Written by Shannon Fujimoto Nakaya, DVM
Disclaimer: The information provided on this page is not intended to be a substitute for veterinary care.
Choosing a Cage
When people ask me about cages, my general response is “get the biggest cage you can afford.” We set cages up to be the bird's “home” and most birds will spend a majority, or at least a significant, portion of their lives there. We want to make it as safe, secure, inviting, and enriched as possible. The more space we have to work with, the more options we will have, the better it will be.
Commercial cage design has improved during the past several decades. The dimensions of length and width are at least as important as height. Notice that most birds spend more time in the trees than on the ground? Even as pets, instinct seems to discourage many birds them from “hanging out” in the lower half of their cage. The bigger the footprint of the cage, the more of the cage space the bird will actually utilize.
A bird should not be able to fit its head between the cage bars. Some birds will manage to squeeze their bodies through openings large enough for their head to fit through. Other birds will get their heads through and then get trapped. Occasionally this will result in serious and sometimes fatal neck injuries. With outdoor cages, keep in mind that mice, rats, mongooses, cats, and other animals can be a nuisance or a threat to your pet bird's health and well-being.
Cages are made from various materials ranging from wood and chicken wire to stainless steel. As mentioned above, rodents and predators need to be considered when constructing or purchasing cages that will be outdoors. With psittacines (parrots and parakeets) that tend to chew on things, we also need to be cognizant of toxic materials. Treated woods are toxic if ingested. Hardware wire and galvanized metals contain zinc which is also toxic to birds when ingested. Some of the older (>10 years old) powder coated cages had zinc in the powder coating. Antique cages are discouraged as many of them were soldered with lead.
Temperature, light, humidity
Lucky we live Hawaii! In terms of temperature, light, and humidity, Hawaii is one of the most appropriate places for most species of pet birds and you really won't need to do much that's special. A few hours of direct sunlight every week is beneficial. Screens are okay, but glass filters out the ultraviolet (UV) light and a little bit of UV light has health benefits. Please make sure there is also partial shade so as not to accidentally cook your bird. And FYI: Birds that live in northern hemispheres require artificial full spectrum lighting, heaters, and humidifiers. Lucky we live Hawaii!
Perches should be of varying diameter to exercise the feet. Natural branches from unsprayed fruit or hardwood trees make excellent perches. A wood worker and friend of birds has put together a nice list of safe and not so safe woods for birds at www.mdvaden.com. Sandpaper applied to dowels do nothing more than cause callouses and sore feet. Some of the newer concrete perches can help keep toenails worn down. When used, these work best when positioned near a food or water dish where the bird where is digging those nails in more in order to maintain balance as it engages in another activity. Concrete perches should not be positioned as the highest perch in the cage where the bird is most likely to sleep as this more often leads to callouses on the bottom of their feet.
Toys are important for environmental enrichment and keeping birds somewhat occupied during those hours you are away. Still, they need to be carefully chosen, preferably from a reputable producer of bird toys. Many birds have gotten ill from bells bought at the dollar store that contained lead or zinc. Chain link toys and key chains can trap bird feet and tongues and cause serious injury. If you purchase a toy with a chain link, it is suggested you replace the chain with rawhide shoelaces. Be creative and make your own toys. (String nuts on rawhide, dog bones, rawhide chews, empty cardboard tubes from rolled paper products).
Some birds enjoy bathing and should be encouraged to do so. If the bird does not like to bathe, spraying with lukewarm water two or three times a week will be helpful in maintaining healthy feathers. Keep warm after bathing. Bathing is especially good for your bird during the winter when houses tend to be drier due to furnaces. In hot weather, many birds enjoy bathing on a daily basis. If you purchase a bird in the winter months, it would be better to wait until warmer weather before introducing a regular bathing regimen.
The more I get to know birds, the stronger I feel that exercise is essential to their long-term health and well-being. Whether it is flitting about in a grove of trees, or traversing several miles to a watering hole, or diving for food, or just soaring in the clouds, birds are creatures that were designed to fly. Their heart muscles are so thick and developed compared to mammals, their bones are hollow and filled with air, they have built in air bags all over their body, they have feathers and WINGS. What an injustice that they should not be able to use these gifts. Alas, it is not so easy to fly one's pet bird, especially a large bird, as there is no guarantee that they will come back and the ability of a pet bird to survive in the wild is uncertain and likely poor.
Wing trimming is not a requirement. My birds are flighted and it is mesmerizing to watch their aerial displays. I admit this may not be feasible for everyone and all birds. I avoided open beam ceiling architecture in choosing my home because it just isn't practical for maintaining hygiene or some semblance of authority with flighted birds. I am neurotic about making sure that doors and windows are closed so we don't have any accidental escapes. This is admittedly more difficult to enforce when we have visitors, and sometimes the birds just need to be in “lockdown” when we have company. Over the years I have met pet birds that perch in trees in the front yard and fly “off leash.” It seems feasible if one considers falconers, homing pigeons, and back yard chickens. Despite these successes, however, I know many birds who have “accidentally” taken flight leaving both bird and human very stressed and distraught during the days it took to reunite them. I am quite confident that, if they ever got out, some of my birds would never look back. Some people who let their birds fly free will never seem them again.
There are a number of non-native bird species in Kona, including some parrot species that have either escaped or been illegally released. While these “wild parrots of Kona” may seem cool, these birds are not native to Hawaii and pose a threat to our globally unique island ecology that includes many threatened and endangered native Hawaiian bird species. As pet bird owners or guardians with the privilege of living in Hawaii, we need to be aware of the potential impact escape can have on our pets as well as the unique island ecology, and we must be responsible.
If your bird can't be allowed to fly, some alternative form of exercise is strongly encouraged. Whether it is rocking a swing hung from the ceiling, birdie zumba, chasing a toy around the room, or vigorous wing flapping, 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity daily will support healthy hearts and bodies. It will also strengthen the bond between you and your bird. It will also support emotional well-being and may help to prevent behaviors such as uncontrolled screaming, aggression, and feather picking.
Most birds are social rather than solitary creatures. They live in flocks, and flock members are somewhat eerily keyed in to each other. Consider the group of birds all busily picking food off the ground. Suddenly, without any sign noticeable to you or I, all birds suddenly take flight, in just about the same instant. How do they do that? Some of the answer may be in the almost 360 degree range of vision that birds have, along with the fact that their eyes and brains can process over 100 images per second compared to humans that can process around 15 images per second. There's also hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection for those who are “mind-melded” with the group. A lone bird is much more vulnerable to predation.
That being the case, one can imagine that extended periods of isolation from any other being might be stressful for some birds. Whenever possible, I encourage people to have more than one bird, particularly if the person expects to often be gone for hours at a time. They do not need to be birds of the same species; my flock of “second hand” birds are all different species.
If this is not possible, some people play videos of other birds while they are absent, or leave a television or radio on. These substitutes can have benefits, but they are not interactive in the way that two birds would be.