Caring for Your Bird

The ability to fly is the essence of a bird's natural sense of security; when confronted with danger in the wild, birds know that the ability to fly away will probably save them. Putting a bird in a cage or clipping its wings removes this natural sense of security. To remain healthy and happy in captivity, birds must find other ways to feel safe. Your biggest obligation as a bird owner is to create and reinforce your bird's sense of security.

Fortunately, there are many ways to impart a surrogate sense of security to a bird that does not have the freedom to fly. Consistent nutritious feeding, a healthful environment, socialization, and preventive health care are the keys to bird nurturing.

Consistent, Nutritious Feeding

Imagine if you had to consume 30 to 40 pounds of food a day to stay alive. Acquiring, eating, and digesting that food would occupy most of your time. That is how you would eat if you were “eating like a bird.” Because they have such a high metabolic rate, domestic birds need up to 25 percent of their weight in food daily.

If these huge nutritional demands are not met, or are met improperly, it does not take long for the bird to become ill. Disturbances in the gastrointestinal tract cause almost instant problems, and small birds can die in a couple of days if these are not remedied or if they do not eat. Improper feeding is the single greatest cause of disease and death in pet birds. These factors make consistent nutritious feeding pet bird owners’ largest responsibility.

Review the digestive process in birds. It is highly efficient; food can pass through a small bird's system in under two hours.

Observing birds’ natural eating habit—foraging—gives us our best guide to conscientious feeding. Note that birds eat a large variety of foods in the wild; customarily most species eat only twice a day. (The crop takes all day to mete out this food to the stomach.) For the best care, observe their natural tendencies. Your pet will be healthiest if fed a diverse selection of foods, twice a day.

Many bird owners make the huge mistake of leaving a ready supply of food in the cage. The bird's reaction is often to become extremely picky; eating only its favorite seeds and leaving the rest. This leaves it malnourished.

Although your bird may have favorites, including other foods and removing the food dish after the bird has eaten will enforce good nutrition. The seed mixture should contain four kinds of seeds, with not more than 65 percent of one kind. Leave this seed mixture in the cage twice a day for forty-five minutes to an hour, in the morning and evening.

Mealtime will become a way for you and your bird to connect. After your bird is used to its mealtime ritual, it may eat from a hand-held bowl and even your hand. The bird will leave some seed hulls in the bowl, so remove the accumulated hulls to make sure there is actual edible seed.

You can leave fruit and vegetables in the cage all day, but take them out when they begin to wither. Almost any fruit or vegetable is great for birds, although some such as celery and lettuce have low nutritional value. Bell peppers, carrots and carrot tops, peas, beans, corn on the cob, spinach, endive, dandelion, chick-weed, and branches from the yard are favorites. Avoid dieffenbachia, poinsettia, and ivy since they are toxic to birds. Fruit eaters enjoy oranges, apples, bananas, grapes, cherries, and berries.

Just like humans, birds benefit from almost any wholesome food. They love sprouted seeds, and sprouting seeds yourself will tell you if they are still nutritious. (Those that don't sprout are dead.) Many species enjoy meat. This can be in the form of raw steak, insects, mealworms, or spiders. They also enjoy table scraps, such as cooked cereal and toast. Stay away from large quantities of sticky foods like peanut butter that may clog their bills.

Birds need grit or crushed oyster shell to digest seeds in their gizzard. Buy a commercial product; don't make your own or use beach sand. Distributing this on the cage bottom where it can collect bacteria from droppings is a bad idea.

Decline in Songbird Population, True or False?

When viewed as a whole, songbirds are remaining stable in numbers. However, there is still great cause for concern. Whereas most forest-dwelling species like Ovenbirds and Red-eyed Vireos are thriving, songbirds that depend on America's grasslands are seriously threatened. Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, and Dickcissels—among many others—are species suffering significant decline due to increased industrialized farming and sprawling cities.

Also, despite reforestation, new woodlands do not offer the dense protection from predators of a large established forest. So even some forest species are threatened as well. Development along the Gulf has largely reduced habitats where migrating birds normally feed on their way south. This, too, is thinning out populations of birds.

To sum up, the strong are getting stronger, the weak weaker. Species are fewer, and there is more uniformity among the ones that remain.

Birds’ digestion and health depend on fluids, particularly fresh, clean water. Use bottled water in lieu of tap water which may have fluoride, chlorine, and other chemicals.

Vitamin and mineral supplements compensate for nutrients the bird would get in the wild. To make sure that pet birds ingest these daily, add vitamins to the drinking water or sprinkle them on fruit. Putting a cuttlebone, mineral block, oyster shells, or egg shells in the cage also upgrades their mineral take.

Paying careful attention to the following procedures will ensure your pet's health:

  • Buy your seed and supplements from reputable stores.

  • Buy only a small quantity of seed at a time, since it tends to spoil quickly, and keep it in a cold, dry place.

  • Birds are very susceptible to fungi, so don't leave moldy or spoiled food in the cage.

  • Don't position perches over food and water dishes because droppings will make the food unhealthy.

  • Washing fruit and vegetables thoroughly will remove hazardous dirt, insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.

  • Clean containers carefully daily, either in an automatic dishwasher or with disinfectant and scalding water to kill bacteria. Having a double set of dishes makes this more convenient.

  • Although insects and insect eggs in seed are not harmful to the bird, you can get rid of them by warming the seed to 180 degrees (no higher) for thirty minutes.

  • Make sure to remove seed hulls from the food dish. Otherwise they may disguise the amount of food your bird has eaten.

  • Move food dishes around to add variety to the bird's routine.

A Healthy Environment

Be it cage, aviary, or roosting spot, a healthy environment requires the following:

  • Hiding place— Birds absolutely need to feel they have a place to which they can flee. A nest box or hollow log within the cage works great. Using string, you can suspend an empty tin can or cardboard box with a hole from the cage top. Even if the bird rarely retreats to the hiding place, having it available will contribute greatly to its peace of mind.

  • Perch— Pet birds are on their feet constantly. Therefore, comfortable perches are imperative. Install two or three in a cage at opposing angles, since hopping from one perch to another may be the birds’ only form of exercise. Birds want to redistribute their weight on different parts of their feet and can do so if perches are of different shapes and materials. Perches are usually round, but may also be square, oval, or platform-shaped. These can be rigid, such as a dowel, or flexible like a hose, rope, or branches.

    For birds with especially sensitive feet, perches padded with felt, cotton, or cork are a necessity. Incorporating a perch into a swing adds a “toy” dimension. Open perch birds like Amazon Parrots need food and water nearby on the perch.

  • Bathing area— Birds need water for hygiene as well as drinking. Without water, birds cannot maintain their body and feathers. This requirement is not to be taken lightly, and ignoring it will result in a sick, unhappy pet. Also, the oil gland on the bird's rump may clog if the bird does not take a regular bath.

    A saucer or other shallow container with a ¼ to ½ inch of water will do. Rinsing leafy greens and putting them in the cage without shaking out the water encourages the bird to wander through them and use the water for grooming as it would dew in nature.

    Although birds do not like to be squirted, some enjoy having a light mist settle on them from above. A few larger birds will successfully shower in a human shower. Some aviaries are large enough to accommodate a fountain where birds can splash around and shower together.

  • Sanitation— Since bird droppings are odorless, it is hard to remember to change cage papers daily. This is, however, extremely important. Otherwise bacteria will multiply and endanger the bird. As droppings dry, they become powdery and a slight draft blows them into the air and food. Changing the cage paper daily gives owners the opportunity to assess the bird's droppings, a very important measure in monitoring the overall health of the pet.

    Gregarious

    Gregarious humans are people who are fun to have at parties. Gregarious birds live in parties. We apply the adjective “gregarious” to birds of a feather that flock together, such as pigeons, starlings, and blackbirds. The advantages of being gregarious are many—common food sources, protection from predators, and shared parenting to name a few.

    Cages with a cage paper drawer at the bottom are the easiest to maintain. Although newspaper serves as a cage liner, it may be better to use commercial cage paper or corn husks to keep the bird from chewing and ingesting ink. Pets in the Parrot Family may enjoy clipping and wading in the paper.

    Never use aluminum foil. Do not use gravel paper or put grit on the cage floor; birds need a clean source of grit. Wash off the perches regularly and make sure no part of the cage is rusty.

  • Objects and room for exercise— Your pet needs plenty of room to jump around and exercise. Most pet birds like to play, performing acrobatics along the perimeters of the cage and on their perches. Letting your birds out for some free flying around the house stimulates them both physically and mentally.

    All birds with hooked bills are natural gnawers that need to chew away on organic objects to remain healthy. This could be clean wood scrap from household building projects, old blocks, bones, or branches. Stripping branches of bark is an inexhaustible thrill for hard-beaked birds. (Remember, no poisonous branches or chemically treated woods!)

    Birds can be ingenious dismantlers and are not beyond unlatching cages. Be sure to give them other bird toy puzzles to occupy their time, and keep the cage latch secure.

    Birds with soft bills like softer toys like crumpled paper. Peck toys such as rubber dumbbells fascinate pet birds, as do music-making devices like musical perches and bells. Birds often become completely transfixed by their own reflected image in a mirror, bell, key, or piece of silverware. Purchase actual bird toys; don't try to fashion your own since birds may unfasten and swallow some of the parts. Most birds will clamber around on ladders and dangling rope, plastic rings, or beads.

  • “Aerial Plankton”

    Swarms of very small insects and ballooning young spiders drift around wherever the wind blows them, a sort of “aerial plankton” for hungry birds. Of course, many insects gravitate to watery areas like estuaries, sloughs, and rivers. There birds will feed near to vegetation and up to 20 feet off the ground.

    Just as is true of the birds that feed upon them, insects are either nocturnal or diurnal. Some take wing to feed and mate during nighttime, others during the day. For example, mosquitoes are active during the night, midges during the day. Moths prefer darkness; butterflies crave sunshine. The former are good eating for Nightjars, the latter for Kingbirds.

  • Cage design and material— Wire cages have become the norm because they are more durable and do not harbor insects, and are not so susceptible to fungi and bacteria. Don't paint them with any material that has poison in it. Although the bell and pagoda shape are very popular, rectangular cages allow the bird more room. Cages need a slide-out floor for easy cleaning.

  • The right location— You may have to experiment with the right location for your pet bird's cage. Generally, the place with the most activity will suit it best, but only if you have included a hiding place so the bird has some control over its exposure.

    With their dense feathers, birds are well equipped to insulate themselves for temperature changes. Any variance humans can withstand so too can birds. But just like humans, they may be stressed by sudden temperature changes. Heat is more of a problem than cold. Most pets’ ideal temperature is between sixty and seventy-two degrees, and ideal humidity 50 percent or slightly lower. Birds benefit from a spot near a window for sunshine, but should not be directly in the sun. Keep your birds from becoming too hot.

    Once a bird is established in a certain location, it doesn't like to move to a new spot. Again, security is very important. Carefully consider any changes and monitor the bird's well-being following a move.

    We are slowly realizing the health costs of pollutants in the air—synthetic particulates, dust, molds, and smoke. Birds are just as sensitive to these as we are. Exposure to airborne pollutants will lead to severe respiratory problems. Don't smoke around birds.

  • Enforced rest periods— In the wild, birds’ daily and seasonal changes, and therefore their health, are governed by day length. Their sensitivity to light and the seasons stimulates hormone excretions that influence molting, breeding, and other natural processes. Birds need long periods of darkness, and it is up to pet owners to simulate the same level of light as exists outdoors at all times of year.

    Hence, indoor cages need to be covered as soon as the sun sets. This darkened period will be longer in winter and shorter in summer. The cover must be heavy enough to assure total darkness. Even though birds may close their eyes when the lights are on, they cannot get adequate rest without absolute darkness. Even the glow and noise of the television will disturb them. Continual sleep deprivation stresses birds and they will soon become vulnerable to infection.

Socialization

Birds are very social creatures. Without companionship and interaction, they rarely thrive. In your home, your affection and attention must replace that of a flock. Having your bird's cage located near a lot of activity will upgrade its well-being right away. However, trust will be difficult to establish if the bird does not feel secure. Does its cage have a hiding place? Is your feeding consistent?

Hand-feeding every 12 hours is a great ice breaker. Before long, your bird will realize who is responsible, and your gentle manner and rewards will foster affection.

Watch, listen, and learn to interpret your bird's songs, calls, and body postures. It has a wide range of communication, and if you pay attention and respond you will strengthen the bond between you and encourage your bird to interact. You will learn to interpret hunger, fear, and satisfaction messages.

Bird Cages

Civilization dawned, and so too did bird cages. As far back as we can trace, sacred birds were kept in temples and royal aviaries the world over. People have always coveted birds, for their ability to fly, for their song, for their exquisite plumage, and—in the case of larger birds—for their friendly intelligence.

The Renaissance ushered in exoticism in birds and cage materials alike, both imported into Europe from distant lands. Those created in St. Andreasburgh, Germany, for the Harz mountain canaries looked like miniature mountain chalets, carved of the finest quality wood. Double tiny wooden doors blocked out the daylight. The Dutch made baroque cages of precious materials like ebony and ivory. These were built on a circular base narrower toward the top, or in a bell shape with tiers, balustrades, and columns.

From 1750 to 1850 there was a period of extraordinary imagination in cage design. Wealthy bird owners could afford large, lavish cages. Zigzags, carved finials, and mosque and pagodalike roofs reflected the Orient and Africa. Bird cages became requisite furnishings, and the gentry ordered them to match their furniture. In England, cage artisans used mahogany and rosewood; lighter woods were popular in France.

Cages were often modeled after existing architecture, but in miniature, like doll-houses. Some depicted the facade of a house complete with glazed windows. Lovely ceramic cages, extravagantly painted, reflected the Moorish influence, as did capacious curled-wire bird cages with domed tops.

Until the mid-nineteenth century aviculture had been the domain of the aristocracy because imported birds were so expensive. The Industrial Revolution ushered in reduced prices, and the less affluent began to keep birds in cages. Canaries were the rage. Ironmongers mass-produced more affordable wire cages in smaller dimensions, some still quite elaborate. People were also enthusiastic about breeding; breeding cages with separate rooms were commonplace.

Indeed, there were marvelous feats of ornamentation—ancient materials like mother-of-pearl and brass and modern materials such as stainless steel. Sometimes, artisans designed cages not meant to be used, such as the the Gothic Cathedral bird cage now exhibited at the Vogelbauer Museum near Dortmund, Germany, a museum entirely devoted to bird cages and birdkeeping equipment.

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