Pet Bird Winter Health

Humidity and warmth are two key pet bird issues to plan for during the winter months.

Farmers first used heat lamps in the poultry industry to keep chicks warm. Eventually exotic bird breeders began using lamps to provide emergency heat for their birds and to keep brooders warm for baby birds. Incandescent bulbs are used for most light-emitting heat lamps. Place a small bird’s cage beneath a table lamp to provide a bit of extra, gentle heat when needed.  A normal light bulb will provide warmth, but may disturb your bird at night. The heat also dissipates immediately when the light is turned off.  Infrared incandescent bulbs are frequently used for heating because the red light does not seem to interrupt the avian sleep cycle.  Infrared heat also warms objects rather than the surrounding air. 

Purchase heat lamps only from sources that market them specifically for avian use.  Some bulbs on the market are coated with a substance containing PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), the same polymer in nonstick cookware that may emit toxic fumes when overheated.  

Ceramic heating elements do not disturb the normal day/night cycle because they do not emit light. The Pearlco brand infrared heat emitter was designed specifically for use with animals and is available in 30-, 60-, 100-, 150- and 250-watt output. The ceramic will not shatter if spattered by water, but it does get very hot and must be located out of the birds’ reach. Avi-Tech Exotic Birds markets Pearlco heating elements and a clamp-on reflector/lamp holder to hold the heating device, as well as a plug-in dimmer control for power adjustment.

Another solution might be one of Avi-Tech’s Avi-Temp infrared heat panels. These provide even, gentle heat and are lightweight enough to hang on a wall near your bird’s cage. The front surface reaches only about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, while the back remains near room temperature. Company literature recommends hanging a panel within 2 to 4 inches of the cage, on the same level as your bird’s preferred perching area. Cover the top and other sides of the cage for a cozy, nighttime nest. Heat panels can be used for weaning cages and on top of brooder containers as well.

Keep birds and other animals away from cords, switches, heating elements, bulbs and lighting tubes, as electrocution or injury may result from such contact.  Hot light bulbs may shatter if spattered by water. Locate “hot” or incandescent bulbs out of your bird’s splash zone.  Supplementary lighting and heating products are safe and beneficial when used prudently and according to manufacturers’ instructions.

Long Island, NY, resident Judy Wieland houses her cordon bleu, owl and parrot finches; budgies and canaries outdoors all winter. The birds live inside conservatory-style flights and thrive year after year. Judy advises using clear acrylic panels rather than plastic sheeting because she considers the rigid acrylic a more reliable windbreak. She gives high marks to flat panel heaters like the ones marketed by Avitech Exotic Birds.  (; (800) 646-2473) “The heat is gentle,” Wieland said. “The birds can even land on them; they can cuddle up or move away at will. I install perches at different distances from the heaters or mount heaters on the ceiling and put perches underneath them. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a regular house heater near finches. It’s been my experience that they’ll get into everything. The most important thing is providing a good windbreak.”

Sun warms Wieland’s flights during the day.  “Finches like to get inside things,” related Wieland. “If you provide nests, they’ll go to nest, so instead, I provide a box with a perch inside, but with no bottom or front. The birds like to cuddle together inside this little shelter.” 

Judy shared some concerns about using electrical heating appliances around birds: “Finches don’t chew electrical cords, but budgies and other hookbills may chew, so protect the cords [by putting them] inside chew-resistant plastic or metal conduit. The heat panels are really effective and don’t use a lot of power or overheat the aviary. Most birds do quite well as long as they’ve had time to become acclimated to living outdoors.  Shelter and a source of warmth that they can move toward or away from are the most important considerations. “I’m always careful about creating a barrier against predators as well,” Judy said, who lives in a coastal, wooded area populated with wildlife.

The ceramic heat elements discussed above are popular because they emit warmth without light. These get very hot, so make sure birds cannot come into direct contact with them.  When building or modifying an aviary, also consider installing radiant heat in a poured concrete floor.

Raise the Humidity
Cold isn’t the only winter threat to pet birds. Is there more dander emanating from your bird’s cage lately? Are there more feathers on the floor?  Does your pet look dusty? Exceptions are cockatoos, cockatiels and African greys as they naturally emit a fine powder.  Has your bird’s feather condition deteriorated, or does he pick at them more than usual?  Low humidity may be the culprit. (If your bird begins chewing or plucking its feathers, take it to an avian veterinarian immediately to rule out disease or parasites.)  The lack of humidity can also be health threatening and uncomfortable.  People often suffer from dry, uncomfortable nasal passages (which leave us more susceptible to illness) and flaky, itchy skin.  Imagine how your sensitive bird must feel! You can alleviate problems associated with low humidity in several ways.

With the exception of those in arid areas like African and Australia, tropical birds are treated to regular rain showers.  Offer your bird a bath dish or some wet greenery for its daily bath, or spritz its feathers with a fine mist of water from a clean, never-used-for-chemicals spray bottle. Does your macaw have a “curly” tail? This condition is usually caused by lack of moisture; a daily soaking with warm water from a spray bottle will likely correct it.

Raise the humidity level inside your home to a comfortable level by modifying your household routine. When pre-heating the oven, place a roasting pan filled with water inside to add some moisture to the air.  If your home has old-fashioned radiators, place damp towels or shallow pans of water on top of them. Place a teakettle full of water on top of a wood burning stove.  Leave the bathroom door ajar while you take a shower. Mist houseplants regularly to keep the transpiration (the process whereby plants release moisture into the air) cycle going.  Install a fish tank in your living area. (Keep it covered to keep fish in and birds out.) Hang laundry to dry indoors instead of using the dryer.

An electric humidifier or vaporizer can help augment household humidity, but bird owners may worry about cold-air humidifiers dispersing mold spores, bacteria, and chilly, damp air, or that vaporizers may contain components treated with nonstick polymers. (Overheated nonstick surfaces may emit fumes that kill birds quickly!)

The JWR Rain Forest germicidal warm mist air humidifier is specifically intended for use with birds. The moisture leaving the unit is treated three times to assure a germ-free mist for you birds. Ultra-violet light, vaporization and an internal aegis filter kill viruses, fungi, bacteria and mold-spores. Jeff Radzak, owner of JWR Exotic Bird Air Systems said, “We’ve made the heating element hotter to focus on things like psittacosis, and we do not use components treated with nonstick polymers. The aegis sleeve that goes over the cone eliminates single-celled microbes that may have survived boiling or the UV light.” According to Radzak, the droplets are finer than those dispersed by a standard humidifier. “This helps bring moisture to the bird’s the feather base and more effectively moisturizes the air sacs,” Radzak said. The Rain Forest humidifier features adjustable power and humidity levels and warning lights to tell you when water or UV lights need to be replaced. The humidifier may safely be used in conjunction with JWR’s air cleaning units.  They carry a lifetime warranty. For more information, visit or call Jeff Radzak for information and specific advice: (800) 939-BIRD (2473)

When choosing lighting or heating products for your bird, exercise the same caution you would with any electrical device. Birds must not be permitted physical contact with heating elements, switches, cords or bulbs. Invest in a good-quality thermometer, marketed specifically for avian use, to monitor the temperature inside brooders and hospital cages.  Know the signs of overheating (panting, wings held away from the body, neck extended); and situate lamps or heating elements where birds can move away from them, to a cooler or less illuminated portion of the cage.

Safety Alert!
Some space heaters may contain components that have been coated with polymers containing polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the same element in nonstick cookware that (when overheated) emits fumes that may be deadly to birds. Contact manufacturers for information about specific heaters. Most display a toll-free telephone number on packaging or instruction/warranty literature. Even when you are convinced there is no PTFE present, pre-heat space heaters outdoors, in the garage or any well-ventilated area well away from your birds. Dangerous emissions are strongest when appliances are new.

Protect yourself and your birds.  Fill out and mail registration cards that come with newly purchased appliances. Keep and read instruction booklets and warranty certificates. Contact the manufacturer if you have questions about the advisability of using their products around birds. Ask about the presence of PTFE and other potentially harmful polymers used in the manufacture of appliances. Scan the business and consumer pages of your local newspaper for product recall notices.

For more information, call the Consumer Product Safety Commission with questions about the safety of household appliances: (800) 638-2772  Hearing impaired: (800) 638-8270.

Article Tags:
Article Categories:
Birds · Health and Care