Basic Parrot Care
Proper parrot care is not as straightforward as it might seem. Even the best-socialized parrots retain many wild characteristics, and their needs are very different from those of dogs and cats. With that in mind, here are a number of steps that you can take to ensure that your bird is happy and healthy. We've arranged them in categories, so that if you have any particular question you can go immediately to the proper place:
There are many deadly hazards to parrots in most homes. But it's easy to make your home reasonably parrot safe if you're aware of the hazards. Here are probably the most common hazards:
- PTFE (nonstick cooking surfaces, the best known of which is Teflon) — When heated, PTFE-coated pans emit toxins which are deadly to birds. Essentially, heated nonstick coatings emit "bird nerve gas." Many beloved pets die as a result of this. If you have nonstick pans, throw them out or give them to someone without birds. The same goes with "self-cleaning" ovens — they also emit deadly fumes when heated.
- Dogs & Cats — Both dogs and cats can be dangerous to parrots. Contrary to what you would expect, dogs are generally more of a hazard. This varies from dog to dog, with hunting types (terriers, etc.) generally being the most dangerous, while some other dogs are OK with birds. In general, if your dog acts very "interested in" or aggressive toward a bird, you should not bring a bird into your home or you should wait until your dog dies. Cats are generally afraid of parrots, but will sometimes attack them. Former alley cats, who often made part of their living by hunting wild birds and rodents, seem especially prone to this. But any cat can attack a bird. If a cat does attack your parrot, bring your bird in to see a vet even if the bird appears unharmed, because even minor cat scratches can cause infections which can kill a bird in a day or two.
- Kids & Teenagers — In general, parrots do not mix well with children and teenagers. A special hazard here, even if your kids are OK with birds, are you children's friends. If your children or your teenagers bring friends over, do not let your kids' friends have unsupervised contact with your bird. Abuse can, and all too often does, result from such unsupervised contact.
- Exposed Electrical Cords — Parrots are very curious, have large, powerful, beaks, and love to chew on things. To ensure your bird's safety, eliminate exposed electrical cords in areas where your bird can roam.
- Cleaning Compounds — Again, parrots are very curious and love to chew on things. Keep your cleaning supplies and any other potentially harmful chemicals (e.g., paint, glue, prescription drugs, etc.) in closed cabinets, preferably outside of the areas in which your bird roams.
- Cooking — Your bird can easily get badly burned if you cook while you have the bird on your arm or shoulder. All it takes is for the bird to get startled and bolt off of you (into a pot of boiling water, a hot cooking skillet, etc.). The easiest way to avoid this is to keep your bird out of the kitchen, or at the very least never cook while carrying the bird.
- Ceiling Fans and Windows — Ceiling fans are dangerous to flighted birds for obvious reasons. Windows can also be dangerous to flighted birds, because flighted birds oftentimes fly into them head first. Neither ceiling fans nor windows are dangers to clipped birds.
- Open Toilets — Smaller flighted or semi-flighted birds can drown in toilets, and even if they don't drown they can easily pick up diseases from the inside of a toilet. Keep your toilet's lid fully closed at all times.
Parrots are junk food junkies. The worse it is for them, the better they seem to like it. If you indulge your bird in his or her junk food addiction, at the very least you'll wind up with an obese bird. Quite possibly, you'll significantly shorten the life of your bird.
In the wild, most parrots eat very low-fat, low-protein diets, and are extremely well adapted to such diets. (Macaws and cockatoos, who eat nuts in the wild, are about the only exceptions.) Many of the foods in a typical human diet are very bad for parrots. To keep your bird healthy, we recommend the following diet guidelines:
Foods to Avoid
- Animal Fats, Animal Proteins, & Fried Foods — If fed typical human foods (meat, cheese, eggs, ice cream, etc.), parrots will become obese in short order, and over the long term will likely develop liver disease and heart disease, and will die untimely deaths. Parrots love fatty, high-protein foods, but such foods are very, very bad for parrots.
- Peanuts in the Shell — Peanuts in the shell occasionally are contaminated with aflatoxin, a carcinogenic byproduct of the deadly fungus Aspergillosis. Both can easily kill a parrot. Oftentimes there is no visible indication that aflatoxin is present, so peanuts in the shell should be avoided. Period. Peanut butter is OK occasionally (and parrots tend to love it), but peanuts in the shell should be always be avoided. (Of course, avoid commercial bird food mixes that contain peanuts in the shell.)
- Salty Foods — In the wild, parrots get little salt, and are sensitive to it. Since many salty foods are also fatty foods (e.g., potato chips), feeding your bird these things gives the poor bird's body a double whammy.
- Onions & Garlic — Almost alone among the vegetables, onions and garlic are bad for parrots. The reason for this is that they can cause kidney problems and blood-cell problems.
- Sunflower and Safflower Seeds — While sunflower seeds are common in many commercial bird food mixes, they should be avoided because of their very high fat content and their potential for carrying bacteria. Ingesting sunflower seeds can and does lead to obesity and liver disease in parrots. Safflower seeds, which are sometimes touted as a healthy alternative to sunflower seeds, are just as high in fat as sunflower seeds, and should likewise be avoided.
- Nuts — Parrots love nuts, but excessive nut consumption is bad for them, because of the high fat content of nuts. One or two nuts per day as treats probably will not harm your bird, but anything more than that will likely contribute to obesity. If you give your bird nuts, we highly recommend that you give the bird nuts in the shell, because crunching the shell to get at the nut is half the fun for your bird. Of all the nuts, parrots seem to prefer almonds in the shell, which are good treats because they're relatively cheap, somewhat less fatty than other nuts, and contain calcium. For Indonesian parrots (cockatoos, Eclectus, Great Bills), Moluccanuts are a normal part of the diet, but should be consumed in moderation. Macaws are also exceptions here, as nuts are a normal part of their diet, too — but again, feed your macaw nuts in moderation.
- Colored Pellets — Many cheap brands of parrot food contain colored (that is, dyed) pellets. Aside from the fact that such pellets are invariably sub-par nutritionally, the dyes in them are dangerous to your bird, especially to his liver (probably more so than dyes in food are to you, because parrots are more delicate than humans). As well, many cheap brands (colored and "natural") contain harmful additives (such as preservatives), and some even contain "animal byproducts" (that is, offal). Before buying pellets, read the nutritional information on the label.
Foods to Include
- Vegetables, Vegetables, and More Vegetables — Vegetables should be the bedrock of a healthy parrot diet. With the exception of onions and garlic, almost all vegetables are good for parrots. We particularly recommend vegetables high in Vitamin A (red kale, red chard, carrots, sweet potatoes, garnet yams), because parrots have a tendency to have Vitamin A deficiencies. If possible, feed your bird organic veggies. Do not feed your bird the same greens (lettuce, kale, chard, spinach) for more than two or three days in a row. This is especially true of spinach, which should not be a regular part of your bird's diet.
- Fruits in Moderation — Fruit is a nice treat for parrots, and they should get some (though less than the amount of vegetables they get) every day. Canteloupe, papaya, and berries are the healthiest fruits for your bird. Strawberries, however, should be avoided unless organic, because they tend to be badly overtreated with pesticides. The same goes for nonorganic grapes.
- High Quality Pellets — Undyed pellets should be a regular part of a parrot's diet, and should be available to a parrot at all times (including at night). We highly recommend organic pellets, because even many "natural" pellets contain harmful preservatives and other additives.
- Size — In general, get a bigger cage for your bird than you think he needs. At the absolute minimum, a bird needs a cage large enough so that he can fully spread his wings without touching the sides of the cage, and at least twice that size is better. Large parrots need large cages, the only exception being African Greys, who tend to like moderately sized cages (say 2' X 2' X 2'). And no cage is big enough for a macaw.
- Bar Spacing — Your bird's head should not be able to fit between the bars of the cage. If it can, you could easily end up with a strangled bird.
- Materials — Stainless steel and powder-coated (that is, baked-on coating) cast iron and steel cages are best. Galvanized cages are to be avoided, because birds can and do succumb to zinc poisoning.
- Doors — There should be at least a 1/4" gap on all sides between the door and frame of a bird's cage. Tight-fitting doors are a recipe for severed toes and feet.
- Shape — Avoid cages with domed or otherwise rounded tops. Flat tops are by far the best for two reasons: 1) Many parrots like to hang upside down from the bars of flat-topped cages; 2) It's easy to hang toys from the bars of flat-topped cages. (Many cages with flat tops come with a removable poop tray on the top of the cage. If you buy such a cage, get rid of the poop tray on top — birds absolutely hate them because they make the cage so dark.)
- Placement — Never place a bird's cage in the middle of a room. That's a recipe for an anxious, nervous bird. Place cages against walls, preferably in well-lit areas. Also, avoid drafty places, such as under an air-conditioning or heating vent. If the cage is against a window, make sure that your bird can have some privacy and a feeling of at least some security by draping a towel or a sheet over one side of the cage.
- Bottom Lining — Avoid using ground corn cob, walnut shells or other such spongy media on cage bottoms; they hide filth and encourage the growth of deadly bacteria and fungus. Use newspaper (at least two sheets thick), and change the papers daily. Newspaper is cheap, easy, and sanitary.
- Cage Cleaning — Haul your bird's cage outside and thoroughly scrub it down every few weeks. Wooden perches can be run through the dishwasher, or scrubbed with a stiff brush, disinfected with bleach, rinsed, and dried. Strong sunlight is a great disinfectant.
- Dish Cleaning — You should clean your bird's water and food dishes at least daily. (Water dishes tend to need cleaning two or three times a day.)
- Time Out of Cage — Parrots need time out of their cages, and in general the more "free" time a bird has, the happier he'll be. At a bare minimum, your bird should have at least two to four hours out of his cage every day. (Having a play stand away from the cage provides a good place for your bird to spend his "out" time.)
- Good Perches — The best perches are made from tree branches or grapevines. Parrots' feet have evolved to grasp uneven surfaces — that is, branches — and the use of such perches will promote good foot health in birds. We also recommend that perches be secured with stainless steel hardware (nuts & bolts) in order to avoid the problem of possible zinc toxicity involved with ordinary galvanized hardware. Safe woods include citrus, eucalyptus, mesquite (remove spines if necessary), manzanita (which can be slippery for young birds), ribbonwood, and grapevine.
- Bad Perches — There are many types of bad perches, but almost all have one thing in common: they're perfectly round. Avoid perches made of PVC or ABS tubing, iron pipes, or dowel sticks. These — especially if they're the only perch for a poor bird — can and will cause horrible foot lesions and a great deal of unnecessary pain. And avoid rough concrete perches (which can cause foot sores) unless your bird has plenty of natural wood perches, too.
If your bird is engaging in these problem behaviors, here are some basic guidelines to dealing with it:
- Never, Never scream at or hit a bird. Not only is this loutish, bullying behavior, but it doesn't work. As with abused children, parrots learn that negative attention is better than no attention, so they'll continue their obnoxious behavior in order to provoke your abusive response.
- If your parrot bites you, try not to react at all except to give him a "time out" for five minutes in the (empty) Bathtub Correctional Facility or his sleep cage. Birds have short attention spans, so there's no point to "time outs" of over a few minutes. Parrots are flock animals, so separation from the flock (you, your family, and your other birds if you have any) even for a few minutes is very unpleasant for them. A key here is to give the "time out" immediately so that the bird will associate it with the bite. If you wait any time at all, the bird will perceive you as being capriciously mean, and will resent you for it.
- Reward good behaviors. If your bird is screaming, ignore him. But a few minutes after he quiets down, tell him what a good quiet bird he is; and, if he's in his cage, reward him with some time out of his cage. Do this at other times when he's being quiet, and he'll soon learn to equate being quiet with pleasurable attention.
- In itself, love and attention tend to minimize problem behaviors. The more love and attention you give to your bird, the less likely problem behaviors are to crop up or recur.
- Time — Probably the greatest gift you can give to your bird is your love and attention. Plan to spend at least an hour a day with your bird. Some birds, particularly macaws and cockatoos, need more time than this.
- Showers — Parrots usually love to take showers, either with you when you take yours, or via a spray bottle. If you use a spray bottle, set it to a fine mist and aim it just above the bird, not at his face. In general, parrots need showers at least once a week. Small birds, such as cockatiels and conures enjoy a small bowl of water for bathing.
- Toys — Parrots, especially those shut up in their cages for many hours per day, need toys. We recommend that you give your bird a new toy once a month, and more often if possible. Chew toys made of untreated wood are helpful in preventing beak overgrowth. Parrots often love very simple homemade toys — for instance, many birds love to chew up strips of cardboard. Even very cheap toys, such as bells, can provide your bird with hour after hour of entertainment.
- Regurgitation — Many affectionate birds like to eat out of their companion human's mouth. If you have such a bird, don't let him do it! It's dangerous to him because, in comparison with birds, humans are walking sewers of disease organisms. Your mouth is very septic compared with a bird's.
- Clipping — Whether or not to clip your bird's flight feathers is your decision. However, we encourage most people, especially new owners, to clip their birds' flight feathers. If you don't clip your bird, you'll need to be very vigilant and never leave windows or doors open, and never take your bird out. If you do clip your bird, trim only his flight feathers, the "primaries" at the ends of his wings. Do not clip the "secondary" feathers near to his body. These do not affect his ability to fly, only his ability to land. Birds with clipped secondaries but not clipped primaries can still fly, but they have a marked tendency to injure or kill themselves by flying into walls because they can't stop. For this reason, we strongly recommend that you clip your bird yourself. (There are a lot of pet stores giving birds horrendous, dangerous clip jobs. As well, with clip jobs at pet stores, there's always the chance that your bird will pick up a disease.) We also recommend that you clip only enough of the primaries so that your bird can still glide to the ground (rather than drop like a rock, which is the case when the primaries are overly trimmed). Heavy bodied birds such as Amazons and Greys need less trimming that light bodied birds such as cockatoos and conures.
- Vet Care — We recommend that you take your bird in for a vet check once a year. And if your bird appears sick (sitting on the bottom of his cage or fluffed up when he's usually active), take him in to the vet immediately. Don't wait. Parrots can sicken and die very quickly. Parrots normally try to hide illness, so if yours appears sick, he quite probably is. Early signs of illness include reduced eating, reduced weight, reduced vocalizing, reducing playing, and atypical droppings.
- Sleep — Parrots need more sleep than humans. Typically, they need a bare minimum of ten hours sleep per night, with twelve hours being better. (They also nap a lot.) To promote good sleep patterns, we recommend that parrots have sleep cages in a dark, quiet place, and that they be put to bed and gotten up at the same times every day. If you don't have room for a separate sleep cage (which can be smaller than your parrot's daytime cage), you can also cover your parrot's cage with a sheet or blanket. With such a cover, your bird will fall asleep in even a semi-dark room.