To keep your bird healthy you need to pay attention to the following things:
Nutrition & Diet
Social Needs & Amusement
Nutrition & Diet
A varied diet largely made up of live foods will give you the healthiest bird. By live foods we mean vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Dead foods are foods that don’t spoil quickly (i.e. packaged seeds & nuts). That might seem like a simplistic description, but it is actually quite accurate. A healthy, correct diet can add DECADES to your birds’ lives. Yes. Decades.
Vegetables: Carrots (cooked slightly for better assimilation of beta carotene), string beans, corn, squash, peas, broccoli, zucchini, snow peas, sunflower sprouts, pea shoots, sprouted seeds and beans (excellent for protein) are all favorites. If your bird is reluctant to try these things, try sprouting their seed mix. It will be familiar to them and seeds are much healthier when sprouting (lower in fat, higher in amino acids for instance).
Grains: You can sprout many grains at home. Millet and quinoa are two nice grains to sprout. Also, cooked brown rice and cooked quinoa are relished by many parrots. Quinoa is a South American grain so parrots from this region probably ate it in the wild. Any food you can duplicate from their natural environment is an excellent choice.
Fruits: High in sugar, don’t substitute fruit for vegetables. Vegetables always should make up the largest portion of the diet. Fruits do not really need to make up a significant part of the diet. Grapes are relished by most parrots. I strongly recommend organic fruits only or else use a special vegetable/fruit wash that can remove pesticides and bacteria. Check out www.vegiwash.com for a good one that is also available at Trader Joe’s.
Absolutely positively do not feed your birds strawberries unless they are organic or thoroughly washed with a special fruit or vegetable wash. The cancer-causing pesticides used on them should have been outlawed long ago, but continual lobbying by growers has slowed down the process. Humans should not eat them either.
Seeds: Get a good, fresh seed mix. If you aren’t sure it’s good and fresh, try sprouting it. If the seeds don’t sprout in a few days, the seeds are dead. They have no nutritional value. I give a daily supply of seeds, but never so much that the birds ignore their veggies. I believe in allowing free access to seeds because they don’t spoil and can be left in the cage all day.
Pellets: There are many pellets on the market. There have been great reports on every one and terrible stories about everyone. To the vets who say, “Birds don’t just eat seeds in the wild,” I must reply, “And they eat NO pellets in the wild.” However, I do still feed pellets as a supplement, especially for breeding birds as it supplies extra protein. Take a look at our Cautionary Tales page for some individual pellet descriptions. I personally use Roudybush minis, Hagen Tropican, Exact Rainbow pellets, and Mazuri pellets.
People Food: Pasta, whole wheat breads, bits of very well cooked chicken, and various other “people foods” are fine as long as they are not the majority of the diet. Don’t feed the bird food from your mouth and don’t bite off a piece for them. There’s too much bacteria in your mouth and you can make your bird sick. Make sure chicken is very well cooked and don’t leave any food like this in the cage for more than an hour.
Food Preparation: Use the same precautions you use for your human family members.Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Listeria, and other food-borne pathogens can and do affect parrots. For more details on bacterial pathogens, see our reference library.
Junk Food: Many parrots cannot excrete large amounts of salt efficiently, so the potato chips and french fries are not a good idea. Same thing for table foods you’ve added salt too (hey, it’s not good for you either). A tiny crumb from a muffins, cookie, or other fatty baked goods once in a blue moon might be okay, but don’t get your parrot addicted to these treats. You want to encourage them to eat the best foods and not hold out for garbage foods. Sugar in general is not good for parrots as it can cause hyperactivity.
Any food or drink containing theobromine is forbidden. Chocolate, cocoa, coffee, and tea contain theobromine, which can cause over excitability, cardiopathy, and death.
Absolutely positively do NOT give your bird wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverages. Their livers cannot handle it. It is not funny to see a bird drunk and anyone who thinks it is should find their birds a more appropriate home.
Avocado is poisonous to many parrots, particularly African species. To avoid confusion, don’t feed it to any of your birds.
For more information, read our Cautionary Tales page about the tragic consequences of a poor diet (50+ years cut off of an amazon’s life!) and also check out our Parrot Food Pyramid for an easy reference for your pet’s diet.
Also think seriously about obtaining the book “Feeding Your Pet Bird”–written by a vet and oh so excellent!
Social Needs & Amusement
The remarkable intelligence of parrots requires that they have a varied and stimulating environment. Parrots that have been severely neglected have been known to literally “go insane,” rocking in the cage, mutilating themselves horribly, or falling into a deep depression. If you do not think you will have time for your bird, do not buy a bird. If you find you can’t give the bird the proper attention, find it a good home (and don’t ask someone to pay you what you paid for a healthy, happy young bird) where it will get the proper attention. This is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling creature. Any cruelty you show it (and simply neglect is cruelty) will come back your way somehow–that’s the way the universe works in my opinion. So beware your indifference! If these comments do not apply to you, pardon my ferocity; I simply have strong feelings about the abandonment and mistreatment of birds.
Get a wide variety of safe toys for your parrot. Rotate them regularly. They will get bored with the same old ragged toy. Remove and throw away toys that have become soiled or dangerous (ropes that have become frayed can be very dangerous; you can come home to a strangled bird). Check out our dangerous toys page to make sure you don’t inadvertently endanger your pet.
Parrots need interaction. They are flock creatures by nature. They should be in a communal area of the home so they feel they are part of the family. Also, the more time you can give them outside of their cage, the better adjusted they will be. I have a Parrot Tower from Avian.Inc that my amazon just loves. It’s easier to clean than a manzanita tree (in fact the parts can go in the dishwasher). I recommend the short legs for parrots that have dominance issues (i.e., amazons, macaws). The tower also allows her plenty of exercise. She crawls all over it, hangs from toys, and keeps herself amused most of the day. I have the tower in my home office so we spend most of the day that way. Not everyone has the luxury of keeping their bird with them all day. In that case, make sure that bird comes out of the cage as soon as you get home. Get up a little earlier in the morning so the bird can have some time with you. Do not relegate your bird to a back bedroom where he gets to see you for a few minutes in the morning and maybe an hour before you go to bed. The bird will develop behavioral issues and destructive behavior due to boredom and frustration. Imagine being locked in a cage in a room all by yourself for 22 hours a day. It doesn’t sound very appealing, does it?
There is a certain pet shop in the Los Angeles area that keeps larger parrots (cockatoos, amazons) in too-small cages with not a single toy. I had stopped in there to buy some seed when I noticed this (and the fact they were weaning African Grey babies on sunflower seeds!). The teenager who was with me went over to the toy section, got a toy, and secretly put it in a cockatoo’s cage. The parrot immediately went after the toy, absolutely delighted. We laughed about it later, imagining the pet store owners trying to figure out how that cockatoo got a toy! What cheap jerks! They save a few bucks on toys (I mean, how much can they really cost wholesale?) and end up with a depressed bird. I think the birds would sell better if they looked happy and were playing with toys! And to those who say it isn’t cost effective? I say get out of the business. We aren’t talking about inanimate objects for sale here. Compassion is part of the job of raising or selling birds and compassion doesn’t have a price tag.
Food bowls, water, cages, and the surrounding environment need to be kept clean. One of the leading causes of bacterial infections in parrots is soiled water. Many birds like to make “bird soup” by dropping food in their water bowl. Sometimes changing the location of the bowl with remedy this, but some birds will carry dehydrated carrots all the way across the cage to the water bowl. Water bottles do not solve the problem of unclean water. Food gets trapped in the tube the first time the bird drinks from it. Frankly, they are actually harder to clean properly. The best way to have fresh water is to have a ton of extra clean bowls. You can dump the old bowl out, the new one in when you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to thoroughly clean the water bowl. I have three times the number of bowls as I need for this reason–some of my birds will need three changes a day when they are feeding young. The hotter the weather the higher the risk that bird soup will turn into a primordial death stew.
Did you know that dried fecal matter from a parrot with psittacosis (if shedding the virus at the time) will present a danger for up to 3 or 4 months? Many people think once the poops have dried up they aren’t a hazard, but that is not true. You can have an asymptotic bird who then starts to shed the virus, the dust from the dried poops gets in the air, and suddenly ALL your birds are infected with psittacosis.
See our library to find out about quarantines for new birds.
When a family brings home a new baby, they immediately start to think about household hazards and how they can protect their child. They get child safety latches on cabinet doors and special caps for electrical plugs. Use this same kind of circumspection when bringing home a new parrot. They can get into the same kind of trouble as a 2-year-old human child.
Common household dangers are toxic plants, aerosols, electrical cords, Teflon and other nonstick cookware, small objects that can shatter and be swallowed. Many of these are discussed on our Alerts page. Also check out the Library for links to sites on these dangers.
Wing-clipping can be a very contentious issue. In my experience, unclipped birds end up out a door or window. I’ve also heard of birds getting hurt by ceiling fans or ending up drowned in toilets (of course the latter can happen to a clipped bird as well, so keep the lids down!). Just realize that not everyone will be as cautious with your doors as you might be. Children are especially likely to accidentally leave a door open. Your bird might not want to leave, but if spooked it can go right out that open door. They can end up miles away very quickly. The poor miserable creature will wonder why you haven’t come to get him! Smaller birds will often be captured by larger birds like ravens. It seem the choice is up to the individual. If one thinks clipped wings are crueler than being a raven’s dinner…
Just a special note: wing clippings do not have to be devastating. A proper trim will allow the bird to take short little trips. What you want to prevent is lift. This type of limited trimming must be done more often (it grows in more quickly) and it is still risky for smaller birds if you take them outside (wind can give them lift and take them quite a distance). Cockatiels are famous for escaping with “clipped” wings because their bodies are thin and long, an aerodynamic design that allows plenty of lift even with flight feathers trimmed if they have enough wind.
Establish a relationship with a qualified avian vet right away. Do not wait until your pet is sitting ruffled up on the bottom of the cage. Wellness checks are much less money than emergency visits! A typical avian vet might charge $35 for a checkup. An emergency visit usually ends up running into the hundreds of dollars. You can often avert emergencies with proper veterinary care. There are only a limited number of certified avian vets in the United States. In Los Angeles there are at least two. If there are no certified avian vets in your area, look for someone who has experience with birds in their practice. There are plenty of excellent avian vets who don’t have the certification. However, if you take your amazon to the vet and your vet says, “Hey, what kind of bird is this?” I think you might need a new vet ;-0
The primary way to maintain the “highest branch” in your flock is to use the “up” command. I use “up-up”. Now my amazon will say “up-up” as I reach for her. In fact, she says it all day long, sometimes as a little song, and sometimes to let me know she’d like some attention. You should use the “up” command every single time you pick up your bird, and some version of the down command when you set the bird down. This might sound to simple to be true, but believe me it is highly effective. Consistency is important. Don’t only say “Up” when the bird has done something wrong and you want to move him.
Gentle dominance means you assert that you are the head of the flock without frightening, intimidating, or physically harming the bird. You can not be in charge of your “flock” (even one bird constitutes a flock in their minds) if the flock doesn’t trust you.
Dropping your bird to the floor as a training method is highly INeffective. It merely teaches the bird that you are an unreliable perch. The bird might be shocked into temporary submission, but this does nothing to promote a long-term relationship. You can bet that Alex the famous African Grey who recognizes shapes, colors, and the like has NEVER been dropped to the floor as part of his training regimen. I mean, if your 2-year-old human baby bit you would you drop it to the floor? Aggressive training methods are simply lazy training methods. Screaming at your amazon creates more dominance issues. A gentle voice of support and encouragement will turn around an aggressive bird almost instantaneously! Try it! Even if you are furious that you’ve been bit, try speaking in a gentle tone, calming the bird. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you feel you have to win at being the nastiest in the flock, you’re in for a very long (and endless) battle.
A basic rule-of-thumb is to not allow refusals to the “Up” command. If you have a hormonal bird (an adult amazon), sometimes this might seem difficult. This is why it is a good idea to stick train amazons and other sexually mature parrots if they show aggression. You simply use the up command and place a stick against their chest–the same way you would put your hand. You put slight pressure until they have to step up. Many birds will growl or grab at the stick, but it is completely harmless to them. Obviously you don’t hit them with the stick. You press it against the body the same way you would your hand and say, “Step Up.” Training your parrot to step up on a stick guarantees that you will never have to accept a refusal for a step up command–if you are afraid of being bitten, you just use the stick instead.
One other major rule of thumb is this: when you open your bird’s cage for it to come out, have the bird step up on command and remove him from the cage yourself. Don’t let him just crawl out on his own. This further establishes your place in the pecking order. It is also a good idea to have a separate play area rather than one on top of the cage, especially if the cage is too high for you to reach straight across it to pick your bird up. Having a separate play area where you can place the bird also helps avoid territorial aggression associated with the cage. There should be food and water available on the play area.
Cage aggression can be a real problem. It can be totally avoided if the step up command is always used, the bird is stick trained, and you don’t let the bird crawl out on its own. This training is best begun as soon as the bird weans. There will be periods of resistance (at adolescence and again when they reach sexual maturity). The firmer foundation you create when the bird is young, the easier it will be to work through behavioral issues as the bird gets older.
Take a look at our Reference Library for more information on health, disease, and training of parrots.