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Parrot 101: Part B

February 3, 2011 5 comments

Basic Parrot Care

This is the second post about the basics of parrot care.  The first post was about life with parrots and what to consider before getting one. This post is about the basics of caring for a parrot, including feeding, training and health care.

Supplies

Choosing a cage: First, most parrots are going to need some sort of cage. Generally bigger is better, but be sure that the bar spacing on the cage is appropriate and that the bird will not be able to get his head stuck between the bars. I find that most cages in “starter kits” are way too small for most birds, especially the ones in budgie and cockatiel starter kits. A cage should be able hold at least four perches, three toys and food and water bowls and still give the bird some freedom of movement.  He should be able to flap without his wings hitting anything and should have sufficient room to climb around in.

Unsafe cages include old antique ones (the metal used is often toxic) and the old-style round cages. Many birds are just uncomfortable in a round cage, and they can get their toes stuck at the top where the bars become narrow. Very tall, narrow cages are also inappropriate. When choosing between cages, a wider one is better so the bird can move from side to side.

Never house birds in antique cages. They are too small and often contain metal toxic to parrots.

Old round cages like this are also not suited for birds. I sometimes see these for sale in classified ads and theyre really only good for fake birds. Never use a rusty cage either - rust is toxic to birds.

Accessories: The number of perches used will depend on cage size, but use at least four of different materials and widths. A good-sized perch will let the bird wrap his feet about 3/4 of the way around the perch. Some perches that are a bit bigger or smaller than this should also be provided.  Natural branches are great since they have a nice texture and can vary in width, which allows the bird to choose a comfortable spot. Dowel perches are okay and often come with cages but these really should not be the only perches available. A lot of birds seem to like rope perches but these are best witheld from birds who unravel and chew them as birds can get their feet wrapped in loose threads. There are cement perches on the market and each of my birds has one of these. I don’t place them in the bird’s favorite sleeping spot though (usually a back corner), because standing too long on one could be hard on their feet.

A few of my birds also have “boings” to perch on. These are coiled, bouncy rope items that a lot of birds enjoy. Some birds like swings and ladders as well.

Most parrots love to chew, so pet parrots should be provided with appropriate chew toys.  What’s appropriate will depend on the bird’s preferences, size and beak strength. Large parrots can often chew harder woods and need larger toys, and small birds like budgies or lineolated parakeets need softer woods to nibble.  Some birds (cockatoos in particular) love to hold items in their feet and chew on them. I give my cockatoo things like pine cones and popsicle sticks to chew on. My Amazon loves softer bamboo wood chew toys.

A pet parrot should not have to stay in his cage all the time, and a play stand will give a parrot owner a place to put the bird when he’s out of the cage but not directly with the owner. A play stand can also give a bird a change of scenery and some different toys to enjoy. Play stands can be purchased or made.

A nice home-made playstand

Obviously a bird will need food bowls. The little plastic ones sold in pet stores are usually fine for smaller birds but big ones often destroy these. Stainless steel bowls are best for birds like macaws and cockatoos. I keep quite a few spare bowls on hand so if I want to stick some in the dishwasher, there are spares available.

Feeding

One thing that all parrot owners should know is that an all-seed diet is inadequate for a pet birds’ needs.  The seed mixes sold in pet stores for birds usually contain insufficient amounts of several vitamins, minerals and amino acids. They are also too high in fat for most pet parrots. There are pelleted diets on the market that are much more nutritious than just seeds and they are fine to use for the base of a parrot’s diet. If one gets a parrot that’s used to an all-seed diet, the parrot should gradually be transitioned to a pelleted diet and introduced to other healthful foods.

Pellets shouldn’t make up all of a parrot’s diet. Parrots can benefit from receiving healthful “people foods,” including nuts, fruit, vegetables, seeds, legumes and grains. As for grains, the best to feed include whole, unrefined grains, like whole rice, oatmeal, quinoa (not really a grain but is cooked like one), bulgur, or millet. Most fruits or vegetables are safe to offer parrots, with the exception of avocado, rhubarb, garlic, or onion. The most healthful fruits and veggies to offer include any of the green, leafy vegetables (like broccoli), ones with dark orange, yellow or red flesh (like mango, carrots or cooked sweet potatos) , and berries. Beans given to parrots should be cooked, and many veterinarians recommend not feeding raw tomatoes to parrots. Avoid feeding peanuts in the shell, as some peanut shells contain a black mold that produces aflatoxins, which can damage a parrots liver.

Additionally, never feed a bird chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, milk, or junk food. Note also that while seeds should not make up all of a parrot’s diet, it is fine to use them as a small portion of the diet, and some of them are quite nutritious.

A few parrot species have special dietary needs.  Lories and lorikeets, for example, eat a lot of nectar and fruit in the wild. There are commercial nectar mixes available for lories but these need to be changed a few times per day. Lories also need some fruits and vegetables in their diet as well and should not be fed foods that are high in iron. Additionally, many Eclectus parrot breeders note that this species does not do well on a mostly-pelleted diet and should be fed a diet with a high proportion (~75%) of fresh foods. Any pellets fed to an Eclectus should be organic with no added artifical colors.

Care

A parrot will, of course, need fresh food and pellets, water and to be cleaned up after. Plain news paper (not the glossy ad inserts that can come with them) is the best substrate to line a bird’s cage with, as it’s not harmful, it’s cheap or free, and it’s easy to change. Never use cedar chips around birds, as the aromatic compounds released by them can damage a bird’s respiratory system. This is true for rodents as well. If some sort of bedding is desired, use only aspen chips or care fresh. Any bedding used will need frequent changing.

A part of parrot care often missed includes a bath or shower. Wild birds will take showers (in the rain) or baths and pet birds need this as well. Some parrots will bath if provided with a large bowl of water and others love showers. Deliver showers with a spray bottle and aim the spray above the bird’s head. Some birds reluctant to take a bath will do so it they hear a vaccuum. There’s something about that sound that makes several of my birds head to their water dish to bath, and if showered, they’ll spread their wings and try to get as wet as possible.

Ripley the Red-lored Amazon enjoys a shower

A pet parrot should also receive at about 9-12 hours of darkness and quiet for sleeping at night. If the owner is away for most of the day (~8 hours) and the house is quiet, 9 or so hours of quiet at night is fine since the bird will nap during the day. In a very busy household where people are coming and going, it may be necessary to have a “sleep cage” for the bird in a quiet area so it gets enough sleep.

Safety

A lof of common household items can be toxic to parrots. Teflon-coated cookware is one example. If anything with teflon on it overheats, it will start to emit toxic fumes that can quickly kill a parrot. Note that it’s not only cookware that contains teflon – items like irons and hair driers can contain it too.

Parrots can easily drown in open containers of water, including pots of water, aquariums and cups of liquid, so these are best kept covered when a parrot is out. Other pets can also be dangerous to birds. Birds should never be allowed to interact directly with cats, even if the cat seems gentle towards the parrot. This is because cats have bacteria in their claws and teeth than can quickly kill birds, even if the initial bite or scratch was not very damaging. Any bird that’s been scratched or bitten by cat should immediately be taken to a veterinarian. Ferrets and parrots do not mix either, as ferrets can very quickly kill birds by biting the backs of their necks.

Caution is warranted in keeping pet rodents in the same area as birds. Be sure that the bird doesn’t climb on the rodent’s cage, as the rodent may bite the parrot’s feet. Believe me, rodent bites can be painful!

Many types of fumes can be damaging to parrots as well. Smoking around parrots is a huge no-no, and smoking should never be allowed in a household with parrots. The smoke is terrible for their lungs and the butts are toxic should a bird find and chew on one. The use of insecticides, incense, candles and air fresheners should also be avoided around parrots, and if a house with parrots is going to be painted or have new carpets installed, the parrots should be kept elsewhere until any fumes dissipate. This can take a week or two.

Training and Social Interactions

Parrots are very social creatures and can enjoy interactions with their owners. Pet parrots tend to benefit from learning to respond to a few cues like, “step up.” If a pet parrot is to be kept flighted, it’s very helpful to teach him to come on cue. Parrots can also enjoy learning tricks, such as waving or spreading their wings on cue.

Parrots do not react well to harsh training methods and are best taught to respond to cues with rewards. To teach a bird new things, break the desired behavior into small steps, and start rewarding any steps the parrot makes towards displayed the final, desired behavior. For example, to teach a bird to step on a hand, start rewarding him for making any motions towards the hand, then for placing a foot on the hand and then finally for stepping right up on the hand. Small items like seeds or pieces of nut make great training rewards.

Further Information

I’ve barely scratched the surface here about parrot care, and I highly recommend that prospective parrot owners read through a book on parrot care before making the plunge and getting one. Stick to newer books, as some old ones contain outdated information. Some good books include:

A Parrot for Life: Raising and Training the Perfect Parrot Companion,” By Rebecca O’Connor (covers all the basics on parrot care),

The Parrot Problem Solver,” by Barbara Heidenreich (focuses primarily on behavior),

Parrots for Dummies,” by Nikki Moustaki (covers various aspects of parrot care),

The Parrot Companion,” by Rosemary Low,

Good Parrotkeeping: A Comprehensive Guide to All Things Parrot,” by Robin Deutsch

There are, of course, some good websites with information on parrot care as well. On the side over there —–> is a list of good parrot websites and magazines.

The World Parrot Trust site is quite good. On the left just click on, “Learn about Parrots,” and you’ll be lead to pages with articles on health care, feeding, training, wild parrots and more.

Finally, the below links go to sites on this website with more information on the topics touched on above:

Parrot 101 Part A: Do they make Good Pets?

Clicker Training Parrots

The Importance of Environmental Enrichment for Pet Parrots

The Benefits of Fresh Food for Your Parrot

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