Housing Large Birds

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

General Information

Pet birds rely on their owners for everything in their lives including food, housing, enrichment, and socialization. Bird owners should continually strive to learn more about how to better their bird’s lives to promote long lasting and healthy relationships with their birds.

How big should my bird's cage be?

As a rule, bigger is better. In the wild, birds spend their days flying from tree to tree in search of food, nest sites, and mates. In captivity, pet birds rarely get the chance to exercise or be occupied in this way. Their cages must be big enough to move around in easily and without striking anything as they move from perch to perch and stretch or flap their wings.

While there are numerous cage designs available, generally a rectangular stainless-steel cage, preferably longer than it is tall, but tall enough to ensure a bird has room to move up and down without hitting its tail on anything, is best. Tall, narrow cages are impractical, as most birds like to move back and forth from perch to perch and not simply straight up and down. Birds also like to hang out in cage corners, so they do not typically like round cages. Round cages also create a situation in which every perch across its width is in some way directly over the perch below it. This leads to constant soiling of all lower perches with feces.

"Tall, narrow cages are impractical, as most birds like to move back and forth from
perch to perch and not simply straight up and down."

While wood, wicker, or bamboo cages may be attractive, they are easily chewed on and destroyed by large birds’ beaks. They also are impossible to clean and disinfect effectively due to their porous nature. All-metal cages are the most practical to keep clean, however, some metal cages are coated with paint. As birds use their beaks to climb, they can chip and ingest small pieces of paint over time. Some older cages have zinc, a toxic metal, in the coating that can be harmful to birds if they eat it. Stainless-steel cages, without a coating on them, are preferable. In addition, the bars on the cage must be close enough together to prevent the bird from getting its head or legs stuck between the bars.

What sort of perch should I have?

As birds spend all their time standing on perches, careful consideration must be given to this aspect of their environment. Wood branches or natural wood make the best perches, as their varying diameters allow birds to distribute pressure to different areas on the bottom of their feet. Natural manzanita wood perches are commercially available for birds.

Branches taken from trees outside your home can be disinfected by heating them in an oven at 200°F for 30 minutes. Tree branches must be disinfected before using them as perches, as they might contain microscopic fungus or insects and this can be harmful to birds. Some types of wood also contain oils that can be toxic to birds if chewed on. Providing birds with non-toxic, washed and disinfected branches such as apple, elm, ash, maple or willow, can be both functional and attractive in cages.

Perch diameter should match bird size. Birds should be able to wrap their toes around a perch to grasp it and not just stand on top of it with their toes spread open wide. Birds on perches too big for them, can fall or slip if they cannot grasp them properly.

Wood perches may help wear bird’s nails down better than perches made from softer materials. Wood perches also provide an entertainment value for birds that like to chew. Perches that are chewed up and splintered need to be replaced as birds destroy them. Sandpaper perch covers are not recommended because they can cause irritation and sores to the bottom of birds’ feet.

"Wood branches or natural wood perches make the best perches."

Plastic perches are easy to clean and disinfect but may prove slippery for birds to grip. Larger birds may chew and splinter the plastic into sharp pieces, so plastic perches should not be used with large birds.

Soft, braided rope perches that are easy to grasp are another great option for pet birds, especially if they are older and have arthritic feet. Natural hemp and cotton rope provide a soft surface and are easy to grip. Rope perches must be monitored carefully as birds will often chew on them, causing rope strands or fibers to become entangled around their toes. This is especially a problem with synthetic fiber rope and nesting materials, which should never be used with birds.

Concrete perches provide texture to help wear down beaks and nails. However, concrete perches should not be the only perches used, as they can be abrasive to the bottom of birds' feet. Please see the handout “Perches for Birds” for more information.

What sort of food and water dishes should I provide?

Dishes made from sturdy non-toxic materials are easy to clean and disinfect every day. For large birds that can chew up and destroy things easily with their large beaks, stainless-steel dishes are ideal as they are indestructible, easy to clean, and attach securely to the side of the cage. Food and water dishes should not be placed on the bottom of the cage, since this is where their droppings fall. Dishes should be positioned such that they are easily accessible and will not be accidentally soiled with feces from overhead perching sites. Also, food dishes should not be too deep as birds may not be able to reach the bottom of the dish, and food will be wasted.

What about toys for my bird?

Pet birds need daily psychological stimulation and entertainment. This kind of stimulation is commonly referred to as enrichment. Birds love to play and explore. Toys can provide enrichment, such as ladders and ropes for climbing, swings, bells, hanging toys, and pieces of wood, leather, and cardboard to chew on.

In addition, many birds like to hide in boxes or paper bags. Boxes and bags can be recycled and replaced when soiled. There are also numerous commercially available foraging and puzzle toys designed to engage and entertain birds for hours. These types of toys challenge a bird to figure something out, such as getting a favorite food item out of a drawer or opening a container for a treat. Although most companies strive to provide safe toys, there are no quality controls or regulations when it comes to bird toy manufacturing. For this reason, bird owners must ensure that the toys they purchase are free of potential dangers. Toys should not have snaps, clasps, bell clappers, open chain links, easily removable or broken parts, glass, or extraneous loose fibers that birds can chew or swallow or that could wrap around a toe or foot. Rubber toys that large birds could easily chew apart and swallow, can also be very dangerous and must be avoided. All parts of toys should be large enough not to be swallowed. Homemade toys should be scrutinized carefully for safety.

Mirrors made from glass are generally not suitable for large birds, as they are easily broken. Polished, stainless-steel mirrors are safer and more appropriate. For some reproductively active birds, mirrors may promote inappropriate sexual behaviors. If you have concerns about whether your bird should have mirrored toys, speak to your veterinarian.

When trying to figure out what toys to offer your bird, experiment with enrichment toys to find out what your bird enjoys. You can offer your bird an assortment of toys that can be rotated on a daily or weekly basis to keep the bird from getting bored. When offered new toys, some birds are frightened of new items in their environment. New toys should be introduced slowly to allow birds to acclimate to them over time.

How often should I clean my bird's toys?

Often, toys get dusty or soiled with food and feces. Dirty toys should be cleaned with warm, soapy water and rinsed thoroughly. Damaged, potentially dangerous toys should be replaced. Removing and replacing toys can be problematic for some birds, as some birds develop such affection for certain toys that they may regurgitate or masturbate on the toy in a display of affection, courtship, or sexual offering. Occasionally, birds become so obsessed with particular toys that they stop eating and interacting with their caretakers. For these birds, the items they are obsessing over should be removed from their cages, and they should be given other outlets (other toys, food, time out of their cages, etc.) to try to distract them.

How do I know what size of cage my bird should have?

The following is a general guideline for minimum suggested cage sizes. Sizes vary depending on the size of the bird. In general, with cages, the bigger the better!

2 ft x 2 ft x 3 ft (60 cm x 60 cm x 90 cm)

African grey parrots, Amazon parrots
2 ft x 3 ft x 4 ft (60 cm x 90 cm x 120 cm)

3 ft x 3 ft x 4 ft (90 cm x 90 cm x 120 cm)

Small species: 2 ft x 2 ft x 3 ft (60 cm x 60 cm x 90 cm)
Large species: 3 ft x 4 ft x 4 ft (90 cm x 120 cm x 120 cm)

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