Bird Care Guidelines
Pet birds require specialist care to meet their complex welfare needs. If you are still interested in having a bird as a pet after reading this basic guide, you should do as much research into the different species and their needs as possible before getting a bird.
Parrots and parrot-like birds are popular pets in the UK and species include
Cockatoos, Parakeets, Zebra Finches, Cockatiels and African Grey parrots. Most birds can live several decades i.e. budgerigars 15-20 years, and some of the parrots live 60 years or more, so taking on a bird is a life-long commitment.
Any bird that you keep should be captive bred and never wild caught.
The best housing for a bird is a large outdoor aviary where it can fly freely and spread its wings and with access to indoor shelter. Outdoor aviaries need to be rodent proof and made of a safe and strong construction. You can research aviary construction if this is an option but they should be made of a safe metal such as stainless steel with small gaps so as not to allow birds to escape or damage themselves. If your bird is to be housed outside, ensure that you ask the seller how well acclimatised the bird is to outdoors living, as they may not be used to cooler temperatures. You will need to introduce the change in temperature to them slowly if they have not lived outside previously.
It is not good welfare to keep a bird in a small indoor cage. If you do keep a bird indoors, it still must be able to spread its wings (it is illegal for a bird to be kept in a cage so small that it cannot spread its wings) and have access daily in the house for free flight. In the wild birds fly long distances every day so this is important for them to maintain fitness and good health. You must make sure that all doors and windows are closed and that it is safe to fly your bird indoors. The cage should be kept in a safe place where it won’t be knocked over. Although birds are social and like company, they should also be able to retreat to a quiet space if they choose.
In either set up it is important to offer your bird shelter and places to hide. Consider offering your bird the choice of places to rest that are warm, safe, and quiet. They should always be kept away from draughts as these are damaging to your birds health.
Perches are very important for birds and you should supply sufficient numbers depending on how many birds you keep. You should also offer perches of different sizes and textures, and even flexible perches or perches that move. These help to strengthen the bird’s feet and prevent pressure sores as well as providing mental stimulation. Perches also allow birds to exercise their beaks if made of natural wood, a very important need for a bird.
Some birds can be very noisy, so this is something to consider if you live in a flat or have neighbours close by who may not appreciate the disturbance.
The bottom of the aviary or cage floor can be kept as soil, or covered in sawdust, peat, wood shavings, sand or newspaper and must be cleaned daily.
Light and Heat
Many birds kept as pets in the UK are naturally found in more tropical locations e.g.
zebra finches or canaries. This means that they are biologically designed to live in warm habitats with lots of sunlight. In the UK we do not have the right weather to meet these needs so we must meet them artificially with UVA/UVB lamps and heat lamps. UV light has been shown to be necessary for optimum bird health, as it is required to synthesise vitamin D3 necessary for regulating calcium levels.
UVB output decreases over time in a bulb so this must be replaced regularly according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Glass also blocks UVB from the sun’s rays so positioning an indoor enclosure near a sunny window is not sufficient.
For heat lamps infra-red heat bulbs or tube heating work well. Always ensure that the lights and heat lamps are well protected with guards around them to prevent the birds burning themselves or damaging the lamps. Consulting with an electrician on this is advisable.
Birds are intelligent animals that in the wild often live in pairs or flocks. This will depend, however, on your species and your housing set up. Pet canaries, for example, are territorial and if kept in a cage are unlikely to tolerate another canary unless it is of the opposite sex and even then may not do so happily. If housed in a large aviary, however, more birds can be housed together, always with a ratio of more hen birds (female birds) to cock birds (male birds) to prevent fighting. It should be remembered, however, that in some birds it is almost impossible to determine the gender based on outward appearance so you will need to consult a vet if this is important.
Like humans, however, birds don’t like just anyone, so if you are keeping more than one bird it is vital that you introduce them slowly, and be prepared to separate them if it does not work. Birds can become very stressed if kept with a mate that is aggressive towards them.
If you do keep a single bird, especially one that was hand reared, plenty of human interaction every day is necessary to keep your bird happy and healthy.
A new bird should be quarantined for at least 35 days to ensure that it is not carrying any diseases before being introduced to any existing birds.
A suitable commercial bird feed appropriate for the species is a good start for a bird. It must be kept away from rodents and mould free. Most birds enjoy additions to this basic diet of fresh food such as fruits and greens and even some weeds such as dandelion and chickweed. You can also add additional supplements such as Cuttlebone and calcium blocks.
Some foods, however, can be poisonous for some birds such as tomatoes, mushrooms, apple seeds or avocado so how much food and what type specifically will depend on the species and should be researched further. Variety is key so providing lots of different suitable foods for your species will help to keep them healthy and happy.
Food does not always have to be cut up small for your birds. Providing fruit whole allows the bird to work at manipulating the food and gives them mental stimulation. You could also hide food throughout the aviary or cage for them to search for throughout the day.
Fruit and vegetables should always be washed thoroughly before feeding to remove any pesticide residue. Avoid placing dishes directly under perches where they will be soiled quickly.
Fresh browse from suitable edible plants are ideal for birds and not only provide a good food source, but are fun and stimulating for the bird to eat. You must make sure, however, that you research what plants are edible for your particular bird species as some plants are toxic. Also ensure that any plants you pick do not have pesticides on, as these could be dangerous for your bird.
Fresh, clean water must always be on offer for both drinking and bathing. Bathing is a necessary part of keeping their feathers in good condition to enable flight so ensure that the water is free from debris and bird faeces. Some larger birds will prefer a light misting from a spray bottle 2-3 times a week.
Keeping a bird happy in captivity is very hard. Birds are easily stressed if all of their needs are not met. This can lead to psychological and behavioural problems such as over plucking their feathers and skin, repetitive behaviours, and depression. If your bird is showing any of these troublesome behaviours they are hard to change, so prevention is always better than a cure.
One of the ways to keep a bird happy is to provide them with plenty of mental and physical stimulation. This can be achieved through enrichment, providing novel objects or interesting items in which your bird can interact. This could include safe children’s toys i.e. no small or easily broken parts that might be ingested, hanging food in puzzle feeders (bought or homemade) or paper bags, or providing them with destructible items such as cardboard tubes, boxes or newspaper. Some birds enjoy mirrors, but for some, they can be a cause of stress so monitor your bird’s behaviour carefully and only provide it with a mirror under supervision.
Birds such as parrots also love to climb so provide plenty of opportunities for them to practice this natural behaviour such as with ropes or wooden climbing frames. Any safe and suitable enrichment that allows a bird to exercise its beak is going to bring many benefits to your bird.
Healthy birds will groom themselves regularly. If they live with a companion they will often be seen grooming each other. An ungroomed bird is often a sign that the bird is unwell.
Breeding birds can be very demanding requiring a lot of attention, expertise and time. You should always get advice from an expert before attempting to breed any bird as it can be very difficult and stressful.
Bringing Home Your Bird
A small travel box is best for your bird to travel in with a towel on the floor of the box and a perch. You can cover the box with a towel if necessary, but you must leave some gaps for air to circulate so your bird can breathe.
You should ensure that you have everything that your bird will need before you bring your bird home. Allow your new bird to come out from its transport cage in its own time if possible and leave it alone overnight with access to food and water to adjust to its new surroundings.
Don’t overwhelm your bird with new toys and enrichment straight away. Allow your bird to be calm and confident in its new surroundings first; this may take a few days, or a few weeks or longer. You should also ensure that it is calm and peaceful around your bird while he settles in to his new home and not start to handle the bird until he is more relaxed.
You should consider who would be prepared to look after your bird if you go on holiday or have to go away in an emergency. This should be someone who will continue to provide the specialist care that they need and minimise any disturbance.
Parrots in particular form strong bonds with their owners, so it is important that everybody in the household handle them to prevent anxiety and possessiveness towards a particular person. Hand raised birds in particular will seek out and need daily human contact.
Exotic birds require specialist expert knowledge in their treatment. You should look for a good avian vet in your area before purchasing a bird, especially as it may be the early days of ownership that you require veterinary help. If in doubt, ask at your local small animal vet practice or local avicultural society.
Birds do not often show any signs of illness until it is well developed. In the wild showing signs of illness would make a bird vulnerable to predation so appearing well is an important survival mechanism. If your bird is spending a lot of time sitting on the cage or aviary floor, has fluffed-up feathers, resting with its head in the wing, has loose stools, a thin breast bone, cloudy eyes, sleeping excessively, heavy breathing or nasal discharge these are usually signals that the bird is unwell and you should seek a specialist vet.
Many household items can hurt or even kill a bird so it is important to avoid these things around your bird. These include tobacco smoke, lead paints, chemical cleaners, aerosol products, insecticides, scented candles or incense, some houseplants, or overheated Teflon cookware. It is important to not situate your bird’s cage near a kitchen, as these are often places of toxic fumes for birds.
Good husbandry and nutrition can help to prevent many medical problems. You should always take out pet insurance for your bird to avoid financial worries should your bird become ill.
Birds carry powder down (a type of feather, which has barbs that disintegrate to produce a very fine powder) which is naturally used to clean the feathers. Some species of birds carry more than others and this should be considered by anyone who has allergies or chest complaints as it can affect breathing.
Birds can also carry salmonella and Chlamydophila psittaci (this is rare), which can both be passed to humans. Good hygiene practice is important, especially for children, so wash your hands before and after handling birds and their enclosures, and have somewhere to wash a bird’s food dish that is separate to human dishes (i.e. not the kitchen sink).