General Bird Safety

Written by Layne David Dicker,
Staff Avian Behaviorist,
Wilshire Animal Hospital, Santa Monica, CA

One of the articles that I have always wanted to write is on general bird safety. I finally decided that now was the time a few days ago as I was driving down Pacific Coast Highway near my home. Just for the record, this particular stretch of PCH is near Santa Monica, California where there are huge public beaches, the pier and lots of homes. In other words, we're talking three lanes in either direction and moving fast. I was buzzing along in the fast lane doing about 45 when I see some guy getting out of a car parked on the curb. He is getting out on the driver's (traffic) side, WITH A HYACINTH MACAW ON HIS ARM.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. There, I feel better now. I was feeling angry all over again and thought it best to let it pass. Anyway, why don't we start with some basic rules about taking your bird out of the home. These are important because every bird has to leave the house every now and then. Whether it is a trip to the vet, out for some fresh air or just a little socializing, these things need to be done safely.

1. Use a Carrier.

From the time any of my birds leave my front door until we have reached our destination, they are in a carrier. I didn't always do this and regarded all the warnings about as much as "Don't (fill in blank) or you'll go blind." Myths and legends. Until one day when my Moluccan decided that there was something interesting down by my clutch pedal and went down there to investigate. I was lucky to get out of this with a short delay and a temporary mono radio (he snipped a speaker wire) as opposed to an accident or a squashed, electrocuted or poisoned bird. Birds are to curious and frighten much to easily to have them loose while you're trying to drive a car. Although there are too many hazards to list and I wouldn't want to insult your obvious intelligence (you are reading the PBR, after all) by listing them, just consider the electric window that accidentally gets rolled down. Scares the crap out of me.

So, get yourself a nice carrier. Those small dog/cat kennels work great. Just get a length of dowel, pre drill a hole in each end of the dowel and in each side of the carrier about an inch from the bottom and install the dowel using two wood screws. Voila, a dog carrier with a perch, which makes it a bird carrier! I like to put a towel on the bottom as well. For anything over an hour, make sure you bring some food and water. But remember to pull off to the side of the road (of off the freeway), turn the engine off and make sure the windows are rolled up before you let the bird out of the carrier to pet, feed or water him. I have made 6-hour trips with birds and this system works great.

My birds love to go outside and get some sun (although they are under full spectrum lighting in the house), and this is the sole exception to the "carrier" rule. This is, however, done with supervision every second they are in the yard. This point was brought home the other day when my Cockatiels had the pleasure of having an adult Red-tailed hawk land on their flight, and we don't exactly live in the country. Believe me, raptors (birds of prey) are everywhere, as are coyotes, dogs, cats and curious neighborhood kids. Supervision is essential if your birds are outside.

2. Clip Those Wings.

Obviously, if you're taking your bird out of the house with you, you just increase the possibility of loss or death if your bird is not freshly clipped. For the physicality and other aspects of clipping, see my article in Issue #20 of the Pet Bird Report entitled 'Wing Trimming: Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology'. Purely as a safety issue, there are just so many hazards for the flighted bird, whether this leads to escape (starvation, poisoning, predation, freezing) or just around the house (windows, ceiling fans, poisonous plants, lead, household toxins, toilets, stoves, electrical cords, light bulbs).

If a bird stays where we put them, we can control what they can and can't get into. Which leads to another reason I decided to write this article.

I was having a rather heated cyber-discussion with some moron about general safety issues. As I recall it all started when I suggested that someone's Cockatiel shouldn't be caged with their Greenwing macaw. Sure, the macaw was gentle, but they also like to wrestle and might have some dominance issues come up and all it would take was one little mistake on the part of the macaw and the 'Tiel would be "teets up", as we used to say on the farm. I thought it was a simple safety issue (the birds were tame and social and did not depend on each other for companionship) and they should be split up immediately. Duh. This guy thought it was some huge philosophical issue which culminated with: Life is full of risks and if we try to eliminate them all we'll wind up in a sterilized room, eating vegetables and never going out or interacting with another creature. Frankly, I couldn't agree with him more. And if that Cockatiel ever went up to him and said "I understand the dangers involved with being caged with that huge red bird over there and I'm willing to assume those risks", I'd say go for it. But the primary flaw with his argument as it applies to birds is that we choose for ourselves to drive, skydive, smoke, drink, have unprotected sex, wear polyester around an open flame or any other hazardous activity whereas our birds are at our mercy. We decide for them and I think it is manifestly unfair to subject them to any unreasonable risk.

Just a minute, I have to climb down. It was a very high horse.

I'm back. Next:

3. Toxins.

Know what they are and keep 'em away from the birds. Get a list of toxic plants (call your avian vet, look on AOL/Internet, call your local poison control center) and keep it handy. Find any and all sources of lead and get rid of 'em. In case your bird wanders (they shouldn't, but sometimes they do), get child-proof cabinet closures and move all air fresheners, cleansers, detergents, insecticides (which should never be kept or used near a bird) to an upper cabinet. Anything that gives off fumes or strong chemical odors must not be used near birds. If you are painting or fumigating, board your birds and don't bring them back until the house has had plenty of time to air out; at least 24 hours after the work has ceased and any smell has dissipated. Do not use the self cleaning feature of your oven as this will kill your birds; the oven is okay, just clean it by hand.

And while we're on the subject, do not use any non-stick irons or cookware..... I heard it; some of you gasped. That's right, I said not to use it at all. I know we've all heard that it is only toxic if "over heated". Fine, what's over heated? Do you know that you'll never get a phone call and forget that a pan is on the stove or that the temperature control on the stove might go wacky? If over heated kills does heated regularly just harm? Hell, guns are only dangerous if you pull the trigger, so lets give them out on the street corner with instructions to keep the safety on, wadda 'ya say?

I know what it feels like to lose a bird. And even though he didn't die from an accident, would I scrub pots and pans for a few minutes each evening for the rest of my life to bring him back? You bet I would. Small price, if you ask me.

4. Toys.

Unsafe toys epitomize the axiom "Killing them with kindness". Birds need toys but so many of them on the market are really dangerous. Let's review some of the basics.

  • All leather should be untreated or vegetable dyed.
  • All wood should be untreated or colored with a non-toxic coloring such as Kool-aid, Jello or the like.
  • All toys should be strung on sisal or cotton rope or closed link chain (where each link is welded shut). No bent wires or open link chains as these can easily trap beaks, toes or nails.
  • Attach toys with Quick links (or "C" clamps) or just tie them on to the cage using proper rope or leather. The dog leash clips or any spring loaded or bent metal clips are unbelievably dangerous. Personal experience here.
  • When the end of a piece of rope begins to unravel, clip it off. A bird can easily become entangled in these "tentacles".
  • I avoid bells altogether. The little jingle bells are toe traps and the larger bells frequently have lead clappers or the clappers can easily be removed and swallowed by the inquisitive parrot. If you do get toys with bells, make sure the clappers are not lead and that they are very well attached.
  • Toys that are either too big or too small for your bird are both useless and dangerous.

I'm sure there are more, but I can't seem to remember them now. Heck of an authority, ain't I.

5. Godliness.

Nope, I haven't been reborn; I'm just going to talk about cleanliness.

I know people who devote every Saturday to taking every bird cage outside for a thorough cleaning and disinfecting. I am not one of those people, but they should be knighted. However, simply because we're not all saints does not mean that we're automatically sinners, either. So how often should we mere mortals clean our cages? Well, that depends. For instance, my Amazon poops either in the same spot in the cage or over the side when out of the cage and eats directly over the food bowls. He must be the neatest bird in history. My Moluccan, however, is another story. Hitchcock dumps or tosses food he doesn't like (that day), poops everywhere and brings most of his soft foods out to the top of the cage to eat and eats them over the cage. I'd be an idiot to clean these cages at the same interval.

The obvious answer is to do spot cleaning on small buildups, to run a moist rag over the cage every week or so and to clean/disinfect every month or two. When you disinfect, make sure to rinse the cage thoroughly to remove all the disinfectant before putting your bird back into the cage.

Changing the paper/bedding once or twice a day is also essential. I like newspaper as opposed to a particle type bedding because it is inexpensive and allows you to more easily "read" your birds droppings. Irregular droppings are an early sign of illness and it is impossible to see things like diarrhea or polyuria on corncob.

On a related subject:

6. Illness.

Know what is normal for your bird so that you may easily recognize what is abnormal. I'm tired of hearing that "birds mask their illnesses to avoid predation" as an excuse for not bringing them to the vet quickly enough. Illness is only difficult to spot if you don't look. Birds are total creatures of habit; keep an eye out for listlessness, lack of vocalizations, sitting fluffed, discharge from the mouth, eyes or nose, any limp or wing sensitivity, lack of appetite, bleeding or unusual droppings. Weigh your bird in the morning, before eating (before the bird eats, not before you eat) every few days. If you suspect something is a little off, weigh him every day. If there is a weight loss approaching 10%, go to the vet.

But that's the secret to the whole issue: If you even suspect that anything is wrong, go to a qualified avian veterinarian. Immediately. Don't hem or haw about about it, just go. Please remember that it's not your decision to make, really, because it's not your life that's at stake.

Before we change the topic, just a couple more things about illness prevention. First, don't use dietary supplements/vitamins that you put in the birds' water as they are a great breeding ground for germs. Use a powdered supplement that you put on the dry or wet foods. I prefer the natural products like spirulina or wheat grass. Second, if you are going to be around other birds at a bird show, club meeting or the like, change clothes and wash your hands both before and after you go. Obviously, don't stick your bird next to some strange bird to "see if they'll be friends" or something. This protects both your birds and the other birds. If you have any birds at home that are under one year of age, I would not go to a bird mart or handle any other birds at all. Call me compulsive.

Finally, you should quarantine any new bird that you bring home for a period of about 30 days. This includes keeping him in a separate room, disinfection your hands after handling him and feeding your existing birds before feeding the new birds. (This is an over-simplification, but I can feel this article getting a bit long.)

Hey, here's a good one:

7. Smoking.

Never smoke around your birds. Once again: Duh. Don't smoke in the room next to your birds either. Don't smoke downstairs if your birds are upstairs. I smoke a pipe and I'll smoke in the house if I'm in the study (well ventilated) with the door to the hall closed and the birds are down the hall in a room with it's door closed.

I am the staff avian behaviorist at Wilshire Animal Hospital in Santa Monica, CA. I recently spoke with someone with an Amazon with chronic respiratory problems. The file was loaded with notations saying "Owner told not to smoke around bird." Again, the bird was starting to show signs of an infection. Somehow, she thought that smoking every other cigarette outside, or "trying" not to smoke around the bird was good enough..... I was blunt, but you probably guessed that I would be. Kinda took her by surprise, though. She got the point.

8. Cages.

Rules are rules, and here are some:

  • All welds should be smooth; no sharp edges.
  • All doors should be escape-proof or easily made so with a lock or C-clamp.
  • All bars should be parallel; NO converging bars anywhere on the cage. Disaster waiting to happen.
  • Cages should be powder coated or stainless steel. Many wrought iron and painted finishes (especially imported) are dangerous.
  • While the cage should be very roomy, the bird should not be able to fit his head through the bars.

9. Strangers.

Birds and people who live in Los Angeles naturally fear strangers. It is a protection mechanism, for birds and Angelinos. In that very few people know how to handle birds properly, it is probably good that most birds won't go to just anybody.

If you want your bird to go to other people, which can be great, it is important to let them know how to pick the bird up, that they lower their energy and not be anxious and that they approach the bird slowly and do everything possible to make the bird feel safe and secure. But most importantly, that strangers, as well as the birds keepers and anyone who handles the bird use:

10. The Final Word.

And that word is "UP". One of the greatest uses of the "Up" command is that it enables more people to safely handle your birds because the bird will know what's happening as soon as they hear that word. This can be a great stress reliever at the vet. Also, if something ever startles your bird or there is a problem, a properly trained bird will immediately respond to the "Up" command and you can then take the bird away from the danger or otherwise protect him.

"Up", the word with a thousand uses.

I look at people who keep companion animals as their guardians, not their owners. Ownership implies property and property, to me, is something inanimate or lifeless, that can be discarded if you like. If you have to put a word on it, I would say that animals are "kept", and as their keepers it is our job to keep them safe and healthy and happy, without reservation or compromise. If you can't afford the vet bills, the safe toys, the quality cage, then you can't afford the animal.

Boy, that horse just keeps getting higher and higher. It may take me a while to climb down this time.

© 1998 Layne David Dicker and PBIC, Inc.
Reprinted with permission from the Pet Bird Report.

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