By Jesse Tanner, BAnSc, Owner of For The Parrots
If you’re here you likely already have a pet parrot and are wanting to learn more or are possibly considering bringing a parrot into your home in the future. While pet parrots can be tamed do not make the mistake in thinking they are “domesticated” like dogs and cats. Pet parrots are still very close to their wild relatives and so as owners it is our responsibility to ensure we are providing our feathered friends with appropriate care and enrichment to reduce the risk of health issues like fatty liver disease, distress causing feather plucking and many more problems that may arise. I do not believe everyone is suited to owning birds because of the type of care that is needed, the close attention they need to assess their health and wellbeing as well as being able to deal with a wild animal living in your home. That being said, if you are the type of person suited to caring for birds they can make great companions.
In this post I’m going to be covering the basics of parrot care. I will be talking a little bit about nutrition, disease, behaviour and enrichment but not going into full depth of each until future posts. At the bottom of this post you will find all resources I used while researching and writing this post so you can read them as well if you would like. I have received my Bachelor of Animal Science this year (2020) and am hoping to use my knowledge gained over my studies as well as my research skills in order to keep the community up to date on the latest information we have on parrots and their care. We are still learning a lot about parrots so things that may have been considered safe or appropriate for birds in the past may now be seen as inappropriate. Given how long parrots can live it's important to keep up to date on the latest research and adjust care accordingly.
Let's first start with the housing for your bird. Even if your bird is out alot with you having a cage where they can sleep and go to while you are not available to watch over them is important for their safety as there are many things in a household that could injure of kill a pet parrot, especially if you are not there to help them immediately. Early in bird keeping tiny cages were used which did not allow the birds enough room for movement and would often only be outfitted with dowel rod perches which can cause a condition called bumble foot and may even lead to arthritis. As our understanding increases and there is more push for appropriate husbandry to improve animal welfare larger cages have been made available. At a bare minimum the bird must be able to fully spread their wings and move around the enclosure as well as having enough room to do this after including multiple dishes for food and water, a variety of perch types and sizes and toys for enrichment. Bar spacing is important, particularly making sure that our smaller species (budgies, parrotlets, green cheek conures etc) cannot fit their head in between bars as it poses an injury and escape risk. Bigger will always be better in terms of size for a bird cage, so long as you get a cage with correct bar spacing, find the biggest cage you can for your budget as the more room your bird has in their cage the more room they have for exercise as well as more toys and enrichment. Parrots are prey animals and as such should be provided with somewhere to shelter in their cage, this means round cages are out because they don’t provide an area for the bird to retreat and hide. Having the back covered with a sheet or against a wall will help to provide this sheltered area. If you have larger birds the thickness of the bars must be considered as larger birds can break weaker bars posing many risks. Powder coated or stainless steel are the best options for material, stay away from zinc or any cage that does not state the material used to avoid potential metal poisoning.
Birds are always on their feet so we need to make sure to provide them with perches of different materials, thickness and texture to keep their feet healthy. As mentioned earlier stay away from dowel perches as the birds feet will constantly be gripping in the exact same position and can lead to arthritis and bumble foot. Natural perches should be your number one choice, provide a couple of different thicknesses. Appropriate thickness of a perch should allow for your birds feet to comfortably hold and will help to file their nails; if the perch is too thin their feet will be overworked and will not be able to stretch out, too large and your bird may have trouble balancing on the perch as they can’t grip it properly. I like to provide one perch or swing which is wrapped in a bird safe rope (for example jute) which allows your bird to rest on something softer, this shouldn’t be the primary perch. Concrete perches are an option to help file the birds nails but is not a good option if the bird uses it most of the time as it is very hard on their feet. If you use a bendy rope perch you should get rid of it as soon as you see that your bird has been chewing it up as the fibres that your bird may ingest can cause a crop impaction meaning they can not get proper nutrition and usually needs to be removed surgically. When placing perches have them on different heights and to make cleaning easier for yourself make sure none of the lower perches are below a higher one or they will get covered in poop.
Birds should have access to water 24/7 and the bowls should be cleaned often to avoid buildup of harmful bacteria. Putting food and water in different areas means your bird will get some exercise in by moving from one to the other. If you have multiple birds you need to provide bowls for each bird to minimise the risk of fights over resources. While feeding from bowls is easy for us it doesn’t do many favours for our birds as they can become lazy, bored and can result in behavioural issues. Try feeding most if not all of their dry food by hiding it in foraging toys (you can of course do this with their fresh foods as well but will need to be in a toy which can hold fresh food and be safely washed). Birds in the wild spend the majority of their day foraging for food. By offering foraging toys it keeps our birds busy and lets them use their natural instincts.
Toys and enrichment should be provided and items rotated in and out frequently to keep your bird interested. This can be anything from wood and shredding toys to foraging toys. Most of the toys I provide here on For The Parrots are able to be used as foraging toys. If your bird does not yet know how to play with toys or forage you can send us a message and I will walk you through the steps I take to introduce enrichment and can suggest which of our toys are going to be best suited for your individual bird.
Being prey species birds are very good at hiding illness, usually by the time an illness is obvious the bird is extremely unwell. I recommend tracking your bird's weight regularly (I do daily for my birds but some people just do weekly). Weight loss is generally the first sign of illness in a bird and is something they can’t really hide. By weighing daily I was able to catch Pistachios intestinal infection before he started showing outward symptoms. When I saw his weight drop from his average I booked him in to see the vet, when there we ran a fecal smear and saw a raging infection going on, it wasn’t until a couple days later that he actually looked sick and was quiet and lethargic but thankfully we had already started him on antibiotics. His infection was so heavy he was on antibiotics for 3 weeks instead of just 7 days before it was cleared out. If I hadn’t caught his weightloss I fear he would have been much sicker and may not have recovered as well as he did. It is also a good idea to prepare for the possibility of your bird needing medication by teaching them to drink from a syringe (I filled a 1mL syringe with some pouched baby food made of bird safe ingredients so he learnt that he got extra special yummy treats from the syringe and was able to mix in the medication with little notice on his end). Check out our tiktok video posted at the end to see Pistachio happily taking his medicine!
There are many things in the household harmful to birds such as burning candles, aerosol sprays, teflon coated pans and more. Where possible anything potentially harmful should be removed from the home, even if the bird isn’t in the same room toxic fumes can easily spread through the house and enough exposure could be very deadly. Unfortunately many pet birds have died as a result of a toilet lid being left up and they have fallen in and drowned (parrots are not designed for swimming) so make sure the toilet lid is always down when the bird is out. Doors need to be securely closed to reduce escapes, even better if there can be more than one door between your bird and the outside. Everyone in the household must be aware that doors are to remain closed when the bird is out and if opening a door outside the bird should be in their house. It is important to teach your bird how to fly to you, and especially how to descend, as this will increase your chances of getting them back if an accident happens and they do escape. Finally, you should have some basic first aid supplies on hand in case your bird gets injured. Cornstarch is good for stopping bleeding in case of broken toenails or blood feathers. Birds, especially our smaller species do not have a large volume of blood. Pistachio had his nail bitten by Monkey earlier in the year, I wasn’t able to stop the bleeding by myself at home within 10 minutes so I took him to the vet as an emergency where they were able to stop the bleeding but because he had lost a few millilitres of blood he was having trouble sufficiently oxygenating so he spent the day in a ventilator box to help increase his oxygen intake which his body replenished his blood loss. Teach your bird that it is ok to be restrained in a towel and it will make it less stressful when you may need to do it when checking for injuries. A common injury in pet parrots occurs due to the bird flying into a window, this injury can range from slight disorientation and concussion to broken bones or even death. Show your bird the windows and let them tap all over the glass so they can understand it is solid. Work on their flight skills so they can safely maneuver around the home without hitting a window or wall, as clipped birds do not have the ability to control their flight and so are at more risk from serious injury if flying from being spooked.
I hope this post has helped provide you with some information on the basics of pet parrot care and many things that need to be considered. I do plan on going further in depth in the future on nutrition, enrichment and proper handling but the bare basics were mentioned here today. Let me know what things about birds you would like to know next!
Until next time, Jesse, Pistachio and Monkey signing off
Resources during research for this post
Acharya, R., Rault, J.L. (2020). Risk factors for feather-damaging behaviour in companion parrots: a social media study. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour
Bird Vet Melbourne (2010). Setting up your bird’s cage - bird vet/avian vet Melbourne
Bowles, Heather, Lichtenberger, Marla & Lennox, Angela (2007). Emergency and critical care of pet birds. Veterinary Clinics Exotic Animal Practice
Engebretson, M. (2006). The welfare and sustainability of parrots as companion animals: a review. Universities Federation for Animal Welfare
Evans, Mark (2001). Environmental enrichment for pet parrots. Avian Practice
Jenkins, Jeffrey R. (2001). Feather picking and self-mutilation in psittacine birds. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice
West, Jennifer A., Tully, Thomas N., Nevarez, Javier G. & Stout, Rhett W. (2019). Effects of fluorescent lighting versus sunlight exposure on calcium, magnesium, witamin D, and feather destructive behaviour in Hispaniolan Amazon Parrots (Amazona ventralis). Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery
Werneck, G.R., Moreno, T.B., Souza, C.M.M, Bastos, T.S., da Rocha, C. & Felix, A.P. (2020). Influence of maize particle size on kibble quality, palatability and metabolizability of diets for the Blue-fronted Amazon parrot (Amazona aestiva). Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences
Some information in this post has been gathered by my own experiences with my birds, explanations given to me by my vet and other various online resources. Remember that things are always changing in the bird world and not to take any one persons word as absolute, instead reading articles and listening to multiple experts in the bird world will give you the most rounded knowledge on caring for your parrot.