A Beginner's Guide to Parrot Care
This article is written by our in-house veterinarians,and
Parrot species, also known as psittacines, make wonderful and intelligent pets. From cockatiels to ringnecks, parrots are clever and incredibly full of personality.
But caring for a bird is not as easy as it might seem. Diligent care needs to be taken with their husbandry, hygiene and diet to ensure they don't become ill, malnourished, or depressed. Incorrect housing and husbandry practices are a common cause of health problems in birds. Before you rush out and buy a feathered friend, it's important to have a basic understanding of their unique care requirements.
To help get you started, we've set out a complete guide for beginner bird parents. This guide applies to all species of parrots including Budgies (also known as parakeets), Cockatiels, Ringnecks, Lovebirds, Conures, African Greys, and Macaws.
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Parrot species are highly social. From budgies to macaws, these birds always require company and typically form 'mate' pairs. In the wild, they often form flocks made up of numerous pairs.
Does this mean you should always buy parrots in pairs? Well, not necessarily. Parrots are unique because they have the ability to transfer this instinct and form a 'mate' bond with a human. However, this ability is influenced by their rearing phase; where hand-reared birds are more likely to bond with humans than those reared by birds.
In the absence of another bird, your bird will probably form a bond with one human in particular. Birds aren’t bird brained, in fact they are almost like a five year old child! They may show fierce loyalty to this one human, If you bond with your bird but do not pay them enough attention, they can become depressed, forlorn, and neglected. Therefore, if you work away from home, or can't commit to showing your bird hours of daily devotion, it might be kindest to consider a same-species 'friend' to keep your bird paired and happy.
2 - How Long Do Birds Live?
Before buying a new feathered friend, it's important to know that birds are a long term commitment. Many people are surprised to learn the estimated lifespan of many popular species. You should of course only adopt a bird if you are prepared to keep it for life.
See an outline of the lifespan of different species of birds below (lifespan based on a life with proper care and nutrition):
Lifespan of Common Parrot Species
- Budgies: Up to 18 years
- Lovebird: Up to 10 years
- Cockatiels: Up to 25 years
- Ringneck: 20-30 years
- Conure: Up to 25 years
- Lorikeet: 15-20 years
- Galah: 40 years
- Cockatoo: 60 years
- Macaw: Up to 100 years
- African Grey: 25-30 years
Alright, let's talk about cages. Do birds actually need to be caged at all times? No, they most certainly do not. However, it's still important to provide a cage or enclosure as a 'home base' for your bird. Instead of viewing this cage as a means of constant restraint, think of their cage as their 'house' from which they are free to leave from time to time if they are tame enough to do so. For untamed, aviary birds, creating a large enclosure in which they can forage, fly and safely retreat to is a must.
Some people like to have their bird free to roam at all times, as this encourages bonding with their human. Take care as kitchens and fans are a major hazard for your free ranging birds. Bird proof your home by ensuring that you keep your bird away from kitchen stoves and minimise the use of teflon in your home (as the fumes are toxic). Make sure moving objects such as fans are switched off, or blocked off from your bird to access. Electrical cords will need to be hidden, or protected, as birds will chew on them whilst exploring. Always free range your bird under close supervision.
Your bird will likely return to their cage if they feel threatened or frightened, and also when they want to eat, drink, or bathe themselves. Many tamed birds will follow their human around, choosing to perch on their human's shoulder and head. And don't worry - you can toilet train most birds!
However other people might choose to allow their bird out for a few hours during the day, and keep them in their cage at night. Because birds naturally seek shelter for sleeping, this can work well also.
Don’t forget to have a handy travel cage to use to bring your bird to the vet! The same principles apply, ensure the wires are not too large for your bird to escape, and make sure there is a large enough opening to easily grab your bird from.
How to Choose the Best Cage For Your Bird
As a general rule, bigger is better when it comes to choosing a cage for your bird. You can never have too large a cage, but you can certainly have too small a cage. Look for a cage which is big enough to allow your bird species to stretch their wings fully and fly for 3-4 wingbeats. Cages should be long and wide.
The minimum cage sizes for different species is set out below:
Minimum Cage Requirement Based on Bird Species
- Budgie (parakeet): 50cm long x 30cm deep x 45cm high
- Cockatiel: 60cm long x 45cm wide x 60cm high
- Ringneck: 60cm long x 60cm wide x 75cm high
- Conure: 60cm long x 60cm wide x 75cm high
- Lorikeet: 60cm long x 60cm wide x 75cm high
- Lovebird: 60cm long x 45cm wide x 60cm high
- Macaw: 125cm long x 125cm wide x 152cm high
- African Grey: 60cm long x 90cm wide x 122cm high
It's also important to ensure that the cage bars are spaced appropriately. The gaps between the bars need to be narrow enough so that your bird can't get out and predators can't get in! Snakes and other wild birds are a particular risk in many parts of Australia, and can unfortunately attack through surprisingly small spaces.
Bird cages should be solid and sturdy, and made of bird safe material. Cages made of stainless steel, which are unlikely to chip, are non toxic and easy to clean are ideal, however these can be expensive. Powder coated steel is a more readily available option, as are powder coated galvanized wire cages. However keep in mind that if there is any rusting or chipping of the outer layer there is an increased risk of heavy metal consumption. Replace your cages if you notice rusting or peeling of the outer layer to minimise the risk of heavy metal toxicity.
Where To Place Your Bird's Cage
Birds are very sensitive to smoke and can even succumb to toxicoses from teflon vapours (which are produced from some non-stick pans). Therefore, it is ideal to place your bird's cage away from the kitchen and in a well-ventillated area.
With regards to sunlight, your bird will benefit from having some exposure to the sun each day to obtain adequate Vitamin D and maintain strong bones. If you're unable to let your bird out of their cage during daylight hours you may wish to place your bird's cage near an open window so they can get some sunlight - provided there is adequate shade to escape to when they get too hot.
And finally, remember that your bird will probably make quite a mess when they rummage through their food each day. Make sure you place your bird's cage in a position where regular floor clean ups are easy and practical.
4 - What To Put In Your Bird's Cage
Setting up your bird cage can be a whole lot of fun. You can customise it to be as creative or as interesting as you like. However, there are a few essentials that you'll need for your bird's cage to get started. These include:
1. Food and Water Bowls. Bowls often come with the cage, but you may wish to purchase extras if you would like to have one for pellets, one for seed, one for fresh veggies, etc. See our section below for more about feeding and nutrition.
2. Perches. Birds love to climb and will sit on a perch almost all the time. You can never really have too many perches - the more levels to climb, the better. The diameter of the perch needs to be wide enough so that your bird's toes don't curl around and dig into the underside of their foot. The ideal perch girth should allow your bird's front and back toes to meet underneath but not overlap too much. Perches aren’t only used for perching! Branches of different sizes can be used as a perch as a form of enrichment, for birds to chew and shred.
3. Mental Enrichment Enrich your birdie's environment by including accessories and toys. In case you don't already know, birds are extremely playful and love to chew and shred things. They are highly mischevious and constantly nibble on just about anything. Always ensure that your bird has plenty of toys, and keep them interested by providing different toys regularly. Provide a fun mix of Puzzle Toys, Swing Toys, Foraging Toys, and Hanging Toys. Just like children, birds can get bored with the same toys. Rotate through your toys regularly, and remember to remove and discard toys which have been damaged. Plastic toys should be cleaned regularly. Metal toys, bells or accessories which have rusted should also be removed
AVOID using rope toys, or fabric based toys, as the small fibres can be ingested, and over time this can lead to life threatening obstruction. Although Hidey Huts are a popular item, they can also cause life threatening obstruction if the fibres are ingested, and can potentiate undesirable reproductive behaviours. Monitor your birds use of these items, and remove them if they become frayed and/or if your bird becomes aggressive.
4. A bird bath While parrots tend to produce a 'dusty' down to help shed dirt, they do also require a bath to clean themselves in. Provide a bowl of water large enough for your bird to sit in, and shallow enough so that they can stand in it and splash themselves comfortably. Make sure it is placed somewhere in the cage where it won't catch excess food or droppings, and be sure to clean it daily.
5. A cage cover This might be suitable in colder climates, as birds to tend to feel the cold. A cage cover is ideal for cool nights, as it will add an extra layer of shelter and warmth.
Best Bird Toys
5 - Nutrition
Note: This section applies to most parrot species, however some species such as the Lorikeet require a nectar-based diet. Always research your bird's individual species or if you aren't sure, you can Ask a Pet Circle Vet.
Nutrition is one of the most important, and sadly one of the most misunderstood, facets of bird care. Many people believe that psittacine birds should be fed a seed-only diet, and unfortunately many commercial 'bird food' producers still sell seed mix advertised as a 'complete diet' which only perpetuates the belief.
While feeding a seed-based diet is convenient and relatively cheap, birds will selectively pick out the parts of the food they like, including particular seeds which can lead to an array of health problems - often vitamin and mineral deficiencies as well as obesity and liver disease and ultimately a shortened lifespan. Seed diets are generally either carbohydrates (e.g. millet) and/or fat (e.g. sunflower seeds) and lack a number of vitamins, minerals and protein.
Seeds can be used to make up part of a balanced bird diet, but should not be the ENTIRE diet. Instead, we recommend a diet which contains a base of premium pellets. Pelleted diets are specially formulated nutritionally balanced meals. In a pelleted diet, birds are unable to preferentially select certain foods such as a favourite type of seed. They are easy to feed, provide a 'nutritionally complete' diet for a range of species, and are also more economical to feed in the long term.
For birds that are accustomed to a seed only or high seed diet, you will need to transition them slowly to pellets. Likewise when introducing new foods, it needs to be done gradually, birds are creatures of habit but also notoriously stubborn when it comes to new foods. Check out the guidelines from Why Should Birds Eat Pellets? For more information.
What Is The Ideal Bird Diet?
The ideal bird diet consists of:
- For cockatiels, lovebirds and budgies: 50% good quality pellets, 30% budgie/small parrot seed mix, 20% vegetables plus a small amount of fruit. Examples of good quality pellets include: Peckish Naturals Adult Hookbill Pellet and Vetafarm Nutriblend Pellets Mini
- For galahs and cockatoos: 50% pellets, 30% fresh fruit and vegetables (peas / corn / broccoli / celery / capsicum / carrot / spinach), 10% seeds or millet, and 10% fresh grass and native Australian plants.Examples of good quality pellets include: Peckish Naturals Adult Hookbill Large Pellet and the Passwell Parrot Pellets
- For Eclectus parrots consider: 50-70% good quality pellets, 20-40% fruits and vegetables, 0-10% seeds, 1-5% snacks. Examples of good quality pellets include: Vetafarm Paradise Pellets
- For canaries and finches: 80% good quality crumbles, 10% quality seed mix, 10% small chopped vegetables plus a small amount of fruit. Examples of a good quality crumble include: Vetafarm Finch & Budgie Crumbles or Peckish Naturals Adult Softbill Blend with Mealworms
- For Nectar based birds such as lories and lorikeets: 50-70% good quality commercial wet, dry or pellet based nectar diets, 20-30% vegetables, 20-50% native vegetation and fruits, 1-2% snacks. Examples of a good quality nectar diet include: Forest Fusion Lorikeet Diet, Wombaroo Lorikeet and Honey Eater Food or Vetafarm Nectar Pellets
- For other psittacine species: 70% good quality pellets, 10-20% vegetables and fruits, 0-5% pellets, 0-5% treats plus a small amount of fruit and vegetables. Examples of good quality pellets include: Vetafarm Parrot Essentials, Nutriblend Pellets Mini, Small and Large, and Passwell Parrot Pellets.
If you are transitioning a bird from a seed to a pellet diet, consider supplementing with PassWells Good Oil Birds to ensure they are still getting a complete diet.
Best Pelleted Bird Food
Which Fruit and Vegetables Are Safe For Birds?
Safe fruits and vegetables for birds include: corn, capsicum, zucchini, broccoli, squash, tomatoes, sweet potato, pumpkin, carrot, beans, peas, kiwi, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, small amounts of apple, melons, stone fruits (remove stone first). If you prefer a commercially available treat, try the Vetafarm Parrot Deli Treats or the Parrot Deli Stix Best Of Both Worlds.
Fruits and vegetables to avoid include: celery stalks, iceberg lettuce, avocado, onion, garlic, rhubarb, chocolate.
If you prefer a commercially available treat, check out the Peckish range of Mixed Berry and Green Treats.
Many bird species can benefit from calcium supplementation, especially if they are currently breeding or laying eggs. Calcium can help support your bird as they lay down egg shell. Calcium supplementation can be given in the form of cuttlebones, shell grit, or a calcium perch. Cuttlebones and calcium perches also help keep your bird's beak trim and filed, reducing painful overgrowth. Calcium can also be given as a powder or liquid supplement.
6 - Parasite Prevention
Both external and internal parasites can pose a risk to pet birds, even if housed entirely indoors. For this reason, it's always a good idea to treat your bird for both worms and external parasites as soon as you bring them home from the breeder or pet store, and quarantine them from your other birds for at least two days. If your birds are in contact with wildlife or have any access to the outdoors, it's worth spraying them for mites once every 6-8 weeks, and worming them every 3 months.
Mites and lice are the two most common external parasites that affect pet birds. Your bird may become infected from the aviary you purchased your bird from, or from wildlife that passes near your house. Both bird mites and lice are not transferable to or from humans.
Mites are microscopic creatures that cannot be seen with the naked eye. They cause an itchy, scaly, crusty look to the face or feet of pet birds and are particularly common in budgies and cockatiels. There are other less common mites that can affect the air sacs and cause breathing difficulties.
Lice, unlike mites, are often visible to the naked eye. They are more common in chickens but can affect parrot species as well. They tend to cause itchiness and can lead to feather loss and skin conditions.
If you suspect your bird might have mites or lice, always consult with your veterinarian to determine an appropriate and effective treatment.
In terms of prevention, it's important to treat your pet bird for external parasites with a mite and lice spray when you bring them home from the breeder, and quarantine them from your other birds for two days before introduction. If your birds are in contact with wildlife or have access to the outdoors, it is worth spraying them once every 6-8 weeks to keep them bug-free.
Always make sure you check with your vet with regards to dose and frequency, so as not to overdose your bird.
There are many internal parasites that can affect birds, including roundworms (nematodes), tapeworms (cestodes), flukes, and protozoa including coccidia, cryptosporidia and giardia. Thankfully these parasites are rare in pet birds who were purchased from a reputable breeder and have been kept mostly indoors.
Pet birds don't generally require regular worming every three months like dogs and cats, as birds don't get outdoors as much as their furry friends. However, you should consider worming your bird if they have access to the outdoors, as well as any newly adopted birds before introducing them to your current aviary. Vetafarm Wormout Gel is a handy in-water treatment that treats for all important species of worms.
7 - Wing Clipping
Many bird parents choose to clip their bird's wing feathers as it prevents them flying into potential hazards; such as through an open window, into ceiling fans, or onto a hot stove. It can also help with training your bird, as it stops them flying in an upward direction and perching high out of reach. While you can learn to clip your bird's wings at home, we recommend consulting with your veterinarian to ensure you're doing it safely and correctly.
When done correctly, wing clipping is painless and safe. Birds have a number of flight feathers; 10 primary feathers (which sit towards the tips of the wings) and 10-25 secondary feathers (which sit closer to the body). The root of each feather is heavily vascularised and rooted deeply in the skin or bone, but the ends of the feathers are not innervated and are therefore painless to cut (much like fingernails or hair).
It is usually ideal to clip both wings equally, as this will still allow your bird to fly straight but in a downwards direction, leading to safe and controlled landings. DO NOT CLIP ONLY ONE WING, OR ALL THE FEATHERS OF THE WINGS. If only one wing is clipped, your bird may veer to one side or even in circles, which can cause stress, uncontrolled landings, and injuries. Incorrect wing clipping can lead to blood loss, fractures, pain, and a bad association in your bird's mind and these will require veterinary treatment.
8 - Nail Trimming
Many bird parents choose to trim their bird's nails, as it helps make their little claws less sharp - which makes shoulder-perching less painful and scratchy!
However, nail trimming is often not necessary as many birds file their nails down naturally by walking, playing with toys, perching on different surfaced or perching on a rough surface, such as a calcium grit perch.
While you can learn to clip your bird's nails at home, we recommend consulting with your veterinarian to ensure you're doing it safely and correctly.
Ultimately, birds make adorable, intelligent, and highly companionable pets. If you can learn the basics and ensure your bird's husbandry, nutrition, and everyday care is top-knotch, your birdy friend!