Housing Small Birds

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Pet birds rely on us for food, housing, entertainment, psychological stimulation, medical care, and affection. Bird owners must continually strive to better their birds’ lives by keeping current in the latest information on proper care and nutrition to help ensure the maintenance of a long lasting, healthy relationships with their birds.

How big should my bird's cage be?

As a rule, bigger is better. In the wild, birds spend much of their days flying from tree to tree in search of food, mates, and nest sites. Pet birds do not get these same opportunities. Pet birds must get exercise, play time, and psychological stimulation. Their cages must be big enough to move around with ease and not strike their wings or tail, as they move from perch to perch and stretch or flap their wings.

There are numerous cage designs to suit different species’ needs. Generally, a rectangular, stainless-steel cage, preferably longer than it is tall, is the best. Tall, narrow cages are not ideal, as most birds do not like to fly straight up and down. Birds with longer tails will need additional cage height, so that they do not hit their tails as they perch and move. Birds do not typically like round cages, as they like to sit in and hang on to cage corners. Plus, round cages create a space in which every perch across its width is directly over at least one perch below it, making it difficult to keep perches clean.

"Narrow cages are not ideal, as most birds do not like to fly straight up and down."

Wood, wicker, or bamboo cages may be attractive or decorative but cannot be cleaned and disinfected effectively due to their porous nature.

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 escaping or getting its head caught between the bars. Appropriate cage bar spacing will vary depending on bird species.

What sort of perches should I have?

A bird spends all its time standing on a perch, so perch material, diameter, and placement are very important. Natural wood branches make the best perches, as they more closely mimic birds’ perches in the wild. Manzanita branches are commercially available in different lengths and diameters and are appropriate for all species. Tree branches from outside may be used, but they must be treated (heated in an oven at 200°F for 30 minutes) to kill any parasites or other infectious organisms before they can be used in a cage. Non-toxic, washed, fresh, baked branches, such as apple, elm, ash, maple, or willow, are both functional and attractive in the cage. Some tree branches are not safe for pet birds as they contain substances that may be toxic if a pet bird chews on them. Do not use branches from apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, prune, plum, oak, laurel, Chinese snake tree, pitch pine, or yew (for more information, see handouts “Plants that are Toxic to Birds” and “Plants That are Safe for Birds”).

Birds need perches of varying diameters so that they do not put pressure on the same spots on the bottoms of their feet every day.  An appropriate diameter perch enables a bird to curl its toes part-way, but not all the way, around the perch. Birds may slip and fall on perches that are too big to grasp.

In addition to diameter, perch material is very important for birds. Wood perches may help wear birds’ nails down and provide them with something to chew on. Wood perches need to be replaced when they are chewed through or too soiled to clean effectively.

"An appropriate diameter perch enables a bird to curl its toes part-way,
but not all the way, around the perch."

Sandpaper perch covers are commercially available and marketed to help wear down nails. However, sandpaper is abrasive to the bottoms of birds’ feet and may cause sores or irritation. Plus, birds tend to pick off and ingest the sand that can accumulate in their gastrointestinal (GI) tracts and cause an obstruction. Therefore, sandpaper perches should be avoided.

While plastic perches are easy to clean and disinfect, they may be too slippery to grip. In addition, larger birds may chew and splinter plastic into sharp pieces that can injure their mouths and beaks and cause GI tract obstructions if ingested.

Natural hemp or braided cotton rope are softer on birds’ feet and are another great perch option, as long as they are replaced when they become frayed from birds’ chewing on them. Frayed rope perches are hazardous to pet birds who can ingest loose strings that can potentially cause GI tract obstructions. Plus, fine fibers from frayed perches may become entangled around birds’ toes, constricting circulation, and causing tissue damage. This is a much more serious problem with synthetic fiber rope and nesting materials, which should never be used.

Concrete perches provide a texture that may help wear down nails as they grow. However, concrete perches must not be used as the only perches in the cage, as they can be abrasive to the bottoms of birds’ feet. To help prevent this, these perches should not be put in places where the bird spends most of the day. See handout “Perches for Birds”, for more information.


What sort of food and water dishes should I provide?

Birds’ food and water dishes should be made from sturdy, non-toxic materials that are easy to clean and disinfect every day. They should be attached to the sides of the cage, rather than on the cage bottom, so that droppings do not fall into them as the bird perches.

Dishes for small birds are often made of dishwasher-safe plastic. These are fine for small birds, as long as birds’ beaks are not large enough to break the dishes, and the dishes are not cracked which will trap food and bacteria. Most dishes for larger birds are made of stainless steel and attach securely to the sides of the cage. Stainless steel is strong enough to withstand a large bird’s chewing, plus attaching these dishes to the cage prevents birds from tossing the dishes around. Food and water dishes should be appropriate to the size of the bird and not be too deep, or the bird could fall in and get stuck.

What about toys for my bird?

Being cooped up in a cage all day can be a very boring and frustrating experience for your pet bird. Whether or not you are home with the bird, a pet bird must have some form of entertainment and interaction. This type of interaction is commonly referred to as enrichment. Birds love to play and explore. Enriching bird toys include ladders, rope, swings, mirrors, bells, hanging toys, hidden food items in the cage, or pieces of wood or leather to chew on. Some birds also like to hide in boxes or paper bags that can be recycled and replaced when soiled.

"Enriching bird toys include ladders, rope, swings, mirrors, bells, hanging toys, hidden food items in the cage, or pieces of wood or leather to chew on."

Birds are inquisitive by nature. There are numerous commercial puzzle toys that challenge a bird to manipulate, open, and interact with them to get a reward, such as a favorite food. These toys can entertain birds for hours. Although most companies strive to provide safe toys, there are no quality controls or regulations regarding bird toys. Therefore, bird owners must take care to ensure the toys they purchase are free of potential dangers including snaps, clasps, bell clappers, open chain links, easily removable parts, glass, or loose fibers that may be swallowed by, or entangled on the bird. Rubber toys that are easily chewed apart and swallowed can be very dangerous and should be avoided. Make sure all parts of a toy are large enough not to be swallowed. Homemade toys should be scrutinized 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 safer, especially for larger birds that could chew on them. Mirrors may promote inappropriate sexual behaviors because birds that look at themselves in the mirror typically do not see themselves but rather other birds they consider as potential mates. Bird owners should discuss any concerns they have about toys with their veterinarian.

Experiment with enrichment toys and find out what types your bird enjoys the most. You can have an assortment of toys that can be rotated on a daily or weekly basis to keep your bird from getting bored. Some birds are frightened of new items in their environments. If this is the case with your bird, introduce new toys slowly to allow your bird to become accustomed to them over time. For other ideas about foraging toys for your bird, you can refer to websites devoted to the topic of enrichment for birds.

How often should I clean my bird's toys?

Occasionally toys get dusty or soiled with droppings or food. 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 all cleaning products off of toys with fresh water before returning them to your bird’s cage.

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 and the typical behavior of the bird species (e.g., whether it is a ground-dwelling species that typically moves horizontally versus a treetop-dwelling species that likes to climb vertically). 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)
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