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Behavioural enrichment

Bringing a bird into your home should be a happy and rewarding experience. With many of our native parrots enjoying long lives — some can live for 80 to 100 years — a well cared for bird can be a companion and keep you entertained for a lifetime. But having a bird as part of your family is also a big responsibility. Any pet bird will be entirely dependent upon you — for its food, its water, shelter and its continuing good health. Birds on a poor diet and in a non-stimulating environment will become depressed, miserable and ill, dramatically reducing their life span.

Feeding

A balanced diet is the most important part of a healthy bird’s life. The most common problems seen at the hospital include obesity, egg binding and vitamin A deficiency.

Many pet parrots eat nothing but seed. It’s easy for the owner to buy a packet of seed mix from the supermarket, and the birds might love it, seeds are often interesting to open, and also high in fat and therefore very tasty. But dry, packaged seeds are also low in all vitamins, especially vitamin A. Some seed mixtures do contain added vitamins and minerals but this is rarely an improvement as most birds simply eat around these ‘vitamin balls.’

Many birds will also pick out just one or two preferred types of seeds from the whole mix and refuse to eat any of the other food or seed. Most commonly selected are sunflower seeds or oats — which are like chocolates for a bird, and equally unhealthy in quantity. To provide a balanced diet many other foods need to be offered in addition to seeds. Varied fresh foods should be given daily. Vegetables, especially green vegetables, are extremely important. Good examples include spinach, silver beet, endives, parsley, celery and cabbage. Fresh grasses, milk thistle, dandelion and fresh fruit are also great.

Environment

Birds need a full spectrum of light to remain healthy and happy. Sunlight through a closed window is inadequate because vitamin D is absorbed only from natural sunlight. Bird owners need to allow their feathered friends regular time outdoors, on the deck or the patio, where they can enjoy the sun. Conversely, birds also need at least 10-12 hours in total darkness each night. If your bird is kept in a room that you use at night then a blackout cover over their cage is needed, but it’s better that your bird sleeps in a room that’s not subjected to high levels of noise during the night. For many species of bird the period of darkness should be varied during the year to mimic the natural seasons.

A lot of birds enjoy baths or showers, and even enjoy going into the shower with their owners, but avoid using soaps if your bird is with you. Alternatively, spray lightly with a spray bottle or a hose on a fine mist spray. Bird baths can be provided, but it is best not to leave them in cages all the time as birds will defecate in them.

Smoking is extremely hazardous to birds. Their lungs, in combination with their air sacs, are an extremely efficient breathing system. The skin can also become irritated by the smoke, which is considered one of the causes in self-mutilation.

Cages

Cages should be a home to protect birds, not a prison. A cage should be rectangular, and deep enough for two birds to be able to fully extend their wings. Birds are not helicopters so tall cages are not appropriate. A bird’s cage may be its home but that should not mean the bird should never ‘go outside.’ Birds should spend as much time as possible outside of their cage and moving in order to have healthy exercise. Without these ‘outings’ your bird will become overweight and depressed. If you are concerned about catching the bird or if it is reluctant, simply dim the lights and the bird will be much easier to catch.

Poor perches commonly lead to sores on a bird’s feet and sometimes potentially serious issues such as bumblefoot. A good perch is made of natural branches of varying sizes, never smooth timber dowelling or plastic.

Food and water bowls should be placed in cages where the bird will not defecate in them. Parasitic and bacterial infections are not going to improve if the bird constantly eats and drinks their own faeces. It’s also best not to place any food or materials — sandpaper, grit or food — on the floor of the cage that will encourage the bird to eat there. Instead, use a grill to allow faeces to fall through to the cage floor, or line the floor with plain paper.

Avoid using metal toys or plastic coated bag ties in the cage as these can lead to heavy metal poisonings. Heavy metal poisoning is an extremely common problem in cage birds, many of whom are continually exposed to metals in their cage or environment. Lead, zinc and copper are the most common metals involved in poisoning. They are found in galvanised wire, paint, copper wires, metal ties, rusty metal toys and backs of mirrors, etc.

Cages and aviaries should be made of stainless steel, powder baked, or polymer-covered wire. If you cannot provide a cage of these materials, scrub galvanised wire with vinegar and a wire brush, then rinse the vinegar off and repeat. This will help minimise zinc toxicity but will not eliminate it. Weathering the wire (leaving it outside to the elements) will not detoxify the metal either.

Most parrots live in large flocks, not small cages. Birds, unlike dogs and cats, become bonded to one single other bird, or human, as a mate. A bird that is always calling, talking, or singing is in fact demanding the attention it craves. It is very rare for a bird to be happy on its own. Many bird diseases and various syndromes are related to stress, frustration and boredom. Television and radio may be occasional comforts but they are not long term substitutes for the company of their own species. If you are not in a position to provide pretty constant companionship for your pet bird, please consider keeping more than one bird. They’ll both be healthier, happier — and twice the entertainment value.