|Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Thomas Stearns Eliot
This is the third article in the series entitled The Optimal
Environment, and will deal with the issues surrounding the
provision of enclosures, alternate perches, and play spaces for
our companion parrots. Focus will be on those aspects that serve
to enhance a companion parrot's life experience, thus making the
development of behavior problems less likely.
The Need for Mindfulness
The other night at dinner my husband brought up the subject of
Rollo, one of my male companion African Greys, who had bitten me
quite badly a couple of times recently. I suppose it was on his
mind because I had just spent days rearranging our shared office
space (somewhat to his inconvenience) to accommodate a large,
daytime cage for Rollo, so that he can join me down there and get
away from the other birds… a respite he seems to need. During
our short discussion, my husband implied that perhaps I was going
too far out of my way to insure this parrot's happiness…that
perhaps he was a "hopeless" case. I felt a little
"simmer" start deep inside me, but I was nice, although
emphatic, in making my response. I replied, putting an end to the
conversation, "That parrot's instincts evolved in the wild,
even if he was hand-reared in captivity. Every feather, every
bone, every brain cell evolved for the sole purpose of flying long
distances at will, making free choices about where and when to go
somewhere, what to eat, and when to stop and rest. And, I keep him
in a cage for hours every day. You want me to blame him because he
bites me? I don't think so..."
...Recently, after reading Parts One and Two of this series, a
friend commented that it sounds as if I think that we shouldn't
even keep parrots as pets. Nothing could be further from the
truth. And, in addition, I am a realist and rarely waste effort
thinking about an issue that is a fait accompli. The fact is that
we do keep parrots as pets and will continue to do so.
What I do believe…strongly…is that we need to practice
mindfulness in our parrot keeping practices. We must remain
mindful at all times of what we are asking of parrots when we keep
them as pets. As stated above, they evolved in the wild every
physical feature and mental attribute that is perfectly consistent
with and supportive of their capacity to fly. They possess the
spirit of flying creatures. Simply put, asking them to sit in a
cage all day is asking quite a lot. It is this of which we must
remain mindful when we examine the issue of providing a physical
environment for them.
Restoring the Freedoms of Movement and Choice
The two primary, and to them essential, things that parrots lose
when they live in captivity are freedom of movement and freedom of
choice. When we make caging choices and set up a physical
environment for our parrots, we have the opportunity to restore in
small measure some of what has been lost. It is vitally important
that we provide as many opportunities for movement, changing
location, and freedom of choice as possible to our companion
parrots. This not only helps to insure their happiness and health,
but will serve to strengthen our bonds with them.
The optimal physical environment for a companion parrot
includes a main cage (as large as is practical) in the living area
of the house, alternate perching sites in the other rooms in which
the humans spend time, and an outdoor aviary in which he can have
greater freedom of movement and increased options for decision
making, play and exercise. Each of these should be set up in such
a way as to encourage as much movement as possible, and offer as
many choice-making opportunities as possible. If this type of
set-up is provided, it will contribute to a parrot's sense of
belonging within the human flock, enhance his physical and
emotional well being, and help to prevent many common behavior
The Primary Cage Environment
The type of primary cage provided for a parrot, and its location,
is of utmost importance because it is this structure which
provides parrots a physical sense of safety in the owner's
absence. It is their home. It is theirs…. Therefore, the choices
made around this issue must have the parrot's needs in focus.
A parrot owner has many choices when it comes to buying a cage:
play-top or dome-top, powder coated or painted, skirt or no skirt,
size and dimensions…. The list is long and many factors come
into play, not the least of which are appearance and cost.
However, although factors significant to us as humans need be
considered fairly, more weight should be given to meeting the
parrot's needs in this regard. For example, I have encountered
many people whom, in hoping to save money and still provide an
adequately sized cage, purchased the Mid-West parrot cage that
sits on the ground. Nothing could be less suitable, since parrots
in the wild do not build their nests, nor sleep, on the ground and
typically do not feel very safe when placed in a cage on the
floor. Knowledgeable parrot owners realize that height equates
with safety to a parrot, and they will purchase a cage whose
bottom grate is at least 14 to 21 inches off the floor.
Play-top Versus Dome-top
In purchasing a new cage for a young parrot, I will always opt for
a play-top cage whenever possible because this affords a parrot
more choices, and more freedom of movement. My parrots who have
play-top cages have the option to eat on top of the cage… or
inside, play with the toys placed on top… or go inside to play
with the larger, hanging toys. They can nap up on top… or inside
on their sleeping perch. I believe they enjoy having and
exercising these options. It keeps life for them more interesting.
It's true that "height" issues can be a consideration
with play-top cages. However, it is not a "given" that
parrots will misbehave if provided with a play-top cage, and I
find that people have begun to avoid them unnecessarily. Several
other factors also have a bearing on a parrot's behavior: the
species of parrot, his individual history of experience, his
innate disposition, the type of cage and the height of the
play-top, and the amount of time he spends in the cage, etc. The
large macaws, large cockatoos, Pionus, and Amazons are among the
species in which certain individuals can display seasonally
aggressive behavior once sexual maturity hits. If one of these
species is allowed to perch above eye level for most of the time,
you may have problems, unless the bird is very well trained
through the use of clicker training or some other method that
patterns the bird to respond to the owner with compliance
automatically, and happily. However, each is also an individual
and should be treated accordingly.
My Blue and Gold Macaw is now sexually mature and tends to be
very aggressive at certain times of the year, and I have recently
changed his caging situation. He had been trained to step up well
with no hesitation, even from on top of his cage (which had a
play-top). However, when he spent large amounts of time up on his
old play-top, he did seem to become harder to handle around his
cage. Therefore, I recently purchased him a larger dome-top cage,
in which he is quite happy.
My Amazon is only six years old. He loves his play-top on his
cage. He stays up there most of the day, although he has the
option of going back inside to play with the toys there, and
sometimes does. He sings, talks up a storm and I think that he
would not be so expressive if he were inside the cage all day. So,
in his case, I think it helps to augment his personality. Perhaps
this might sound silly to some, but I'm serious. However, being a
male Amazon, I'm very aware that he may become more aggressive as
he matures. If so, I may change my mind and stop allowing him on
the top of his cage on a regular basis, or get him a dome-top
On the other hand, Senegals and other Poicephalus species and
African Greys are not noted for aggressive behavior...as a rule.
There are always exceptions, but I feel that in these cases, the
aggression usually has it's roots in something other than perching
height. For one thing, most cages provided for Poicephalus and
Greys, even with play-tops, do not place the birds higher than the
owners head. So, as a breeder of African Greys, I always recommend
a play-top cage. From my observations, parrots greatly enjoy being
on top of their cages. I think this mimics for them the feeling
they would have if perched in a tree, surveying their domain so to
speak. As long as this does not cause their behavior to
deteriorate, I think it's preferable.
Sizes and Shapes
This becomes even more pertinent when we view the cages typically
available, none of which are wide enough, in my opinion. I can't
ever get really excited about discussing the topic of cage
"brand." I have cages from seven different
manufacturers, and in my opinion, they all have at least small
shortcomings. I keep looking for one I can recommend to clients
wholeheartedly, but to date have not found it. Generally speaking,
the most commonly found cages do not have the dimensions that will
allow enough movement for most parrots, nor the shape that
Further, the names given to many models are misleading.
The "Amazon" models are not big enough for even the
smallest Amazons, and the "Cockatoo" models are
laughingly small for the largest cockatoos. Things are further
confused by the fact that the larger cages, should you be tempted
to get one for a smaller parrot, are found with bar spacing too
wide for safety. Often, by the time the typical parrot owner
learns that he has a choice and can special order a "brand
name" cage with different specifications, it's too late and
he has already invested in something less than ideal.
As a behavior consultant, I find that the majority of birds who
have behavior problems are living in cages that are too small.
Poicephalus parrots and Pionus should have cages that are at least
24 inches wide. African Greys, Amazons, and other medium sized
parrots should be in cages no smaller than 32 inches wide, and 36
inches or 38 inches of width is preferable. Large macaws, Moluccan
Cockatoos and Umbrella Cockatoos should be provided with a cage
that is at least 40 inches wide, and 48 inches wide is much
preferable. I have not given a dimension for depth or height in
each of these cases, primarily because the distance across the
front (width) is the most important dimension, and depth and
height are usually dictated by the design of each cage by the
My main criticism of the cages available has to do with the
fact that the size and shape of the enclosure in which a parrot
resides or plays makes a lot of difference. Parrots are quite
cognizant of the amount of space around them, and behave
accordingly. I always have to laugh at the statement that a cage
should be big enough for a parrot to spread his wings and flap in.
Although this is not bad advice, most parrots do not spend a lot
of time flapping their wings in their cages. They by far prefer to
flap their wings outside of their cages.
Parrots are keenly aware of the physical enclosure around them.
My African Grey babies at10 weeks of age each live in a cage that
is 36 inches wide, which allows plenty of room for flapping.
However, it is when they get out of the cage and have more freedom
of movement that they flap eagerly to their heart's content. My
Umbrella Cockatoo could easily flap in his cage, but waits instead
for the chance to get out on top and exercise his wings. Parrots
will move about more, and feel more freedom to exercise, in
enclosures where the horizontal dimension is greater than the
Parrots Move Laterally
I found this out by constructing two identical outdoor aviaries
and placing them with different orientations. Each measures 72 x
48 x 36 inches. One was placed up on legs so that the 72-inch
dimension is horizontal to the ground; it is 72 inches across the
front, 36 inches deep and 48 inches tall. The second aviary is
placed so that the 72-inch dimension extends vertically; it is 72
inches tall, 36 inches deep and 48 inches wide. I have placed a
wide variety of species, including macaws, Amazons, cockatoos,
Greys, Poicephalus and Pionus in each of these and studied their
behavior. To a one, each parrot will play more acrobatically,
aerobically and enthusiastically in the aviary with the horizontal
Parrots fly as their main means of locomotion; they are
instinctively programmed to move more laterally or from side to
side, than up and down. Although parrots climb, their range of
movement for climbing is limited to several feet, whereas their
normal range of movement for flying is several miles or more.
Most of the cages widely advertised have vertical orientations.
Hopefully, there will come a day when I can easily get from my
distributors cages similar to those now available, but just 12 to
24 inches wider. I make up for this design problem, by providing
outdoor aviaries to my birds, a matter I will discuss later in
A Space among the Flock
Once the cage has been purchased, still more choices arise.
Placement is important. Bird rooms are becoming more popular in
multi-bird households. However, I believe that this practice
contributes more to the need for convenience among people, then it
does to the welfare of the parrots in the household. Unless the
room is set up to provide a remarkable environment for the birds
and special effort is put into guaranteeing enough social time for
the birds, problems can arise. As humans, we are not always able
to keep to a schedule for bringing parrots out of such a room.
Busy days will automatically mean more time alone for birds who
live in a bird room.
Problems arise in bird rooms more often when cages are close
together. When I go into a restaurant, I will always choose to sit
at a table set off in a secluded corner, rather than a table
surrounded by others full of diners. I enjoy the social dining
atmosphere and the proximity of other patrons, but I don't want to
sit very close to them. I think most people feel this way. Parrots
are no different. There should be at least five or six feet
between parrot cages to allow each parrot to have a sense of space
and territory around him. Too many bird rooms have too many
parrots in cages, lined up against the walls in close proximity to
Certain species or individuals who are more sensitive to stress
do not fare well in such an environment. Further, some species,
especially African Greys, will demonstrate their discontent at
being put in a "bird room" away from a more central
location. I firmly believe in having parrots located in the
family's living area. This way they are near their human
"flock" and can derive a sense of security from this, as
well as the entertainment available to them as they watch us go
about our business.
There is another reason, which is perhaps even more important,
for parrots to be located in the main living area of the house. If
we are to foster positive, or desirable, behavior in our parrots,
we must be able to observe and reinforce that behavior when it is
offered. All trainers understand the all-important rule, "Any
behavior that gets a reward is going to occur more often." If
we place a young parrot in the living area and offer verbal praise
whenever we see him eat, play with toys, vocalize pleasantly,
preen, etc, we are offering valuable communication that those are
the behaviors we want. By observing and rewarding these with our
attention, we insure that they will occur more often, which will
automatically serve to avoid the development of less desirable
behavior. We can not do this if our birds are located away from us
in a bird room.
Visibility Creates Vulnerability
The issue of visibility, or vulnerability, is also important. Many
parrots thrive when placed in front of windows, but many do not.
Often, phobic or feather picking parrots can be helped to relax
just by moving their cage away from a window, perhaps against a
wall in a more sheltered spot. Many parrots will feel too exposed
when placed in front of a window, unless some provision is made
for a measure of shelter from this visibility. In addition to the
simple feeling of being too exposed to "predators,"
events happening outside of a window can be very frightening to
parrots. Wild birds who fly into windows without warning can cause
so much anxiety to an African Grey that the parrot is profoundly
and lastingly affected. Moving the cage so that half of it is
against a wall, or providing a privacy "shield" of some
sort will be a welcome addition to most parrots, even those who
seem untroubled by living in front of a window.
Enhance That Cage
Once you have a good sized cage with a play-top set up in an area
that provides for adequate social opportunities with the
"human" flock members, then additional features can be
added to the cage which will afford your parrot even greater
opportunities for exercise and choice making. Each of my parrots
has a candy-cane shaped metal hook attached to the side of their
cage, from which hangs some type of swing or coiled rope perch.
These can be hard to find, but are often available at bird marts,
parrot conventions that include vendor booths, or in specialty
parrot stores. They are worth looking for.
Enlightened owners will also add as many opportunities as
possible for movement and choice-making inside the cage. An extra
dish that holds small foot toys is usually a welcome addition. The
Fowl Play Company (www.fowl-play.com) offers many choices in this
area, as do several of the other on-line bird stores. Perches of
different materials can be provided, offering variety and respite
for a bird's feet. Food dishes can be placed at different levels,
encouraging use of the entire cage. Toys should be challenging and
be rotated at least weekly. (Please do not take away your parrot's
favorite toy when rotating them.)
Alternate Perching Sites
Companion parrots also need perching areas in other rooms of the
house. Parrots need to go places. They are very "visual"
creatures…their overall experience and satisfaction with life
often is increased and augmented in captivity just by moving them
from room to room with a family member or from perch to perch in
the same room. Just seeing the same room from a different
perspective can provide stimulation to a parrot that has been in
his cage for most of the day.
The same swings and coiled rope perches that can be used on a hook
over a cage will also serve as alternate perching sites around the
house, if hung from the ceiling. If chewing on the ceiling is a
concern, there are acrylic devices that can be used between the
perch and the ceiling. Bell Plastics carries a great "ceiling
saver," which can be ordered by calling (510) 784-1144.
Playstands come in all sizes and shapes, and having both
freestanding and tabletop versions adds more variety to a parrot's
life experience. The perches that attach with suction cups,
usually sold for use in the shower, can also be placed on the
bathroom mirror. There is nothing an African Grey usually loves
more than looking at himself in the mirror while his owner is
getting dressed in the morning, and other species appreciate this
experience as well.
The Outdoor Aviary… An Opportunity for Exuberance
It is also my conviction that parrots need fresh air and sunshine
and that the provision of an outdoor aviary is one of the best
investments that can be made. Whenever I suggest this, I often
receive a voiced objection from those living in areas that
experience a harsh winter. However, I also know those who live in
similar areas, who have gone ahead and put in such an aviary and
just use it whenever the weather permits. I have several outdoor
aviaries for my parrots, and I think that allowing them time in
these does more to guarantee their overall satisfaction with life
than any other single thing I do.
An outdoor aviary affords a bird some time alone…away from
us. This is something my parrots seem to appreciate. They have a
life in their outdoor aviary that I do not share, for the most
part. This creates for them, if only for a few hours, a feeling of
autonomy because they can play vigorously, making different
choices about what to do next, without being totally dependent
Have a Bath?
Further, such an aviary can provide the opportunity for much more
exercise than a cage does, simply due to the larger size.
My Blue and Gold plays regularly in one aviary right outside my
kitchen window. As I wash bird dishes in the morning, I enjoy
watching him and never fail to be struck by his level of activity
while out there and the exuberance with which he plays. There is
no comparison to his level of activity in his indoor cage, even
though he has a very large cage. He is a very busy bird while out
there. He trounces through the large terra cotta plant saucer that
serves as a bathtub. He throws his foot toys around, spreads his
wings in delight and runs through the ice cold water, yelling the
statement, "Have a bath…have a bath…." He takes his
favorite Kong toy and throws it into the water to give it a bath,
asking it, "Have a bath? Have a bath?"
When thirsty, he drinks from his Kong. He sticks it on the end
of his bottom beak, dips it into the clear water and then tips his
head backward in sheer joy as the water trickles down his throat.
When exhausted from his bath, he climbs up on to his highest
natural branch, carrying his Kong with him. He then fills it with
pellets or fresh food from his dish, and sits contentedly enjoying
his snack that he keeps in his Kong. Once he's rested again, he
hangs and swings from the many ladders and swings that hang from
the top of the flight. He has 5, and can decide which one or which
combination he will play on. Then, back down to the bottom of the
flight he goes again to push around the see-through Fisher Price
play ball that has the beads inside.
The emotion he expresses when out there is one of exuberance.
He plays hard when out there, being able to do so much more than
when he's in his main cage, and comes in tired and relaxed at the
end of the day. Why does he feel so relaxed when he comes indoors
at the end of the day? It is now widely accepted that emotions
have the ability to impact how we feel physically. Going around
angry or stressed during a day will result in tense muscles, lack
of appetite and a sense of fatigue in many of us. However, a walk
outdoors or an hour in the garden will once again set us to
rights. Why should it be any different for our parrots, who
evolved to live their entire lives outdoors? Thus, the provision
of a secure outdoor aviary is a great gift.
These aviaries come in many sizes and shapes. It is possible to
get a galvanized, welded wire aviary from one of the companies
that sells such aviaries to bird breeders. Advertisements for
these can be found in Bird Talk magazine. This is the kind I use.
There is now widely recognized concern over using wire aviaries
because of the danger of a parrot ingesting zinc from the
galvanized wire. However, several things can be done to minimize
this danger. The wire can be scrubbed with a wire brush to remove
any loose zinc flakes. It can also be painted with the type of
non-toxic cage paint now sold in many bird stores. Aviculturist Eb
Cravens also once reported that, by wiring perches or
appropriately-sized tree branches onto the inner sides of the wire
enclosures, the birds will be encouraged to climb from place to
place by gripping these with their beaks, so that they do not even
touch the wire when climbing.
Further, in my experience, companion parrots who live most of
their lives indoors are so happy at the chance to play outdoors in
a familiar aviary that they do not cling to the wire, nor are they
interested in chewing on it. There are far too many other, more
interesting, things to do.
Thus, the provision of enough opportunities for exploration and
activity does more to keep the birds off the wire than anything
else. My favorite outdoor aviary, the one in which my Blue and
Gold Macaw has so much fun, has a large terra cotta dish on the
bottom for bathing. It also frequently has a flat of wheat grass
that I have grown and placed in there for digging and chewing, or
simply rolling around on. I notice that there is nothing Golding
loves more than to walk on the soft grass and roll his stomach
around on it. He rarely eats or digs in the grass, although my
African Greys do.
There are food and water dishes, and enough perches to afford
time in both sun and shade. Half of the aviary is covered with
plywood, so that any bird out there can take shelter both from the
sun and the view of any predators that might fly by overhead.
There are also numerous opportunities for active play, in the form
of swings and ladders. Perma Play Products manufactures a
wonderful ladder that, when hung vertically from the ceiling of
the aviary, encourages both climbing and flapping skills. Bell
Plastics has a great selection of acrylic swings, perches and toys
that withstand outdoor weather. The Tweeter Totter rocking swing,
made by Sweet Feet and Beaks (770-983-0184) entertains two birds
at once. This can also be ordered from The Birdbrain catalogue (
http://www.thebirdbrain.com or 888-923-2140 ).
All of these diversions are so intriguing that the birds do not
spend time on the wire. However, for those who still remain
nervous about having their birds in welded wire enclosures, there
are now a number of companies who sell powder-coated enclosures
that are quite safe, as well as visually more attractive than the
"breeder" style aviaries. The investment in one of these
can be well worth the peace of mind. Some of the nicest are
manufactured and sold by Heavenly Habitats, Exotic Enclosures,
Corners Limited and Expandable Habitats.
A Need to Go Places….
Many companion parrots miss out on opportunities to experience the
emotions of joy and exuberance that freedom of movement and choice
generate in them, as well as the sense of physical well being that
exercise brings. These feelings and experiences are their
heritage; watching video footage of parrots in the wild can leave
little doubt that this is true. In order to provide opportunities
for our parrots to experience similar experiences of unbridled
happiness, we have to make sure that they get to go places and
make choices of their own, in as many ways as possible. Parrots
need for us to take them into our world, teach them about it, and
provide them with their own living spaces within this world. They
need so much more than just a cage to be truly happy. They need
for us to make allowances for them so that they can move about our
world, with our assistance, as they might move about their own. They
need to go places.