Pet Wise: Feathered friend facts for those considering a bird for a pet

Are you considering getting a pet bird? For centuries pet birds have graced palaces and humble homes providing color, cheer, entertainment and companionship to their humans.

There are many species to choose from so it is important that potential bird owners need to be aware that each species may have different requirements regarding nutrition, equipment, enrichment, veterinary care as well as species-specific behaviors. Never acquire a pet bird (or any pet) on impulse or “gift” a bird to someone (especially if they’ve never had a pet before). Do thorough research and expect to make detailed preparations before that feathered friend enters your home. Contact an avian veterinarian for specific information regarding your choice of species for information regarding appropriate diet, veterinary care, and equipment needed to properly house the bird.


A big “Thank You” goes out to Dr. Robin Urie (Eldersburg Veterinary Hospital) for contributing information for today’s column.

Pet birds require safe environment

This includes a cage large enough to allow the bird to completely extend and flap its wings and also provide enough room to move around and jump from one perch to the next. The cage’s bar spacing should be appropriate for the bird’s size. If it is too narrow, the bird’s feet or legs could get stuck between the bars or if too wide, the bird might try to escape or get its head caught between the bars.


A powder-coated cage is recommended instead of a galvanized wire cage or cages with exposed solder at the joints because the metals may be harmful to birds, according to the Avian and Exotic Animal Care Veterinary Hospital’s website. A removable grate on the cage’s bottom allows bird droppings to fall out of the bird’s reach and the removable bottom tray eases daily clean-up. The cage doors should be large enough to allow the bird to easily enter but must be secure so that the bird can’t open them.

The cage should be placed at eye level or higher in a draft-free area away from kitchen heat, cooking fumes, heavy traffic areas of the home, and out of reach to other pets particularly cats) and young children. The cage also needs “furniture” consisting of a variety of perching surfaces of varying diameters and materials to keep the bird’s feet healthy and prevent conditions like calluses and “bumble foot.”

The perches should be the correct size so the bird will have a secure grip so it won’t fall or lose its balance. Rope, a manzanita branch, and a cement perch are suitable choices. Attaching bowls for food and water to the cage completes the bird’s cage furnishings. To prevent the bird from dropping food or relieving itself in the water dish. You can train a bird to drink from water bottle attached to the cage. A spray bottle filled with water can be used for bathing the bird.

It may be unwise to allow more than one bird share a cage. Years ago a well-meaning co-worker felt that his African Grey parrot need company so he placed a smaller parrot in the same cage. When he returned home after work, he was horrified to discover that the smaller parrot had been killed.


Veterinary care

Ideally pet birds should receive at least annual check-ups by an avian veterinarian because caged birds are susceptible to many diseases that include bacterial infections, cancer, viruses, infestations, hormonal disorders, vitamin and mineral disorders.

Newly acquired birds should receive an evaluation by the vet as soon as possible.

The following are signs of illness (Source: Avian Care Animal Hospital, New Jersey):

  • Loss of appetite, nervousness. Defensive or fearful behavior that can affect attitude toward food;
  • Droppings: change in appearance, or decrease in number or volume;
  • Change in activity: bird is less active, talks and/or sings less, neglects beak and toenail care;
  • Mood: change in attitude, less friendly, “grouchy;”
  • General appearance: change in birds’ posture, ruffling feathers, closing eyes in sleepy fashion, sits on a low perch;
  • Breathing: noticeable breathing when resting or heavy breathing after exertion, change in character of voice or unusual breathing sounds (wheezing or click);
  • Lumps: any enlargement — even fat is abnormal in birds;
  • Lesions: unusual crustiness, discoloration or inflammation of the face, beak, feet or legs.

A balanced diet

According to Drs. Foster and Smith an unbalanced diet is the main cause of disease and early death in pet birds. “Malnutrition is a human-made disease” that can be prevented when owners study and use avian nutrition for their young birds on a varied diet of healthy foods than to covert an older bird to a new diet.

Changing a bird’s diet abruptly is not advised because the bird may starve itself. Instead the bird on an unhealthy diet must be converted over to the healthier diet slowly over several months that may take several months. Seeds alone don’t comprise a complete diet and will not provide the necessary vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health.

Foster and Smith feel that the best diet for most seed eating birds consists of pelleted foods. Formulated diets are available and consists of blends of grains, seeds, vegetables, fruits, various proteins and vitamins and minerals. The ingredients are mixed then baked into pellets, crumbles or nuggets. Nutritional imbalances are less likely to occur because the bird cannot select components from the formulated diet. Commercial foods are available for specific bird species. Pet birds must never be allowed to consume the following foods and beverages: foods containing high amounts or sugar or fats (potato chips, donuts), avocado, chocolate, alcohol or caffeine, fruit pits, and persimmons.

Feeding times ideally fit when wild birds dine-about a half hour after sunrise and again at 5-6 p.m. Larger bird species can have fruits or vegetables left in the cage through the day for snacking and entertainment. Smaller birds need to eat more frequently throughout the day due to their higher metabolic rate and energy needs.

Owners are advised to monitor their bird’s daily food intake. A decrease may indicate that the bird is ill. Good hygiene is essential so food dishes should be washed in hot soapy water daily and food should not stay in the cage longer than 24 hours because the risk of fecal contamination or spoiling is high. Clean water should always be available. If a water bottle is used, the tip needs to be checked daily to see if it is working. Dehydration is a serious problem and can occur within a day or two if water is no available.


According to Dr. Christopher Stancel, DVM, birds are highly intelligent and active animals. Birds living in the wild are constantly on the move looking for food, interacting with each other and with objects.

He encourages owners to recreate this this behavior for their pet birds. He suggests that owners turn on a radio or television to keep birds occupied when the owner is not home. The audible sounds have a calming effect and the TV provides entertaining visual cues.

He also suggests the following strategies to prevent bird boredom:

  • Provide a variety of safe toys made specifically for birds from rope, rawhide, and plastic. Make sure that there are no small parts that the bird could swallow (like loose string) or get a toenail caught. To prevent boredom, rotate the different toys every two to three weeks. Household items like empty paper towel or toilet paper tubes can serve as chew toys.
  • Because wild birds must search for their food, pet birds can also benefit from foraging to prevent boredom and stimulate a natural behavior. Their food can be hidden in easy to find locations in the home by placing food inside covered bowls, in paper towel or toilet paper rolls or treat-dispensing toys.

Enrichment is a “two-way street” meaning that both the bird and the owner benefit from shared activities. The bird’s brain receives stimulation when learning to talk and the owner feels intrinsically rewarded (and thrilled) when the bird speaks! The owner also can invent games to stimulate the bird to search for hidden treats or toys providing names for the bird’s favorite treasures and the names of family members which may increase the bird’s vocabulary. Owners would also benefit from learning to interpret their bird’s body language signals. For example, birds are able to control the irises of their eyes enlarging and shrinking their pupils. This is called “flashing” or “pinning” and occurs when birds get excited, show interest in something or when they are angry, frightened, or aggressive. It may serve as a warning to people that the bird may bite! Pet Coach.com describes other bird body language signals to help owners interpret what messages their birds are conveying to them.

Dr. Robbin Urie wanted readers to be aware that birds can become overly attached to their owners which can result in mating behaviors and the formation of “inappropriate relationships!” This can result in reproductive tract illness and undesirable egg laying.

According to Dr. Urie this problem can be avoided by the owner limiting physical contact to above the bird’s neckline. Stroking birds down their backs is reserved only for their mates! The goal for owners is to establish a friendship- not a mating!


Popular birds as pets

Large Parrots


Macaws: large birds with a life expectancy over 50 years and may outlive their owners so pre-planning for the bird’s future is advised.

Cockatoos: may live over 40 years with proper diet and veterinary care,

Amazons: may live 50, years or more, are vocal and good mimics.

African Greys: may live 25 to 50 years or more with proper diet and regular veterinary care. These birds

Are highly intelligent and can be taught to talk. They are prone to pulling out their feathers and self-mutilation when stressed or bored and may bond only with one person in the family.

Small Parrots

Conures: may live 15-20 years, can be noisy and mischievous.

Other Pet Birds

Cockatiels: life expectancy 15 years

Parakeets: may live 8 years

Canaries: may live 5-10 years

Finches: 10-15 years, average: 5-10

Pigeons: 10 years

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