By Elaine Radford
IMAGINE if a 2-year-old child, who tests everything by putting it in his or her mouth, could fly, and you have a good idea of what’s involved in “birdproofing” your home. One of my most important tasks as a pet bird care writer is to warn you of potential dangers to your birds. In today’s complicated world, safety isn’t just a matter of common sense, because there are many hidden hazards that we learned about from the past tragedies of others. Here are 15 ways to keep your birds safe.
Clip those Wings!
I’ve heard every excuse in the book. “I feel like I’m crippling him.” “She gets upset when I clip her wings.” It’s true that birds that move primarily by flight — canaries, finches, and softbills — shouldn’t have their wings clipped, but parrots are in a different category. They exercise primarily by climbing, reserving flight for when they’re startled or traveling long distances. An inability to fly doesn’t handicap them one bit in a safe home environment. In fact, many flighted hookbills prefer to walk, climb or be carried around, and they may complain vociferously when asked to fly to their owners instead of being fetched.
Flighted parrots are most likely to take to the wing when something frightens them, awakening their instinct to fly away from predators. By the time they’ve calmed down, they could be out the door and miles away. Whatever distance they’ve traveled, they’re probably completely confused and thoroughly lost. My last rescue was a soaking wet cockatiel that had been brought down in one of the worst storms of the year. He’s fine now, but it was only luck that allowed him to get caught by a concerned human child instead of a hungry raccoon or feral cat.
Cockatiels seem to make frequent escapes, and I suspect it’s because they’re known for holding grudges against whoever clips their wings and nails. If your bird is a grudge holder, pay the small fee to have a pet groomer do it. And remember: Feathers grow back. Check your bird’s wings regularly to see if it’s time for another clipping.
Keep Nails Neatly Trimmed
I probably don’t need to remind you to regularly trim a parrot’s toenails. As soon as you feel those nails digging little holes in your arm, you’ll remember that it’s time. However, it’s also important to keep an eye on the nails of your other pet birds. Overly long nails do catch in things, sometimes to life-threatening effect. A few months ago, I discovered a canary caught by one toenail so that he couldn’t get out of the nest. He felt trapped and was flopping around upside down to try to get away. Fortunately, he’s okay now — miraculously, neither the leg nor the toe was broken — but I’ve heard similar stories that didn’t have such happy endings. Some trapped birds become severely injured, go into shock and die.
Learn About Toxic Plants
Some plants “want” to be eaten by birds so that they’ll distribute the seeds in their droppings as the birds fly far and wide, but other plants have developed natural toxins to discourage birds from nibbling on them. Some common plants contain deadly poisons.
White pine dowels, found in hardware stores, are safe but get munched pretty fast by determined parrots. Manzanita, found in specialty bird stores, is both tough and safe, perfect for places where you don’t want to keep replacing perches. Natural branches can provide great exercise for a chewing beak, but you must be selective. First, don’t take any branches from near a highway or any location where they might have been sprayed. Second, make sure you know what the tree is and that it’s nontoxic.
There’s a lot of controversy out there about what plants are “safe” and “unsafe.” I’d rather err on the side of caution, so I’ll just list as safe those few plants that I know for sure, from my personal experience, can be nibbled on at will by pet birds. In my aviary, I’ve used whole brassica plants like collards and broccoli, bromeliads, ornamental citrus, dogwood, several kinds of ferns, ficus (weeping fig), a variety of seeding grasses, windmill and sago palm, white pine and Norfolk pine, Japanese plum and spider plant. My canaries and finches particularly love ferns, but they didn’t mind snacking on a 6-foot-tall Norfolk pine until it was devoured down to the trunk.
Some unsafe plants include: caladium, cherry tree, dieffenbachia, holly, mistletoe, morning glory, oak, oleander, red maple and wisteria. Avocado, surprisingly, contains a toxin in its leaves, skin, bark and pits that’s deadly to birds. I have given away the avocado plants that I started from their pits.
Take Care in the Kitchen
Bird cages don’t belong in the kitchen at all, because the odors and temperature changes can overwhelm the sensitive avian respiratory system. Parrots become curious when you’re working with food, but keep them out of the kitchen when you’re cooking. Let them “help” make a fresh vegetable or fruit salad, but don’t allow them anywhere near hot burners, boiling pots, or other hazards.
Raw meat, especially poultry, may be contaminated with various organisms, particularly Salmonella. Always wash your hands thoroughly with hot water and soap after handling raw meat and before touching your bird or its possessions. Raw eggs may also be contaminated, so I use the shell only from hard-boiled eggs — never raw eggshells — whenever I want to provide this high calcium item to my birds.
Most beverages aren’t for the birds. Since milk is nature’s special food for baby mammals, birds have no mechanism for digesting it and may find it upsetting. Alcohol can intoxicate a bird with shockingly few sips, so keep your bird away from beverages containing it.
Birds shouldn’t be fed chocolate or avocado. Chocolate contains theobromine, a chemical that can kill birds that overeat it. Avocado contains toxins that are harmless to humans but hazardous to birds.
Nonstick cookware contains polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a substance that emits fumes poisonous to birds when heated over 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Is it reasonable to assume that, for the rest of your bird-owning life, you will never, ever overheat a pan? I don’t think so. Therefore, from my house, I’ve eliminated all items with these coatings, which can include cookie sheets, pots and pans, and even small appliances like irons, curling irons, popcorn poppers and waffle irons.
There are now also nonstick drip pans fitted under some burners that may heat to dangerous temperatures every tine you cook. Remove any such drip pans. I’ve found that properly seasoned iron cooking pots and pans are just as easy to clean, and they supplement the food cooked in them with small particles of iron, a vital mineral.
Take Care in the Bathroom
Pet parrots love to shower, often with their owners. A shower can also be a quiet, private place to train a young parrot. However, because it’s a small, poorly ventilated room with confusing mirrors and a source of standing water, a bathroom is no place for an unsupervised bird.
Anything with a strong chemical smell can overwhelm a bird’s respiratory system, so cap and put away all cleaning and personal-care products that happen to be sitting out. Don’t allow your bird to lick your skin or nibble your hair until you’ve cleaned away all traces of chemically based substances like home permanents, hair conditioners, wet nail polish, sunscreen and so on. Each time I take a bird into the bathroom, I make a point of showing it its reflection in the various mirrors so it won’t suddenly notice it later and become startled.
Get in the habit of always putting down the lid on the toilet bowl. I’ve heard many tragic reports over the years of thirsty or curious birds that came to drink, slipped and drowned in either toilet bowls or half-full beverage glasses.
Provide a Safe Cage, Bird Play Gyms and Bird Toys
One of the most important things you can do for your bird’s safety is to provide the right equipment for the right bird. A large macaw cage might let a small conure trap its head between the bars or permit a finch to escape. Antique or decorative cages (meant to look at, not to use for birds) may contain lead and provide only enough room to exercise a houseplant. Whether buying or building your cages, make sure that your design is safe and appropriate for your pet.
Buy sturdy toys designed for the species of bird you own. Examine them carefully for parts that could splinter or trap an active toe or tongue. Flimsy bells, thin wire, monofilament or other thin string can make deadly traps. Always supervise the bird the first time it plays with a new toy, just to make sure that it’s safe.
Situate Bird Play Gyms and cages out of drafts and well away from anything that could tempt a bird to reach out and chew — including the paint on the walls or a nearby electric cord. Try to take the parrot’s eye view. For instance, what looks like a simple electrical cord to us may resemble a fascinating jungle vine to a curious parrot.
Provide Safe Outdoor Aviaries
Walk-in aviaries should be built with double doors so there’s no way for your birds to escape when you’re entering and exiting. Birds should be able to get in and out of the hot sun at will, and they should have clean, dry roost boxes snug enough to retreat to when it’s cold or wet. In some areas, you may be able to keep your bird outside all year, with the help of infrared lamps to heat roost boxes on the coldest nights. However, if your climate is usually mild, an extremely cold snap means that you should take your birds inside for the duration because they’ve had no chance to become acclimated to frigid weather.
Canaries should be inoculated for canary pox or else completely protected from mosquitoes by mosquito netting over the aviary. For that matter, in this age of West Nile virus, it’s my humble opinion that all outdoor bird aviaries require mosquito netting. Fire ants, a growing problem in my area, can kill baby birds of all species. I relentlessly attack any mounds I see with Amdro, which is the only product I’ve had much luck with. You can’t put it anywhere a bird, turtle, or fish can get at it, so keep a watch out for those ant trails before they start streaming into your bird flights. Always follow the manufacturer’s directions when treating an area for fire ants. Misuse of the product can kill birds.
More recently, I have begun experimenting with white vinegar to disrupt ant hormones and to kill nests. If it works, then it will be a safer solution for removing ant nests.
Know the predators in your area, and make sure that your aviaries will keep them out. A raised deck or concrete floor may be needed to keep out diggers like rats or armadillos. Raccoons, opossums and feral cats make short work of flimsily constructed aviaries. Use 1/4 inch hardware cloth to keep greedy paws from reaching in. Whenever you see cats sitting around the aviary making your birds nervous, spray them with water so that they’ll get the hint they’re not welcome.
Avoid Lead Poisoning
Let your bird exercise its beak on the proper perches and toys, not at will. Many items in the home environment may contain lead, including galvanized wire, old paints, solder, hardware cloth, curtain and fishing weights, old bells with lead clappers, antiques, stained glass, ceramics, batteries, ammunition, costume jewelry, mirror backing, and welds on imported or antique cages.
Lead water pipes or pipes soldered with lead will contaminate your tap water, poisoning humans and birds alike. Unfortunately, if tests show that your drinking water is contaminated with lead, you’ll need to replace the lead joints with a safe material like copper. Meanwhile, provide distilled or spring water to your family. It’s worth it.
Learn About Radon and Other Toxic Gases
The atmosphere of a tightly sealed, energy-efficient home can actually be more polluted than that of a big city outside. You need a kit to check for radon, an odorless carcinogen. You can smell formaldehyde, used in such items as plywood, curtains and carpets, when you enter a brand-new house or one where new carpets have just been installed. Air out the place thoroughly, preferably for a week or two, before moving in with your birds. Move your pets out again whenever having new carpets, insulation and so on installed.
Gas and kerosene heaters can emit carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, which suffocates birds and people by depriving them of oxygen. Make sure your heaters are in good repair, and don’t use doubtful equipment. Personally, I think a well-ventilated home that has to be kept a little cooler to save on fuel costs is a lot safer than a tightly sealed fortress of energy efficiency. It’s more comfortable for the birds too.
Use Safe Pest Control
The first line of defense against insects, rodents, mold, mildew, bacteria and viruses is to keep home and bird areas meticulously clean. However, these life forms are determined enemies, so we may need to seek out chemical weapons that don’t hurt our birds. For instance, sticky traps or flypaper in places birds can’t reach can remove these pests without the need for sprays that may get into our pets’ lungs. A dog or cat can be dipped for fleas in a pyrethrin-based product, a natural insecticide that is bird safe. Many bird owners have successfully used Camicide Dry Mist Flea Killer to treat carpets, upholstery and animal bedding.
When you need an exterminator, send your birds away from home for a minimum of 24 hours after treatment — more if the exterminator says so. Air out the place before the birds return home.
Protect Your Birds From Other Pets
Don’t leave birds alone in a room with a dog or a cat. A young puppy brought into a home where a parrot is already living will probably always respect the natural dominance of the parrot, but a cat’s instinct is to hunt, and one day that bird conveniently trapped in a cage may become an irresistible temptation. Many cats carry bacteria on their claws or teeth that can kill birds. In some cases, even a shallow scratch from a cat has proven to be fatal.
Don’t Let Birds Overheat
Did you know that birds have no sweat glands? Although many favorite species are from the tropics, in the wild they would be active under deep shade or at higher elevations, places that may be as much as 20 degrees cooler than a sunny North American backyard in high summer. Don’t put bird cages in window skylights that get direct sunlight. A bird must always be able to retreat to the shade. A bird left in a closed, parked car may die within minutes.
Make Sure Your Car is Bird Safe
Keep your exhaust system well maintained, because carbon monoxide or other dangerous gases will hurt your bird first. I don’t want to spoil anybody’s fun, but a parrot doesn’t belong on your shoulder when you’re trying to drive. Place your bird in a cage that can be locked and secured into place with seat belts. You wouldn’t want a minor blow-out becoming a major catastrophe because the noise startled your bird and had it flapping its wings in your face. Take out any hanging toys that might be in the cage for the duration of the drive, and bring along a towel to partially or fully cover the cage if the bird becomes tired or cranky. Never leave a bird alone in a car where it may become a target for thieves or a victim of heat exhaustion. I advise never traveling alone with a bird for long distances. You’ll need that extra human to watch over the bird while you’re gassing up or visiting the restroom.
Plan for Emergencies
To deter thieves, consider installing a home-security system appropriate to your area. Most thieves are looking for items they can sell quickly, so you may wish to consult with your avian vet about having microchips implanted in your birds or taking DNA samples from them to provide lasting proof of ownership that reduces their value on the black market. Place padlocks on cage doors so that a thief can’t just reach in and scoop out a parrot on impulse. Most thieves aren’t going to try to climb out of a side window with an entire cage. When people ask, imply that your birds aren’t worth much money, even if they are.
Fire can strike anywhere. Install smoke detectors and check the batteries often. Get some “Attention: Caged Pet” decals to notify firefighters to rescue your birds. Install wheels on heavy cages so that your birds can be rolled, cage and all, to the safety of the outdoors.
Be aware of other emergencies that can arise in your area. Do you have enough travel cages to transport your birds quickly and efficiently if there’s a flood, hurricane or other disaster that forces you to evacuate? A small investment in travel cages proved a life saver when we had to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina. Do you have a friend or relative some distance away that you can visit when you’re evacuated, since many shelters don’t allow pets? (Thanks to Katrina, there is renewed awareness that some people won’t evacuate if shelters don’t allow pets, and more shelters are becoming pet-friendly, but it’s always wise to have options.) Now, while it’s calm, is the time to consider these questions. We sincerely hope that you’ll never have to put your emergency plans into practice, but if you do, your preparations will give your birds (and yourself) a much better chance of healthy survival. With birds, as with people, safety is often a matter of thinking ahead and informing yourself.
These are great tips for the beginner bird owner all the way to the more experienced bird owner. Ann Zych – FunTime Birdy