Calling somebody a 'bird-brain' isn't as derogatory as one might think. Many of our feathered friends, particularly those belonging to the parrot family, have the same intelligence as young children. Even more telling, they often share comparable emotional levels. Needless to say, just sticking one of these birds in a cage with food and water and leaving it on its own will quickly lead to one very bored, unhappy inmate.
Obviously, you have to understand how much care and attention different types of birds need so you know which is best suited to your individual situation. Here's a simple rule of thumb: the larger and less common the bird, the more difficult his or her care.
If all you want is an active but easy-to-manage bird with bright colours and a pleasant song, consider a canary. Just don't expect to go forming any close bonds. Finches are much the same, but have a greater need for the companionship of other finches.
Budgies and cockatiels aren't singers but they make up for it by being gifted talkers. They're also terrific companions and much easier to look after than their larger brethren.
Because of their size, strength and behavior as well as nutritional and social needs, medium- to large-sized parrots require big, secure cages or aviaries. For mental and physical stimulation, they also need to bond with human companions or other birds. One more very important consideration: since they can live 50 years or more, these birds require a lifetime commitment.
Location - Location. Location. (Sorry, we couldn't resist.) After selecting your bird, the next consideration is where to keep him or her. Probably the greatest danger to birds is draughts. While they can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and enjoy mild breezes, sudden changes and strong winds can quickly bring on respiratory diseases like pneumonia. By all means, see that your bird has fresh air and unfiltered sunshine, but nothing too extreme.
For added stimulation and to foster a sense of involvement, position the cage where your bird can observe and take part in family activities. The exceptions would be the kitchen or next to your eating area. You should also keep it away from cigarette smoke, insecticides and burning saucepans.
While we're on the subject of things to avoid, accessible toxic plants, ceiling fans, young children, dogs and cats are all no-nos, too.
Housing - When it comes to cages, bigger is better. The more room you can give a bird, the healthier and happier it will be. So get the roomiest cage that space and budget allow. It should be wider rather than higher so that your bird can fly from perch to perch and stretch its wings without hitting the sides. But also leave plenty of room for long tails.
Some minimum cage sizes for popular pet birds:
Because birds' beaks, especially those of cockatoos and larger parrots, are very strong and well suited for chewing, give chicken wire a miss. Bamboo is okay for canaries and finches, but budgies, lovebirds and anything larger will make a meal of it. Thus, the frame and bars should be made from heavy-gauge, non-toxic wire. In the case of budgies, who really like climbing, the bars of at least two walls should run horizontally.
Most commercial cages come furnished with perches made from wooden dowels, a few use plastic. They should be replaced with appropriately sized branches from non-toxic, pesticide-free trees. Any tree that a native bird sits in should be fine. Or you may be able to use rope perches. In either case, no more than two to a cage, positioned so as not to hang above each other or food and water dishes. As soon as perches become fouled beyond cleaning, they should be replaced. Putting a box in the cage gives your bird a place to escape to for privacy and also avoid strong breezes.
Food and water dishes should be wide rather than deep for better access, and made from stainless steel, glass, ceramics or plastic. Galvanised dishes have often been put together with lead solder, which is very toxic to birds.
Stay away from sandpaper floor liners and perch covers; they will damage your bird's feet. Not only is newspaper gentler, more hygenic and easier to replace (a daily ritual), it's also a lot cheaper. Sand and gravel floors aren't a good idea either. Birds could overeat the grit when ill.
Feeding - In the wild birds balance their diets with seeds, plants and grasses, the selection varying with the seasons. Overall, they enjoy quite a wide range of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Obviously, different breeds have different needs.
In attempting to match your bird's natural diet, you can't rely on all commercial diets to provide everything it should have. In fact, some commercial products can actually be bad food choices. Seed bells and sticks often harbour fungal pathogens when left in the cage for longer than a week. To learn more about the best diet for your bird, we invite you to talk to us.
Whatever you serve, it should be supplemented with fruit, vegetables and fresh water every day. At the same time you should clean the food and water containers and remove any rotting food from the floor of the cage.
Clipping & Trimming - A bird's feathers, beak and nails never stop growing. In nature, this isn't a problem. However, if you have your bird's wings clipped or if it doesn't have access to abrasive surfaces to keep its beak and nails the proper size and shape, you will have to step in.
Wing clipping. To prevent their birds from doing themselves harm on overhead fans or light fittings, escaping through windows or damaging property, many owners clip the wings. At the same time, the lack of mobility makes the birds more reliant on their masters or mistresses, which comes in very handy during taming and training sessions.
Because there are several different ways to clip wings, it would be best to talk to us before attempting it for the first time. Generally, you would clip feathers towards the end of both wings, leaving the last two or three for appearance's sake. The idea is to clip enough to stop your bird from flying but still allow it to flutter slowly to the floor if it tries. The once-popular method of cutting just one wing is dangerous. In ignorance your bird could try to fly and instead plummet to the ground, possibly damaging its keel (breastbone) or breaking a leg.
Clipping newly growing feathers too short will cause bleeding, which can be difficult to staunch. With every new moult, the feathers will regrow and need to be clipped again. If you don't feel comfortable with this procedure, please feel feel to bring your bird to us.
Beak trimming. Simply feeding and grooming is normally all it takes for a bird to keep its beak the right size and shape. Rubbing against something rough or chewing toys can also help. However, if the normal growth and wear pattern is somehow interrupted, the beak will need trimming. If you're not comfortable doing this, just bring your bird to us and we'll use special cutters to clip its beak. (The cockatoo pictured to the left is a long-billed corella, and that's the way its beak is supposed to look.)
Nail trimming. The natural way birds keep their nails short is by rubbing against the rough areas of perches or sticks. As we said above, don't try to help by putting sandpaper on the perches. Not only doesn't it work, it results in sores on the bottom of the bird's feet. Adding natural branches and twigs of varying abrasiveness and shape to the cage is a much better idea.
If your bird's nails do become overgrown, they should be trimmed. While bringing your pet to us is probably the safer way to go, this sort of maintenance is something you can do at home. You'll need nail trimmers and a clotting agent, which you can get from us or a pet shop. When you look closely at light-coloured nails, you'll see a pink blood vein (the quick). Cut between this and the end of the nail. In the case of dark nails, you won't be able to see the quick, so you should clip a little at a time. If you nick the quick and there's bleeding, use the clotting agent.
Feather Plucking - Birds pull out their feathers for a myriad of reasons, both physical and psychological. Among the former would be infections involving the skin and feathers, malnutrition, local pain, external and internal parasites, heavy-metal poisoning (from chewing metal objects or paint), internal diseases and cancer.
Psychological causes include boredom, stress, overcrowding, a change of environment and sloppy wing clipping. Unfortunately, feather plucking often becomes addictive with some birds reluctant to discontinue their self-mutilation even once the primary cause has been removed. In any event, if your bird is pulling out its feathers, you should bring it to us for a thorough examination.
Incidentally, although parrots are especially prone to feather plucking, Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), which affects parrots and cockatoos, is caused by a virus and is something else entirely. You'll find more information about it on either the Parrots or Cockatoos pages.
Parasites - Although this is not something we see a lot of, when a bird does have parasites they can have a seriously debilitating effect on its general health. In some cases parasites can be symptomatic of another disease.
Intestinal worms. Roundworms, hairworms, tapeworms and gizzardworms can all infect a bird's digestive tract, resulting in weight loss and malaise due to weakness. Even sudden death. To determine the presence of worms we will examine its droppings under a microscope, looking for worm eggs.
However, because not all parasites shed a large number of eggs on a regular basis, we will probably have to carry out several faecal tests over a period of time. Fortunately, these tests are inexpensive
Protozool parasites. These single-celled organisms can cause serious disease. One called Trichomona is responsible for 'canker' in pigeons and budgerigars. Living mainly in the crop and oesophagus, this protozoan causes regurgitation, diarrhoea, weight loss and listlessness; some pigeons develop a white 'cheesy' deposit in the back of the throat. If lest untreated, this disease is fatal.
Other protozoa can also cause (or lead to) diarrhoea, listlessness, weight loss and/or death, the most common being Giardia in cockatiels. An additional symptom here are severely itchy skin lesions. Identifying the parasite responsible for these problems entails examination of the crop or faeces.
Respiratory tract parasites. Gasping for air, coughing and a nasal discharge can be signs of gapeworm or air-sac mites. While we can diagnose the former by testing droppings, the presence of air-sac mites, which will also be characterised by a 'clicking' sneeze or cough, is more difficult to determine (sometimes we can see them by shining a light through the trachea) and can require several treatments. Canaries, which are particularly susceptible to these tracheal mites, also tend to develop infections.
External parasites. There are several that affect birds. The scaly face mite (Cnemidokoptes pilae) infects budgerigars and canaries, resulting in the beak or eyelids, legs and feet taking on a scaly or crusty appearance. Generally, this is enough to diagnose the mite, but to be sure we can use a microscope. Happily, there's an effective treatment we can prescribe.
Lice are commonly found on birds in the wild and can be transmitted to caged birds that are kept outdoors. By sucking blood, the lice cause birds to become anaemic and lethargic. In this weakened state, they are susceptible to possibly fatal diseases. Measuring one to two millimetres in length, lice can be easily spotted moving between the feathers or, even more thrilling, felt crawling over your skin when you hold an infested bird.
Feather mites are associated with budgies. When feather shafts are held against strong light, the mites can be seen as tiny, dark dots. Although they occasionally cause itchy skin, they don't do much damage overall.
Red mites get their colour (and their name) from the way they turn red after sucking blood, which causes anaemia. Because they are tiny (just 1/4 to 1/2 a millimetre in diameter), hide during the day and emerge only after dark and don't spend much time on your bird, red mites are more difficult to diagnose. After sucking their fill, they will move back down your bird's legs, along the perches and into a dark crevice in the cage or nearby where they retire until the next night's feed.
Lice and mites can be killed with pyrethrin sprays, repeated two or three times with a three-week interval. However, the cage - including the perches - also must be cleaned and disinfected to prevent reinfestation.
General Health - Oftentimes birds seem reluctant to let on that they're ill until the signs are obvious. For this reason, you should stay alert for any subtle changes in behaviour. Unwell birds generally fluff their feathers and grow quiet. They may sit rather than stand on perches or even sit on the cage floor. (While the two cockatiels to the right look normal enough, they could still be quite sick.)
You may also notice a change in the colour of the cere (the area around the nostrils), a nasal discharge, breathing through the mouth and shivering. Other symptoms include weight loss, feather and skin problems, changes in the size, colour and consistency of droppings and the presence of worms. If your bird continually nods its head or bobs its tail, it is having trouble breathing and likely has a serious illness.
As soon as you detect a change in your bird's appearance and/or behaviour, you should get in touch with us. Otherwise, the problem could become too advanced for effective treatment. In fact, bringing your bird to us for examinations on a regular basis can prevent a number of problems. Aside from offering advice on the proper diet and environment, we can tell you how to prevent diseases and nutritional and psychological disorders. We'll also keep a record of your bird's weight to ensure it's not becoming obese or 'going light.'
For more specific information on the birds we see most often, just click the links in the top line immediately below: