Housing Small Birds

By Rick Axelson, DVM


General Information

A pet bird is entirely reliant on you for everything in its life. Its well-being is dependent on you, the caring pet bird owner. It is important to continually strive to better your bird’s life and help ensure the maintenance of a long lasting, healthy relationship between you and your bird.

How big should my bird's cage be?

As a rule, bigger is better. The biggest cage you can afford is arguably too small. In the wild, a bird would spend much of its day flying from tree to tree in search of food and at play. In captivity, we must allow for some sort of exercise, self-expression and entertainment. The cage must be big enough to move around in with ease and without striking anything as your bird goes from perch to perch and stretches or flaps its wings. There are numerous designs to suit all tastes. Generally, a rectangular metal cage, preferably longer than it is tall, is the best. Tall, narrow cages prove to be rather impractical, as most birds do NOT like to fly straight up and down. Round cages 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 with feces of all lower perches.

Wood, wicker or bamboo cages may be attractive or decorative but are impossible to clean and disinfect effectively due to their porous nature. These cages will NOT confine larger birds as they are quickly chewed apart with great ease.

An all-metal cage is the most practical to maintain. The bars on the cage must be close enough together to prevent the bird from getting its head through the bars.

"Narrow cages prove to be rather impractical, as most birds do NOT like to fly straight up and down."

What sort of perches should I have?

A bird spends all its time standing on a perch so careful consideration must be given to this aspect of your pet's environment. Tree branches or wood naturally make the best perches (heating branches in an oven at 200F for 30 minutes will kill any organisms and bugs; however, please be mindful of the fire hazard). Providing non-toxic, washed, fresh branches such as apple, elm, ash, maple or willow will be both functional and attractive in the cage. Natural branches should be selected such that a variety of diameters is available on which to perch. This affords various textures, choice of grip and good exercise for the feet. REMEMBER, a bird should be able to wrap its foot around a perch to grasp it, NOT just stand on it with toes spread wide. Some birds on perches too big will fall or slip if they cannot grasp the perch. Wood perches seem to help wear the nails down better than other materials. Branches provide an entertainment value for those birds that like to chew. Although wood is more difficult to disinfect due to its porous nature, it can be washed and replaced often.

"No tree in the wild has sandpaper on it."

Sandpaper perch covers do little to wear the nails down and can lead to serious foot irritation, sores or deep infections. No tree in the wild has sandpaper on it!

Plastic perches are easy to clean and disinfect but may prove slippery for gripping and are only available in a couple of sizes. Larger birds may chew and splinter the plastics into sharp pieces.

Natural hemp or cotton rope provides a variety of texture, but the bird must be monitored carefully so that the fine fibers do not become entangled around its toes. This is a much more serious problem with synthetic fiber rope and nesting materials, which should never be used.

Concrete perches provide an excellent texture for wearing the beak and the nails. However, care must be taken that this is not the only perch to stand on in the cage. Do not place these perches in places the bird spends most of the day since excessive beak and nail wearing has been observed if this happens. Instead, consider placing these perches at the food dishes. This is an area the bird will go to eat, wipe the beak and leave, thus providing some beak and nail wear. Please see the handout on Perches for Birds for more information.

What sort of food and water dishes should I provide?


"Position the dishes such that they are easily accessible and will not be accidentally soiled with feces."

Dishes are best made from sturdy non-toxic materials that are easy to clean and disinfect every day. They should not be on the bottom of the cage since this is the bird's "toilet". Position the dishes such that they are easily accessible and will not be accidentally soiled with feces from overhead perching sites. Some dishes for larger birds are made of stainless steel and attach securely to the side of the cage. These dishes may prevent your pet from tossing the dishes around. The dishes should not be too deep or food will be wasted.

What about toys for my bird?

Being cooped up in a cage all day can be a very boring, frustrating experience for you pet bird. Whether you are home with the bird or not, a pet bird must have some form of entertainment. This is commonly referred to as enrichment. Birds love to play and explore. Enrichment toys may include ladders, rope, swings, mirrors, bells, hanging toys, pieces of wood to chew on, or rawhide chew toys. Birds are inquisitive by nature. There are numerous commercial "puzzle toys", foraging and enrichment toys that will entertain birds for hours. These particular toys challenge a bird to figure something out, such as getting a favorite food item out or opening a container for a treat. Although most companies strive to provide safe toys, there are no quality controls or regulations. Great care must be taken to ensure the toys you purchase are free of potential dangers. Be mindful of snaps, clasps, bell clappers, open chain links, removable parts, easily broken parts, glass or extraneous loose fibers that may be chewed or swallowed or that could entangle the bird. Rubber toys that are easily chewed apart can be very dangerous and must be avoided. Make sure toys are large enough not to be swallowed. Home made toys should scrutanized carefully for safety.

Mirrors for small birds must have a covered back or frame so that the bird will not be exposed to the potentially toxic reflective backing. Polished stainless steel mirrors may be more appropriate especially for larger birds. Mirrors may promote inappropriate sexual behaviors. Discuss this with you veterianarian.

Some birds like to hide in boxes or paper bags. They can be recycled when soiled.

Experiment with enrichment toys and find out what your bird enjoys the most. You may wish to have an assortment of toys that can be rotated on a daily or weekly basis to keep the bird from getting bored. Some birds may appear frightened of new items in their environment. If this is the case with your bird, new toys should be introduced slowly to allow the bird to become accustomed to their presence over time.

There are websites devoted to the topic of enrichment for birds.

How often should I clean my bird's toys?

Occasionally toys get dusty or soiled. Some birds develop such affection towards a toy that they may even regurgitate or masturbate on the toy in a display of affection,  courtship or sexual offering. All toys should be periodically washed and disinfected. Remember to rinse well with fresh water.

Do you have any recommendations for cage sizes?

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

Finch, Canary, Budgie

1 ft x 1 ft x 2 ft (30 cm x 30 cm x 60 cm)

Cockatiel, Lovebird

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

Remember that the biggest cage you can afford is arguably too small.

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