Husbandry and Management of Parrot Species
by R.J. McMillan
The maintenance of healthy stock in captivity requires an understanding of their psychological as well as their physical requirements. Stock should be kept in a well-managed aviary where a practical and informed approach to the basic principles of husbandry and stock management is followed. Losses due to infectious and parasitic disease, nutritional inadequacies and trauma will then be found to be negligible. The design, construction material, siting and general environment within and surrounding an aviary will have a direct influence on the well-being of its inhabitants. The aviary must provide an environment which affords protection from all predators and inclement weather, yet it is essential to allow access to fresh air, rain, and sunshine.
The ideal aviary design incorporates both open and enclosed areas where birds can choose either the well ventilated sunlit area or the enclosed protected area where refuge and privacy are available. Aviaries must be large enough to allow birds to escape from continual disturbances from outside and also prevent stress from overcrowding inside.
The aviary must have adequate perches: the use of smooth, same diameter spherical dowels which are commonly used as perch material is not recommended as they can cause foot deformities as the birds are always grasping in the same fashion with the same curvature of their feet. The smoothness of these dowel perches does not provide enough friction and stimulation to the epithelium of the feet, which lead to the development of feet abnormalities and calluses.
The perches should be of tree branches and of various diameters, which will help simulate the natural environment and maintain healthy feet. They should also be located far enough apart to allow maximum flight for exercise, but should not be placed too near the ends of the aviary, so birds rub against the wire or walls as they turn, and so positioned to stop alighting on the wire at the end of the flight, as this damages feathers.
Aviaries should be constructed in such a manner as to exclude rats, mice, wild bird, cats and other predators. The ideal aviary should be double wired meshed, the outer wire mesh being one centimeter square, the wire should be buried to a depth of 25cm in the ground or sunk into a 25cm concrete foundation to prevent rats, mice and predators from burrowing into the flight under the mesh. The mesh should also be covered to a minimum height of 75cms from ground level to prevent the birds on the floor of the flight being traumatized by prowling cats or other predators
The internal wire skin should be located a minimum of 5cm from the external wire mesh and should be of the appropriate wire thickness and mesh size depending on the species of parrots being kept, for example you would not keep large cockatoos or macaws in an aviary made with an internal wire mesh size of 16 swg 5cm square wire.
A covering of chicken wire suspended 20 to 30cms above the roof of the flight will help prevent cats and birds of prey coming into close contact with the aviary occupants. Death from trauma is probably one of the most common individual causes of death in aviary kept species. Predators such as cats, owls and birds of prey, easily frighten aviary stock but rats and mice may startle birds into panic or flight, the resulting outcome being severe trauma or even being killed or injured from flight into the aviary mesh.
Lead based paints on wire and walls of the aviary must be avoided as cases of lead poisoning have been reported. Certain galvanized wire may contain high levels of toxic materials in the galvanized finish. Many aviculturalists insist on "weathering" new wire before constructing aviaries from it. This means that the wire is left out in the open for up to twelve months before it is used in the construction of an aviary. Such toxic metals are either detoxified or leached out of the coating in this time.
Aviary floors must be easily cleaned, well drained and must not provide a good environment for parasites. A concrete base covered in a layer of clean earth, sand or gravel is probably the most natural and successful substrate, as the covering materials can be completely replaced periodically and the concrete base pressure washed down and disinfected.
Every effort should be made to make the aviary a pleasant environment for the birds kept. A bare uninteresting aviary will lead to birds being bored and depressed. Both dust and water baths should be provided. These activities are part of the normal grooming routine and play an important role in control of external parasites and feather condition.
Wooden walls, perches and aviary support structure often provide an environment in cracks and crevices for parasites to hide. Special care should be taken to treat such areas with insecticides and disinfectants from time to time.
A common cause of feather plucking, both from self-mutilation and aviary mates is boredom. A fresh supply of cut branches with leaves and buds intact hung in the aviary will often provide the sensory stimulation which helps maintain the birds' psychological health. Plants poisonous to the parrot species, must be avoided.
Overcrowding, mixing aggressive or territorial species and maintaining incorrect sex ratios within species will create problems. Inter- and Intra-species aggression will lead to injury or death of the less dominant individuals. Birds which are consistently aggressive, can often be subdued by the clipping of the flight feathers of one wing thus modifying their behaviour; this could leave this bird disadvantaged and hence open to attack from other birds in the flight. Segregation of species into one pair per flight is the only answer.
Feeding and watering points must be well distributed to ensure all birds, particularly the subordinate individuals, can eat and drink their requirements. Food and water dishes should be protected from direct sun. Contamination from birds within the flight and wild birds must be avoided. See also Parrot Nutrition
Nest boxes (located in different locations within the flight) are best left in all year round so that when the birds are ready for breeding they are able to find a suitable site for breeding.
The fact that most parrot species spend most of their time off the ground may lead the uninitiated to forget that hygiene in captive birds is of the utmost importance in the management of all aviary stock.
Faecal contamination of perches, floors, water and food containers, roosting and nesting areas will predispose to transmission of pathogenic fungi, bacteria, viruses, protozoa and helminths. Where natural branches are used as perches they can be replaced periodically.
Aviaries should be thoroughly cleaned at regular intervals, preferably at least once weekly. A detergent disinfectant should be used on all solid surfaces and perches. Old branches can be replaced with new. Common bacterial pathogens will be readily eliminated if this routine is followed. Floors are best raked or swept daily to remove faeces and litter. Most pathogenic micro-organisms thrive in dark, damp areas where sunlight is unable to penetrate; these conditions and areas must be eliminated.
Insecticide spray of the less toxic type (e.g. pyrethrins) can be sprayed into corners, nest boxes and crevices in woodwork which will help retard the spread of ectoparasites. The more potent insecticides can be used sparingly on the underside and end of perches and woodwork to provide a residual insecticide action.
It is also recommended that a vet or experienced person treats your parrots for internal worms. This treatment is usually carried out twice a year, the first treatment to be administered prior to the breeding season.
Food and drinking water containers should be positioned off the ground and should not be placed beneath the bird's flight path or under perches. This ensures faecal contamination by either rodents or the aviary birds is kept to a minimum. Containers for food and water should be located in a couple of positions so all birds have access to them and faecal contamination is restricted. All containers should be emptied and cleaned daily.
Some aviculturalists go to great lengths to sterilize their aviaries and fittings, even to the extent of using blowlamps and gas torches to scorch all surfaces. Regular weekly cleaning with antiseptics, the use of insecticides combined with the removal of litter will achieve the same results.
The removal and isolation of any bird suspected of harbouring infectious agents, also birds which are not alert and active, is imperative if the spread of disease is to be prevented. The ideal isolation area should be heated to a temperature of 25 to 30 degrees centigrade, away from all other birds, quiet and sheltered from all disturbances. Birds can be monitored closely and medicated in such an area. Birds isolated for health reasons should not be reintroduced to the aviary until faecal cultures are negative for pathogenic bacteria or clinical signs of the disease have been undetectable for 7 - 10 days.
A detailed examination for ectoparasites, physical deformities, behavioural abnormalities should be conducted prior to acquisition. Sight of the parents and aviaries bred in is also desirable, what foods etc have been fed?
All new purchases should be put in the isolation area, which is most useful in allowing the new specimens, which often have been subjected to a stressful experience to settle down and acclimatize to their new environment. Faecal examination for protozoa, nematodes and cestodes should be performed within the first few days and appropriate treatment given.
During this isolation period, food preferences and consumption can be assessed. New feeding techniques can be introduced. It is not uncommon for birds to die of malnutrition or dehydration when introduced to a new environment, only because the aviculturalist has not taken the care to observe that the new specimen is not eating or drinking. A wide variety of seeds and food in separate containers must be available for new specimens and observations made as to which seeds and foods they eat.
The Zoonotic aspects of avian disease must also be considered as an important reason for the isolation of new stock, as there are several diseases that can be transmitted from birds to humans, so recognition and identification of any such infections in new stock is of prime importance to the health and well being of the aviculturist. Certain zoonotic diseases are notifiable by law to the authorities. The following is a list of diseases, which can be transmitted to humans: - Salmonellosis, Colibacillosis, and Psittacosis (Ornithosis), of which only the latter is notifiable in the UK, and then only in certain restricted areas.
The Nutritional requirements of parrots change throughout the various stages of their lives. The aviculturist must be aware of these specific requirements and provide the special food items, as they are required. There are also wide species differences in dietary requirements.
Infertile eggs, failure to hatch, poor growth in youngsters and specific nutritional deficiencies will occur in poorly managed stock.
If food of the correct nutritional composition, form and digestibility is not provided for youngsters, nutritional deficiency diseases will occur. Abnormal feeding habits acquired at this young age may affect the bird for the rest of its life.
The youngsters are born usually naked and blind and are fed entirely by the parents for several weeks, depending on species. During this period a variety of special foods, which can easily be converted to "baby food" by the adults, must be provided. Supplements of seeding grasses and plants, fruit, and in some species insect larvae are essential for successful breeding. Total food supply during this period must be increased, as the adult birds must eat enough for their own needs as well as for their growing youngsters.
The total energy requirements for the hens is greater during the breeding season, therefore larger amounts of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals are required An egg-producing hen could have a negative calcium balance, and is recommended that a supplementary source of calcium be supplied. Cuttlefish bone is a commonly offered source of calcium, but is inefficiently absorbed. More readily available soluble calcium supplements are better, especially when an immediate effect is required. Water-soluble multivitamin can also be supplied in the drinking water
The maintenance of non-breeding adults or single birds depends on activity, ambient temperature and stage of moult. During moult, birds have a higher protein requirement because of the production of new feathers.
A variety of seeds, fresh budding branches, green foods, fruit, chicken bones, insect larvae, proprietary crumbles, mineral blocks, home made mixtures, cooked eggs, and honey, should always be made available, which should easily maintain stock in peak condition.
Natural chalk blocks and mineral blocks will assist in maintenance of beak wear and thus will help prevent overgrown beaks, an eye must also be kept for overgrown toe nails as this can also be a problem in captive stock.
An informed and practical approach to preventive medicine in an aviary is usually associated with successful management, quarantine, predator control, hygiene, nutrition and proper environment considerations. Intestinal parasites can only be successfully controlled by routine faecal inspection and the appropriate regular treatment. If care is taken not to introduce new birds into an aviary before a period of quarantine, very few infectious or parasitic problems will be encountered.
The wild population of birds will introduce pathogens to an aviary from faecal contamination through the wire mesh, but prompt action to isolate and treat the infected birds and aviary will help prevent an epidemic within your stock. It is good practice to have a post mortem carried out on birds, which die from unknown causes.
The main causes of sudden death in aviaries are, (a) Trauma through aggression or externally induced panic, (b) Cold or Heat Stress, (c) Acute infection.
Record keeping: it is essential to maintain detailed records on each bird kept such as age, sex, ring number, purchase cost, date purchased, name and address of person who sold you the bird, whether wild caught or captive bred, mated to, aviary number, types of food and supplements given, health, breeding, reproductive performance and if sold name and address of purchaser. It is good custom and practice to give the purchaser a copy of such a record. Data stored in this way is of untold value in tracing the history of nutritional, hereditary, health or environmental problems.
It is essential prior to the purchase of new stock to view the birds in their existing flights and in the case of young birds also with the parents, the seller should be requested to supply detailed records on the birds being purchased. It is very unwise to purchase birds via the telephone or an advert without seeing the environment they have been kept in. Many complaints are received from gullible people who have been sold a bird in this manner and found out on receipt that the bird is not as described on the phone/advert etc. These people then expect others to sort out the mess which was self inflicted.
AKJ 2018 - an excellent article written some years ago, but just as pertinent today.
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