Pet Bird Care and Husbandry

How to Choose and Care for Your Pet Bird

Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate
American Board of Veterinary Practitioners
Chief of Staff, Safari Veterinary Care Centers

Choosing the correct bird for your lifestyle can be the most important first step in successful avian husbandry.

Section One – Choosing a Bird

Having owned and/or treated birds for over 10 years, I have experienced the pleasures as well as the pain of being a bird owner. In my experience, the intelligence, personality, and individuality demonstrated by parrots and the strong bond of affection that develops between a bird and its owner far outweigh any of the negative aspects of bird ownership. In light of this, while having a pet bird can be wonderful, not everyone is a good fit for this type of pet. Depending on the species, parrots may live from 8-80 years making ownership a lifetime commitment. Birds have pleasant voices when singing or talking, but quickly become loud and obnoxious when angry or jealous. Birds are intelligent and entertaining but when deprived of attention or environmental stimulation they often become destructive of surroundings and sometimes of themselves.
Once you are ready for the commitment of owning a bird, the next step is choosing the species that has the characteristics you desire and that fit within your lifestyle.

These are general statements in reference to popular species:

Cockatiel or Budgie– Good “First” bird, easily tamed,limited ability to talk.
African Grey Parrot– Excellent talker, not colorful, prone to self destructive behavior.
Amazon Parrot– Excellent talker, few enjoy petting,aggressive during breeding season.
Cockatoo– Limited talking ability, very affectionate,self destructive if neglected, heavy powder production.
Macaw– Large, require a lot of space, very intelligent, colorful, loud.

For more species detail, refer to attached list from the text Avian Medicine: Principles and Applications by Ritchie, Harrison, and Harrison.

Now that you have selected a species, it is time to find that special individual bird. The probability of obtaining a healthy, well adjusted pet bird increases if you carefully choose the source.

  • Select a reputable breeder that specializes in the species of interest.
  • Select a recently fledged or hand fed captive bred bird.
  • A well adapted adult bird purchased from an individual can make a rewarding pet.
  • Examination of the bird by an avian veterinarian of your choice prior to purchase.

Signs of a Potentially Sick Bird

A healthy bird should be bright, alert and responsive to its surroundings, feathers shinny and smooth, breast full and round vent clean and stools/urine normal.

  • Asymmetrical, scaly or overgrown beak
  • Scale or growths on face, beak or feet
  • Malformed nostril, grooves on beak surface from nostril
  • Swollen eyes, deformed eyelid
  • Stained feathers around eye, nostril or vent
  • Fluffed appearance, unusually quiet or sleepy
  • Tail bobbing or labored breathing
  • Thin breast, prominent keel or breast bone
  • Discolored stool or urine
  • Plucked, chewed or discolored feathers

Birds are very efficient at covering signs of illness therefore any of the above signs may indicate a very serious problem. A comprehensive pre/post purchase examination by an avian veterinarian is very important. The minimum “new bird” veterinary evaluation should include a complete visual and physical examination, complete red and white blood cell count, serum chemistry profile and gram stains of cloaca (vent area) and choana (sinus cavity). Depending on the examination findings and the species, further evaluation may be recommended such as tests for chlamydia and Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD).

Cage Characteristics

The cage will probably be the most expensive item purchased next to the cost of the bird.

  • As big as possible with horizontal (width and length) more important than height.
  • Minimum width should be twice the bird’s wing span when wings are fully extended.
  • Easy to clean and service. Frequent cleaning to remove all organic matter is important before a disinfectant will be effective.
  • Natural, hard wood perches of varying diameter.
  • No dowels or sandpaper perches. Over time these lead to foot disease.
  • Bottom substrate: paper towels, newspaper or paper bags. Do not use walnut shell, shavings or litter. These substrates discourage proper and frequent cleaning, make routine observation of stools difficult, and when damp, promote growth of mold and fungus.
  • Food and water bowls placed for easy access and to minimize fecal contamination.
  • Grit, mite protectors are unnecessary and can be dangerous.
  • The cage should be positioned in a well lighted room with activity and at eye level for people. Natural sunlight is desirable but access to shade should always be available. There is no need to cover at night. Placement of birds in the kitchen is not recommended.

Grooming For Your Pet Bird

Toys– Frequent rotation of toys helps maintain interest and provide environmental stimulation. Choose toys carefully. Beware of open chain links, snap type claps, bells with clapper, and small parts that are easily removed.

Bathing– Frequent bathing, daily to weekly, stimulates normal preening behavior and helps to remove oil build up from handling and petting the bird. Misting, a shallow bowl or in the shower are all acceptable ways to provide a bird a bath. Do not use any product other than plain water to bathe your bird.

Wing trim– the goal is to prevent the bird from developing rapid and sustained flight, however, even a fully clipped bird can achieve flight in the right conditions. Several types of trims are both cosmetic and effective.

Nail Trim– Ideal to trim a small amount frequently to prevent overgrowth. An emery board is sufficient on a daily basis. Nails should be trimmed any time they are sharp or when they start to curve past the plane of the toe tip. Always have styptic powder available to stop any bleeding in the event that the nail is cut too close to the quick.

Beak Trim– Most birds, if provided sufficient material to chew, will keep the beak at a normal length. Chewable items include: soft wood, sugar cane, chew bars, hard biscuits, nuts, bones (steak or rib), cuttlebone, lava rock and mineral blocks. Some flaking and shelving of the beak is normal however excessive flaking, shelving or overgrowth may be a sign of internal disease.

Identification– In general, imported birds are open banded and the band number usually starts with USDA. Captive raised birds are closed banded. Due to potential legislature requiring banding of all pet birds, I do not recommend band removal at this time. Another form of permanent identification is the MICROCHIP. A small glass encased chip encoded with a number unique to your bird is inserted in the breast muscle. These are of particular use in the identification and proof of ownership in cases of lost, found or stolen birds.

Sex Determination– Most parrots are sexually monomorphic i.e. both sexes are identical in appearance. Visual sexing is possible in the few dimorphic species of parrots. For example:

Species Male Female
Cockatiel lacks barring barring on underside of wing/tail feathers
Budgie blue cere brown cere
Eclectus green red or purple
African grey red vent and rump gray tips on red feather or mostly gray
Cockatoo brown-black iris red-brown iris

Most of the above characteristic differences are not apparent in immature birds. Eye color in cockatoos is unreliable and varies with maturity and species. Determination by palpation of the distance between pelvic bones is unreliable especially in immature and reproductively inactive birds.

Surgical and Laparoscopic Sexing– Subject to error in young birds. Major advantage-allows for direct observation of reproductive organs for signs of disease or dysfunction. Major disadvantage- an invasive procedure requiring general anesthesia.

Blood or DNA Sexing– Accurate in birds as young as 1 day old. Advantage-requires a small blood sample collected from a toe nail with minimal risk and trauma to the bird. Disadvantage-requires 2-3 weeks to receive test results.

Section Two – Nutrition

Malnutrition is still the number one disease in pet birds.

Birds require a nutritionally balanced diet for a long and healthy life. Our dogs and cats are fed a dry or canned diet specifically formulated for their nutritional requirements. The poultry industry feeds a pelleted diet designed for the growth and production of poultry, turkeys and waterfowl. In response to the needs of a growing ratite industry (ostrich, emu) a pelleted diet has been produced to provide for the needs of these unique birds.
Information gained through research in these industries, the parrot avicultural community, universities and years of observation of parrots in their natural environment has been combined and used to formulate nutritionally complete, pelleted diets to feed our pet birds.

It is critical to the health and longevity of our pet birds to provide a nutritionally complete diet. Psittacines (parrots) require an extensive list of essential vitamins, amino acids and minerals, many of which are lacking in a diet of primarily seed. In the wild environment, an all seed diet is considered a “survival” diet usually eaten by birds when other foods are not available. These diets are high in fat and therefore provide calories and energy to survive difficult times. Sunflower and safflower seeds contain 47%-60% fat and are grossly deficient in many essential nutrients. Because of their high energy content, if given the choice, captive birds will often eat these high fat foods to the exclusion of all other foods. On cursory examination, these birds appear healthy but in reality are obese and suffering from malnutrition. Disease typically seen in obese birds include: hardening of the arteries, fatty liver syndrome and associated liver failure and protein malnutrition.
Therefore, birds may SURVIVE on an all seed diet (like a prisoner on bread and water) but they WILL NOT THRIVE.

Birds can eat any wholesome food that humans eat including meats, pasta, rice, eggs, bread, cereals, fruits and vegetables. If seeds are fed, they should compose no more than 20% of the total diet with the remaining 80% being foods selected from all 4 food groups (meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables). It is important that all foods be washed to remove dirt and toxic substances. Allowing fresh foods to spoil in the cage can expose your bird to dangerous molds and bacteria. Moldy peanuts are a source of potent mycotoxins. These are toxic substances produced by certain molds that grow on peanuts stored in moist environments. If feeding peanuts, purchase only peanuts packaged for human consumption and store them in an air tight container.

Although feeding a wide range of foods sounds good, it is difficult to ensure that the bird will eat everything that is offered and in the appropriate amounts. Commercially pelleted diets contain all the essential vitamins, amino acids and minerals in the proper amount and balance. You can be certain that your bird is receiving the greatest nourishment possible because each meal is identical. The initial cost of pelleted diets may be more than seed diets, but when waste from seed hulls, picky eating habits and spillage are considered, pelleted diets are the better deal. In addition, with pellets, no other supplements are necessary. The real economy and benefit to the pelleted diet is in the resulting health of your valued pet.

So now that you are convinced that seeds are OUT and pellets are IN, how do you convert a seed eater to pellets?

First, consult your avian veterinarian prior to instituting any dietary change. At SAFARI we recommend a comprehensive physical examination for your bird to determine overall condition and to obtain a baseline body weight. We recommend weekly rechecks to monitor body weight until your bird is completely converted to pellets and is maintaining a steady body weight.

There are several ways to convert a bird to a new diet. Some birds are very cooperative and immediately accept the new diet when it is offered in place of seeds. Unfortunately, most are not this simple and require close monitoring, patience and persistence. Remember, this is for the rest of your birds life.

Gradual change allows your bird to overcome their natural suspicions through a process of observation, mental adjustment and testing. I recommend the following approach:

Measure the amount of seed your bird eats in one day then reduce that amount by 1/4. Add 10 pellets and provide usual fruit, vegetables and water free choice. Do this for 7 days. If during this time the bird begins to eat the pellets great, if not, go to the next step

Reduce original amount seeds to 1/2 and do everything else the same. If during this time your bird fails to consume all the seeds but is still not eating the pellets, then you are still feed too much seed.

Next step, reduce amount seeds to 1/4 of original amount. At this point the bird should have begun eating the pellets, if not, consult with your avian veterinarian. You may need to try a different brand or form of pellet.

Again, Do not attempt to switch the diet without consultation with and weight monitoring by an avian veterinarian.

If you have any questions, please call :

2402 Marina Bay Drive
League City, Texas 77573

Captive Foraging for Pet Birds

OOur pet birds still retain many of the characteristics of their free ranging relatives. Captive bred, hand raised birds, learn which foods to eat by visual mimicking. Unless they see another bird (or human that they are pair bonded to) eating a substance they will not know that it is food. Cage birds that have a cup full of seeds next to their perch do not have to forage or work for their food as their wild counterparts do. While most cage birds are intelligent enough to grasp the concept of feeding on a variety of nutrients, they are not given the choice or visual guidance that is needed. The time previously budgeted for food acquisition, six to eight hours per day, is reduced to 30 minutes, of equal importance there is no effort or work involved. The end result of this dilemma is the bird now has an inordinate amount of inactive, unproductive time available, no means of filling the void and no opportunity to make choices. This can lead to vices such as feather picking, screaming, or aggression and even egg laying.

Creating a foraging environment where the bird has to work for his or her food is ideal. Strategies have been developed to aid this process while weaning the bird from a seed diet.

Most pet birds are pair bonded to one human. If this human pretends to eat or peck at a food with his fingers, the bird will see this as a reason to try this food. Pelleted diets have been shown superior to seed diets because they more closely balance nutrients to the bird’s needs. Pelleted diets can be fed free choice while the seed diet is used to stimulate foraging behavior. Once the behavior is ingrained the seeds are replaced by the pellets.

Soft pine wood boards may be drilled with different size bits and seeds can be packed into these holes. The bird will spend hours extracting these seeds while developing an appetite that will make it more likely that he will try the new pelleted diet. A shallow pan filled with large dried beans (too large to eat whole) then seeds are sprinkled into these beans. The seeds will be hidden by the beans and the bird will have to nudge through the beans to eat the seeds. Commercial pinata type “toys” can be filled with food and the bird must tear them apart to get at the goodies. These may be too advanced to start with in the case of many pet birds. Some birds that are more remedial need to be started by just placing a single piece of flat paper over their seed cup (keep the cup in the same location as before). The paper needs to have a hole in it at first so the seeds can be seen. Later this is made more difficult. You may use crumpled tissue around the seeds followed by newspaper as the bird starts to understand the game.