By Julie Doherty
Given their social nature, pet birds make great companions. Just like any pet, however, adequate time, money and knowledge are required for you to make the most out of your relationship with your pet bird.
The first step requires looking before you leap, said bird veterinarian Dr. Patricia Latas, who has known birds who’ve suffered the consequences of being passed around to as many as 15 homes.
“Birds are often purchased as gifts or on impulse and people have not researched [the bird’s] care and commitment,” she said. “In general, the pet-buying public is ignorant of bird care, welfare and well-being. Inexperienced people buy a baby [bird], then have no idea how to raise a healthy, self-assured and intelligent pet.”
Here are some basics to consider before acquiring a companion bird.
What Do Pet Birds Eat?
Among the considerations to be made by potential pet owners when deciding whether to take on the commitment that comes with bird companionship is what pet birds typically eat. Although a bird’s diet depends on the species, life history and how they’re housed, Latas recommends steering clear of seeds, which are high in fat but low in almost every nutrient (they can be used for a treat but use caution, as once a bird has seeds, it may protest its proper diet). Instead, she recommends a diet consisting of high-quality, age-appropriate pellet or crumble and vegetables.
Companion birds should be offered dark leafy greens, cooked sweet potatoes, yams, squash, pumpkin, and the tops and bottoms of fresh carrots. Some fruit can be offered but it is of low nutritional value and should be considered a treat. Human-grade ancient grains can also be offered sparingly and a minimal amount of legumes, sprouts and other high-protein plant material can be offered, Latas said. Since most birds are herbivores or granivores, animal proteins such as meat, eggs and fish can be harmful.
“Their digestive system is very efficient at extracting amino acids and proteins from plant material,” Latas said. “Overloading with protein, especially animal protein, will lead to severe kidney dysfunction, gout, calcium/phosphorus imbalance, reproductive disorders, feather-picking and death.”
Pet owners must also avoid giving their bird access to grit, gravel sandpaper or cement perches, as a bird will eat them to excess when it is not feeling well or if there is a nutritional deficiency, leading to serious health consequences, Latas said. Birds that have previously been fed an unhealthy diet should undergo a “conversion diet” to transition to healthy eating, she added.
She recommends a conversion diet consisting of one to two one-inch cubes of yam bread (cornbread mix and cooked yam) and a quarter cup of rice mix (cooked short-grain brown rice) plus fresh vegetables, pellets and produce (including greens, corn wheels, cooked yams or squash and certain fruits) daily.
“Dietary conversion is a very stressful time,” she said. “It is up to caretakers to observe every bird and make sure there is food consumption [and elimination]. It may take two days or two months.”
Should Pet Birds Be Cleaned?
Bathing one’s bird is essential to maintaining feather quality, said Latas, who noted that misters, sprayers and kitchen faucets are bird favorites, although a gentle mist to simulate rain works well (some birds even like taking showers with their owners!).
“A shallow bowl of water may also be offered for bathing,” she said. “Make sure it is heavy enough to not tip over when the bird perches on it. Small birds often enjoy bathing in pools of water collected by spraying large leafy greens and then they eat the leaf.” Kale, romaine lettuce and collard greens work will for this, she said.
It’s important for owners to ensure that their bird only comes in contact with water and not soaps, shampoos or sharp objects. And that the tools used for washing and bathing be carefully cleaned.
“Sprayers, squirters, bath tubs and bowls should be disassembled, washed with detergent and hot water, thoroughly rinsed and dried [before and after bathing],” Latas said. “Sinks, showers and human bathing areas need to be scrubbed free of toxic cleaners.”
It’s also important that the bird is kept away from heat, cold or drafts after bathing so it can dry properly.
Keeping Your Pet Bird Healthy and Happy
When a bird is newly acquired, owners should establish a relationship with an experienced bird veterinarian so that they may perform a health check and establish baseline values.
“Bird medicine is entirely different from companion mammal medicine, and veterinary students receive little, if any, instruction in avian medicine,” Latas said. “A vet with no experience can cause great harm or death using routine treatments as used in mammals ... and bedside manner for the bird client is entirely different as well.” Potential bird owners can find an experienced veterinarian through the Association of Avian Veterinarians.
Pet owners should also do their part to monitor the health of their companion bird by checking for droppings that appear abnormal, discharge from the nose, eyes and beak, changes in the amount of food and water consumed and any changes to the rate, rhythm and depth of respiration. The bottom of the feet should also be monitored for stress points and sores, Latas said. If you observe any changes, consult your avian veterinarian immediately.
It’s important for potential bird owners to remember that birds are intelligent and social creatures and need human interaction and things to do in addition to staying physically healthy. They also don't want to be caged all the time, so having free time outside the cage is essential to proper socialization and health. Make sure that the room they are allowed free time in is bird proofed and that there are no open windows or doors.
“Toys and enrichment are important to the mental health, welfare, and well-being of the companion bird,” Latas said. She recommends things like games and books in addition to toys. For birds that are caged, time spent outside of the cage and interacting with humans is also key.
“If they have to be housed in cages, there should be ample play time outside of the cage,” Latas said. “This may include climbing stands/trees, play gyms, obstacle courses and human interaction.”
As birds tend to chew things, like wires, furniture and paint, they should be closely supervised whenever they’re outside of their cages. Your bird’s cage should be large enough that your bird can walk around and flap its wings vigorously without hitting them on anything (taking into account your bird’s toys, food bowls and perches). Bar spacing of the cage is also important, and small birds should be caged in habitats with no more than half an inch of space between bars.