How to keep birds happy

How to keep birds happy by Dorothy Schwarz

You can keep birds happy when you give them what they need. Now who is to say what a bird needs? Here are some official guidelines for the United Kingdom

DEFRA (Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs) states these guidelines. A bird’s welfare needs include

  • The need for a suitable environment
  • The need for a suitable diet
  • The need to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • Any need to be with, or apart from, other animals
  • The need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

These needs are included in The Animal Welfare Act of 2006.  You can be prosecuted or face fines of up to £20,000 for failure to comply.

Fortunately most pet parrot keepers are not at risk. However we need to be vigilant and report abuses where we find them.  We can also examine these carefully thought out guidelines and improve our own practice where necessary.

Let us examine these needs one by one and decide they fit into a captive bird’s life in our homes.

The need for a suitable environment

Apart from budgerigars and canaries, a few generations back, the forbears of your parrot were living wild and free  in forests. Parrots are not domesticated animals like cats or dogs but  even these will demonstrate on occasion that they are not that far away from their cousins the wolf or tiger.
african greyYou are unlikely to be able to provide a mini rain forest in your sitting room. However a bird room furnished with branches and ropes, an aviary where the birds can fly are not impossible for many people. And I do not agree with the cage size often considered appropriate for a large bird.  There are birds in cages most of the day who cannot open up their wings fully. This is wrong.

I have heard owners say, ‘ I cannot build an aviary because my garden is too small.’ I don’t buy that. You can wire in a patio or a balcony and replace some of the pleasure of seeing flowers with seeing birds in flight. There are also plenty of plants that can grow unmolested in an aviary. Most conifers will succeed so will most succulents. So will bamboo if you keep young bamboo protected with a net for a couple of years. I now have the pleasure of seeing pet parrots bathing in the rain in the bamboo leaves.

The need for a suitable diet

If your parrot came from a caring knowledgeable breeder rather than a pet shop the young bird will already have a proper diet after weaning and you will receive instructions how to continue.

Two Parrots Eat HamIf you have older birds who may well have been fed on too rich or inadequate diets you will have to gradually change to more healthy options.  What they are to be is up to you. Whatever you choose, please include a proportion of fresh vegetables and fruit. Try to avoid all the sugary fatty food like crisps, chocolate, biscuits, pizzas that birds relish but are proven to be bad for their health. Sunflower seeds are a rich source of protein but heavy in fat. So a diet that includes too much sunflower may well shorten your bird’s life by furring up the arteries leading to the heart. Two of my rescue birds, a Grey and an Amazon died of heart problems. We had necropsies carried out and in both cases the vet thought that years of poor diet had been the main cause of death.

The need to exhibit normal behaviour patterns

Blue and Gold Macaw first flightsThis is hard to fulfil. In the wild our parrots would be flying kilometres to find food, choosing a mate, nesting, bringing up their young. They will have great choice over what they do and when they do it. Young wild parrots play a lot. They will have either their mate or their flock with them for twenty-four hours, seven days a week. Wild parrots are never alone.

And they will have very many dangers to confront. Our birds don’t have to worry where the next meal is coming from or whether that speck in the sky is a sparrow hawk or that wriggling object a snake coming to eat their eggs. Our birds will not be subject to torrential downpours or droughts or men with guns.

aviary to keep birds happyHowever, the captive bird’s behaviour partners in many aspects still reflects what situations they would confront in the wild. So they scream for their flock mates. They jealously guard their mate and attack anyone who approaches. When they behave in ways that to them seems normal they are banished to a cage and called aggressive or vicious or noisy.

We need to set up a parrot’s  home environment so that there is not too much daylight, too much rich food, too much petting  to stimulate birds into breeding behaviour.

Another way to increase beneficial behaviour patterns that fit in with our lives is to train the parrots using positive reinforcement techniques. A bird who knows how to play on his own, how to step up, how to recall is far less likely to develop unpleasant patterns of plucking, biting and screaming.

Any need to be with, or apart from, other animals

Cockatoo on the armIt is not generally considered cruel to leave an animal whose natural behaviour is to be one of a flock, alone for many hours in a day whilst the owners are away working.  A friend who rehabilitates birds who are often impossible to handle, believes much of their aggressive behaviour has come from solitude in small cages and then punishment when the bird has lunged or bitten someone.

It is not illegal to keep a parrot alone for most of its waking life; but if you consider it carefully, you will realise that this is not the way to keep birds happy as it is unnatural and thus unkind at the least.  At NEI (Natural Encounters Incorporated) ranch in Florida where world renowned trainer Steve Martin keeps over 400 birds of many species, raptors and parrots, birds are never alone. Each one will have a buddy either same or opposite sex.

The need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

Cockatoo on a cageParrots are well known for hiding signs of illness. This relates to wild bird behaviour. A weak seeming bird attracts a predator more easily.  It is not uncommon in homes or aviaries to see a bird appear perfectly well one day and find it lying on the cage floor the next morning

If you decide to keep a parrot you must know where the nearest avian vet is. I have taken in a rescue Timneh African Grey, lame for 12 years because his broken leg was never properly set by a vet.

Last, but not least – microchip your bird. It is amazing how many people don’t avail themselves of this relatively inexpensive way of checking that a found bird is yours.  I know of one sad case where a bird flew off. The owner is convinced that she knows where the bird is being kept but as it has neither ring nor microchip the person who has the bird claims it is hers.

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