Birds can make amazing companions, but with life spans that can often exceed our own, it is important to provide adequate housing, enrichment and the correct nutritional needs to ensure they can live long happy lives in captivity.
They are incredibly inquisitive, intelligent and social animals, who deserve the same standard of care as dogs and cats. Information on adequate bird care can vary or be lacking. So, here are the basic rules according to our bird-loving nurse Phoebe Conti.
There can be a lot of stigma around housing birds in cages, and rightfully so. Cages are often seen as “birdie prisons”. Cages don’t need to come with negative connotations. Instead, cages should be seen as your birds’ own personal safe space; their home. A cage should suit their individual needs, somewhere they want to be and will happily take themselves when playtime is over.
Size is very important, cages should be at a minimum, large enough to allow your pet bird to extend their wings fully and turn around. Width is preferable to height, as birds like the space to move horizontally. Rounded cages don’t provide birds with corners to hide in, and can make birds feel exposed and vulnerable, so cages with squared corners are essential.
What your cage is made from is also incredibly important. Cages should be made from stainless steel or new BHP polymer covered wire and galvanized wire cages avoided. Signs of rust should be monitored closely, and cages should be scrubbed regularly to avoid corrosion. Birds will often lick the wires of their cages and over time, ingest trace amounts of lead, copper or zinc particles which can lead to heavy metal toxicity, which if not treated, can be fatal.
Inside the cage of pet birds
What we furnish our birds cages with can provide our pet parrots with great enrichment.
Native Australian tree branches of varying widths can be used as perches; treated or pine wood should be avoided. Cages often come with dowel perches. Using maybe one of these in your cage can be fine, however using only dowel perches can cause discomfort over time, as they have no bumps, grooves or opposing textures that can offer relief to feet constantly perched in the same position. Sand paper perches and sand paper in general should also be avoided.
Rope perches and toys should never be used. Unfortunately, these are commonly sold in pet shops, and although they seem like a great and fun option, birds (particularly budgies, cockatiels and lorikeets) love to chew on these rope fibres. Over time, these fibres sit undigested in the crop or GI tract and can cause horrible infections and impactions. Often surgical intervention is the only option. Birds can be symptomless after years and years of accumulating these small fibres, so again, total avoidance is recommended.
We are so lucky in Australia, to have an abundance of bird enrichment options often right outside our windows.
Birds are natural foragers, and love to have this behaviour simulated for them in captivity. Native blossoms, gum nuts, banksia cones, leaves and branches are great to pop in and around your birds’ cage and offer a variety of options to keep beaks busy and happy.
There are some great toys available that encourage foraging and problem solving, however you do not need to spend much to provide hours of fun and enrichment.
Treat seeds like sunflower seeds can be hidden amongst a tray full of gum nuts and leaves or hidden inside a scrunched-up piece of cardboard, or in the empty pods of a banksia cone. Something as simple as a used paper towel tube can be endless fun to destroy.
When purchasing toys, natural wood is always best. However, if your bird is a fan of colourful metal bells or anything with metal clips or hinges, ensure you check these regularly for any signs of rust, and dispose of immediately if rust present.
The perfect pet bird diet
Different types of parrots require different nutritional needs. For this post, I’ll focus on commonly owned Australian parrots, such as Budgies, Cockatiels, Cockatoos, Galahs, and Corellas.
As mentioned previously, parrots are natural foragers, and will often travel vast distances in the wild to find food. However, in captivity, their energy requirements are not as dense. Commercial large parrot seed mixes often contain a large amount of sunflower and safflower seeds. Birds LOVE these seeds. And why wouldn’t they? They are incredibly high in saturated fats and taste delicious. Because of this, birds will often become selective and pick only these seeds. Over consumption of these fatty seeds can cause obesity, liver disease and lipomas and should be limited to no more than 7 seeds per day. These seeds should be reserved for treats and can be a great incentive for training purposes.
Millet based seed mixes such as budgie seed is by far the best option for birds on a seed diet, with the occasional treat seed here and there. Though ideally, the majority of a captive parrots’ diet should be pellet based. Harrisons, Vetafarm and Roudybush are all great brands that offer a nutritionally balanced pellet for varying species and sizes of parrots. Though these pellets are fantastic, at least one teaspoon of budgie seed should be offered daily together with pellets.
In the wild, budgies and all species of cockatoos (yes, cockatiels are cockatoos too!) love fresh grass seed and grass roots. After rain, these grass seeds are in abundance and your bird will love having these fresh juicy grass roots and seeds to feast upon.
Leafy green vegetables should be given daily such as bok choy, silverbeet, kale, spinach, broccoli leaves and florets, whole pea pods and beans. Sweet and sugary vegetables such as corn, carrot, capsicum, sweet potato and beetroot should be limited and only given occasionally as treats. A word on fruit – In Australia, we do not have many native fruits. We do however, have an array of nectar rich native blossoms. Spring is usually the time these sugary flowers are in abundance.
Too much sugar in a captive bird’s diet can result in an influx of sexual hormones which can cause behavioural problems, as well as health problems such as testicular tumours in budgies or an over production of eggs in female birds. Over producing eggs is an incredibly taxing task on a birds’ body. Often, they can become egg bound as they cannot produce enough calcium to harden and lay their eggs, resulting in egg binding. Egg binding is very serious and can be fatal.
Birds like lorikeets love fruit, but just as our fatty seeds should be reserved as treats, so should fruit.
Avocado, coffee and chocolate are all toxic to birds, and should never be given.
It is important to remember birds are prey animals in the wild and will instinctively mask the signs of illness and injury. By the time they start showing visible symptoms, it is possible they have been sick or injured for quite some time, so a trip to the vet is crucial.
Signs to look for in an unwell bird include being lethargic, being fluffed up and a change in their droppings.
In fact, your birds’ faeces can be the first indicators that something isn’t quite right, even if they seem fine within themselves.
If your birds’ droppings appear watery, bright green, all white, black or contain whole undigested seed, this may be indicative of an underlying problem, and veterinary treatment should be carried out. Birds rarely stop eating when unwell, in fact they quite often will eat more in times of illness.