Bird Ownership 101 (Part 1)

So you’re thinking about getting a bird…KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

What does it take to take care of one? What’s normal and when should you be concerned? How can you improve their lives? This blog series is an attempt to run down some of the basics. It does, rather generally, cover parrot-type birds (Psittacines) and can’t go into to all their idiosyncrasies…but feel free to ask any questions you might have!

Should I Get a Bird?

That is an excellent starting question because while birds are great pets, they are definitely not for everybody. Some of the things to think about may depend on the type of bird you are thinking of. Many parrot species are very long lived – 20-30 yrs, 30-40 yrs or 60 years and up. Some are only with us for about 10-15 years when well cared for. What that means is, if you are already 30 and are thinking about getting a Scarlet Macaw chick you had better have something planned in case your bird outlives you.

bird painting wall

Where to get a Bird?

I heartily recommend looking into adopting a bird from a rescue. Most rescues try very hard to keep birds healthy and happy and usually have way too many “donations” in need of homes. Mickaboo Companion Bird Rescue (in the San Francisco Bay Area) is one such group. They offer classes and support – I expect many other rescues do as well.

Breeders (often through a bird store) give you the opportunity to purchase a juvenile. Make sure the bird is fully weaned before taking it home. I know of several stores that will allow you visit with the baby as it is growing but makes sure it is eating solid foods well before allowing you to take it home.

Flea markets, craigslist…you are much more likely to pay for a sick bird, an illegally smuggled bird or just a “mistake” clutch that hatched. I’ve met many a happy well-adjusted bird acquired this way but it is a game of roulette.

Bird Care

A major difference from standard dog and cat care is the need to cage your bird. Bird cages need to be appropriately sized for the species of bird. Before you run out to the local pet store, grab a “cockatiel” sized cage and be happy it just fits in your home…I’m sorry to tell you this, but most of the smaller bird cages are way too small to be appropriate. Yes, they meet minimum guidelines that the bird must be able to spread its wings without hitting the cage bars. They just are too small for any pet who is going to be spending most of its time in it. Get as large a cage as you have room for and can afford.

black and white bird birdcage cage

This is small sad cage – readily available at a pet store.

Other important issues include cage materials, perches, toys and food. While seed diets are suggested and offered by stores, they do not provide the right nutrients for most of our pets. A formulated diet (pellets) made by a good company costs more but gives your bird the best chance for a longer and healthier life. Take a look at our website for brochures regarding diet, egg laying issues and bacterial infections.

Birds also are quite messy – they can strew food and toys parts all over the house, or outside of their cages at the least. They poop where ever they feel like and expect you to clean that mess up for them. If you lived in a tree, would you care what you dropped? Some birds like to dunk their food, or their feet, in the water dishes making a gooey soup. All this means they require daily cleaning of the cage and food/water dishes.

parrot eating biscuit

Training is for Everyone! Part 1

January is National Train Your Dog Month
…but it should be National Train Your PET Month!


All pets can be trained.  While some don’t need it as much as others, training is a great way to spend quality time with your bird, rabbit, guinea pig…you name it.  If you don’t think your pet can be trained, just take a look on youtube and see what other enterprising people have been doing.

Why Train Birds


Birds really respond well to training for a number of reasons.  They are incredibly smart so, first of all, we train them no matter what we are doing.  Just like a small child who learns by watching.  I recommend working to learn how to train your bird…so you get them to actually do what you want (not what you do).  There are a number of basics that all birds should learn – step up on command to all members of the family, step up on command to confident strangers and stay on a perch.

Why those three?
First, we want our birds to be member’s of our family flock and to discourage pair bonding with one individual.  In addition to worrying about reproductive health issues or aggression to perceived interlopers, just think how unhappy you’d be if your preferred mate never gave you what you wanted.  It’s just not very nice.

Second, we want our birds to learn to interact with a variety of people, to be confident and assured of themselves.  Working on this step helps broaden their horizons and allows owners to worry less about strangers.

Finally, birds expect to spend most of their time with their flock.  Since most of us work away from home we can’t give that to them.  When we are home, we can allow our birds to “flock” with us to different rooms if they are able to stay on a perch.  I feel it also reinforces the idea of independent play.  Imagine a 3 yr old child who has to be held by mom or dad at all times – kind of tiring and perhaps a bit unhealthy.

On top of that, there is one more basic.  I think it is extremely important…teach your bird to take medicine from a syringe!  This can only be done when they are healthy but the rewards you will reap if you ever have to treat your feathered friend are endless.

Think your bird is too old?  Check out this video of a 50 year old Amazon taking her “treats”. Miss Gregory Gets Her Meds


Gut Loading – What and How

Nutritional Issues
There were a lot of talks on nutrition at the recent conference for the Association of Reptile and Amphibians Veterinarian (ARAV). A subject that came up a number of times was how to improve nutrition in our insectivores (insect eaters).

The key to a good diet is diversity. Don’t just feed crickets or mealworms. There are lots of different insects out there and many can be delivered to your door. Consider super worms, Phoenix worms, king worms, Dubai cockroaches, fruit flies, grasshoppers, land crustaceans such as folly-polices or pillbugs…there are many to offer. Some of these guys will even eat pinkies.

Aside from our land crustaceans, all insects have an inverse calcium to phosphorous ratio and that needs to be fixed or your little critter will develop painful debilitating disease.

Ca:P =?
There is a complex relationship between calcium, phosphorus and a few other nutrients in the body.

To simplify, we know that most reptiles need at least a 2:1 ratio (recent studies suggest even that may be too low…). This means 2 parts calcium (Ca) to every 1 part phosphorus (P). Most crickets, while high in protein and low in fat, have a Ca:P ratio of 0.14:1. Now that’s quite a bit less than 2 to 1.  Silkworms are considered a better option but they only have a 0.8:1 ratio.

So what do we do?
Dusting and gut loading!

Most of my clients are familiar with the old “shake and bake ” treatment. Put some insects in a bag with powdered calcium and shake away. But many haven’t heard of gut loading.


Gut loading refers to the process of feeding the insects a calcium rich food and then feeding that insect to your reptile while the calcium is still in the insect’s gut. We know that gut loading requires feeding for 12 to 24 hours to get the food into the gut. We also know that by 48 hours the calcium levels start to drop off. So you have a window to work within.

Kale! Collard Greens!
Unfortunately you can’t overcome a 0.14:1 ratio with good calcium rich foods such as in certain greens. You have to use a diet specifically designed with tons of calcium for this to work. Mazuri has two such diets (A Better Bug and High Calcium Gut Loading Diet). We also know that you can’t out any other food in the cage – apparently good gut loading diets taste terrible and the insects will only eat them if there is no other food source. Of course you still need water.

If you are raising your own insects – keep in mind that gut loading foods are only given prior to feeding the insects to your reptile. They have too much calcium and will result in the death of your colony.

Also, if you buy pre-gut loaded insects…how do you know when they last ate? What was fed? Can you be certain these insects are ready for consumption? It’s best to be sure and gut load yourself!

One last note – fireflies are known to be toxic to bearded dragons so don’t feed them.