Bird Care Guide
Sue & Lou Sherwood
Are you thinking of getting a new bird as a pet? Each species is unique and wonderful in its own way but there are some general guidelines that apply to them all.
Be sure the bird you choose is healthy. A sick bird is no bargain no matter what the price. By the time a bird shows any symptoms of disease, illness has usually become quite advanced. If a bird appears droopy, ruffled, tired or hides his head under his wing, this is not the bird for you. If he sneezes, sits on the bottom of the cage, has a discharge above his nostrils or droppings stuck to his tail feathers, there may be big problems. If he makes clicking sounds as he breathes or if his tail bobs, the bird may have serious respiratory disease and you should choose another individual.
Signs of good health in a bird include bright eyes, clean shiny feathers, good appetite and lots of energy. Healthy birds eat often and are active. To help insure a healthy pet, obtain your bird from a reputable bird store or breeder.
Take your new bird to an avian veterinarian for a “well bird check up” immediately. Good pet stores will allow you to return a sick bird. This insures that you get a healthy pet, and lets you meet an avian veterinarian in your area. It also helps the pet store or breeder maintain healthy birds.
During your bird’s check up, the avian vet can advise you as to diet, maintenance, training, hygiene and medical needs. Be wary of any pet store that claims the bird needs no medical attention. It is important for ALL birds to have routine check ups, one when newly purchased and then every year for healthy birds.
Now, how about setting up your bird’s new home? You want it to be safe and comfortable. Buy the largest cage you can reasonably manage in your home. Be sure he can not slip his head between the bars. It should be convenient to clean and allow easy access to food and water containers. The perches should be of varying sizes, preferably of natural branches. These can be purchased at pet stores or you can collect your own. Manzanita, madrona and eucalyptus are all safe woods for birds to chew. Rinse them off before placing them in the cage. If you have other birds, place your new bird in an isolated room since many birds harbor contagious, disease causing organisms. This is very important to the well being of all of your feathered pets. The avian vet can advise you as to the safety of introducing him to your other birds when you have the exam.
Bird’s diets vary greatly from one species to another, but a good rule is that no more than 50% of a bird’s diet should be seed and nuts. The remaining 50% should be vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, small amount of cheese, lean cooked meats, boiled egg and other “people foods” with a powdered vitamin supplement added. Many birds love yogurt. All need fresh water daily.
Avoid walnut shell bedding material for the cage bottom. This frequently carries a fungal infection called aspergillus. Paper towel or corn cob bedding is all fine. Clean or replace them daily.
Finding an avian veterinarian can be difficult. Many vets do not treat birds, so it is important to find a specialist in avian care. Sometimes the breeder or pet store where you purchased your bird will have a referral to a local avian practitioner. If you are having a difficulty finding one, call your local Veterinary Medical Association for a referral.
What does your bird need? We now know that seed is not the only food needed by pet birds, and in fact, birds on a seed only diet, are very unhealthy. Only 50% of a bird’s diet should be seed. Of the other 50%, fruits and vegetables are the most important. This is where he obtains vital minerals and vitamins. If your bird is reluctant to try new foods, try cutting the fruits and vegies into small, seed size pieces. Sometimes mixing them into the seed helps. It is all right to cut back on his seed a bit. “Hunger is the best sauce” as they say. It is also okay to remove his seed for most of the day, offering it only for an hour in the morning, and an hour in the evening. During the day he will have only fruits and vegies to eat. If he is a little hungry, he will try new foods.
Out in the wild, birds eat a wide variety of nuts, small pieces of meat, even another bird’s eggs occasionally. So how do we duplicate this variety? A good rule of thumb is, if a food is healthy for a human, it is healthy for your bird. Birds enjoy spaghetti or a bit of chicken. Hard boiled egg is often a big hit. Almonds, walnuts or other nuts are fine in small quantities. Many birds love cheeses and yogurt. Monkey chow is a tasty treat and an excellent source of protein for birds. It is available at most pet stores. Cuttlebone and mineral blocks are a good source of calcium. If you have any questions about whether a food is good for your bird, call your avian vet for more information.
To make sure he’s getting everything he needs, supply fresh water. Some species, such as cockatiels and budgies, drink very little water and may benefit from a powdered vitamin sprinkled on moist food.
Pet Bird Safety
Those of us who have raised puppies and kittens know how dangerous a house can be. Mischievous, exploring young pets seem to find every available risky item in the first 24 hours of arrival. Having learned too dog- and cat-proof a house, we may feel prepared to safely welcome a pet bird into our lives. There are surprises in store. Birds add a whole new dimension to pet safety worries.
Unlike dogs and cats, birds fly. Birds fly into windows or mirrors, injuring themselves in the process. Decals or curtains allow a flying bird to see them and avoid a crash. Birds fly out of windows, never to be seen again. Screens are essential for windows and doors. When a bird is out of its cage, always remain nearby.
Even a bird with properly clipped wing feathers can flutter to disaster around the house. A ceiling fan should be an obvious “no-no,” but other mechanical appliances can be equally dangerous. Birds have been injured falling into electric beaters in the kitchen. They can fly and land on hot surfaces or into scalding water. Expect the unexpected with birds. If you open the hot oven, your parrot may pop right in!
If your bird is always confined to its cage, some of these precautions may seem excessive. Remember, escape is always possible, and accidents do happen. Besides, an owner of a well-trained bird will want to spend lots of quality time with the bird at this or her side (or shoulder). Most birds thrive on attention and human interaction, but wither with neglect. Plan for avian safety in all the rooms of your home.
Birds are exquisitely sensitive to toxins, especially those in the air they breathe. Remember about the canary in the mine shaft giving warning of gas accumulation? Cleaners, such as those used to degrease ovens, produce dangerous airborne contaminants and can be fatal to birds. Even strong cooking odors and smoke is a risk. Non-stick cookware is another worry. When overheated, the fumes can kill birds.
Birds can drown in small amounts of water. Upright narrow glasses are a danger as is very hot water (birds don’t expect the water to be hot). The toilet bowl, uncovered, has been the source of many avian injuries. Birds do like water play, and with supervision, many even enjoy showers with their owners. Bath perfumes and hair spray must be avoided around birds.
Chewing is the next big concern with birds. Most birds chew anything they can get their beaks on. We must provide safe woods and chew toys to allow this natural, healthy exercise. It is also essential to keep the house clear of dangerous items. Anything made of lead is forbidden (fishing weights, stained glass, metal toys, costume jewelry). Electric cords should be hidden and protected. Avoid poisonous house plants.
As you get in the habit of thinking about kinds of things that poison birds, you will automatically avoid the dangers. Remember, things that smell strong to us can often kill birds. Felt tip pens are aromatic and poisonous to birds. Nail polish and remover, paint fumes, cigarette smoke, colored ink and aerosol sprays of all kinds should be avoided. Other pets, such as cats, must be kept safely away.
There are many items to remember and dangers to avoid in keeping your pet birds safe around the house. Prevention, however, is always preferable to emergency medical intervention! Keep the name and number of your trusted avian vet handy just in case.
Knowing When Your Bird is Sick
Birds who die “suddenly” have usually been sick and no one knew it. But take heart, there are some good indicators of poor health. You only have to know what to look for. Once you learn the signs of early illness, needed treatments can be performed by your avian veterinarian.
Some of the best indicators of health is the bird’s droppings. The droppings are made up of feces, normally black or dark green. With this will be urine, which is clear, and urates, a creamy white waste material. Droppings with a mustard yellow liquid portion is not normal, nor is blood or rusty brown color in feces. Healthy birds eat often and make lots of droppings. A sick bird may have fewer droppings, or no fecal portion in them, just white and liquid.
Another indicator of illness is change in eating and drinking habits, for example, excessive water consumption. A bird who isn’t interested in food indefinitely is ill. A change in attitude or behavior can signal illness. Has he stopped talking, or does he appear sleepy and lethargic? Is he huddled on the bottom of the cage or sitting low and ruffled? Is he hiding his head under his wing? How about his feathers? Are they dull? Has he stopped preening himself? How about weight loss? Any of these symptoms indicates potentially serious problems.
Another sure sign of illness is any hint of respiratory distress. Open mouth breathing or any audible sounds, like clicking or wheezing are certain problems. A tail bob is actually a sign of respiratory distress! Vomiting in birds is very abnormal unless it is regurgitating to feed a mate or baby. Any discharge from the eyes or nostrils is a sign of illness, as is a swelling around the eyes. Of course, any injury or bleeding requires immediate veterinary care. A broken “blood feather” must be pulled immediately to stop the bleeding. These new, immature feathers are recognized by their protective “cellophane-like” wrap and their visible blood supply.
If your bird displays any of these signs, take the bird to your avian vet. Meanwhile, keep the bird warm: 85 degrees is ideal with access to a cooler area. An ordinary heating pad wrapped around on the side of the cage is fine. Offer food and water, placing it on the cage bottom if the bird is weak. Never give your own medicines, antibiotics or pet store cures to your bird. These can do more harm then good. Your avian vet will prescribe appropriate and SAFE medications.
Trimming Wings, Beaks and Toe Nails
Any bird in your home needs his wings trimmed unless he is an aviary bird. Concussions often occur when birds fly into windows or mirrors. Serious burns result from birds flopping into pots over stove flames. Many beloved birds fly out open windows or doors and are never seen again!
Wing trims can be performed at home, or you may choose to have your avian vet do it. It is best to watch an experienced person perform a wing trim before doing it yourself. Never cut a “blood feather.” This is a new feather still in its sheath. It has a prominent blood supply and will bleed if cut or broken. If you accidentally cut one, the only to stop the bleeding is to grasp the wing and pull the feather out at the base. The best wing trims allow the bird to flutter to the ground but not maintain flight. This is accomplished by cutting feathers of both wings. Once a wing trim has been done, hold your bird close to the ground, allowing him to gradually discover that he can not fly.
Some birds’ beaks may never need trimming, but others have overgrown tips or cracks that need smoothing. The beak has a blood and nerve supply and it is a good idea to let your avian bet decide how much, if any, should be removed. Most vets have a special tiny sanding tool to use. This is not recommended at home. Birds with “scissor beak,” a mal-alignment of the upper and lower beak structures, can be helped by routine trims and shaping.
Nail trimming is the most common avian grooming procedure. This can be done at home, but again it is advisable to learn from an expert. The nails will bleed during a nail trim, and a styptic powder such as “Quik-stop” will stop the bleeding. Parrots may have nails that become very sharp and painful to the person on whose shoulder they are perched. Do not give your bird sandpaper perches in hopes of wearing the nails down. These perches cause serious foot problems, including chronic ulcerated sores, and do little for the nails.
We hope that this information sheet has helped you with setting up your house in preparation of your new feathered friend.