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Feed the birds: Swift guide to the diet & nutrition, hygiene and housing requirements of aviary birds

bird-husbandry-and-welfare

Although less popular than their dog and cat counterparts, pet bird ownership proves just as complex when it comes to ensuring the bird’s needs are properly met.

Much like dog breeds, each bird has varying needs with regards to attention, space and preferred environment; so before even beginning the process of owning a bird, owners should ensure they are able to meet all of its requirements!

They should also choose their species carefully; recent research has suggested that some bird species are better suited to confinement than others.

When it comes to managing the welfare of pet birds, welfare practices can be broken down into four categories: diet and nutrition, hygiene, housing and enrichment and social behaviours. Failure to properly meet any of these will often result in illness. It’s possible that even with the best practices in place, a bird can fall ill, so knowing how to respond accordingly is crucial.

Diet & nutrition
Birds need the following necessary nutrients in their diet: protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and water. Misconceptions associating parrots as seed eaters have led to instances where they have been fed a solely seed-based diet.

Importantly, this fails to meet their nutritional requirements and can led to issues such as obesity, nutrient deficiency and high levels of fat and cholesterol. Instead, seeds should be kept to a minimum and a pelleted or extruded diet is much more preferable.

This needs to be included along with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Recommended vegetables include carrots, kale, yellow squash and collard greens, while suggested fruits include apples, papaya, bananas and grapes.

In cases where a bird is fed a seed-based diet, they should also be fed daily a supplement of vitamins, minerals and amino acids to make up for the nutrients the seeds fail to supply.

Birds can tend towards being wary of foods that aren’t familiar to them – expecting them to eat food they don’t recognise isn’t a reasonable expectation. Establishing a good feeding routine early is important and requires patience. Feeding a bird at the same time every day is recommended.

When beginning a diet change, implement this also. Don’t starve a bird into a new diet – they won’t react positively to this. Be prepared to waste food, avoid feeding the bird familiar food while the diet change is taking place, and utilise a bird that eats the desired diet as a role model.

Hygiene
As captive birds are kept in an environment vastly different to that of wild birds, their claws and beaks require more maintenance. Wild birds’ claws and beaks will naturally wear down from interaction with rough surfaces, such as tree branches.

To simulate this, keeping natural wooden perches in the home will benefit the bird greatly, as chewing and rubbing on the perch will cause dead layers of their beak to shed, as well as wear down their claws.

In addition, using tools such as an emery board, nail clippers or a cautery instrument will help to keep the claws short by trimming them. In larger birds, use a Dremel tool.

If there’s a chance you don’t feel confident trimming the bird’s claws or beaks, don’t test this out – take the bird to an experienced aviary vet who will be happy to assist you. In cases of bleeding – where you may have trimmed too close to the nail bed – consult a vet also.

The exotic birds which we have come to adopt as our pets – such as various species of parrots and finches – originate from tropical climates which experience daily rainfall. Wild birds shower during rainstorms, in order to keep their feathers healthy. Consequently, pet birds need to be allowed to bathe every so often. Either use a small container filled with water or make use of a sprayer.

Housing/accommodation
Birds are most commonly kept in cages, which need to be cleaned out thoroughly. Clean the cage out at least once a month and change cage-bottom coverings daily! The cage needs to take into account the size requirements of the bird being housed in it. It needs to be large enough to provide the bird with space for movement, as too-small cages can cause stress.

The chosen cage should be at least twice the bird’s wingspan and the bars shouldn’t be far enough apart that the bird can poke its head through. Having a variety of perches in the cages creates stimulation and movement for the bird as they can hop from one perch to the other.

The perches must also take into consideration size requirements as they need to have the correct diameter for the bird’s claws and vary to exercise its foot muscles.

Also consider the location of the cage – will it be kept in a quiet living room? Or near to a busy main road? Dependent on the species, some birds will prefer the seclusion, and others will prefer the hustle and bustle.

Be mindful of any potential hazards close to the cage and keep the bird to its cage when you’re not there to supervise, to avoid outcomes where the bird injures itself or causes damage.

Make sure also to cover a bird’s cage needs to be covered to simulate the natural cycle of day and night and ensure the bird will get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can weaken a bird’s immune system and cause it to be prone to certain illnesses.

Enrichment and ‘normal’ behaviours
Beyond providing what could be seen as the ‘basics’ – giving the bird access to a clean environment and taking the time to provide it with clean food and water – toys are imperative in providing the bird with stimulation and preventing boredom.

Ways of spotting when a bird is in need of stimulation requires knowing what constitutes as normal and abnormal behaviours in birds.

Chosen toys need to take into consideration the size of the birds as some are more suitable than others. Smaller birds will benefit from playing with tennis balls, wood blocks and natural fibre ropes that the bird can climb and hang from. Larger birds will require toys that can’t be shredded or can be shredded safely.

Avoid breakable plastic toys, toxic plants and toys that contain lead. Time should be spent each day interacting with a bird and giving it individual attention. Birds will often enjoy the company of the same species – although owners should always check if their bird is compatible when incorporating a bird of a different species into a household.

Be aware that several bird species are inherently communicative animals and will engage in what’s known as ‘social noise,’ such as screaming. This typically happens in large social groups of birds but can happen between a pet bird and bird owner and constitutes as normal behaviour for some species.

Many species are inherently communicative animals and will engage in what’s known as ‘social noise’, such as screaming. This will typically happen in large social groups, but with a bird owner as well. This time provides a great opportunity to engage and bond with the bird, as it will want to maintain typical social communication.

This is one example of what can be considered a ‘normal’ behaviour, as opposed to abnormal. Generally speaking, repetitive behaviours such as pacing, head bobbing, rocking, swinging or spinning call for veterinary attention, as this may be caused by boredom or lack of stimulation.

Birds with underlying psychological problems may pull at their own feathers or another bird’s, in which case consulting a vet is the right course of action too.

Illness
Even if its owner has provided the best possible environment for the bird, there’s still the possibility that it’ll fall ill. Knowing how to look for signs of illness and treat them is an important part of owning birds, as birds are prone to disguising their illness.

This forms part of a natural instinct that prevents them from appearing weak or vulnerable to predators, so remaining vigilant and observant towards any signs of illness is especially important.

Do not employ a ‘wait and see’ approach – act as quickly as possible when you spot something that might appear suspect. One tip is to note down any changes in routine or habits as a potential sign of illness, and to seek veterinary assistance.

Some signs include eye discharge, eye swelling, weight loss and others, but can vary widely depending on the affliction. Owners should take note of the bird’s droppings also – changes in the colour, consistency and number may all reflect illness.

Healthy birds will be able to leave droppings all over the bottom of the cage as they move from place to place, whereas sick birds will leave droppings in one pile, suggesting they aren’t moving around.

Caring for a sick bird requires encouraging it to eat and keeping it warm. Utilising an electric heater, heated room or heat lamp near the cage are all good sources of warmth.

However, avoid overheating – heat-stressed birds pant, depress their feathers and appear agitated. It’s best to employ a preventative approach, as illness is frequently a culmination of malnutrition or stress; so keeping the bird happy and well-nourished will be an important step in avoiding illness!

By breaking down pet bird welfare into four basic categories within this guide, we hope to illustrate that caring for a bird is a responsibility and being well-informed is important, but it doesn’t need to be daunting either.

Owners should always remember to continue to devote individual time with their pet bird – forming a social bond goes a long way!

Note from the editor:
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Article contributed by Caitlin Gittins, International Petfood magazine.

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