Wildlife Rehabilitation Guidelines

Caring for Your Small Cage Bird And Its Health

Ron Hines DVM PhD

This article is for those of you who are just getting started with a cage bird. It is about the basics of caring for finches, canaries, minas, budgerigars, cockatiels and parrots.

Small birds have been kept as pets for centuries. The two most important criteria for success in keeping these pets are proper diet and proper caging.

Birds really enjoy supervised activities inside and outside of the home. However, birds do not do well when kept loose in the home. Houses are just too full of potential dangers including toxic objects, plants, mirrors, ceiling fans, electrical, water and chemical hazards and access to the out-of-doors for the bird’s long-term survival.

I generally suggest my clients visit an experienced aviculturalist (bird breeder) before selecting a cage or determining its location in your home.

Should My New Pet Bird’s Wings Be Clipped?

Birds whose wings have been clipped have fewer accidents in the home than fully flighted pets. Loose, flighted, birds are also prone to escape out open doors or windows. They rarely if ever will fly back. They may also crash into windows and mirrors injuring themselves.

What Kind of Cage Should I Buy?

Finches do well in cages constructed of galvanized, powder-coated or painted wire. Hook-billed (parrot-like) birds can ingest (eat) sufficient zinc from galvanized wire cages to cause a disease known as “New Cage Syndrome” or zinc toxicity.

Cages constructed with wooden parts are unsuitable for both types of birds. Hook-billed pets will eat the wood and the wood offers a residence to bacteria and mold when it is used with finches and canaries. Wood cages are also very difficult to clean. If your cage is to be constructed of wood, only its narrow frame and legs should be wooden.

How Large Should My New Pet Bird’s Cage Be?

I like a cage that is a minimum of four times as long, high and wide as the bird it holds. For every additional bird, the size should increase by at least twenty percent. Ornamental and decorative cages can pose special hazards to birds. First, ornamental cages often have crevices between the bars that can trap the bird’s bead. Secondly, coating used to paint ornamental cages may contain toxic materials. Thirdly, ornamental cages are often difficult to clean and sanitize. The bar space of the cage should be approximately one-half the diameter of the bird’s head. I have seen quite a few cages for sale in pet stores or flea markets that are very beautiful but entirely impractical for keeping birds. Water and food container can be plastic for finches, for hook-billed birds they should be constructed of lead-free ceramics, glass or steel.

Toxic Products You Should Avoid Having Around Your Home

Toxic household products are more of a threat to hook-billed birds, which enjoy gnawing on the objects around them than to finches and other straight-beaked birds. As I mentioned previously, the zinc coating of galvanized metal can be highly toxic to birds when it is ingested. Lead is also a major cause of poisoning in cage birds. Objects that contain lead include stained glass windows and lampshades, house paints prior to 1978, the clappers within toy bells, fishing sinkers, die-cast toys and costume jewelry.

Many indoor foliage plants are also toxic. When in doubt, keep birds away from all houseplants. If it is necessary that the bird nibble on greens, put a variety of greens from your supermarket in small sprigs within the bird’s cage. Teflon coated pans, bulbs, and hairdryers also pose a toxic hazard to birds. When these objects and objects like them are heated, their non-stick coatings give off fumes which are very toxic to birds. Avocado pits and, in some instances, avocado meat are toxic to birds. Any object containing long fiber strands such as carpet or macrame can wrap around your birds leg or wing causing severe damage.

What Should I Feed My Pet Bird?

Inadequate diet is the most common cause of disease in cage and aviary birds. For the better part of the twentieth century, birds were fed seed diets. These diets were usually composed of grains that were in some way tainted, either too old , or two high in mold content for human consumption. Not only did these grains contain toxic products, the were also deficient in the minerals and vitamins that birds require. In the late 1950s pelleted, high-quality diets came on the market. One of the first was the Lafeber line of hook-bill pellets developed by Dr. Ted Lafeber Niles Illinois. Cheap seed diets are only composed of 3 or four different grains. In the wild , birds eat many more items with protects them from nutritional deficiencies.

Birds are very selective in what they eat. They cautiously pick through seed mixes picking out the grains that meet their fancy based primarily on color size and consistency. This lead to a number of nutritionally-based diseases including Obesity, Protein, Vitamin A and Calcium deficiency disease. When a pelleted diet is used, the birds are forced to eat all the nutrients they need to stay healthy.

Many good brands of pelleted birds diets are on the market today. These include Mazuri Brands®, Zupreem®, Roudybush®, Harrison’s® and LeFeber© ’s, diets. Food and water should be present throughout the day. When fed a pelleted diet, grit is probably unneeded. Grit should be provided in moderation to cage birds (with the exception of hook bills) that are given seed.

Toenail Trimming – A Necessary Procedure Best Done By A Professional:

Caged birds do not get the exercise and normal toenail wear that birds do in the wild. With time, their toenails will overgrow in length and may curl unnaturally. This leads to arthritic changes that can not be corrected. Every three months, a small portion of the toenail should be removed to compensate for inactivity.

Perches used in birdcages are generally much too small in diameter to allow proper nail wear. The diameter of the perches should vary and range from approximately the diameter of the birds foot when in a “fist” to three times this diameter. This puts the points or tips of the nails flat against the perch and accelerates ware.

Bird’s toenails can be clipped with a human toenail clipper and the bird restrained in a bath towel. Nails should not bleed if small portions are removed frequently, Should bleeding occur, press the nail firmly into a moist bar of ivory soap or apply a styptic pencil. I have never seen a bird die or become ill from blood loss when its toenails were clipped cautiously in this frequent fashion. Concrete perches may eliminate the need to clip you bird’s toenails. Sand paper coated perches generally are ineffective and become messy.

Wing Clipping For Your Pet Bird’s Safety:

When trimming a bird’s wing, I like to leave the first 4 long feathers (primary feathers) of each wing intact, remove about 10 of the secondary feathers leaving a few secondary feathers intact next to the body. This allows the bird to flap gently to the ground , should it fall. It also retains the birds normal silhouette and feather conformation when the wings are folded. Wing clipping prevents collisions with objects in the home such as mirrors, open toilets, walls and ceiling fans and prevents the bird’s escape through opened doors and windows. Feathers should be cut at the point where the feather fluff begins to sprout from the shaft. This means that a bit less than one quarter of the length of the feather remains. Feathers that are still in their growth phase (blood feathers) must not be cut.

Trimming Your Pet Bird’s Beak:

Occasionally, the beaks of your birds may overgrow due to lack of vigorous use. Trimming the beak is best left to a professional. I use a number 20, 15 or 11 scalpel blade. I hold the blade perpendicular to the bird’s bill and gently draw the blade along the beak from its cuticle to its point. The technique is similar to using a draw-knife or plane on a piece of wood. Repeated passes along the beaks removes the loose and discolored material that accumulates over the living bill. If rosy areas appear too much tissue is being removed.

Where Should I Put My Pet Bird’s Cage?

The bird cage should be located in an area where temperature remains fairly constant. There is not need to cover a bird’s cage at night unless temperature variation is extreme. I like to place cages in areas where natural lighting and conditions are good for the growth a philodendron houseplant. An area adjoining the kitchen is often ideal for a single bird since the presence of people active in the area may relieve the bird’s boredom.

Removal of Leg Bands

When you are not keeping large numbers of identical birds, leg bands serve no useful purpose. They can become trapped in portions of the cage if they are of the open type. Closed leg bands, applied to the bird when it was a chick are less of a problem. I suggest a competent individual remove all bands. If you need to have a way to identify your pet if it escapes or becomes lost, inquire about having it microchipped.

Should I Bathe My Pet Bird?

Almost all birds enjoy bathing. This removes excess dander and soil and stimulates preening and a sense of well-being. A shallow ceramic dish or plate makes an ideal bathtub. Baths should be provided a minimum of three times a week. If the birds are reluctant to bath, they can be misted off with a trigger-spray plant-misting bottle available at any home and garden center. Larger birds can be trained to take a shower on the shoulder of their owner. Be sure the wet bird is not exposed to temperatures under 80F (26.7C).


Bird cages should be changed daily. Drinking water should also be changed daily. If pelleted food is fed, the food dish should be cleaned daily to every three days. Do not use cat litter on the bottom of the cage – these products are often dusty and might be eaten by the bird impacting it. The best cage liner is ordinary newspaper. The best disinfectant is one part household bleach added to twenty parts water. Do not mist this product while the bird remains in the cage. Do not use “mite” defenders or perfumed products.

Do I Need To Give My Pet Bird A Vitamin / Mineral Supplement?

Birds that eat one of the popular pelleted diets I have mentions do not need vitamin or mineral supplementation. A possible exception would be a bird that is producing a clutch of eggs. These birds might benefit from a calcium supplement such as NeoCalGlucon added to their drinking water or a pinch of crushed calcium carbonate tablet sprinkled over their food.

How Can I Recognize When My Pet Bird Might Be ill?

Any change in activity or appearance in a mature cage bird may be a sign of illness. Some of these changes are:

Weight Loss

Bird’s weigh should remain stable throughout their life. Thin birds are heard to recognize because their plumage tends to hide it. Thin birds often have an overlap of feathers down the center of their breast.

Change In Dropping Color Or Consistency

Bird dropping will change rapidly in color and consistency when diet changes. But assuming a steady diet of the same brand of pelleted diet, any change in color or consistency may be evidence of disease.

Discharges From The Bird’s Eyes, Squinting Or Swelling

All discharges from the eyes are abnormal. They can be a sign of a dusty environment or infection in or adjoining the eyes. Squinting is often a sign of eye inflammation. Swelling around the eyes is often a sign of sinus infection

Discharge Or Change In The Shape and Diameter of the Pet’s Nostrils

Birds on a diet low in vitamin A often develop sinus, eye and nasal infections.

Ruffled Feathers

Birds that sit motionless with their feathers ruffed are quite ill. Do not confuse this with periodic ruffling of their feathers as they shift into a more comfortable position.


Birds will occasionally sneeze after scratching their nostrils. This is normal. However, birds that sneeze during inactivity often have a sinus infection or vitamin A deficiency.

Lack Of Appetite

This is generally a sign of disease. Birds do not stop eating due to emotional stress such as people, dogs and cats do.

Less Activity Than Usual

A veterinarian should see a bird that is normally active but becomes lethargic and inactive. It is unusual for a bird to become inactive and not show other of warning signs listed in this article.

Carrying Its Wings Drooped Lower On Its Body

This is always a sign that the bird is ill in some physical way.

Blood In The Cage Bottom, Perch Or On The Bird’s Feathers

This is often a sign that a growing feather (blood feather) has been injured. These need to be firmly grasped at their base pinching a bit of the skin surrounding the feather follicle. The feather is then smartly plucked out with pressure remaining on the pinched tissue until bleeding ceases. Other causes of bleeding need to be explored by a veterinarian specializing in birds.

Open Mouth Breathing And Tail Bobbing (tail rhythmically going up and down)

Both these conditions are very serious. They generally occur simultaneously. The bird needs to be taken directly to a veterinarian specializing in birds.

Lumps Anywhere On Its body

These are often tumors occurring in older birds. Some are serious and others benign. An avian veterinarian can examine your pet and let you know the seriousness of the condition.

Swollen Feet Or Joints

Gout is a common condition in birds feed an improper diet. This disease causes swelling and white plaques surrounding

the joints of the foot and wing.

A Decrease In Grooming And Preening

This is a sign of stress or disease.

A Decreased In Talking, Calling Or Singing

This is a sign of stress or disease.

Sitting Motionless On The Floor Of Its Cage

This is a sign of a very serious disease problem or illness.

Falling From Its Perch Or Limping or Perching on One Favored Leg Consistently

Falling from the perch can be due to generalized weakness or injury to the leg or wing. Injury to the leg is the usual cause of limping or perching on one leg

Stress Bars On Its Feathers

When your bird’s feathers are forming and still unfurled, They require a continuous supply of blood nutrients to develop normally. If on specific days your bird does not eat sufficiently or if on those days it does not receive sufficient protein in its diet, There will be bars of weak material striped across the feathers when they mature. Like you can see in the image below:

The high metabolic rate of your pet and its tendency to mask symptoms of disease mean that action must be taken immediately when any of the above signs are present. As a general rule, disease signs are more serious in birds than in dog and cat pets or humans. Also, the bird’s high metabolic rate makes disease progress rapidly. A week’s delay can mean the difference between life and death.

Remember that for a bird to show signs of illness it must be seriously ill. Birds do not malinger. Waiting to see if thing improve on themselves is not a bad decision in dogs, cats or people – but it is not a wise decision in pet birds. When you take your bird to be seen by an avian veterinarian, try to bring it in the same cage it lives in at home. Do not change or clean the cage or food containers before going to the vet. Bring all the toys that it plays with.

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