Elisabeth Simone-Freilicher, DVM
Veterinary Medical Center
West Islip, New York
(631) 587- 0800
Where and how your bird lives at home can have a huge impact on his or her health. Many common medical conditions can be prevented by providing the correct environment at home. Knowing the right types of cages, perches, food, watering systems, and even toys for your bird can help your bird live a longer, healthier, happier life.
The first thing to consider in selecting a cage is size. The best rule to follow is to purchase the largest cage you can afford and have room for. The following are the minimum sizes you should consider when purchasing a cage for your bird. If your bird is not on this list, select a bird of a similar size. If you are housing a pair of birds together, select the next larger size.
Single Bird No smaller than
Finch or Canary* 18" x 18"
Budgerigar 18" x 14"
Cockatiel 18" x 18"
Lovebird or parrotlet* 18" x 18"
Other small parrots 20" x 20"
Poicephalus 24" x 20"
Other medium parrots 24" x 24"
Large cockatoos 36" x 24"
Macawa 36" x 24" tall
*These birds require larger cages because
of their activity level.
The distance between the cage bars (bar spacing) will also depend upon the type of bird you have. Cage bars that are spaced too widely may trap heads or wings, causing injury. Cage bars that are too close together may be too fragile, and can be snapped by a larger bird. Finches, canaries, budgies, and lovebirds should have bar spacing of -1/4" or less. Cockatiels, conures, and small parrots should have bar spacing of 5/8" or less.
African greys, Amazons, small cockatoos, and other medium parrots should have bar spacings between 5/8" and 3/4". Large cockatoos and macaws should have bar spacing between 3/4" and 1".
Another important feature to look for is a grate at the bottom of the cage. A grate will prevent your bird from having contact with (playing with, digging through) his or her droppings on the cage floor. The best cages have the grate located high enough above the cage bottom so that a bird may not reach down and pull the dirty cage paper through to play with, or to retrieve food that may have been dropped and pooped on.
Most cages that are available commercially in pet stores are made with a safe enamel or baked-on coating. I prefer NOT to recommend home-made style cages made of hardware cloth. While some
breeders have used these style cages for years without problems, many other people have experienced bird deaths due to zinc poisoning from the cage wire. While there are several techniques described for treating the wire to make it safer, I have personally seen many deaths from zinc poisoning even when these techniques were carefully used.
Many delightful cage styles, shapes and colors are available commercially today. What you choose for your bird should reflect your own taste and your bird's preferences. However, there is one style of cage that presents several problems, and that is the round or circular cage. First, round cages almost never come supplied with a cage bottom grate. Second, the cage bars often come together at the top at a very sharp angle, making it possible to catch feet, legs, or wings in the space where the bars join together. Third, it is nearly impossible to place perches so that they don't overlap each other or food and water dishes. The result is usually poop on the perches, food, and in the water! Fourth, many birds seem truly uncomfortable in a round cage. It is thought that round cages may be disorienting, which makes a bird feel exposed and stressed. An uncomfortable bird in a round cage will spend most of its time circling the inside walls or top of the cage, or only use the top perch, either sitting completely still, or pacing back and forth on it repeatedly.
Where you place your cage in the home can also affect the comfort and happiness of your bird. Your bird will want to be with you and your family members, because you are your bird's "flock." Select a room, such as a family room, where your bird can see and hear you often. Kitchens are usually NOT safe places for birds, however, because of deadly fumes that can be produced by many Teflon-coated appliances and cookware. (Appliances to watch out for in your home, by the way, include self-cleaning ovens, bread machines, and home grilling devices, such as the popular "George Foreman" Grill.) Whichever room you choose, make sure that your bird is placed either on a stand or solid flat surface so that it feels secure. Hanging a cage is not recommended because the unstable swinging motion makes many birds very nervous. For your bird's sense of security, the best place to place the cage is against a wall (not a window) away from direct air or heat.
Finally, choosing what to use on the bottom of the cage is also important. The best material to put on the cage bottom is simple paper. Loose litters such as wood chips and corn cob should be avoided, as they can contain dust and toxins and grow mold that may be very harmful to your bird.
Although the cage you have may very well have come with dowel or plastic perches, these are usually not appropriate for long-term use. This type of perch is too smooth to be comfortable, and the unchanging diameter forces the bird to constantly hold its feet and legs in the same position.
The best perches are those made from natural wood. Fortunately, many pet stores now carry a good variety of sanitized perches made from wood such as Manzanita and cholla. Rope perches are also available which can be a nice addition to wood perches, providing that your bird doesn't chew and fray (or swallow!) pieces of the rope. Another type of perch currently available is the cement perch. Many veterinarians have mixed feelings about cement perches, and some veterinarians recommend against using them at all. I believe a cement perch can be an excellent addition to your bird's environment, if the following guidelines are used:
1) You get what you pay for. My favorite brand of cement perch is "Polly Pastels" due to their unique manufacturing process, which adds sand to the cement in layers, creating a variable bumpy surface that is neither too smooth nor too rough. Some less expensive cement perches use a honeycomb cement pattern or add the sand to the top of the cement, which creates an extremely sharp and uncomfortable surface. (For Polly Pastel or Polly
Twister perches, I usually recommend buying one size SMALLER than the package label recommends for your bird)
2) Look at the bottom of your bird's feet regularly. Cement perches are designed to condition the skin on the bottom of a bird's feet, and are excellent for this when used properly. However, for some birds, either because of obesity, poor diet or individual differences, cement perches can cause abrasions. Inspect the bottom of your bird's feet regularly, especially after adding a cement perch for the first time.
3) Other healthy perches should also be in the cage. A cement perch should be only part of healthy cage environment which allows the bird to change the type of perch it uses at any given moment. Do not place your cement perch in a position that makes it the only perch your bird uses.
4) Do not use cement perches unless your bird is on a balanced, formulated, pellet-based diet. Repeat, do NOT use cement perches if your bird is on an all-seed diet. Seed diets are deficient in protein and vitamins necessary for healthy skin, and a bird on a seed diet may be unable to tolerate the stimulating surface of a cement perch. (More about diets next.)
One type of special perch deserves attention here: the swing. Swings are like exercise equipment for your bird! While some clumsy young birds (especially African Grey babies!) may not be ready for a swing, most adult birds love them, and for these birds swings can provide some much-needed exercise. Like anything you put in your bird's cage, inspect the swing carefully for safety, especially places where nails, feet, or beaks can get stuck, such as gaps or open hooks at the top or base of the swing.
Finally a word on sandpaper perch covers: avoid them! Their surfaces are too sharp and rough for a bird's feet, and many birds eat the sand or the paper itself, causing digestive problems.
Seeds are not a complete diet for birds. Although the very smallest birds (finches and canaries) require the high calorie content of a mostly-seed diet, for most of the larger birds, seed is not enough. Seed is high in fat and carbohydrates, and low in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Basically, seeds are like junk food for your bird!
If your bird is a seed junkie, begin by offering table foods to your bird to add variety and nutrition to the diet. Healthy foods such as raw or cooked vegetables, fruits, and whole grain breads and pastas are wonderful additions to your bird's diet. (Always wash fruits and vegetable to remove pesticides.) Small amounts of cooked lean meats may also be offered. Avoid avocado, chocolate, salt, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, as these all can be toxic for birds.
If your bird is currently on an all-seed or seed and table food diet, vitamin and mineral supplements are a good idea. The best brands of vitamins are Nekton and Avitron. Nekton comes in a powder that may be lightly sprinkled over soft table foods~leave the foil on the top of the bottle, and poke holes through the foil with a pin for a convenient vitamin shaker! Avitron is a liquid that is added to the drinking water. If you use this method, please make sure you clean and change the water twice a day or more, because harmful bacteria can grow faster in vitamin-enriched water. Whichever method you use, be careful to add only the amount specified on the label, since overdosing vitamins can also be harmful. You should also offer these birds a mineral block designed especially for pet birds, and a cuttlebone for smaller birds.
Of course, the best diet of all is a good quality commercial pellet diet with table foods and occasional seeds as treats only. Some of the best brands include Harrison's, Roudybush, Zupreem, and Kaytee. If your bird is currently on a seed diet, you may begin to start offering pellets in addition to seed. Birds can be notoriously shy of new foods, and switching a bird to pellets should only be done very gradually, sometimes over a period of many months. If you are trying to switch your "seed junkie" over to pellets, speak to us for some helpful hints.
Finally a word about grit: Except for finches and canaries, most pet birds should NOT be given grit. Hook-billed birds do not require grit to digest their food, and many birds can overeat grit, leading to digestive problems.
Like any animal, your bird should be provided with fresh, clean drinking water daily. Since most pet birds like to play and poop in their water, often the easiest way to do this is by using a water bottle. These should be cleaned and changed every day, and the ball bearing in the sipper tube checked regularly to make sure it is allowing water through. If your bird is not yet accustomed to a water bottle, the easiest way to condition your bird is to hang the water bottle over the (full) water dish, and let the bird explore and find the water bottle on its own. Once you observe your bird using the water bottle, you may take away the water dish. Pet birds also benefit by being offered a bath at least 2-3 times per week. There are several ways to do this, and you may need to experiment to find out how your bird likes to bathe. Some birds like to bathe in a wide shallow dish, in much the same way wild birds can be seen bathing in puddles. Other birds enjoy being gently misted by a spray bottle. You may also direct the spray bottle above the bird, and allow the water to fall down from the spray like rain. Probably the most fun method of all is to bring the bird into the shower with you. Although this may take some getting used to at first, most birds really enjoy being part of the "flock's" daily routine in this way. Commercial "shower perches" are available that can make your bird more comfortable perching in the shower.
Every bird should have toys! Does your bird like bells, or chewable wood and leather, or soft rope and fabric toys? There are even acrylic "brain teaser" toys for the highly intelligent larger birds. The only way to find out is to offer different kinds of toys and see what your bird prefers. For this reason, we believe birds should start out with a minimum of three different type toys. Try to avoid toys with a great deal of metal in them, or if the toys have metal parts (such as chain) make sure the metal in non-toxic, such as stainless steel. Many toys today come with "quick links" or "c-links" to make the toy easier to hang. If so, these should be shiny (like stainless steel) rather than dull (like zinc, which can be toxic). Another option is to replace clasps with solid plastic fasteners of the type used to fasten household cable. These can be found in home supply stores, and come in different sizes and playful colors.
There are a growing number of toys on the market that can be stuffed with treats or pellets, increasing the time your bird is engaging in normal activities. Some birds may need guidance initially, but once they learn how to forage, you may see a whole new side to your bird!
To cover or not to cover? Many birds do just fine without ever having their cages covered. However, there are some reasons to consider using a cage cover. If your bird is nervous or easily startled, covering the back and part of the sides of the cage (even with a plain sheet) may make him or her feel more safe and secure. If the room your bird lives in is exposed to many hours of light (natural or artificial), a cage cover may help your bird get some much needed quality sleep. Even if you see your bird sleeping in a well-lit room, the light actually stimulates hormone production which can lead to a number of behavioral and medical problems. Birds require 12-14 hours of darkness per night to avoid hormonal stimulation. If your household is awake as long as many households are today, a cage cover may be the answer!
It goes without saying that your bird's cage should be kept clean. The paper should be changed daily, and fresh food and water provided in clean dishes and bottles daily. At least once a week the grate at the bottom of the cage should be removed and cleaned with hot soapy water, as should perches, toys or any other part of the cage that is soiled. Once a month the entire cage should be broken down and cleaned thoroughly with hot water and mild soap, and rinsed thoroughly. Avoid using any disinfectants around your bird, as any leftover chemicals may be harmful to your bird.
Cage with grate on bottom
(The size my bird needs is at least __________.)
2 natural wood perches - Manzanita, cholla, or apple
1 optional perch-cement or rope
Pellet diet and optional treats
Bathing dish, spray bottle, or shower perch
Toys (minimum of three)