More than 3.5 million homes include at least one – and often more than one – avian family member. This is a lot of birds! Clearly, pet birds have a lot to offer you in terms of daily fun, companionship, learning and overall enjoyment.
But birds can also be surprisingly long-lived, with very specific care requirements and enrichment needs. In this article, learn the basics of what you will need to properly care for a pet bird.
Understand Your Bird’s Enrichment and Companionship Needs
Science Magazine recently reported on two groundbreaking new studies proving that birds are just as cognitively aware and smart as mammals, including primates.
And as pets, the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV) explains, companion birds are intelligent, sensitive, active animals.
With this evidence, it is easy to understand why pet birds require all of the same types of daily enrichment as would any other pet such as a cat or dog. Caring for a bird can be just as demanding and time-consuming and just as rewarding.
Getting Set Up to Welcome Your Pet Bird Home
In this section, we will give you an overview of all the basic supplies you will need to have on hand before your new pet bird comes home. In each section, you can learn specifics for different popular species of pet birds.
According to PetMD, here are the most popular pet birds in the United States, listed in order of their size.
- Budgies (parakeets).
- Quaker (monk) parrots.
- African Grey parrots.
Other very popular pet birds include these species:
- Amazon parrots.
- Pionus parrots.
- Eclectus parrots.
Picking Out Your Pet Bird
The first and most important aspect of beginning your journey as a pet bird owner and keeper is also the most often overlooked.
You want to be sure you select a healthy bird that has been captive-bred by a reputable breeder! Alternately, consider adopting a bird from a local animal shelter or rescue organization.
Pet birds are not for everyone and far too many birds are relinquished each year because their owners had no idea how demanding birds can be to care for properly.
Not only will you often pay much less to rescue and re-home a bird in need, but you will give a relinquished bird a fresh start at a new life.
Alternately, reach out to local bird organizations to find a reputable breeder you can purchase your pet bird from. This will ensure you don’t accidentally purchase an illegally trafficked wild bird or a bird bred through a bird mill (similar to a puppy mill).
Choosing Your Pet Bird Cage
While it is true there are some bird owners that advocate for “cage-free” living, this is similar to how some dog owners say crates are cruel.
It depends on how the cage (or crate) is introduced and used. When done correctly, a crate is very comforting for a dog. In the same way, birds should have a cage where they can go to rest, de-stress and feel completely safe and secure.
While a full discussion is beyond the scope of this article, it is vital to ensure the cage you select is safe for the species of bird you will be keeping.
The cage is often the most challenging accessory to pick out because different bird species have very different needs and requirements. But make sure any cage you pick has a door that opens to the side or from the base – NOT from the top!
Keep in mind that you may need to provide a flight cage as well if your bird cannot free-fly safely for daily exercise inside your home.
Here is a brief outline of what to look for in a cage for different popular pet bird species.
Small birds (finches, canaries, budgerigars, parrotlets).
The absolute minimum cage size a small bird will need is 24” x 18” x 18”. Add half again as much space for each additional bird.
The door should provide ample room for a single bird to go in and out. The cage bar spacing should be 1/4 to 1/2-inch in width.
Mid-size birds (cockatiels, conures, lovebirds, Quakers, doves).
The absolute minimum cage size for a mid-size bird is 24” x 24” x 24”. More space is always better where possible. Add half again as much space for each additional bird who will be sharing the cage.
The cage door should provide ample room for entry/exit. The cage bar spacing should be 1/2 to 5/8 inches in width.
Medium-large birds (African Grey parrots, caiques).
The absolute minimum cage size for a medium-large bird is 24” x 36”x 48”. The door width should allow for easy passage in and out of the cage. The bars should be spaced from 3/4 to one inch in width.
The bars should be sturdy and thick because the larger the bird, the larger the beak.
Large birds (cockatoos, macaws).
The absolute minimum cage size for a large bird will vary depending on the wingspan and length of the bird. For example, a large macaw can measure up to three feet when you factor in the long colorful tail!
Large birds should be housed individually unless you have a breeding pair or are rescuing a pair of bonded birds.
The cage bar spacing should be one to 1.5 inches and the bars should be very sturdy. The door should be very roomy so the bird can enter and exit easily without the tail getting caught in the door.
What Cage Accessories Will Your Pet Bird Need?
This is a basic list of the different cage accessories you will need to provide for your new pet bird.
Keep in mind that some of these accessories may come with the cage you purchase. However, be sure you are happy with those accessories and that they are adequate to your bird’s needs.
- Perches: should be sized properly for the size of your bird’s feet – too small or large and foot damage can occur. You should provide several different types of perches to help with foot strength and natural nail filing.
- Food dishes: you will want different dishes for dry and fresh food and treats.
- Water dish or bottle: some keepers prefer to use small mammal water bottles for sanitation reasons (many birds see a water dish as an invitation to bathe).
- Cuttle bone and mineral block: Pet birds should have free access to a cuttle bone and mineral block to get trace minerals and assist in keeping their beaks sharp and filed.
- Toys: the size of the toys should be appropriate to the size of the bird. Smaller beaks won’t be able to chew or shred toys made for large bird species. Many birds enjoy mirrors, shreddable and chewable materials, swings, and puzzle toys.
- Treats: appropriate bird-safe treats should be provided on a daily basis.
- Cage liners: this can be as simple as old newspaper or paper towels or you can purchase cage liners if you prefer. Be sure the lining is appropriate to the bird species you are keeping.
- Cage cover: you will want to use a cover at night to block out lights and drafts and allow your bird to rest quietly.
Choosing Your Bird’s Travel Cage
When you need to go to the avian veterinarian or you need to board your bird while you are away, you will want to provide a safe travel cage that is smaller, sturdy and easy to carry.
Lots of different styles of travel cages are available, from traditional wire travel carriers to backpack and clear acrylic carriers. Choose the style that your bird finds most comfortable.
Pick Out the Right Place in Your Home for Your Bird’s Area
Your pet bird’s permanent (night-time) cage should be located in an area of your home that is quiet, draft-free yet still well ventilated, temperature-consistent, humidity-balanced and secure.
However, during the day your bird will want to be with you and your family – birds are social animals and in the wild they often travel in large flocks. But this can present some challenges depending on the size and weight of the cage.
As avian science and husbandry has evolved, the era of the small, easy-to-carry cage has by and large gone by the wayside. Today’s avian cages are large, sturdy and often fairly heavy.
If the cage you select doesn’t have a cage stand on casters that you can roll from room to room, you may want to consider investing in a second day cage or a play stand to give your bird more flexibility to be with you as you move from room to room.
“Well Bird” Veterinary Care and Checkups
Birds, like most animals, will hide signs of illness or distress to avoid appearing vulnerable.
This makes it imperative that you take your pet bird to the veterinarian at least every six to 12 months for a well bird health checkup.
You should choose an avian veterinarian rather than a generalist that sees cats and dogs. Different bird species can have different health issues and care requirements and it is important your veterinarian is familiar with treating the species of bird you have.
During your well bird checkup, your avian veterinarian can trim your bird’s nails, file their beak and trim the flight feathers on the wings if you desire (for safety purposes).
If you choose to keep your bird fully flighted and allow your bird to stay out of the cage inside your home, it will be your responsibility to ensure your home is escape-proof.
Choosing Your Bird’s Food
Today’s avian science suggests that complete and balanced pelleted foods are a better overall choice than seed blends.
Many bird species also appreciate daily access to whole, fresh fruits and vegetables as well.
Aim for a well-rounded daily diet that reflects what your species of bird would eat in a wild setting. Your bird should have free access to food throughout the day and this food should be changed out daily to avoid spoilage.
Be aware that many of the same “people” foods that are toxic to dogs and cats can be toxic to birds. Processed foods, chocolate, caffeine, refined sugar and garlic are some common examples your bird should never be able to gain access to.
Training Your Pet Bird
Pet birds are smart and generally easy to train, especially if you choose a hand-fed and pre-socialized juvenile bird.
Clicker training is one popular method for training pet birds to accept routine veterinary care, do tricks and go into and out of the cage on command.
Training your pet bird provides opportunities for daily interaction and enrichment to deepen your bond. As you learn what motivates your bird – be it treats, toys, play time or cuddling – you can choose appropriate positive reinforcement to use during training.
With these bird care 101 tips, you can start out your journey as a pet bird keeper with confidence.