General Husbandry of Caged Birds
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Pet birds may be caged or allowed to remain on perches while the owner is home to supervise their activity. Birds should be confined to cages while their owners are away to avoid accidental injury and other misfortune. Unsupervised pet birds allowed “the run of the house” often get into trouble. Not only can they be terrible destructive to the home and be harmful (directly or indirectly) to pet birds. These include mirrors, windows, walls, house plants, electrical cords, and items containing harmful chemicals.
Birds resting on open perches are usually content to remain there, and usually take flight only when frightened by a sudden movement or loud noise. Unfortunately, these “impromptu” flights are taken without a flight plan and birds usually wind up crashing into walls, doors, windows or mirrors because of their confusion and poor depth perception.
The major source of poisoning of pet birds is lead found in curtain (drapery) weights, curtain pulls, leaded and stained glass, fishing sinkers and ammunition carelessly discarded in ashtrays or dropped on the floor, costume jewelry, and in the lead wrapping around the tops of wine bottles, to name the most common sources. Most caged birds seem to have an affinity for this soft metal and love to chew on it. Poisoning results from eating even a small amount of lead. Lead poisoning can be successfully treated if diagnosed early enough.
Caged birds allowed unrestricted freedom in the house may eat house plants or chew on electrical cords, resulting in illness and injury. Some unsupervised pet birds chew on macramé, carpet and other similar fabrics and often swallow these materials, resulting in crop and intestinal impactions. Free-flying birds are also more vulnerable to injury from ceiling fans, hot stoves, and attack by pet dogs, cats and ferrets sharing the same household. It is wise not to underestimate the aggressiveness of our 4-legged friends, and to restrict contact between them and pet birds as much as possible.
Birds allowed unrestricted freedom and flight within the home may escape through open doors and windows. Most bird owners have the mistaken notion that their bird would never fly away and leave them. Unfortunately, birds that have escaped the owner’s home easily become disoriented when outdoors. This confusion makes return or capture of the escaped bird very unlikely.
The location of the cage and/or perch in the home is important. Some birds thrive in areas of heavy traffic, where they receive lots of attention and are part of all of the “goings on.” Others seem to prefer more privacy and solitude. A pet bird should never be kept in the kitchen. In addition to the obvious gas fumes and occasional smoke from cooking food, there is another, much more dangerous, threat to birds in the kitchen. Super-heated Teflon and related brand-name non-stick pan coatings emit fumes that are deadly to all birds. This “accident” happens most often when someone inadvertently leaves a pan, coated with a non-stick surface, on a lighted gas or electric range burner. The pan becomes hot and the non-stick coating overheats, emitting toxic fumes. Birds that inhale these fumes die quickly.
There are several other considerations when allowing birds unrestricted freedom and flight within the home. Birds flying about may end up in the toilet bowl or in an uncovered pot or pan cooking on the stove. Free-flying birds tend to assume a more dominant posture in their relationship with people, and often become intolerably aggressive.
To be safe, all caged birds should have their wing feathers trimmed. The decision to deny a caged bird free, unrestricted flight (as in the wild) is subconsciously made by each bird owner at the time the bird is made a captive pet in the home. Wing trimming merely makes this confinement safer for the bird.
The flight feathers of both wings should be trimmed. If the bird takes flight for any reason, its descent to the floor is balanced and relatively controlled. Trimming the feathers on only 1 wing will result in a precarious and unbalanced descent to the floor, often injuring the bird. Another disadvantage is that many birds with only 1 wing trimmed can fly as soon as 1-2 flight feathers have grown out on the trimmed side.
Some bird owners prefer not to trim the wings of their smaller caged birds (parakeets, cockatiels) because their flying brings the owner great enjoyment. These small caged birds have a smaller turning radius in flight than the larger ones. Consequently, the smaller birds can usually safely fly about most homes and apartments. One other advantage of not trimming the wings of these small birds is that it allows them to escape when in danger and threatened by any pet cats, ferrets or dogs in the home. However, generally it is best to keep your pet bird’s wings trimmed at all times, except for the specific circumstances detailed above.
Trimming the wings is like trimming your fingernails. If performed properly, the bird will experience no bleeding or discomfort. Trimming the wings makes taming the bird easier and usually shortens the time for taming. Furthermore, this procedure changes the bird’s appearance very little. Have an experienced veterinarian or veterinary technician perform this task and teach you how to properly do it.
Beak and Claw (Nail) Clipping
Caged birds live in a very “geometric” world, in contrast to their wild counterparts. Most of the surfaces they perch on (perches, cage bars, etc.) are very smooth and regular. Consequently, the claws of pet birds tend to overgrow, and the surfaces of their beaks can become rough and irregular.
In a wild bird’s natural environment, this problem never arises because wild birds are very active and wear down their claws on tree bark, rocks and other abrasive surfaces. Most caged birds need their claws trimmed periodically in spite of gimmicks often employed to keep them shortened. Sandpaper perch covers, for example, do not prevent nail overgrowth they do cause irritation and excessive wear of the soles of the feet. Sandpaper perch covers should not be used.
An emery board, nail clippers or cautery instrument can be used to shorten the claws of smaller caged birds. A rapidly rotating grinding stone is used to trim the claws and to shorten, shape and smooth the beaks of larger birds. The results are very professional and satisfying. You should not attempt to trim the beak of your bird. If you do attempt to trim the claws, you must have something on hand with which to stop the bleeding. These clotting aids are called styptics. Recommended styptics include Kwik-Stop (Animal Research Co), silver nitrate sticks, and ferric subsulfate (Monsel’s solution).
If bleeding occurs while trimming the claws, do not panic. First, carefully restrain the bird. Next, squeeze the toe just above the claw (tourniquet effect). Then apply the styptic to the bleeding claw. Alternate the last 2 steps until the bleeding has stopped. Always seek veterinary help when your bird is bleeding or has bled. Bleeding always represents an emergency situation. Corn starch or flour is a common household item that can be applied to bleeding claws or other wounds to help with blood clotting and to stop bleeding. The steps outlined above are first-aid procedures only and are not a substitute for veterinary assistance.
Leg Band or Quarantine Ring Removal
Leg bands and quarantine rings are often applied to the legs of caged birds for regulatory purposes or to help breeders to identify individual birds. Once the bird is sold, the band or ring is unnecessary and should be removed. Most limb injuries (broken or sprained legs, etc.) in caged birds involve and banded leg. Band removal should not be attempted by a bird owner. Only an experienced veterinarian or veterinary technician should perform this procedure.
Contrary to popular opinion, drafts are not harmful to healthy pet birds. A draft is really nothing more than a slight movement of air, usually accompanied by a mild temperature drop. A bird’s feathers provide insulation against temperature extremes far in excess of what a draft represents. Drafts are, therefore, usually inconsequential to pet birds.
The notable exception to this generality is the cool and sometimes cold air produced by air conditioners. Most caged birds cannot tolerate the rapid temperature extremes produced by thermostatically controlled air conditioners. For this reason, cages and perches should not be positioned directly beside or beneath air conditioning, heating and ventilation outflows. Furthermore, sick birds should always be removed from drafty circumstances to prevent heat loss.
Many exotic pet birds originally lived in tropical climates where rainfall is a daily, or otherwise frequent, occurrence. Rainwater provides drinking water and an opportunity for bathing. Birds typically take advantage of this moisture by “showering” during a rainstorm or bathing in puddles formed by the falling rainwater. This keeps their feathers healthy, and restores and maintains a brilliant sheen to the plumage.
Caged birds should also be allowed to bathe periodically. Some prefer to bathe in a small container; others tolerate being sprayed or misted with water. Regular tap water and a spray bottle or plant mister should be used. Commercial solutions available for this purpose offer no particular advantage and may, in fact, be harmful. Many pet bird owners enjoy taking their bird into the shower with them on a regular basis.
Bathing activities can be undertaken once daily or as often as convenient. It is important to allow the bird to air dry in a warm room or in the warm sunshine. Hair dryers can be used to blow dry your bird, but the appliance must be held a safe distance (more than 10 inches away) from the bird to prevent burns.
Covering the Cage at Night
Covering the bird’s cage at night is open to question. Because of the tremendous insulating capacity of feathers, covering a bird’s cage at night may not be necessary to protect the occupant from the cool drafts during the night when the thermostat is usually turned down. The one exception to this would be on cold nights in colder climates.
A benefit of covering your bird’s cage at night is that it provides a regular period of privacy not usually allowed during the day. Furthermore, it tends to keep the bird quiet in the early morning when it would otherwise become active and vocal. If you now cover your bird’s cage at night, continue to do so. If you have not done so in the past and find that your pet bird panics or acts agitated with a cover over its cage, do not continue covering the cage.
Good hygiene is an important part of husbandry for caged birds because most are confined to a relatively small living space. Consequently, droppings often accumulate on cage parts and perches, and tend to contaminate food and water cups, resulting in bacterial proliferation and mold growth.
Perches should be kept scrupulously clean at all times. Soap and water, cleansers and sand paper may be used to clean them, if necessary. Cage-bottom coverings should be changed daily. Cages should be given a thorough scrubbing and cleaning at least once a month. Sanitizing products work best if the cage and perches are first given a thorough soap and water scrubbing to remove all of the major contamination. Diluted chlorine bleach can be used if thoroughly rinsed off afterwards.
Food and water containers should be thoroughly cleaned once or twice daily before they are refilled. Bottle brushes work best for cleaning water tubes and bottles. Water tubes and water bottles with a ball valve at the drinking end (water bottles for rodents) are increasing in popularity. They greatly reduce the possibility of contamination of the drinking water with droppings, uneaten food and saliva, all of which contribute to massive bacterial proliferation within the water and its container. The corners of food and water containers are the most common areas for bacterial buildup. Therefore, concentrate on those trouble spots while cleaning these containers.
Several sets of food and water cups should be maintained and used interchangeably. One set not in use can be soaking in a disinfectant solution. When possible, use a dishwasher for the final cleaning of these food and water containers because their extremely hot temperatures aid disinfection.
Rigid standards of hygiene must be maintained at all times. Disease-causing bacteria grow freely in most water containers. Small numbers of these bacteria from food, saliva or droppings can quickly multiply into millions of organisms in a water container, but the water appears normal to you. Allow the water tap to run for about 3 minutes before filling the water container. Bottled water dispensers should be allowed to run for about 5 seconds before filling the water container. These bacteria do not affect most people but can have devastating consequences for caged birds if allowed to multiply.
Birds, like people, “are what they eat.” Therefore, to be healthy, they must consume all of the necessary nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and water) in the proper proportions. Unfortunately, the exact nutritional requirements for all of the various caged birds have not been determined.
Commercial bird diets advertised as “complete” or “balanced” are the best diet option for caged birds.
Caged birds can also be given vitamin supplements because of the uncertainties in their nutritional requirements. This is even more important in a bird on a seed diet. Powdered vitamins (Nekton-S: Nekton Products, W. Germany) can be sprinkled over fruits, vegetables and other table food items to which the powder will adhere. Do not sprinkle powdered vitamins over seeds. Powders do not adhere to dry seeds and end up on the bottom of the food cup. Furthermore, birds do not eat the seed hull, to which the powder may adhere. You may coat the seeds with Harrison’s Adult Lifetime Mash. This is a pellet formula that is made to be placed over seeds to provide a more complete diet.
Additional sources of minerals may be offered to caged birds when needed. Cuttle bone and oyster shell may be offered to smaller caged birds. Oyster shell and mineral blocks may be provided for larger caged birds.
Because birds do not have teeth, they do not chew their food. The gizzard functions to break up seeds and other food items so that they can be digested. Wild birds consume sand or tiny pebbles (“grit”) which pass into their gizzards and remain within this muscular organ to assist in the mechanical breakdown of seeds and other firm foodstuffs.
Grit is not necessary for proper digestion among hookbilled birds (parakeets, cockatiels, parrots). Hookbilled birds that have been denied grit for extended periods do not pass whole, undigested seeds in their droppings. In fact, use of grit for these caged birds is controversial among aviculturists. Avian veterinary experts, however, are unanimous in their opinion that grit is unnecessary and may, in fact, create serious problems (grit impaction and intestinal blockage) when consumed in large amounts. This is most likely to occur during periods of illness. For this reason, grit need not be given to hookbilled caged birds, but it should be provided for passerine-type caged birds (finches, canaries). Owners of finches and canaries, however, should be vigilant and remove the grit from the cage at once if illness is suspected.
Disease: How to Recognize It and What to Do
Most disease in caged birds is directly or indirectly related to malnutrition and stress. Malnutrition most often stems from what the bird eats, rather than how much he/she eats. Most caged birds are offered enough food, but they do not receive enough of the proper foods and in the proper proportions. Stress results from any condition that compromises a bird’s state of well-being. Examples include poor husbandry, inadequate diet, rapid temperature changes, and trauma.
All owners of caged birds must understand that birds tend to “hide” signs of illness. Birds can compensate for serious internal disease in such a way that they appear healthy externally. It is theorized that evolution has “taught” birds to hide signs of illness to avoid being harassed and possibly killed by other birds in the same flock.
Because of this disease-masking tendency, by the time a bird owner recognizes illness in a pet bird, the bird may have been sick for 1-2 weeks. Therefore, one cannot afford to take a “wait and see” approach and hope the bird improves. Be observant and act promptly. Learn to look for subtle signs of illness, and take special note of changes in the routine and habits of your pet bird. Seek veterinary assistance promptly if you suspect illness.
Following is a list of signs of illness easily recognizable by the concerned pet owner. Alone or in combination, they signify potential illness in your bird.
Signs of Illness
• Discharge from the eyes
• Change in clarity or color of the eyes
• Closing of the eyes
• Swelling around the eyes
• Discharge from the nostrils
• Obstructed nostrils
• Soiling feathers on head or around nostrils
• Inability to manipulate food within the mouth
• Reduced appetite or not eating at all
• Fluffed-up feathers
• Droopy wings
• Decreased preening and feather maintenance
• Break in the bird’s routine
• Changed or no vocalization (may be serious)
• Weight loss
• Equilibrium problems (very serious!)
• Inability to perch (bird on cage bottom)
• Limping or not bearing weight on 1 leg
• Swollen feet or joints
• Change in quality or quantity of droppings
• Open-mouthed breathing when at rest (very serious!)
• Tail pumping (rhythmic back and forth motion of the tail when at rest)
• Lumps or masses anywhere on the body
• Bleeding (always an emergency situation, regardless of the origin)
If you suspect illness in your bird, do not delay in making an appointment with your veterinarian. Either transport your bird to the doctor’s office within its cage or use some other suitable container (smaller cage, pet carrier, box). Never visit the veterinarian with your bird perched on your shoulder. This method does not provide enough protection for your pet. Whatever container you choose should be covered to help minimize the stress to your sick bird during its visit. If you take your bird to the veterinarian in its own cage, do not clean it first. The material you discard could represent valuable information to the veterinarian.
After a sick bird has been initially treated by a veterinarian, home care is very important. Sick birds must be encouraged to eat and must be kept warm. Illness can cause significant weight loss in a matter of days, especially if the bird stops eating. If this happens, the patient must be hospitalized. However, even a sick bird with a “healthy appetite” can lose substantial weight because of the energy drain caused by the illness.
As a general rule of thumb, any caged bird that appears ill to its owner is seriously ill. One day of illness for a bird is roughly equivalent to 7 days of illness for a person. The tendency for pet bird owners in this situation is to first seek advice from pet stores and there purchase antibiotics and other medication for their sick bird. With very few exceptions, these non-prescribed products are worthless. They allow the sick bird to become even sicker, and greatly compromise the results of diagnostic tests that the veterinarian may need to do. Therefore, if your bird seems sick, go to your veterinarian right away.