Does a Pet Bird Need a Cage? (Let’s Find Out)

Birds are known as symbols of freedom due to the way they fly to explore, and it’s hard to make the decision to keep a bird as a pet in a cage.

Is a pet bird cage necessary?

A pet bird does not need a cage, but there is a long list of household hazards to be aware of, and a pet bird does not mind a cage as long as their needs are met and they’re given plenty of time outside the cage.

Why Do Pet Birds Live in Cages?

Birds have been kept in cages for thousands of years, in many countries and in different regions of the globe. Descendants of these birds are still kept as pets to this day. 

Origins of the Caged Bird

Birds have lived in cages since the time of the Sumerians, the oldest known people to have kept written records. 

In the fifth century B.C., a Persian physician wrote about an amazing captive bird that could speak Greek in human voices.

At the same time, mariners across the globe used caged birds on ocean journeys as a way of testing distances to land.

They would release the bird, and if it didn’t come back, it was a sign that there was land nearby. 

Parakeets were kept as caged pets by Macedonian generals under Alexander the Great in 327 B.C., first in India and then in Greece. Descendants of these birds are now called Alexandrine parakeets. 

Romans were also keepers of birds, documented in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. He attributes this tradition as starting with Macrus Laenius Strabo of the Order of the Knighthood at Brindisi.

Is It Necessary To Keep a Pet Bird in a Cage?

Now that certain bird species have been domesticated, they no longer have the survival skills necessary to live in the wild.

If they’re to survive, they must be adopted into homes or raised in a bird rescue. And more often than not, this means life in a cage. 

If these birds are not kept in cages, they can easily get into trouble due to household hazards, or can escape into the wild where there are even more hazards.

By keeping a domesticated bird in a cage, you’re keeping it safe from many dangers. That said, the cage does need to be large enough, with toys for stimulation and time for interaction. Time outside the cage is also healthy.

Another consideration is that birds kept outside a cage can be a hazard to humans.

There are sanitary concerns, as loose bird droppings can carry harmful bacteria, and birds can do real damage to furniture or fragile items. 

Is It Ethical To Keep Birds in Cages?

Birds that live in captivity have the same needs as those who live in the wild, but don’t have the survival skills necessary to live in the wild.

These birds are dependent on humans to provide a safe and enriching environment.

Birds that are set free in a home without supervision are liable to get into dangerous situations, as it’s difficult to hide toxic cleaners, glues, and electrical cables from birds.

They’re clever animals that can get into most anything, and that should be taken into account. Birds can also escape when they’re left on their own, and aren’t prepared to handle outside threats. 

How Big Should a Bird Cage Be?

If you’re going to keep your bird in a cage, it should be at least big enough for the bird to be able to fully extend its wings, fly, jump and climb.

If your bird has a long tail, make sure that the cage is also high enough to accommodate that.

Ideally, the cage should be the biggest one that you can afford and that can fit in your home. 

How Much Time Does a Bird Need Outside a Cage?

Although a cage does provide a certain amount of safety for a pet bird, it’s still important that the bird be let out of the cage on a routine basis for exercise and enrichment.

The amount of time that a bird needs outside a cage varies by species, but every bird should get at least a couple of hours a day, and bigger birds like African Greys or macaws should be given more time. 

How To Keep a Bird Cage That Your Bird Will Actually Like?

Birds don’t mind spending time in the cage, provided that the cage is clean, they’re getting plenty of stimulation and interaction, and they have breaks to stretch their wings and explore. 

To keep the cage clean, make sure that you’re changing the cage liner every day and wiping down the perches and cage every week. Every month, you should completely clean and disinfect the whole cage.

For stimulation, you’ll want to include puzzle toys and chew toys for your bird to play with.

Do make sure that you’re regularly inspecting the toys for damage or hazards, as frayed strings or sharp bits of metal can appear with wear and tear. 

The kind of interaction your bird needs depends on the species. Doves and parrots love to hear human voices and whistling, and like to cuddle under your chin.

You can also simply sit near these birds as you watch TV or use the computer as you build trust. Other birds prefer the company of other birds, like finches and canaries.

The amount of time that your bird needs outside the cage depends on the species, but all birds need a break from the cage every day.

Some owners choose to leave the cage door open when they’re home, and close them when they aren’t able to supervise their pet.  

Additionally, birds like to have a place where they can hide when they want privacy. This could be a paper bag, a towel, or a nest box. 

Checking for Signs of Distress

No matter what your bird’s situation is, you should be on alert for signs of anxiety or distress. These signs include the following:

  • Feather picking or plucking
  • Loss of appetite
  • Screaming or other changes in vocalization
  • Repetitive behavior
  • Stress bars, small lines that run across the shafts of the feathers
  • Aggression

Stress can be due to many different factors, including changes in the environment, new family members or pets, loud noises, the color of the paint in the room, or unfamiliar animals seen from the window.

Changes in lighting can also be a stressor for birds. 

When birds become stressed, they need stimulation, attention, and time outside the cage. Playing the radio or putting the TV on can be comforting as well. 

Bird-Proofing Your Home

If you’re going to try keeping your bird without a cage, or at least want them to be able to roam free without your direct supervision, you’re going to need to bird proof your home.

Although it’s impossible to completely free an environment from hazards, you can significantly decrease the chance of an accident with a little care and attention. 

The following are all household dangers that should be kept away from birds:

  • Aerosol sprays. Aerosol sprays like hairspray and spray deodorant contain toxic propellants, and should never be used in the same room with a bird. Room freshening sprays are especially toxic, and can seriously damage a bird’s respiratory system. 
  • Candles. Candles are dangerous both due to the toxic heavy metals in the wicks and due to their heavy fumes, which can cause respiratory inflammation.
  • Carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide leaks are fatal to birds at much lower levels than they are for humans, and so a carbon monoxide detector is a good idea. You should also keep any rooms where your bird will be living or playing well-ventilated.
  • Electrical cords. Electrical cords can be deadly for birds, who like to chew. 
  • Electrical outlets. Electrical outlets should be covered to prevent access.
  • Ceiling fans. Ceiling fans should always be turned off when a bird is roaming free, or else they can cause a broken neck, wing injuries, a concussion, or numerous other serious injuries.
  • Toxic foods. Toxic foods like alcohol, tapioca, dairy, meat, avocado, chocolate, fruit seeds and pits, and peanuts should be kept out of a bird’s reach, as well as any foods high in salt, fat and sugars or containing dyes or preservatives. When in doubt, keep human food out of reach.
  • Heat sources. Heat sources are dangerous for birds, and especially any food cooking on the stove, which can lure a bird in. Wood stoves, space heaters, and fireplaces are also risky to use around a bird. Additionally, the fumes released by a wood stove or fireplace can be dangerous for birds, so make sure that your home is well-ventilated. 
  • Home improvement products. Home improvement products like paint or paint thinner should be kept away from birds because the fumes are hazardous. Generally, if you can smell it, it’s toxic for your bird to breathe.
  • Metal parts and pieces. Metal parts and pieces small enough to be swallowed can be life-threatening for a bird. Make sure that you clear your home of small spare parts, check your bird’s toys for exposed metals, and always choose a bird cage made from stainless steel, ceramic powder coating or acrylic, not zinc, nickel or lead. 
  • Children. Children can be a hazard to birds because they may not understand how delicate birds are. Birds can also be a hazard to children, because their sharp beaks can cause injury. 
  • Other pets. Other pets can be dangerous to birds. The saliva from dogs, cats and other omnivorous or carnivorous animals contain bacteria that birds have little to no immunity to, and cats’ claws contain bacteria that’s potentially fatal to birds. On that note, human saliva is also toxic to birds, and you should never feed your bird food that’s been in your mouth.
  • Pesticides. Pesticides like sprays, fly strips, mothballs, flea collars or shampoos, miticides, or powders are all toxic to birds, whether they’re ingested or inhaled or get stuck on the bird.
  • Plywood and particle board. Plywood and particle board are toxic to birds; only raw, untreated wood should be used to make perches, play stands and toys. 
  • Many house plants. Many house plants are toxic to birds. Others provide a healthy source of enrichment. To find out which plants are safe and which are not, visit the Planned Parrothood website.
  • Non-stick pans made with Teflon. Non-stick pans made with Teflon release toxic fumes when heated above 400 degrees, killing birds instantly. Teflon can also be found in electrical appliances like hair dryers and space haters, and should be avoided. Instead, use stainless steel, cast iron, ceramic, stoneware and Pyrex.
  • Soil. Soil often contains pesticides or fertilizers that are toxic to birds, and even organic soil often contains fungi that can cause infections in birds. Soil should never be ingested. 
  • Cat litter. Cat litter can clump inside a bird’s crop if it’s ingested, and dusty litter can cause respiratory inflammation.
  • Pine, redwood, and cedar shavings. Pine, redwood, and cedar shavings have aromatic oils that can cause respiratory inflammation, and should never be used in cages. Instead, use paper products as a liner.
  • Standing water. Standing water can be a drowning hazard for birds. Make sure that no toilet bowls are left open, and that any pots of water on the stove are covered.

If your bird does have an accident, make sure that you know how to perform basic first aid and take them to the veterinarian as soon as possible.

For help learning bird first aid, see First Aid for Birds: An Owner’s Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet, by Julie Rach and Gary Gallerstein, DVM. 

Conclusion

Birds can be kept out of cages, but there is a long list of household hazards that you should be aware of before making this choice, both for you and for the bird.

If you do choose to keep your bird in a cage, there are ways to do so ethically. You can also give your bird time outside the cage while still keeping a cage for times when you’re unavailable for supervision.

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