Pet birds fall into two categories: the parrot-types and the non-parrot species. Parrots are characterized by a curved shape of their beaks, and they are often colorful and are considered the most intelligent of birds. Many parrots are capable of imitating human speech. They vary in size and have very long life spans – up to 80 years for large Cockatoos, Amazons, and Macaws.
The most common types of pet parrot-type birds include:
Non-parrot birds that make great pets are also preferred for their color and vocalizations. There are wide varieties among these leading species:
Birds require a lot of attention because they like challenges and new experiences. Routine bores them. You will have to spend time every day not only feeding and keeping their cages clean, but playing and training them, however, they are very responsive and can learn new behaviors.
The best birds for families with children are some of the smaller varieties of parrots, such as Budgies, Cockatiels, and Lovebirds. Larger birds like Cockatoos, Pionuses, and Conures are a little less noisy and destructive than other large birds. If screeching sounds disturb you, look at Finches, Parakeets, and Canaries. The best way to make your specific choice is to research the various species. Find a species that you can physically accommodate, and then make choices based on the personalities of the birds.
In addition to a physical examination, the vet will likely conduct a fecal parasite check to make sure your bird has no intestinal parasites; an examination of urine and feces to be sure there are no indications of gastrointestinal or renal health problems; gram stains to detect any gram-negative bacteria and yeast, a common cause of bird illness that is treatable; a complete blood count to ensure healthy blood levels and verify the absence of blood parasites; Chlamydia testing to assess if your bird is a carrier of three common infectious diseases (psittacosis, ornithosis and parrot fever) which can spread to other birds and to people and is also treatable; and psittacine beak and feather disease, a virus that can affect birds at any stage of their lives, affects many organ systems, and usually reduces the bird’s life span.
Be prepared for every visit to your vet by assembling information about the daily care you give your bird, descriptions of the bird’s environment and normal behaviors, a list of any changes in behavior that may concern you, and how you expect to handle grooming issues such as feather, nail, and beak trimming.
Common Health Problems
Some common health problems in birds are: sneezing, coughing and sinus infections. They can also acquire a number of different illnesses over a lifetime, however, the greatest risk by far to a bird’s life is accident and human error. A good diet, lots of exercise, socialization and regular vet visits can help keep your bird healthy and happy. Most importantly, you need to ensure that the bird’s environment is always safe.
To prevent hazards that put your bird at risk, make sure you are aware of these leading risks:
- Dehydration, frequently caused by a blocked water bottle or failure to provide fresh water more than once a day.
- Toxic fumes from household cleaning and disinfectant products, aerosol sprays, perfumed products, appliances that heat up and nonstick cooking equipment. Keep your bird out of the kitchen and bathrooms where the risks are greatest. Remove your bird from any area where you use a chemical agent, such as paint, carpet fresheners, air fresheners or scented candles. Don’t let any fluids other than water touch your bird’s body. Cigarettes, cigars and pipe smoke can irritate and damage your bird’s eyes, skin and respiratory systems. Even secondhand smoke can lead to bacterial infections, depression and regurgitation. Keep smoke out of any room which your bird uses. Also be sure to use soap and water to clean the bird cage. When you do disinfect the cage, make sure all cleaning agents are removed thoroughly so that they will not be ingested by your bird.
- Accidents that occur when birds are out of their cages. Birds are small enough that sometimes people don’t see them. They don’t often survive being stepped on, having doors or windows closed on them, being squished beneath a heavy object, getting caught in a vacuum or being electrocuted from chewing through cords. Also be sure to turn off any ceiling fans in rooms where birds are allowed to fly freely.
- Other pets, even other birds, can be life threatening when left unsupervised with your bird. Just don’t do it.
- Toxic foods or plants can pose additional risks to your bird. Make sure you learn about which indoor and outdoor plants are safe for your bird and which can be fatal if ingested. Some foods that should never be fed to birds include chocolate, caffeine beverages (including coffee, tea and soda), avocados and raw onions.
- Hand-feeding errors when weaning baby birds. Some people believe hand-feeding babies helps form a bond with birds. However, there are so many ways to do it wrong that this technique often leads to death. Baby birds are highly sensitive to temperature in the air, their food and their liquids. Temperatures too hot or too cold can cause severe health hazards. Birds do not need to be hand fed, so you are better off avoiding this approach.
- Excessive heat or cold, in the house, your car or even outdoors on a hot or cool day. Be sure to place the cage where it is not in direct sunlight all day and don’t put it directly in the line of a draft or vent. Keep the room heated in the winter and cooled in the summer. On particularly hot days, splash or spray some water on your bird to help keep the air humid and their temperature comfortable. If you take your bird outdoors, make sure it has a shady place in which to move.
- Unnecessary exposure to other birds and some human anatomy. Many bird diseases are airborne. By limiting your bird’s exposure to other birds outside your family, you can prevent the spread of diseases. Also, never let your bird’s beak come into contact with a human mouth, teeth or tongue. Human mouths carry bacteria and fungi that can be dangerous to a bird’s health.
A zoonotic disease is one that originates with an animal but can spread to humans. Birds are susceptible to bacteria and viruses, which is why it is recommended that new birds always be quarantined from other birds and pets when you first bring them home. Regular vet visits allow you to keep on top of your bird’s health and make sure your bird isn’t carrying any contagious diseases. Chlamydia testing can assure you that your bird is not a carrier of three bird diseases that can spread between birds and from birds to people. With regular checks and a controlled environment, you should be able to prevent your bird from acquiring any other zoonotic diseases.
Taming and Training
Birds are highly trainable, but you need to begin the process from the very start of your relationship. No matter how cute and cuddly your new bird may be, it is important that you establish some routines that will be followed throughout your lives together. Make sure the bird understands that there will be times to interact and times to keep busy alone. Place lots of toys in the cage from the beginning (appropriate to your bird’s size and age), and change the toys regularly. Make feeding and interaction times regular. The more time you routinely spend with your bird, the more you build up trust and your pet will reward you. Be sure to talk to your bird and cuddle and pet it to help build affection and trust – it’s important for your bird to learn to accept touch from other people from the beginning as well.
Birds have an innate understanding of how to fly, but they do not have the ability to navigate around objects or avoid walls or windows at the start. You will need to give your young bird help learning to fly. Be sure to close all doors and windows in a room before you let the bird out of its cage. Talk calmly to the bird. Let the bird fly from your hand or a hand-held perch and pick him up when he hits the floor. Don’t grasp him too tightly, but cuddle him gently. Then return him to your hand or a perch to try again. Many bird owners recommend teaching your bird to return to you on cue so that your bird never gets lost in or out of your home. You’ll need a lot of patience and repetition, but your bird will catch on.
Two other commands are important for your bird to learn: the up command teaches your bird to step onto a perch, your hand or a finger or arm. The down command teaches your bird to move from a higher position (on a perch or hand) to a lower one. These commands make it easier to access your bird from the cage, do any training, and keep your bird in safe and visible locations at all times.
Birds need to vocalize and often use screaming as a way of communicating. Some birds take this behavior to a loud, frustrating, and excessive level. To change this behavior, try to figure out when the bird tends to screech. Is the bird lonely? Does it have enough to keep it busy? Can it hear hustle and bustle in another room but not see what’s going on? Are there loud noises which are causing it to be frightened? Are you feeding the bird enough food and water? Try moving the cage to another location and be sure that you have plenty of toys in the cage. You can also try covering your bird’s cage for five minutes to quiet it down. Also, be sure to reinforce positive behavior and not respond to negative behaviors. Take the bird out for some quality interaction when it is quiet. Above all, stay calm and be consistent.
There are three reasons why birds bite:
- out of fear,
- because they are excited,
- because they are acting maliciously.
Biting from fear is a natural reaction and can be reduced by keeping your bird safe and calm. Birds go through a stage at puberty where they nip a lot as a way of working out their social order. In this phase, you may need to give your pet a sharp command now and then to let it know you are the head of the flock! Birds may also need to be taught when a bite to a finger hurts and when it doesn’t. Give the bird a verbal reaction ― like saying “ouch!” ― so that it learns the limits. With consistent reinforcement, your bird will get the picture.
When your bird is in your hand and bites maliciously, you need to let him know this is not acceptable behavior. Don’t yell at your bird. Drop your hand quickly to throw your bird off balance. This forces the bird to release its bite. After a number of times repeating this trick, the bird will learn that biting leads to an uncomfortable imbalance and will discontinue the behavior.
Birds exhibit stress in a number of ways, including screaming, biting and obsessively plucking at feathers. If you think your bird is suffering from stress, take your bird to the vet for a health examination and talk to your vet to try to isolate the problem. Continue talking to your bird in a calm loving voice and give it plenty of comforting touch.
Indicators of Health Problems
Birds are good at hiding when they aren’t feeling well. You need to keep a sharp eye out to catch any changes in behavior that might indicate something is wrong. Look for reductions in appetite and water consumption, as well as less engagement or activity. If your bird sits at the bottom of the cage with its eyes closed and doesn’t spread its feathers, this often suggests a health problem. Keeping its head under a wing may also indicate a problem. If you have any concerns about your bird, contact your vet immediately. If you observe blood coming from any part of your bird at any time, take it immediately for emergency care and attention.
Birds, Other Pets and Young Children
Birds can live comfortably with other pets like dogs and cats. Usually both animals need time to get to know each other. Slowly bring the animals near each other over a period of days, and let them smell and explore each other. If there are no signs of animosity, you can let them try interacting on their own. Remember — birds are little creatures and natural prey for larger animals. Never leave a bird unsupervised with another animal even if they are familiar with each other. A fright, loud noise, or other interference could create a stressful situation and your pets’ natural instincts may take over. Similarly, don’t leave birds alone with young children who may not understand the power of their gestures, the fragility of your bird, or the importance of keeping birds in a safe, controlled environment.
Birds are active pets and need space and time each day to fly outside the cage. They also benefit from having perches in their cages at different heights to hop and jump around on and lots of toys for chewing and climbing. Just be sure that no toxic materials are used and that all objects in the cage can withstand your bird’s relentless chewing. Also, be careful about using rope toys. Loose strings present a number of dangers to these little creatures.
Some birds may be happy to be on their own, but most want to engage in play and interaction. You’ll need to spend time engaging with your bird outside its cage every day. You can try to teach it to imitate your speech, whistle, or even wink. Talk to your bird, sing to him, scratch his head and make up games of catch for the two of you to share. Give your bird challenges. Train your bird to respond to your directions or do tricks, and give your bird plenty of acclaim for its achievements. You can also use food to entertain your bird. Try planting a seed deep inside a piece of fruit so that it has to dig for a while to get the reward. Give your bird a variety of things to watch. Place its cage in a strategic area of the room, and also near a window, so that it has a good view of activity both inside and outside. Keeping birds stimulated and active is an important way to help them maintain their health.
Water and food bowls should be cleaned daily with hot water and soap. Because of drippings and fecal matter, remove paper liner and replace with fresh paper every one to three days. Once a week, clean the entire cage thoroughly. You may need to disinfect the cage once or twice a year as well. Be sure to rinse off all disinfectants thoroughly to prevent exposure of these toxins to your pet.
For a small bird, gently grab the bird by cupping both hands around it or hold it around the bulk of its body with one hand. For larger birds, place one hand below the lower belly and the other supporting the back. Always handle your bird carefully. Don’t hold it too tightly and be careful of its feet. Once you’ve trained your bird, it can perch on your finger or shoulder.
Birds love to bathe. They are also susceptible to dry, itchy skin and can collect pollutants in their feathers. Bathing keeps birds’ feathers and skin healthy and spreads their natural oils. You should provide your pet bird with access to water for splashing around in at least once a week. Only bathe a bird in daytime hours so that birds are dry before going to sleep.
When the weather is cool, don’t bathe your bird too often unless you can keep it warm afterwards, such as with a heat lamp. Use a spray bottle and plain, tepid water to spray a mist on your bird from above. If the bird spreads his wings, puts his head down and shakes around, he likes it. After the bath, your bird will fluff up his feathers and spend a lengthy period of time picking at them until every feather is in the exact right place. When the weather is very warm, you can soak your bird a couple times a week, which is good for the skin. Never use a blow-dryer on your bird. Many blow dryers use nonstick coatings that can be toxic to your pet.
Some parrots like to take a shower with their owners or just enjoy the steam and moisture on their skin. If your bird is reluctant to bathe, place a flat plastic or ceramic dish with green vegetables in the water flow. Let the bird come to the water on its own. Don’t use soap on a bird unless there is oil on the feathers. In that case, use only glycerin soap and rinse the bird thoroughly. If your bird is a frequent feather plucker, you can buy bathing products at any pet shop that contain ingredients which will soothe the skin, such as aloe. Be careful when using these products, though, because they can irritate your bird’s eyes. Don’t be alarmed if your bird looks like it is shivering after a bath. Parrots contract their chest muscles rapidly and repeatedly after bathing to create body heat. This is a perfectly normal response.
Wing clipping is a painless procedure in which the bird’s main flight feathers are trimmed. This prevents large birds from flying into objects or inaccessible cubbyholes in restricted spaces or flying too high outside. Smaller birds only need to have their wings clipped as young birds. They can grow their flight feathers out after the first juvenile molt, because they are less likely to damage themselves. Wing clipping protects birds from making crash landings, but it still allows them to float comfortably to the ground. Wing clipping also supports the taming and training processes. You can learn the proper technique for trimming your bird’s flight feathers or ask a veterinarian to do it for you.
Nail and Beak Trimming
Periodically, birds need to have their nails trimmed and also might require a beak trimming. Different species of birds have different tendencies related to the growth of their beaks. Some can become too thick. Others grow too elongated or overgrow. It is important for a bird’s beak to be maintained symmetrically for chewing and overall health purposes. Incorporating a cement perch in the cage and giving your bird plenty of toys to chew on may keep its beak in good shape. Ask your vet whether your bird’s beak needs trimming and how frequently. There are special tools available from pet stores for trimming a bird’s beak and nails, however, if you feel uncomfortable about these tasks, a vet can do them for you.
Birds need to have cold, fresh water to drink. Place a water bowl in the cage and change the water once or twice a day. Some cages have water dispensers that allow birds to drink when they want, however, these dispensers can get blocked, which frequently leads to dehydration. A water bowl or cup works well without this concern.
each bird species the proper balance of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Seeds can make up part of the diet, but they do not accommodate all of your bird’s nutritional needs. You can also give your bird fresh fruits and vegetables to help boost its immune system. Dark leafy greens have many of the vitamins birds need. Birds also like carrots, broccoli, cucumber, zucchini and dandelions. Favorite fruits include apples, pears, melons, plums, grapes, bananas, mango, papayas and some berries like strawberries and blueberries. Never feed your bird avocados or any fruit pits, such as in grapes or apples. Some bird species can have other proteins like cottage cheese, yogurt, or hard boiled eggs. Some seed-eating birds need cuttlebone and calcium blocks for the best mineral balance and health. Be sure to remove any uneaten food after a couple of hours.
Please note: Birds are sensitive to exposure to pesticides, which can lead to poisoning and gastric problems. Do not feed your bird any fresh vegetables or fruit that is not organic. Be certain no pesticides were used on the foods they ingest.
A bird’s size is the most important determinant for the right cage. The cage needs to offer enough room for your pet bird to at least spread its wings freely and hop around inside. Figure a width of double the bird’s wingspan. The bars must be smaller than your bird’s head so that it can’t get caught between the bars. Most birds like larger cages that allow them to fly inside them and have room for plenty of toys and perches.
Birds use their beaks for constant chewing, so your cage must be as close to indestructible as possible. Bird cages come in three primary materials: wire, metal and stainless steel. All three are acceptable. Wire cages are generally very affordable, but look closely at the welds to make sure they are secure and watch for metal flakes. Wire cages need cleaning with vinegar and a wire brush before their first use to make sure that no toxic metal powders or flakes remain, which could be ingested by your bird. Also, examine the entry and feeder doors closely to make sure they can be sealed securely. Metal cages are popular because the powdered coated finishes don’t rust or chip easily, and they are easy to clean. Stainless steel cages are the safest of materials because they never rust, chip, or cause any metal poisoning. They can resist strong beaks and are easy to clean, however, they are more expensive.
The location of the cage is as important as the cage itself. Place the cage where the bird has a view outside the window for visual interest. Make sure the cage isn’t in constant sunlight or a drafty location to keep the temperature manageable. Keep the cage in a room that is frequently trafficked. Never put a bird cage in the kitchen, as many kitchen products and nonstick cookware produce fumes that are toxic to birds. Similarly, cages should not be placed in a bathroom because of the health risks associated with aerosol and cleaning products.
Paper is the best material to use for lining a bird’s cage. You can use newspaper, paper towels, plain writing paper or brown bag paper. It’s inexpensive, available and easy to change. Because of bird droppings, paper will need to be changed every few days at a minimum.
Please note: Do not use cat or kitty litter or ground corn cob for a liner as they are dangerous if ingested. Cedar shavings should also be avoided.
Your bird needs several perches placed at various heights around the cage. Incorporate perches of various diameters to help keep your bird’s feet and legs in good condition. You can use perches made from wood, rope, some PVC, or slightly sanded acrylics. Rope perches can be fun for climbing, but watch for loose strings, which can accidentally strangulate your pet. Be sure to mount one perch level with your feeding dish. It is also advised to add one concrete perch to help keep your bird’s beak and nails trim.
Birds get bored easily, so you’ll need lots of toys to keep them busy. You can pick up ladders, swings, mirrors and bells for birds at pet stores. Treat dispensers can be attached to the cage and give birds engaging challenges and rewards that will keep them active. Baby toys can be used, except for those made of metal. Make sure they are size-appropriate and can withstand chewing from strong beaks without breaking. Have more toys than you can use at one time and rotate them so that your bird will always find something new. Birds also like hearing sounds, so keep on a radio or TV.
When traveling with a bird, you need to create a micro-environment that mirrors the bird’s regular habitat. Portable cages are available, although you need to be careful about any collapsible parts. Be sure to have plenty of toys in the traveling cage, and give your bird food and water regularly. Generally, your best bet is to take the food and supplements you need for your bird with you.
If you are traveling by car, you can let a well-trained bird out in the car if the temperature is manageable, and with all the windows and doors closed. If you are traveling by plane, domestic and international air carriers require a significant amount of documentation. Be sure to check with the airline well in advance. For international flights, your vet will need to examine and certify your bird’s health no earlier than 10 days before departure. In some countries, birds must be quarantined when they first arrive.
Most pet birds can live in temperatures that are comfortable to humans, however, they are sensitive to temperature and can dehydrate easily if they get too dry. During the winter, heat the room your bird lives in day and night and keep it away from drafty windows or doors. In the summer, keep the cage out of complete direct sunlight; your bird will need shade to keep cool, even on milder days. When it is really hot, be sure to make water available for splashing and cooling, and mist the bird’s cage periodically to keep moisture in the air. You should also plan some contingencies in case of power outages during winter or summer. You will need an alternate heating device if you lose power for heat and a means of keeping your bird cooled if the air conditioner is not working.