Windhover Veterinary Center
944 A Main Street
Walpole, MA  02081
Emergency AFTER HOURS ONLY: 508-314-3477

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Bird Care

Diet:  what your bird should eat
One of the best things you can do for your pet bird´s health and longevity is to provide proper nutrition through a balanced diet.

Fresh Seed Mixes - should make up no more than 20% of a birds daily intake.  Seed alone, no matter how many different types you are feeding, is never sufficient.  Seeds and nuts are high in fat and protein and low in essential vitamins and minerals.  Think how your health would be if you only ate steak and potato chips every day!  Although many seed mixes are marketed as complete and balanced, most birds only eat their favorite seeds and the nutritious parts of the mix end up at the bottom of the cage.  Often, the best use of seeds is to mix small, measured servings in with other food in order to encourage your bird to eat a more diverse diet.  For example, the average cockatiel could receive ½ to 1 teaspoon of seed mix in addition to pellets and a dish of "people" food.

Vegetables, Fruits, and Whole Grains - can make up 40% to 80% of your bird´s daily intake. Birds can eat pasta, grains, cooked rice, macaroni, low fat cheese, beans, tofu, sprouted seeds, and small amounts of cooked white meat and eggs. In addition, try offering broccoli, green beans, corn, spinach, kale, dandelion greens, celery, chicory, red peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, apples, oranges, cranberries, bananas, grapes, papayas, mangoes, etc.  The list of what can be offered is endless.  Produce should be offered daily as long as it is washed and not wilted. Vegetables can be raw or cooked. Try offering the same vegetable several different ways before assuming your bird won't eat it.  For example, carrots may be sliced, shredded, or cut into sticks or hung whole on a string or skewers.  Be sure to remove uneaten food daily.
In general, foods that are healthy for you will be beneficial to your bird.  Avoid foods that are fatty, spicy, salty, sweet or have caffeine.  Avocado should be avoided because it has adverse and fatal effects in some birds.  A varied diet with proper supplementation will result in a healthy bird with greater resistance to disease.  Avoid over-feeding. An obese bird is easily stressed and is not healthy.
Since many birds are raised exclusively on seed it is often difficult to get them to accept different types of food.  Cut new foods into small pieces and place in a dish the bird usually eats from.  If the food is rejected, don't give up!  Offer the food many more times.  It may take several months before you are successful.  You need to be as stubborn and persistent as your bird.  Eventually, new items will be incorporated into their daily regimen as the newness, strangeness and fear wear off.    Although it may seem wasteful in process, the end result is well worth your effort!

Pelleted Mixtures - which provide balanced nutrition and are convenient to feed, are now available and can make up 40% to 60% of your bird´s diet.  Similar in concept to dog food and cat food, these products are nutritionally better than seed mixtures because the birds cannot selectively pick out the tastier (and less nutritious) parts of the meal leaving behind the vitamin enriched parts.  Some birds will easily make the transition from seed to pellets; others will not.  There are many brands of pellets available in different colors, shapes, sizes and flavors.  Try different brands. Be persistent.  Measuring portions of seeds and pellets with a gradual transition towards more pellets and less seeds will sometimes work.  Limiting seed will often encourage a bird to transition to pellets; however, only healthy birds should be challenged in this way.  Consult your veterinarian.  During any diet transition, food intake should be monitored daily and the bird should be weighed every 2 to 3 days.  The reward for your efforts will be a healthier, longer-living bird.  If your bird eats a diet consisting primarily of pellets, vegetables, fruits and other "people" food, then additional vitamin supplementation may not even be necessary.

Vitamins - Additional vitamin supplementation is generally not necessary if your bird is eating a combination of pellets and fresh foods.  If your bird refuses to eat a balanced diet, then a vitamin supplement may be beneficial.  Products such as nutriberries, nutri-an cakes, avicakes are seed and pellet treats coated with vitamins. Liquid vitamins tend to degrade very rapidly. Powdered vitamins tend to sift to the bottom of the seed cup and are more effective if your bird will take them on moist food.

Calcium - is a mineral that can be especially important to supplement in African Grays and egg laying females.  It can be provided by a cuttle bone or mineral block.  Calcium gluconate or calcium lactate can also be used.  If your bird does not eat cuttle bone, grate it and sprinkle it on favorite foods.  Tofu, broccoli, green beans, spinach, blueberries, plain yogurt and crushed egg shells are also good sources of calcium.

Grit - Grit is not required to maintain the health of any bird. Too much grit can cause an impacted gizzard.  The grit should also be good quality and of the appropriate size for the type of bird you own.

Cages, Perches, and Toys
The largest cage size dimension should be length and width rather than height.  Adequate space should be present to allow exercise.  Birds should be allowed out of the cage for proper daily exercise. Ultimately, the cage size depends on how much time your bird spends in the cage.  (The more time, the bigger the cage.)
Perches should be of varying diameter to exercise the feet.  Natural branches from unsprayed fruit or hardwood trees make excellent perches.  Sandpaper perches do nothing more than cause sore feet.
Toys should be carefully chosen.  Many toys are unsafe.  Some toys contain lead based products.  Chain link toys and key chains can trap bird feet and tongues and cause serious injury.  If you purchase a toy with a chain link, it is suggested you replace the chain with rawhide shoelaces.  Be creative and make your own toys.  (String nuts on rawhide, dog bones, rawhide chews, empty cardboard tubes from rolled paper products).  If you use rawhide, make sure it is naturally tanned.

Some birds enjoy bathing and should be encouraged to do so.  If the bird does not like to bathe, spraying with lukewarm water two or three times a week will be helpful in maintaining healthy feathers.  Keep warm after bathing.  Bathing is especially good for your bird during the winter when houses tend to be drier due to furnaces. In hot weather, many birds enjoy bathing on a daily basis.  If you purchase a bird in the winter months, it would be better to wait until warmer weather before introducing a regular bathing regimen.

Sex:  how to determine your bird's gender
Determining the sex in larger parrots is usually impossible by external morphology (body shape) or behavior.  If a bird lays an egg, it is a female.  If it does not, we don't know.  A few exceptions are some parakeets, cockatiels, and cockatoos.
Parakeets:  The cere (waxy band over beak) after six months of age is blue in males and tan to brown in females.  Albinos, lutinos, and some mixes can still be difficult to determine.
Cockatiels:  All young birds and females have barring on the underside of tail feathers.  After their first moult which occurs at about 8 months of age, males grow solid grey tail and wing feathers and females grow feathers with white or yellow bands across them.
Cockatoos: Females have reddish eyes and males have brown.  In all other birds, sex can best be determined by DNA analysis which requires a few drops of blood.

Taming and Training
Trimming the wings will often expedite training.  A small room such as the bathroom (with toilet lid closed) will serve as a good training room.  Schedule a couple of short sessions per day.  Reward positive behavior with some treat which has been withheld from the regular diet.  With small birds, you can start with your hands.  In training larger birds, start working with a perch and gradually work up to your hands as the bond of trust develops.  Try not to overwhelm new birds with intensive training the first few weeks it is in your home.  It is recommended that you give the bird time to acclimate to your voice, its new environment and household noises before grabbing it out of the cage.
As puppies go to obedience school to learn good manners, bird kindergarten classes are available.  And yes, older birds are capable of learning new tricks -- if you are not sure how to work with your bird, perhaps a bird behavior consult may be helpful.  Ask your veterinarian for more information.

Hazards in the home, and precautions to take against them
Cat and dog bites - The internal injuries can often be much worse than the superficial wounds indicate.  Septicemia and shock can result in death during the first 48-72 hours.  The bird should be examined and treated soon after injury.

Plants - Common houseplants such as: diffenbachia, philodendron, English ivy, holly and some cut flowers such as lilies may cause a toxic reaction if consumed in large enough quantities.

Open windows and doors - Under the proper conditions even birds with clipped wings are able to fly.

Hot objects and places - open pots, soups, pies, gravy, wood stoves, griddles, range tops.  Also the inside of a car on a sunny day, even if it is relatively cool outside.

Lead based objects - paint, old linoleum, old plaster, wire solder, pencils, mini-blinds, old picture frames, old wallpaper, costume jewelry, antique bird cages.

Noxious fumes from paint, cleaning supplies, smoke, burned plastic, burned Teflon or non-stick surfaces such as cookware, ovens, irons, hair dryers, waffle irons, or other hot surfaces heated to above 540 degrees.  This can easily happen if you leave an empty non-stick pan on the range, or if the water boils out of the pan.

Cold Drafts from air conditioners or leaky winter windows.  Birds can adapt to living at most temperatures (eg. 60 degrees F to 90 degrees F); however, they tend to be less tolerant of dramatic fluctuations (eg. greater than 5-10 degrees F. in a 24 hour period).  You can continue to set your thermostat at whatever temperature you find comfortable; but, keep it there around the clock.

Other hazards include: Mirrors and glass, Chain link toys, Ceiling fans, Vacuum cleaners, Open toilet bowls

Normal Behavior: observe it
Observe your bird carefully so you will know its "normal" activity, food consumption and droppings. In newly purchased birds, it is especially important to spend the first few weeks recognizing your bird's "normals" .  A reference point for "normal" is the only basis you will have to judge if your bird is showing signs of illness.  The following is a suggested check list you can apply to your new pet:
•Water consumption
•Food consumption
•Activity level
•Droppings note number, size, color and consistency
Many illnesses are not recognized until symptoms are advanced and the condition is critical.  An inactive bird that sleeps excessively and fluffs its feathers constantly is not healthy.  Learn the normals for your bird. Abnormal droppings are often one of the first signs of illness.  Birds receiving fruits and vegetables high in water content will have loose droppings.  Droppings may also reflect the color of a feed in the past 24 hours.  Don´t be alarmed if "Polly" has bluish droppings after eating a dish of blueberries.
Knowing what is normal, FOR YOUR BIRD, will provide you and your veterinarian with key information when your bird becomes ill.  Try not to panic and use common sense to answer questions you may have.  However, if there is a change you cannot account for, it is better to be safe and consult your veterinarian.

Loss of feathers is highly variable in captivity, but should occur once or twice a year.  Normal molting depends on humidity, light period and breeding.  All these natural stimulants are not present in captivity, so molting is often unpredictable.  This is a stressful time for birds and good nutrition is necessary.  The bird should be protected from cold drafts, since this is a time of increased susceptibility to disease.  The bird may be less active and talk or chirp less.  Molting can last 4-12 weeks depending on the size of the bird . At no time should there be bald spots. The bird should not be rendered flightless for long.  If feathers are not re-growing then the bird should be examined.  When new feathers are re-growing, the bird will spend much time preening.  This is normal and does not indicate a problem.

Signs of Illness and when to call your veterinarian
Fluffing- means the bird is chilled and additional heat should be provided.  This can be accomplished with a heeling pad or light bulb.
Anorexia - decreased appetite
Lethargy - sleeping more, talking less, decreased activity
Dropping - change in color or consistency
Sneezing - increased frequency, wetness, nasal discharge
Tail bobbing - rhythmic tail movement with breathing.  Often accompanied by abnormal vocal sounds.
Abdominal Swelling - swelling in pelvic region
The above symptoms are non-specific. The bird should be examined by a veterinarian to determine the exact nature of the illness.  When symptoms are noticed, the disease process may be well advanced so no time should be wasted.

Feather Picking
Feather picking is often an indication of a psychological problem requiring behavioral training rather than a physical illness.  On very rare occasions, external parasites (mites and lice) may cause picking. However, be cautious with sprays and dusts since some birds can have toxic reactions to these chemicals and die!
Some feather picking problems are due to bacterial or fungal infections, skin cancer, underlying kidney and liver problems and abnormal thyroid levels.  If feather picking persists, the bird should be examined to determine or rule out a physical cause.  At times, a skin biopsy and culture may be necessary to treat the condition properly.
Feather picking should always be investigated for underlying medical reasons.

If You Cannot Reach Your Veterinarian
Provide heat.  Remove cage bottom.  Place heating pad covered with cellophane wrap and/or a terry cloth towel under cage.  Cover cage on three sides with a blanket.  Place an aquarium thermometer in cage to monitor temperature between 80-85 degrees.  Try to keep temperature constant both night and day.  Try to avoid fluctuations of more than 10 degrees, as it does more harm than good.  Keep quiet and do not stress.
If extremely weak; feed baby cereal with honey, sugar water, or Emeraid with an eye dropper.  Do NOT give alcoholic beverage.
Call to discuss problem with your veterinarian as soon as possible.  If condition worsens or there is no improvement after several days of "at home" treatment, an appointment should be scheduled.