Copyright Pamela Clark July 2000. All rights reserved. Parts or whole may not be reprinted without express written permission of the author.
The Optimal Environment: Part Three - The Creative Cage
By Pamela Clark
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 evolved in the wild. 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. (See Traveling with the Flock…A Key to Bonding in PBR Issue #44.)
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 problems.
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 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, even if the bird is well socialized and steps up readily. 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. She is trained to step up well with no hesitation, even from on top of her cage (which has a play-top). However, when she spends time up there, I find that she gets harder to handle in general. Therefore, she either stays in her cage, or on a playstand or in an outdoor aviary. Because of this, if I ever replace her cage, I will choose a dome-top.
My Amazon is only five 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 cage.
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. 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 six 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. (I have not yet tried either the Freedom Cage, or the Island Cage from Feather Fantasy, and look forward to doing so.) Generally speaking, the most commonly found cages do not have the dimensions that will allow enough movement for most parrots, nor the shape that encourages movement.
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.
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 vertical dimension.
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 orientation.
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 this article.
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 each other.
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.
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. Feathered Follies, in Walnut Creek, California carries a nice selection of these. They can be reached at (925) 280-9666 or www.Feathered-Follies.com.
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 upon me.
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 her and never fail to be struck by her level of activity while out there and the exuberance with which she plays. There is no comparison to her level of activity in her indoor cage, even though she has a very large cage. She is a very busy bird while out there.
She trounces through the large terra cotta plant saucer that serves as a bathtub for her. She throws her foot toys around, spreads her wings in delight and runs through the ice cold water, yelling the statement, "Have a bath…have a bath…." She takes her favorite Kong toy and throws it into the water to give it a bath, asking it, "Have a bath? Have a bath?".
When thirsty, she drinks from her Kong. She sticks it on the end of her bottom beak, dips it into the clear water and then tips her head backward in sheer joy as the water trickles down her throat. When exhausted from her bath, she climbs up on to her highest natural branch, carrying her Kong with her. She then fills it with pellets or fresh food from her dish, and sits contentedly enjoying her snack that she keeps in her Kong. Once she’s rested again, she hangs and swings from the many ladders and swings that hang from the top of the flight. She has 5, and can decide which one or which combination she will play on. Then, back down to the bottom of the flight she goes again to push around the see-through Fisher Price play ball that has the beads inside.
The emotion she expresses when out there is one of exuberance. She plays hard when out there, being able to do so much more than when she’s in her main cage, and comes in tired and relaxed at the end of the day. Why does she feel so relaxed when she 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? 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 and 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.
The provision of enough opportunities for exploration and activity, however, 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 Goldie loves more than to walk on the soft grass and roll her stomach around on it. She 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 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 (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 three PBR advertisers - Heavenly Habitats, Exotic Enclosures, and Expandable Habitats (see advertisements within this issue).
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.
Last Update: 09/11/01