis can take months to manifest, so unscrupulous owners may sell knowingly-infected birds on the open market. This action brings heartache and expense to the new owner, as well as disseminating these unpleasant diseases. Potential purchasers should therefore once again check that the source is reliable, and ask for certificates for disease testing, sex, age and identity (tattoo, microchip or leg ring {band}) [07]

 

HOUSING

Having made the right selection of bird(s), we now move on to the housing of these fascinating and rewarding animals.

 

INSIDE OR OUT?

As outlined above, the selection of your birds will have been influenced by the major choice between keeping one or more pet parrots indoors, or housing a larger number of birds in outdoor aviaries, and maybe breeding from them.

There is no doubt that parrots benefit significantly from living outdoors [08]. Fresh air, natural sunlight, rainfall, and enriched environment, with room to spread their wings and fly, all result generally in fitter, healthier birds. We rarely see plucked parrots living in outdoor aviaries, other than those that were already chronically plucked before ending up in a sanctuary.

However, there are also disadvantages. The ever-present and increasing risk of theft makes outdoor birds more vulnerable. Predator hazards such as birds of prey, cats, rats and stoats may kill or maim aviary inmates, or raid their nests. Native birds such as pigeons and starlings, or small mammals such as rats or mice, may spread infectious diseases via their droppings. Environmental hazards such as bonfire or barbecue smoke, traffic fumes, or even insecticides sprayed nearby, may cause disease or death. Finally, there is the worry of noisy birds at best irritating your neighbours, and at worst leading to ugly disputes, litigation, and the possibility of losing your birds.

 

Accommodation Advantages                                                    Disadvantages

 

Outdoor              Fresh Air                                                          Extreme weather conditions

                             Sunlight                                                           Increased risk of theft

                             Natural rainfall                                               Predators

                             Exercise                                                           Disease spread from wild birds

                             Stimulating environment                                Increased risk of parasites

                             Healthier plumage                                          Noise disturbance

 

Indoor                 Reduced risk of theft                                       Lack of natural sunlight

                             Reduced risk of predators and vermin           Artificial light extending day length

                             Less noise disturbance to neighbours            Warm dry atmosphere

                             More keeper-bird interaction                         Household hazards

 

 

Involve your neighbours at the outset and discuss your plans. Tailor the species kept according to the proximity of your neighbours and the potential noise-carrying capacity of various parrots. Think of screening with walls, fences, or dense shrubs and trees. Naturally, parrots are at their noisiest as they call to each other at dawn and dusk, or during the breeding season. This may be controlled up to a point by keeping the birds shut in to a sound-proofed house until a reasonable hour in the morning, and putting them away again in the early evening. Brick or block-built buildings with double-glazed windows will reduce sound output considerably, but wooden houses are virtually impossible to adequately soundproof. With regard to breeding birds, try to keep pairs that will not compete with each other, or separate same-species pairs by placing other types between them.

People who appreciate the colour and beauty of birds often enjoy all aspects of nature, including plants and flowers. I know many parrot keepers who incorporate their aviaries into aesthetically-pleasing and sympathetic garden planting [09]. I also know many whose aviaries are ramshackle, cobbled together, and in a parlous state of repair, infested with vermin and a danger to the birds they are supposed to be securing! There is a stubborn parsimonious streak in many bird-keepers: they will spend thousands of pounds buying their chosen birds (although always with an eye to a bargain, and the cheap bird is not necessarily the better choice, as explained above), but then will baulk at paying a few extra pounds on aviary security! What is the point in keeping a hyacinthine macaw in a poorly protected aviary, with no padlock, and that a child could break in to?

Aviary construction should be appropriate to the species of bird, with wooden framework (treated with bird-safe preservative) for the smaller, less destructive species. Larger parrots that love nothing better than to demolish anything wooden in minutes (great-billed parrots, large macaws, large cockatoos) may require brick-built, metal-framed aviaries, or timber faced with metal sheets.

The birds will be contained with panels of aviary wire-mesh attached to the framework. This is available in various gauges of wire thickness and wire spacing, and one should choose a size and strength appropriate to the bird housed. The lower the gauge number, the thicker the wire used. The following table gives a guide as to the recommended sizes for various birds.

 

 

            16g      small parakeets, budgerigars & cockatiels, most conures, lovebirds, rosellas

14g      larger parakeets, including ringnecks and their cousins, Pionus parrots, Amazon parrots, African grey parrots, dwarf macaws, Poicephalus species.

            12g      larger macaws, most cockatoos

            10g      hyacinthine macaws, Moluccan cockatoos

 

Adjacent aviaries should be double-wired – that is there should be two sheets of wire mesh dividing each compartment, with a 5-7.5 cm gap between them [10]. This will prevent birds attacking each other’s feet while climbing the wire. This can be a particular problem during the breeding season: in fact, some birds are better not seeing neighbours at all, in which case the flights should be divided with metal sheets, or board fixed between the wire mesh.

The exposed fronts or ends of the aviaries should also be double-wired to prevent predator attack. I have many times seen cases of parakeets and even birds as large as African greys and Amazons with their legs completely pulled out, where they have been grasped through the wire by sparrow-hawks, owls, foxes, cats or rats. In this case, the outer layer of mesh does not need to be as substantial as the inner, since the birds’ beaks will have no contact with it. A finer gauge mesh, or even plastic netting, will suffice.

The quality of wire used is important. Cheaper brands of galvanised wire pose a danger to your birds in the form of zinc poisoning. Stainless steel is the best – but most expensive – option. The danger of zinc poisoning may be avoided by washing down new panels of galvanised wire with a weak solution of vinegar and water, and then allowing the mesh to ‘weather’ in sun and rain before allowing birds access.

The aviary may be used as year-round accommodation for your birds, in which case security and weather-proofing are extra important. Temperate climates require protection from frost, rain and snow; others areas may require provision for hurricanes or typhoons, or flooding. Alternatively, the flights may be used simply for daily exercise and fresh air, or just for ‘fair-weather’ living [08]. Either way, the ideal arrangement is a ‘three-thirds’ setup. [09] One third of the length of the aviary is secure, sheltered housing; one third is wired flight that is covered with a roof; while the final third is wired flight open to the elements. This gives the birds warmth, shelter, security and a place to roost, feed or breed in safety in the ‘shed’ area. Your birds may be shut in this section by closing the access to the flight, if one wishes to reduce the noise nuisance to neighbours; to carry out cleaning or maintenance in the flight; or to facilitate capture, handling and treatment of the birds.

While in the outside flight, they may choose to shelter under the roofed area from hot sun or heavy rain and snow, but they will enjoy the open area in fine weather or light showers.

Positioning of the aviary is important. If it is visible from the house, you will be able to see and enjoy your birds more, as well as this being a more secure situation. CCTV or an alarm system should be a major consideration. Screening from neighbours with a high hedge or fence is sensible, [08] but you should also allow room for expansion. It is inevitable that as you become gripped by the hobby of parrot-keeping, you will want to take on more birds, so choose an area where it will be easier to add-on new flights, rather than having to tear down your aviaries and start again!

A safety porch is a must. Too many times I have seen or heard of birds flying out past their owners as they open the only access door to the flight. Low level doors that necessitate the owner crouching down to enter the aviary will reduce the risk, since birds are less likely to fly down so low to escape, but will not altogether negate it. [11]

A bank of aviaries may have an access corridor along the back, allowing individual approach to each flight from within the corridor [09]. The main door should be closed securely on entering, and then any bird that escapes from its flight will be contained within the corridor. This system also makes access to food and water and cleaning of each flight far easier than the alternative arrangement of a safety porch on the end of the bank of aviaries, with each flight then entered in turn from its predecessor. This is more awkward, and involves more disturbance to the birds, as well as the necessity to carry several bowls and buckets through each flight.

Parrot keepers use many alternatives on the floor of their aviaries. Bare earth or turf will allow natural foraging or digging activity for species such as galah (roseate) cockatoos, grass parakeets or slender-billed conures. However, intestinal parasites will be acquired in this way, as well as some infectious diseases. Birds kept in this manner should receive regular prophylactic worming treatments three to four times a year. Earth floors will also allow vermin such as rats to dig their way in to the flight and kill its occupants, unless the foundations are dug out and wire mesh is buried under the replaced soil.

Paving slabs or concrete will prevent animals burrowing in, and also make cleaning out easier – the surface may simply be swept over and hosed down. The material should be laid in a slight slope to allow drainage of excess water. Shingle is an excellent alternative: laid over a weed-suppressing membrane, it may be raked over and hosed down, making cleaning quick and easy. Some people use chipped bark: this has the same easy maintenance as shingle, but is a notorious medium for harbouring potentially pathogenic fungal spores, especially when wet. Neither of these materials will prevent rats getting in, unless wire mesh is laid underneath the substrate.

Alternatives are suspended flights. These have the advantage that waste food and droppings will pass through on to the ground underneath, where the birds cannot reach it, making hygiene and disease control very easy. Their disadvantages are difficulty of access to retrieve a bird if required; or the replacement of perches, especially if the flights are large. A ‘trapdoor’ of mesh in the floor of the flight will enable one to stand head and shoulders in to the flight, but it should then be possible to reach all corners of the flight with a net. Otherwise the bird will be un-catchable.

The flight should be equipped with perches, allowing the birds to fly the length of the flight without hindrance, but providing landing places to reach food, water, and the entrance to the ‘inner sanctum’.  Perches may be fixed rigidly to the wire mesh or the aviary framework, or they may be suspended on chains or ropes from the roof – in fact rope suspended as a loop makes a perfectly adequate perch [12]. Such mobile perches give the active birds more stimulation and exercise, and more closely mimic the living tree branches that parrots would use in the wild. Suitable woods and other materials are discussed in more detail later, but fresh-cut branches of trees such as willow or eucalyptus [13] will give your birds hours of amusement and stimulation.

Planting of the aviary is contentious. Most parrots will quickly destroy anything that is growing within the flight; however, some planting will not only improve the aesthetic appearance of the flight, but will also give the birds physical stimulation. Rapidly growing and regenerating trees or shrubs like willow (Salix spp.), elder, mallow or buddleia may survive the onslaught; or the shrubs may be planted outside the wire so that the birds can eat only the branches that grow through, and are not able to destroy the whole plant. Rapidly growing non-toxic climbing plants such as Polygonum species may be used in the same way: rooted outside the aviary but growing over and through it, providing shade, camouflage, and fun for the birds.

Another choice is to plant tubs or pots, and move these in rotation in and out of the flights, giving them time to recover and regenerate on the outside. Old branches or tree trunks, barrels or boxes, will also keep your birds amused for hours.

Nest boxes will be required if your parrots are to breed, but this subject is not covered in this article.

Food and water bowls should be accessible, easy cleaned and replaced, and mounted in a sheltered area that the birds can reach easily but vermin cannot – either in the shed section or under the roofed part of the flight [09]. The different types of bowl and fixings available are covered in more detail later.

 

MAINTENANCE

Daily tasks should include an inspection of the birds. Food and water need to be replaced daily - even more often in hot weather – with bowls washed and disinfected. The aviary should be checked for signs of damage by its occupants, vermin, or the weather. Weekly tasks will involve cleaning and replacement or repair of perches; checking for signs of vermin; and raking over or hosing down the floor of the aviary. Annual attention may mean the replacement or repair of nest boxes; treating woodwork with bird-safe preservative; replacing worn locks, hinges, or window fasteners; pruning any overgrown plants that the birds may have left; renewing shingle or bark on the floor; and checking the integrity of roofing materials.

 

COMMUNAL FLIGHTS

If space and money allow, and you keep several birds, it is a good idea to have a large communal flight [08]. This will allow the birds to exercise and flock together, encouraging natural parrot behaviour. Young birds that you may have bred, or just recently acquired, can grow together and learn parrot social skills. Older birds that you may wish to breed from may choose their own mates from the group. You can then separate them off into breeding aviaries, knowing that they are far more likely to be a compatible pair than a cock and hen that are simply thrown together. Once again, it is all about providing as good a lifestyle as possible for your birds: you are responsible for their welfare, and they are totally dependent upon you.

INDOORS

Most keepers of pet parrots house their cherished companions with them indoors. This allows contact with the bird for the greater part of the parrot’s and the owner’s lifestyle. However, as with the aviary bird situation, there are advantages and disadvantages to this way of life. There is obviously the close proximity and relationship with the pet parrot, who can become a much-loved family member. The bird and its interesting behaviour can be enjoyed and observed at close quarters. The risk of theft is much reduced.

The disadvantages are several, and include the following. (see also box above)

There is often an artificial extension of the bird’s day. Most parrots come from tropical or sub-tropical latitudes, and as such are accustomed to an approximately 12-hour cycle of night and day, as experienced on the equator. In a busy household, with family members rising early for school or work, but not retiring to bed until 11 or 12 at night, the bird is exposed year-round to an unnaturally long day. This will stress the bird, and could result in problems such as feather-plucking or irritability.

This may be compensated for in part by ‘quiet periods’ during the day, when all humans are out of the house. In fact, this will approximate the natural diurnal pattern of the wild parrot, which is active and feeding at dawn and dusk, but quiet and resting during the heat of the day. The bird’s cage may also be covered in the evening to allow it to sleep before its owners do, although if left in the same room, most birds will not fully relax. It is therefore worth considering putting the bird in a night cage in a quiet room [16]. However, most working owners will want to spend these few hours in the evening having contact with their parrot.

Secondly, houses have a warm, dry atmosphere. Most parrots come from areas of high natural rainfall, and an arid atmosphere is damaging to a bird’s plumage. It is therefore important not to site the parrot’s cage too close to a radiator or other heat source; to use a humidifier in the room; and to spray or bathe the bird regularly. Most clients are scared to spray their birds in the winter ‘in case they catch cold’. This will not happen! Birds do not ‘catch cold’. It is true that they are susceptible to respiratory problems, associated with dietary deficiencies, environmental irritants, and infectious diseases, but they will not get these by getting wet!

A human home is warm, especially in the winter, and birds should be routinely sprayed with plain warm water three to four times a week to keep the plumage in good condition. In the summer months, this frequency may be increased to daily, or even several times a day, while the parrots will undoubtedly benefit from having some time in a cage outdoors or in an outside flight. [08]

So many of the feather problems we see in parrots are the result of prolonged dry-heat damage and insufficient moisture on their plumage. Parrots will attempt to bathe in their water bowls – this is telling you that the bird is desperate for a bath. They particularly will indulge in this behaviour when there are loud noises around – the vacuum cleaner perhaps, or raucous music. This is because in nature parrots are accustomed to tropical rainstorms, and the associated noises of thunder, plus rain drumming on foliage. At these times, parrots will expect to get wet, and will enjoy spreading their wings and hanging upside down in the rain. Amazons especially will behave in this way when sprayed.

Take your pet in the shower with you: perches are available for this very purpose that will attach to tiled walls with rubber suckers [14]. Sit him in the sink with the tap on, or use a fine mist from the garden hose while out in the garden. Anything to supply a regular soaking bath! Commercial additives are available as ‘plumage conditioners’, and these may be used periodically, but the routine spray need be just plain warm water. After all, that is what these parrots would be receiving in nature, from the rain clouds above!

 

HOUSEHOLD HAZARDS

There are many potential dangers to a parrot in the average household. These are inquisitive birds, and notorious chewers, and will investigate telephone cables and power leads. They will eat the leaves of houseplants, so ensure you do not keep any poisonous varieties anywhere near your birds! Building plaster, paintwork and metal objects are all possible sources of danger. Quality curtains may have lead sewn in their lower hems to weigh them down, and curious birds may pick out this metal and swallow it. [02]

Other pets in the household may at best be a nuisance to the parrot, and at worst could seriously damage or kill it. Having said that, the majority of dogs and cats will learn a healthy respect for a parrot once they have experienced the power of that beak!

Perhaps the most serious of the household hazards relates to toxic fumes. Birds have a highly efficient respiratory system in order to absorb the extra oxygen needed to power flight muscles, but any gas will be rapidly absorbed – not just oxygen. That is why canaries were used in coal mines as detectors of methane and carbon monoxide. They would fall off their perches long before these gases built up sufficiently to harm humans. Therefore, any noxious material in the atmosphere of the home will affect your birds. Cigarette smoke, scented candles, incense burners, open fires, aerosol sprays – all will cause irritation to your birds’ lungs and air-sacs, and chronic exposure can result in permanent damage.

 

The mostly deadly of toxic fumes are associated with cooking. Over-heated cooking oil will release a blue smoke that will soon cause a parrot to gasp and choke, so be careful of those deep fat fryers and heating the wok for the stir-fry! Self-cleaning ovens that work at high temperatures; new grill pans; or Teflon® - coated saucepans will all – if over-heated or allowed to burn dry – release toxic fumes that will make us cough and our eyes run, but will kill a parrot in minutes. Many times over the years I have seen this happen: parrots perfectly healthy and happy one minute will suddenly start to gasp and cough, then collapse on the floor with wings spread, and die moments later. Post-mortem examination reveals a distinctive bright cherry-red colour to the lungs, as the lung tissue is invaded with red blood cells. One particular case involved several birds in a household that lived in different rooms. Those nearest the kitchen when a saucepan boiled dry died within five minutes; those in the next room took ten minutes before they succumbed. Of three birds kept upstairs, one died 30 minutes later; the other two survived, but had serious breathing problems for several days afterwards.

The home can be a dangerous place for birds! [15]

 

TYPE OF CAGE

If your parrot is going to spend most of its life in a cage, then this home should be as large as you can afford and accommodate in your house [16]. It is a legal requirement that the bird should at least be able to fully spread its wings in all directions. The selection of cage type follows many of the criteria involved with building aviaries. It should be appropriate in size, strength, and wire gauge for the species of bird and the number of occupants. It should be manoeuvrable and easily dismantled for cleaning and maintenance. Cages on wheels or castors are therefore easier to manage than those with plain legs. The bird can then be moved from room to room with its owners, or out in to the garden or conservatory for a change of scenery. Ornate and fancy curlicues such as those favoured by our Victorian ancestors may look attractive, but make danger points where birds may get their toes or other extremities trapped. Simple but strong construction, with ease of access to the bird, perches, and bowls are paramount. There is a plethora of styles and shapes on the market, some of which are illustrated here [17]. Having selected a type appropriate to your bird, the final choice will depend on how it will fit in your home and your personal preference of colour and material.

 

I once spent a morning doing some veterinary work at a large bird wholesale and retail establishment, and while I was there a rather posh, obviously wealthy customer spent over an hour looking around at the selection of cages in stock. He also perused numerous catalogues, discussing the relative merits of aluminium, chrome-plated, stainless steel, bronze and brass, or powder-coated in black, grey, or blue; as well as checking all the different sizes and styles.

Only once he had made his selection of colour and style, and ascertained that the dimensions would fit his chosen alcove beside the chimney breast did he ask of the proprietor “Now what sort of bird should I get to put in it?”! He had selected the cage purely as a showy item of furniture – the poor bird was merely an afterthought!

 

The bird’s home cage is its primary dwelling where it may be left safe and secure while the owners are out, but a second, smaller cage may be used as a spare while you clean your pet’s regular home, or it could be used for him to sleep in at night or to take out in to the garden [16]. Finally, you may also consider a travel carrier, to make transporting the parrot to the vet’s clinic or holiday boarding easier. [18]

 

CLEANING & DISINFECTION

“Birds in the wild don’t have their branches scrubbed with disinfectant” is an often-quoted comment by bird-owners wishing to do less work. Of course they don’t, but they also do not sit on the same piece of branch day after day, week after week, with waste food and droppings accumulating all around them! Native leaves and branches are washed regularly by heavy rainfall, and many microbes are killed by the ultraviolet rays in sunlight.

Pet indoor birds on the other hand are restricted to a comparatively small area, and we have a duty of care to our birds to prevent the build-up of dirt and potential infection. Many suggestions are made for the cage or play-stand base. People use cat litter, dried corn waste, compressed paper granules, wood or bark chippings or sawdust, plastic floor coverings, or sheets of paper. Some cages have a grid floor above the base tray, which allows waste food and bird droppings to pass through [19]. The bird cannot then reach discarded food to pick it up and attempt to eat it, thus avoiding the risk of potential contamination. A good idea in principle, but wasteful of food: most parrots will sort through their food bowls, searching for favourite items and evicting the rest, but will go down to the discarded items later in the day. There is also a potential danger in getting feet or wings caught in the grid, especially if the bird panics for some reason.

Free access to a cage floor or play-stand tray covered with cat litter, woodchip, or sawdust is an open invitation for the parrot to scatter these materials around your room! Chipped bark is also a common source of disease-causing fungal spores, especially when damp, so is best avoided. By far the simplest technique is to cover the floor with several layers of old newspapers [19]. The top page may be removed each day, taking with it the discarded debris and droppings, and leaving the next clean sheet. Once a week, the whole cage, tray and perches should be dismantled, washed, disinfected with an avian-safe product, rinsed, dried, and replaced. Plastic, wood, or metal toys should be treated in the same way; cardboard is simply thrown away; while rope toys may be washed and dried.

 

FOOD & WATER BOWLS

These, on the other hand, should be cleaned thoroughly every day. Parrots delight in dunking their food in their drinking water, and carelessly placed perches result in easy contamination of bowls with droppings [20]. Fruits and vegetables will deteriorate rapidly in warm weather, and accumulated waste food and droppings will rapidly form a rich culture medium for pathogenic bacteria and fungi.

Whatever type of dish is used, this need for daily cleaning and replenishing has led to some ingenious designs to make access easy. The simple plastic D-cup [21] hooks over horizontal bars or wires. Their removal necessitates opening the cage or aviary, and they are also removed easily by playful parrots, who will delight in emptying their contents on the floor! The plastic may split, crack, or become scratched. The scratched surface will be difficult to properly sterilise and will harbour germs.

Stainless steel coop cups [22] are similarly suspended, but are more robust and generally easier to keep clean. The holding brackets may be wired to the cage to make them more difficult for the parrot to remove. Other cages have an opening in their construction that will receive a hard plastic cup [16] that is then secured in place using a clip on the outside of the cage.

The final choice, especially useful in larger cages or aviaries, is a rotating mechanism whereby access to the bowls is achieved by rotating the holder from outside the cage [23]. Bowls may be removed, cleaned, replenished and replaced, and are usually locked in position by various means, before rotating the holding mechanism back inside the cage.

 

As stated above, the parrot’s home cage should be as large as you can accommodate and afford, and it will provide a safe and secure environment while owners are out. However, some freedom from this cage is desirable when owners are at home, to give the bird physical exercise and mental stimulation. This may be achieved by something as simple as an opening top to the cage, across which may be suspended a perch with attached toys or bowls. A simple T-perch on a stand allows the bird some freedom and socialisation, and the owner can move the stand around the house or out in to the garden [29]. Larger wooden or metal stands may be purpose-made or purchased, or swings and ropes may be suspended in a corner of the room.

Java wood is an excellent choice, being extremely hard and virtually indestructible to a parrot’s beak, while existing in tortuous shapes to provide good climbing and gripping exercise [25, 26]. That is not to say that parrots should not be given soft wood to destroy. It is a natural part of their behaviour; it keeps them physically and mentally stimulated; and is of benefit in keeping the beak in trim. I have discussed the use of natural wood perches with my clients on many occasions, only to be told “Oh I have tried that, but he chews through it and destroys it inside a week”. So what? At least he is not chewing his own feathers or skin, or systematically destroying your home! [02]. It is easy enough to replace perches on a regular basis with parrot-safe wood. Hazel, birch, chestnut, sycamore and maple, eucalyptus, and any untreated fruit tree branches are all fine. So are willow, mallow, elder and buddleia, and these rapidly growing species will regenerate swiftly after cutting, so you are not doing serious damage to the environment! Branches may be scrubbed free of bird-droppings, lichen, or moss, and cut to size to fit the cage.

Actively toxic plants such as Yew, Laburnum or Lilac should obviously not be used. I usually avoid oak and beech because of tannins in their bark; and pine trees because of the high resin content. Sawn pine off-cuts (where the bark has been removed) from a timber merchant, are fine as long as they have not been treated with a chemical preservative.

Perches supplied with most cages of the smooth wooden dowel or broom-handle variety, or of plastic tubing [16, 27], may be easy to keep clean, but they are not good for birds’ feet for lifelong perching. Birds require a variety in diameter, texture, and hardness: their toes, feet and joints will be much better for it, while the ability to chew a natural wood perch will satisfy their natural instincts and provide excellent environmental enrichment.

So-called ‘pedicure’ perches, made of a concrete-like compound with a rough sandy texture [14,27] intended to ‘file down’ the tips of the bird’s claws as it perches are useful for that purpose, but it is wrong to make all the parrot’s perches of this material. This would lead to sores on the sole of the foot. Most available perches should be of wood, with just one – perhaps sited near a food or water bowl – of the pedicure type. But – why do manufacturers make them in such bright colours? I have seen many an African grey parrot terrified when expected to sit on a new pedicure perch in bright pink or blue!

The sandpaper sheaths supplied to slip over the doweling perches of budgerigar cages, for the same principle of nail care, are fine for these small birds, but are a complete waste of time for larger parrots. They will be ripped to shreds in seconds.

 

TOYS

An essential part of parrot welfare is to provide these intelligent birds with something to keep them physically and mentally occupied. It is often repeated that these birds have the level of understanding of a four to five-year-old child. Their attention span is of a similar level, but they will learn quickly, and will get bored if not given something to do. This boredom will result in behavioural problems such as feather-plucking or self-mutilation, screaming, or damage to the owner’s home and furnishings! [02]

Increasing awareness of this need for environmental enrichment for pet parrots has led to an explosion in the market of parrot toys. These may be made from wood, metal, plastic, leather or rope [06]. The wood is often brightly coloured, but make sure the dyes used are simple vegetable-based colourings, and non-toxic. Plastics should be hard and virtually indestructible: any that are child-safe will be fine for your bird. Metal chains, links, or bells should be stainless steel in preference to cheaper galvanised materials, which would bring the risk of zinc poisoning, but be aware of the possibility of beaks and toes getting caught in the links or cracks.

Apart from being safe, toys should be cheap and interesting. One can spend a fortune on manufactured toys, which the parrot may either ignore completely, or destroy in a few minutes! Cheaper versions (provided they are safe) can be readily replaced, thus maintaining your bird’s interest. However, many parrots (especially African greys) can be wary of new items, so you may have to introduce the toy (or new perch, food bowl, or food item...) slowly before he will accept it. Place the new item near the cage, where the bird can see it, but not too close to be intimidating. Move it progressively closer until it is hanging on the outside of the cage, and then eventually try placing it inside.

Apart from the pleasure and occupation parrots will get from hanging and swinging on the toys, and trying to dismantle them, the toys may be used to encourage the bird’s problem-solving abilities. Favourite food items may be partially concealed within the toy, so the parrot is encouraged to work out how to remove them. Simple, replaceable, items of this type may be made at home from such things as cardboard roll cores from kitchen towels or toilet paper [28, 29]; breakfast cereal or tissue boxes; or papier-maché egg boxes are all suitable for this purpose.

 

Further information on enrichment may be found in other PAW articles.

 

ULTRAVIOLET LIGHT is essential for birds – for plumage quality and the synthesis of vitamin D, but also to allow to make use of the full spectrum of colour vision that their eyes are capable of. Again, further information on this subject may be found in other PAW articles.

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