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Housing Considerations and Hazards

Written by Lee-Anne, Birdmad Girl

Anyone who lives with a bird will know just how curious, mischievous and playful they are by nature. This delightful trait can often get them into many unfortunate predicaments around the home. There are many potential dangers for the bird within it's environment, your home, which is why it is so important for us to be aware of them, and take subsequent actions to make our homes fully 'bird proof'; a safe environment for a bird to be.

Basic housing considerations

Temperature and humidity

A bird's environment must not be too cold. If a bird is kept too cold, the immunity goes down and the bird becomes more susceptible to illness. If you are caring for a sick bird, it will need a more constantly warm room temperature, and have it's home turned into a hospital cage where the temperature can be controlled using either spot heating or heating pads.

Humidity levels in the range of 40 - 50% is ideal for most birds. Central heating can cause the environment to become very dry, so it is important to maintain humidity. Remember that most parrots come from tropical areas that have high humidities. Dry air on a constant basis is bad for the general condition of the skin and feathers, and they can become extremely dry and dusty. Feathers that are dry and in poor condition can be a reason for your bird to start feather plucking. It is advisable to mist the bird daily to help keep it's feathers in good condition.

Cage location

When choosing a permanent location in the home for the bird's cage, there are many things to consider. The cage should not be exposed to constant direct sunlight throughout the day. Whilst some exposure to direct sunlight is beneficial, constant exposure risks overheating the bird. A bird that is given access to direct sunlight must also have access to a shady area where it can go too cool down.

They should always be kept away from drafts, so make sure there are none coming from any windows, doors, air vents and outside walls.

Birds are very social animals, and will want to spend as much time around people as possible. The ideal location for your bird's cage therefore is the main living area, or wherever you spend the most time. This enables your bird to observe and interact with you as much as possible. Birds should never be placed in areas where there is no activity, such as a hallway where they only get to see you when you happen to pass. They can become very depressed in places with minimal human contact and stimulation, and can begin feather plucking through boredom and frustration.

The kitchen is definitely not a suitable room to house a bird in. There are many dangers in the kitchen, which I will go on to discuss later.

If you have small cage birds, such as budgerigars, they prefer their cages to be positioned higher up. On the ground they can feel more vulnerable, and placing the cage high up will make them more confident and feel safe. With larger birds, most large cages sit on stands at a good medium height, but it is important to bear in mind that these birds shouldn't be housed at a position that makes them higher than people. If a bird is allowed to sit higher than the people around it, they can become aggressive. Dominance issues can be helped by keeping the bird below a person's head level.

Cage hygiene

Birds have the misfortune of going to the toilet in their 'kitchen', so it is vitally important that a bird's cage is kept as clean as possible. The best thing to use as a floor covering is newspaper because it is disposable and can be easily changed every day if necessary. Sand or sand paper is not ideal because the bird can eat the sand, which can cause blockages.

Fecal matter, dust and wasted food items can build up very quickly, and if left for long period can become a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. Any discarded pieces of fruit should be removed daily. A wet sticky piece of fruit lying on the cage floor overnight can go mouldy quickly, and the last thing you want is your bird retrieving a mouldy piece of fruit for breakfast.

The entire cage should be totally scrubbed down and cleaned once a week using a good disinfectant. Disinfectants should be allowed to sit wet on the surfaces for approximately 30 minutes, and then rinsed thoroughly. Food and water bowls should be washed daily, and all toys should be scrubbed and disinfected once a week. Failure to adhere to a strict cage hygiene routine can prove fatal, as dirty cage floors are a common place for the often fatal aspergillus spp fungus to grow.

Be aware that some very strong disinfectants can release toxic or irritating fumes, and must only be used when the bird is in another room. The room should be well ventilated before the bird is returned.

Considerations around the home

Outside of the cage there are many hazards to consider. Birds can, and will get up to all sorts of mischief around your home. There are many bird owners who believe in clipping a bird's wings to help keep them safe within the home environment. It is my strong opinion that there are just as many risks for clipped birds as there are for fully flighted birds. I do not want to debate the ethics of wing clipping here. I personally don't support clipping, but I will point out as I go along the risks of both flighted and clipped birds.

Air pollutants

A bird's respiratory system is very different from ours. It is a very efficient system made up of a network of lungs and air sacs. This makes them extremely sensitive to pollutants in the air, which can be very dangerous.

People should never smoke cigarettes, cigars and pipes around their bird. Because of the way the bird's respiratory system works, a bird actually absorbs gasses, such as oxygen when it inhaled, and when it exhales. That's already double the amount of cigarette smoke a bird is absorbing. Fumes can also remain inside the air sacs for up to 2 hours after breathing them in, so look at it this way; for every cigarette you smoke, a bird is smoking the approximate equivalent of 20 cigarettes. Now multiply that by the number of cigarette smoked daily, and the result is worrying. Absolutely under no circumstances should people smoke around birds.

Other potentially dangerous air pollutants to be aware of are varnish and paint fumes. Always move your bird to another room if painting, and ensure the room has been well ventilated before returning the bird. Avoid burning scented candles and incense sticks around birds, and using air fresheners, as most of the commercially available air fresheners can be toxic to birds. Check with your vet for the safest method of freshening bird rooms.

Kitchen hazards

There are also risks in the kitchen of exposure to other air pollutants. Cooking fumes, carbon monoxide, oil and fat particles in the air can cause problems if inhaled frequently and allowed to build up in the lungs and air sacs. Oil and grease can also be damaging to the feathers. Continued exposure will mat down the feathers, which decreases their insulation qualities and makes the bird more susceptible to cold and chills.

Teflon poisoning is also a big risk to bird in the kitchen. Over-heated Teflon-coating cooking utensils release a toxin that is very deadly to birds and will kill them within 24 hours. I have heard about incidents of Teflon poisoning that have devastated an entire collection of birds ranging from little budgies to macaws, so it is very important not to expose any birds to this. The toxin can easily spread from the kitchen to other parts of the house, so if the bird is in a room close by it risks exposure. The frightening thing is that humans can't smell this toxin, is doesn't affect us, so it can go undetected very easily.

Constant exposure to all these air toxins will also make the bird more susceptible to respiratory and fungal diseases, so it is very important not to house the bird in the kitchen permanently.

There are other physical dangers that exist in the kitchen. If your bird is out and in the mood for exploring, it can decide to investigate hot stove elements or open cooking pans of hot food or boiling water. It may decide to take a bath in a hot sink full of dirty water. All of these things are obvious dangers. I once heard about a bird that had fallen into a pan of spaghetti Bolognese! The kitchen is definitely not a room for a bird to live or play in, even if under constant supervision. It only takes seconds for a bird to fall from a high position into a hot cooking pan, especially if the bird is clipped and cannot gain sufficient lift to avoid where it lands.

Bathroom hazards

It is always fun to take our pet birds into the bathroom with us if they like to take a shower. Showering and the humidity levels of a bathroom are good for the bird's plumage. However, there are also hazards in the bathroom. If your bird insists on sharing the shower, make sure the water is not hot enough to burn the bird.

Things to consider are full sinks, full bathtubs and open toilet bowls. If a bird falls into any of these they risk drowning because they do not swim well. The toilet bowl is not the most hygienic place, so if your bird does have an accident, be sure to consult an avian vet as your bird would have been exposed to bacteria. I know from personal experience how easy it can be to overlook these things. In the past my budgie, Madame Jo Jo, flew straight into the toilet bowl, but luckily was rescued quickly.

There can be many dangerous objects lying around in the bathroom that a curious bird may take a fancy to. Make sure there are no razor blades left out that your bird can access. Make sure they don't have access to any drugs, such as painkillers. Don't think that just because the tablets are sitting there in a pill bottle with a child-safe cap, that they are bird-safe. A strong parrot beak can easily get through the plastic bottle if it really wants to. These things must be kept somewhere secure, preferably locked up so that there is no way a bird can access them.

Some cleaning products can be dangerous and must be kept away from birds at all costs.

Other household hazards

Birds often don't understand the concept of glass windows or mirrors. They can't perceive them as barriers, and if not familiar with them, can fly into them and hurt themselves. When letting newly acquired birds out for the first time, it is always advisable to cover these things with curtains to avoid accidents. After a while the bird will become used to its environment and become confident flying within it, so it will be unlikely to have an accident like this unless alarmed into a sudden take off.

Beware of ceiling fans. If a ceiling fan is on, a bird should never be allowed out at the same time. Birds can have very devastating, even fatal accidents if they collide with a ceiling fan.

Windows and doors should never be left open if a bird is out of its cage for obvious reasons - escape. Some people believe that clipping a bird's wings will prevent this. Personally I find this an invalid argument. Clipped birds are still able to gain some lift if clipped correctly. A bird should never be clipped to the extent where it takes of and falls directly to the ground. A fall like this can cause an injury by landing too hard on the keel bone, damaging the keel and often tearing the skin around it. Clipped birds should be able to glide forwards and downwards. This is why, if you do clip your bird's wings, it is always important to have them clipped by a professional at a certified avian vets to ensure they are done correctly.

If a clipped bird does decide to head towards an open window, they could still reach it before they get to the ground. Once there, they can again attempt a take off. With the outdoor breeze, they make even be able to get further. Whilst a clipped bird may not be able to get very far, it will be mostly on the ground where it is at risk from predators such as cats.

Obviously flighted birds can also escape through open doors and windows, and can fly quite a distance so it may be more difficult to retrieve it. It is likely that the bird will panic in an unfamiliar environment and crash-land somewhere close by. In the event of escape, always contact all local pet stores and veterinary surgeries. Call all the missing pets databases you know of that cover the area. Put up posters locally. This is useful because some people won't think to contact a vet if they find a bird, and may decide to keep it without thinking of finding it's owner. It is always advisable to get pet parrots microchipped for identification purposes in the event of escape, so that it can easily be reunited with its owner if found.

Prevention is far better than resolution in these cases. If you are going to let your bird out of its cage for flight exercise, ALWAYS make sure in advance that doors and windows are closed.

A risk to a bird found in most rooms are electrical cords. A bird may consider these to be exciting toys as they have a chewable, soft rubber coating. All electrical cords must be either hidden away or unplugged. They can be a fire hazard, and can cause serious burns or electrocution to a bird.

Certain houseplants can also be toxic to birds if eaten. It is best to avoid contact with houseplants for this reason, especially if you are unsure which ones are poisonous. There is a good article in Issue 83 of Parrots about dangerous houseplants. If you have a poisonous houseplant, take care to watch that any birds playing nearby it don't eat it.

Other household pets can pose a threat to a bird. Cats are natural hunters and may decide to use your bird as bait. Clipped birds that cannot get away are especially vulnerable, but flighted birds are also at risk. A cat can climb to a high point and literally swipe a flying bird out of the air. Even other birds can present a hazard, especially big birds to smaller birds. For example, my African Grey can get very jealous of my budgies on occasion, and recently my partner left then unattended for only a few moments. That was enough time for my Grey to break my budgie's leg. Even if a bigger bird intended to play with a smaller bird, they have much bigger beaks and can do some serious damage unintentionally. A big parrot's beak can be the same size as a smaller bird's head! As a rule, it is never a good idea to leave a bird with any other animal unattended.

Glass fish bowls or aquariums should never be left uncovered. A bird may fall into it and drown.

Be aware of lead and zinc poisoning. Both can be life threatening to a bird. Lead is found in a lot of places around the house, and a bird may chew on it and ingest it. Some places Lead is found is old paintwork, batteries, stained glass windows, some jewellery, zips and zipper teeth, metallic strips on furniture such as kitchen cabinets, curtain weights and solder. Even some bird toys can contain lead. For example, in some of the toys with metallic bells, lead can be found on those, or in the ringer part of the bell. It is always advisable to check that any toys you purchase are 'bird safe'. Check that the ringer in bells is secure, for example, as it can otherwise be taken off and swallowed. Make sure that rope toys are safe. I have read so many sad stories about birds accidentally hanging themselves on rope toys.

Finally, be aware yourself as to where the bird is at all times if it is out. If it is flighted, it may easily venture into another room that hasn't been bird-proofed before you realise it has gone. Other family members in the house may open a door and leave it open without you realising, and before you know it the bird has gone outside. If it is clipped, be aware of where the bird is at all times. I have heard stories about clipped birds following their unaware owner around the house via the floor, and being trodden on or shut in doors, causing serious injury and death. Make sure other family members are also aware of the bird. Boisterous children can accidentally squash a small bird playing on the sofa if they are unaware of it.

The purpose of this article is to increase the awareness of bird owners to potential dangers. Although some of the things I have mentioned may sound obvious and straightforward, accidents still happen, and it is my intention to educate bird owners as much as possible as to the potential household risks to a captive bird.

Originally printed in the April 2005 UK "Parrots Magazine" by our very own Lee-Anne, who has now shared the article with Tailfeathers.

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