Housing Small Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Pet birds rely on us for everything, 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, forage for food, or search for a mate. Their cages must be big enough to move around comfortably. They should be able to turn around without striking anything as they move from perch to perch and stretch or flap their wings.

While there are a wide variety of cage designs available, generally a rectangular, powder-coated or stainless-steel cage is preferred. Ideally, the cage should be as long as it is tall, and tall enough that the bird has room to move up and down without hitting its tail on the cage floor. Tall, narrow cages are impractical, as most birds like to move back and forth 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 length is in some way directly over the perch below it. This often leads to constant soiling of all lower perches with feces and urates.

While wood, wicker, and bamboo cages may be attractive, they are easily chewed and destroyed by large parrots. Wood cages 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 contain zinc, a toxic metal, in the coating that can be harmful to birds if they eat it.

Electroplated cages are the safer option for painted cages. 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 perches should I have?

As birds spend most of their time standing on perches, give careful consideration 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. Manzanita, applewood, and dragonwood perches are excellent natural, hard wood perches widely used for parrots and 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 bacteria, 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.

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”.

"Perches that are too wide for a bird’s feet can cause the bird to fall or slip if they cannot grasp them properly."

Perch diameter should match the bird’s size. Birds should be able to wrap their toes ¾ of the way around a perch to grasp it and not just stand on top of it with their toes spread open wide. Perches that are too wide for a bird’s feet can cause the bird to fall or slip if they cannot grasp them properly.

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

Plastic perches are easy to clean and disinfect but may be 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 tangled around their toes. Synthetic fiber rope and nesting materials should never be used with birds, as the strands can get wrapped around the bird’s toes and feet.

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. See the 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, metal, or hard ceramic. These dishes are fine for small birds, as long as the bird’s beak is not strong enough to crack the dishes, as cracked dishes will trap food and harmful 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, and 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?

Pet birds need daily psychological stimulation and entertainment. This kind of stimulation 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.

There are many commercially available foraging toys and puzzle toys designed to engage and entertain birds for hours. These types of toys challenge a bird to figure something out, like getting a favorite food 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 for bird toy manufacturing. For this reason, bird owners must ensure the toys they purchase are free of potential dangers.

"All parts of toys should be large enough that they cannot be swallowed."

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 can easily chew apart and swallow can also be very dangerous and must be avoided. All parts of toys should be large enough that they cannot be swallowed. Homemade toys should be scrutinized for safety.

Mirrors for small birds must have a covered back or frame to ensure 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. If you have concerns about any toys, speak to your veterinarian.

Experiment with enrichment toys and find out what type your bird enjoys the most. 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. Some birds are frightened of new items in their environments. Introduce new toys 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, 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. It is recommended to rotate toys monthly so that the bird does not get bored.

Occasionally, birds become so obsessed with a particular toy 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 distract them.

What size cage should my bird have?

The following is a general guideline for minimum suggested cage sizes. Sizes 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, Budgerigar (Parakeet)

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

Cockatiel, Lovebird, Parrotlet

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

Conure, Caique, Senegal Parrot

  • 3 ft x 3 ft x 3 ft (90 cm x 90 cm x 90 cm)
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