Feathered Friends: A Vet Tech’s Tips on Bird Care

Having a bird as a pet is not something to be taken lightly. In my 2 ½ years here at Oakview I have learned so much about birds in general: handling, behavior, dietary needs, foraging, and most importantly, why it is so important that your bird sees a veterinarian to be sure all needs are being met. The avian species is different in so many ways from your dog, cat, or even reptile. Their anatomy is fascinating along with how they live. We have many amazing bird owners and patients here at Oakview. We can tell right from the start that you have an amazing relationship with your bird. They rely on you to take care of them. They are your two-legged feathered children who can fly!

Space

Many people don’t realize the amount of space and the type of enclosure that a bird needs. Sure, smaller bird like finches and cockatiels can be kept in a somewhat smaller enclosure, but it is always good to allow your feathered friend to stretch their wings! Please research the appropriate size cage for the species of bird that you have/want to make sure you have the space available in your home. Would you want to be cooped in a box all day? Especially for the larger breeds such as Macaws and Cockatoos you will want to be sure you have plenty of space for them in your home. Even if they don’t fly, all birds need a size appropriate environment to call their own!

It is important to provide your bird with a play area outside of the cage as well. This can be a separate room dedicated to your bird with perches and toys to play with. It may also be a perch on top of the cage. Wherever it is be sure to make it a “play area” for them with lots of toys and shredding material and of course food and water. Whatever you decide to do, they need time without bars!

Birds are not only physically fragile due to hollow bones but are also emotionally fragile. They will not thrive if they are not being cared for properly or just sitting in a cage 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Cage-bound bird are not happy and can develop neurotic behaviors. We sometimes refer to this as “cageosis” (I think that sounds like a diagnosis that Dr. McStuffins would make haha). Your bird may pace or swing his head from side to side. She may also do head bobs and scream. Being in a cage that is too small or for too long can cause destructive behavior like feather plucking as well.

Would you rather have space to move and fly or be cooped up in a box or a kennel?
Yes, this is my child in his play pen which he loved! 😊

Dietary needs

I asked Dr. Scott what the largest issue she is seeing in birds and diet is #1!

“For birds, the biggest issue we continue to see is nutrition!! There is just no way around the fact that pelleted diets are better balanced than fruit, nuts and seeds!”

Just like everything else, the diet of a bird must consist of many good nutrients and vitamins that are essential to keep your pet healthy. Here at Oakview the number one thing we always make sure to ask is their diet. Are you feeding seeds only? Are you feeding pellets? Are you feeding any fruits and/or vegetables? What are you giving for treats? All these questions we ask because we want to know what is going into your bird, and it could potentially be an answer if your bird was not feeling well. Eating too many cookies and ice cream would make our tummies hurt just as eating too many fruits or seeds could make their tummies hurt. Birds tend to love seeds, but seeds alone do not provide a complete diet for your feathered friend. In general, seeds are high in fat and low in many important vitamins and minerals. Many birds will pick out their favorite seeds and leave others seeds in their dish just waiting to get more of their favorites. Dr. Scott likes to make the comparison between your bird and a toddler. If you put carrots and cookies in front of them which do you think they would eat? It goes the same with birds. If you put pellets and seeds/nuts in front of them they will always go for the seeds/nuts and not the pellets. We also want to be sure we are giving the right number of calories per day as we would not want any extra weight causing stress on joints (remember only two legs for their entire body to bear weight!) and increase potential for organ failure. For most healthy birds, we do like them to be eating pellets mainly and have seeds for a treat occasionally. There are fruits they can have but please check to be sure they are safe for your bird and would not cause any issues with their health. Fruit should be given to most animals in moderation as it is basically just sugar to them.

Foraging

“Foraging is the other issue. I think most of our birds are just bored! Even if they are “out” for 4 hours a day, that means they are caged for 20! We once had a store owner that owned a Macaw. They rushed in one day sure that he was dying because he walked up to them and fell over. I couldn’t find anything on exam, and he seemed normal. I also had a macaw at the time and thought to ask if their bird knew any tricks. Turned out he knew how to play dead! (and it was very effective that day!)”- Dr. Scott

For those of you who don’t know what foraging is, I will gladly explain. When animals are in the wild, they spend most of their day “foraging” or hunting/searching for their food for the day, so they do not starve. We can certainly reenact this behavior in captivity with many different and creative ideas! We can use or make different toys for the birds to play with and use their beaks and talons to open the toy and search for the “reward” inside. This can be done with toys we buy at the store or we could make our own using many common household items. Below are a few examples of some of the foraging toy ideas made from both commercial and household items!

Behavior

What many may not realize are that birds are extremely smart and social animals. They are incredibly sensitive to their environment and the people in it. Any species can pick up different mood changes in the room and try to “fit in” as best they can.

We tend to think of birds as toddlers sometimes. I have a 2 ½ year old little boy myself and he never stops. If I were to have him sit in a cage for any length of time it would not go over well because he would get extremely bored and probably start to be destructive trying to get out. This is similar to birds. If they are locked up for too long, they can become bored and start a behavior called feather plucking. This can be something that may be symptom of a medical disease as well, so it is always important to decipher medical vs. behavioral. If your bird comes back from the veterinarian with a clean bill of health, there are a few questions based on behavior that you can ask. Is the air dry in your area? Does your bird need more baths to keep skin moist? Has there been a change in the environment? Is the bird bored? Is the bird hormonal? Has your routine changed? Is the bird getting the proper nutrition? All these questions and many more are taken into account when we are trying to figure out how to correct the behavior.

Now you may see your bird “preening”, and this is how they keep their feathers clean, waterproof, and in flying condition. It is different from feather plucking so please be sure you can tell the difference as preening is a normal behavior whereas feather plucking is not. When a bird is preening, it may look like they are bothering and ruffling up their feathers. What they are really does is getting debris and breaking up down feathers into the powder that helps waterproof the feathers. Most birds (except Hyacinth macaws and Amazon parrots) spread the natural oil through their feathers which waterproofs and assists with vitamin D production. Keep in mind that if you do not see your bird preening, they are looking unkempt or they look “fluffed out” they may be ill or extremely uncomfortable! They should see a veterinarian immediately!

   Vet Tech Monica with her birds because we miss her here at Oakview!

Many different behaviors mean different things just like in humans or even dogs and cats. We can learn to read body language and try to anticipate what you will do next. Birds have many ways of expressing their feelings even if they don’t have teeth to show.

Eye Pinning– pupil of bird’s eye will dilate in and out when the bird becomes excited or agitated. Even though they are excited about something they may be overly so and could bite.

Tail Flaring– This is when the tail feathers spread out like a fan. This is typically done in conjunction with eye pinning and can also indicate an excited bird.

Beak Clicking– sometimes it can indicate that the bird is excited, but it can also be a warning that the she needs space.

Feather Fluffing– this is done after preening to remove debris but may also be done when the bird is cold. If you notice your birds’ feathers are constantly fluffed, that is a sign that a veterinarian be may needed.

Crest Position– Some bird that have crest feathers like cockatiels, cockatoos and some parrots may raise or lower the crest feathers on the top of their head to let us know how they are feeling.

Shivering– Birds will shiver after bathing as they are trying to warm their body by contracting and expanding their breast muscles. This is something they may also do when they are excited. Fun Fact: Quaker parrots are known to “quake” which is how they got their name!

Flapping wings– If you have a happy bird they may hold on tight to their perch and flap their wings as if they were to take off and fly. This is how they exercise and stretch sometimes but it can also indicate a breeding behavior.

Head bobbing- just as sometimes when we are anxious, we bounce our leg up and down when sitting (at least I do) birds will bob their heads when they are anxious to go somewhere.

There are also some behaviors that birds can do that we may think something is wrong but really it is just normal behavior for their species.

Beak Grinding- This is normal and can let you know that your bird is content and comfortable. Many will display this behavior just before they drift off to sleep.

Preening– Keep in mind this is normal except when they over-preen, and they begin to pluck or chew out feathers.

Playing– Again keep in mind the toddler scenario! They are very intelligent and need to keep their minds busy! Be sure to have plenty of toys available!

Cat napping– birds will take cat naps throughout the day standing on their perch with both legs, but if you ever notice them standing on one leg that is a sign there could be something wrong.

Freezing– if a bird is scared or afraid he may freeze. This is done in the wild so predators cannot distinguish them as prey vs. an inanimate object.

Common things to look for in a healthy bird

  • dry open nares (nostrils)
  • clear bright eyes with no discharge
  • smooth beak
  • alert erect posture
  • body free of lumps and bumps
  • smooth, bright feathers without color breaks
  • no transparency or ragged edges on the feathers
  • an even, reptilian pattern on the feet as well as nails of appropriate length

What do hormones have to do with how I handle and interact with my bird?

Birds that have matured (timing of which is different for each species) will become hormonal once a year in the spring. This is because the amount of natural light is longer than the amount of darkness. They do this because they are “photosensitive” meaning that light and its cycles play a huge factor in to their reproductive stages. It is important to know the sex of your bird so the veterinarian can help if they become sick. We can do this with a simple blood test. Even if your bird does not have a mate, it may still lay eggs and will be “nesting.” Males will become more aggressive in the spring typically. We do not want to encourage this hormonal behavior in most cases. Birds could view many things as a nest, even a paper bag! You should be removing anything that could be nest-like during this time. This includes sleeping huts, paper shredding boxes, and even cuddling with you in a blanket or sweatshirt. We also recommend that you do not handle the bird in a way that could confuse the bird and make them think you are their mate. Many birds like to be stroked around the head and neck. If you can pet gently against the grain of the feathers and rub the cheeks in soft circles this is okay. However, no touching below the neck of the bird as this could initiate mating behavior. Most birds appreciate this kind of touching. You can attempt to decrease hormones by limiting day light to less than 12 hours. Typically, 10 hours is the minimum that birds should be exposed to daylight.

The biggest thing I have learned with birds during my time working with them is confidence! They are so smart they can really sense your feelings and know if you are shy or nervous. They can also feed on that and it will show in their behavior. I’ve had my fair share of bird bites because I was nervous but once you are more comfortable with birds and the bird sees that you are confident in your holding/restraining, they relax a bit. They seem a bit less stressed and accept what you are doing whether it be a nail trim, wing trim or even just an exam!

Dr. Irene Pepperberg is a scientist that owned an African Grey parrot named Alex and worked on intelligence studies with him. She had concluded that Alex had the intelligence of a 4-year-old and an emotional capacity of a 2 year old. Unfortunately, Alex passed in 2007 at 31 years of age. It is amazing that during his lifetime he picked up so many words and phrases just by listening and observing the people and events happening around him!

I know it’s a lot of information to take in but I hope that people read this and realizes how much time and effort goes into bird care. I am excited to continue to learn about birds for years to come here at Oakview!

Ziggy says thanks for reading! 😊

P.S. Even chickens need veterinary care sometimes too!

by Christina Brandes

Christina - Oakview Vet Plover Stevens Point WI

Christina graduated from Madison Area Technical College. She joined us in 2016. She is our therapy laser technician.
She and her husband David have a son named Kaysen. They also share their home with 2 cats, Moby and Annabelle, and a bearded dragon named Leonard.
In her spare time, Christina enjoys spending time with her family, often camping up north and being outside.

Certified Veterinary Technician at | www.oakviewvet.net

Christina graduated from Madison Area Technical College. She joined us in 2016. She is our therapy laser technician.
She and her husband David have a son named Kaysen. They also share their home with 2 cats, Moby and Annabelle, and a bearded dragon named Leonard.
In her spare time, Christina enjoys spending time with her family, often camping up north and being outside.

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