It started with one small bird named Rolly. “When we brought him home he started rolling over like a dog,” Sandy Cutshall said of the handicapped budgie she bought for her teenage daughter. So, they named him Rolly.
Now, eight years later, Sandy and her husband Bill have 14 small birds in their Texas home — six society finches that share a flight cage, two zebra finches in another cage, two lovebirds that frequently have to be separated, two budgies (Rolly and Batman — the latter likes to sleep hanging upside down), one canary and one very spoiled parrotlet, Polly Pocket. She cleans six cages a day and is thinking of adding a Quaker to the flock. How does she handle it all? “You gotta love the birds,” Cutshall said and added, “You have to withstand the noise.” It also helps that she’s a stay-at-home mom.
It’s a familiar story. The Cutshalls started with one small bird, but didn’t stop there. Small birds are snapped up at pet stores, bird marts and just about everywhere. They are the most popular birds, budgies and cockatiels in particular, in the United States. Unfortunately, they also make up a large number of the pet birds in shelters and rescues. Often, new owners think the smaller the bird the less attention and care it needs, but this isn’t the case.
When purchasing a cage, don’t think minimum size, try to size up. “So many people buy the finch-size cages [for budgies],” said John Miles a judge for the American Budgerigar Society and a budgie breeder. But really a budgie needs a cage that is 24 by 24 by 24 inches. Miles prefers a flight cage about 3-feet-long to allow the birds to fly around within the cage. [See sidebar for the correct cage size for your bird.]
Julie Willis of the Budgerigar Association of America adds, “Like every other species, buy the largest cage you can afford, and fill it with as many entertaining things as you can while still allowing the bird plenty of room to move about.”
Unfortunately, some finch-sized cages don’t provide enough room for even a finch. Pet finches and canaries often spend most, if not all, of the day in a cage, which means there should be room to fly back and forth in the cage.
“Parrots can exercise in a tall cage by climbing on the bars. Finches, of course, don’t do this and need horizontal flying space for healthy exercise,” said Martie Lauster, a finch breeder and former editor of the National Finch and Softbill Society’s journal.
For waxbills and canaries, Ian Hinze, a finch expert and BIRD TALK columnist, recommends a box cage of 4-feet long and 2-feet square for a pair of birds. Then, if you no longer want the birds to breed, you can divide the cage in two and still have room for each individual bird to live comfortably.
Most experts insist that finches be kept in pairs. “I would not recommend a single pet finch at all,” said Lauster. “Finches are very social birds and really need to interact with other finches.” But if you’re not interested or prepared to breed your birds, house the sexes separately. “The best thing to do to prevent breeding is to keep just one sex,” Lauster added.
Canaries, on the other hand, males in particular, can be housed separately. “The biggest mistake I see people making is thinking a male canary needs a partner,” said Darrell Horst a canary breeder for 12 years. “A single male canary is just fine by himself. He will actually sing more when housed by himself.”
When housing male canaries together, Horst recommends keeping three or more rather than just two males. “Housing just two male canaries together means the aggressive male only has one other bird to pick on,” Horst said. “With other males in the cage that aggressiveness is more evenly spread around and the more timid males can get away for a while and rest.”
Cockatiels, too, are often kept in cages too narrow for them, said Julie Allen, president of the National Cockatiel Society. “It is important to have ample room for playtoys and swings in addition to space for the bird to stretch and flap his wings for exercise.”
Bill McElveen, president of the American Cockatiel Society, suggested looking for a cage with a large door, “60 percent or more of the cage front,” as well as a smaller inset door. “This makes getting the birds in and out of the cage much easier,” he said.
Lovebirds and parrotlets are truly large parrots in little bodies. These birds are active and voracious eaters and chewers. Because of their activity level, both of these birds require as large a cage as possible — 24-inches square is ideal.
Penny Corbett, an aviculturist for more than 35 years, adds that a simple, square design for any cage, makes it easier to clean, which leads to more frequent cleaning.
When sizing up on cages for all small birds, don’t forget to check the bar spacing. A larger cage may mean larger bar spacing, which isn’t good for tiny heads, toes and beaks. Corbett recalled budgies that broke wings in inappropriate cage bars, and McElveen knows of ’tiels that stuck their heads through 1-inch bar spacing, but were unable to pull their heads back in and were strangled.
Busy, Little Beaks
Small pet birds may not chew through their toys the way a macaw or cockatoo does, but it’s important for all birds to have access to something to chew on. “People neglect giving the littler guys things to chew,” said Corbett. Also, rotate new toys in frequently — whether chewed through or not — to keep birds interested.
Sandee Molenda, owner of The Parrotlet Ranch in California and co-founder of The International Parrotlet Society, gives her parrotlets cockatiel-sized foot toys, such as barbells and sturdy balls. Swings are essential too. Lovebirds enjoy rope toys and little balls to toss around. Miles puts untreated “2 by 2s” on top of his budgie and cockatiels cages. They go through those “like it was peanut butter,” he said.
A wet handful of lettuce leaves or carrot and beet tops make an ideal bath or playtime for many of the smaller birds, including budgies, parrotlets and finches. Cockatiels are unlikely to participate in this. You might try a mister or a light stream of water from the sink or shower. Allen said her ’tiels “love to jump in their water bowls.”
Wild lovebirds, budgies, parrotlets and cockatiels forage for food on the ground, so your bird, too, will hunt for food at the bottom of its cage. “One of the best exercises a bird can get is to fly upward,” said Corbett. She feeds her budgies on the ground below the cage, so they have to fly back up to return to their cages, but this isn’t for everyone.
Common household dangers such as wires, other pets or toxins tracked in on human shoes can make the floor no place for birds. Molenda estimates that 80 percent of pet parrotlets meet their demise through accidents, such as being stepped on while on the floor. Train your bird to play and forage on its playgym and other acceptable areas by removing it from the floor each time it lands there. This should only take a few days, Molenda said.
Margaret Madison, a BIRD TALK reader, encourages clean foraging behavior in her 15 cockatiels by scattering food on a tray on top of one of the cages. “… I lay out paper — to help prevent droppings and other things from falling back into the cage below — and I place a tray of fresh foods [there] every day,” she said. “Today, it happens to be pieces of corn, celery tops, carrots and multi-grain bread.”
“Small birds” is a term used loosely to describe a bird smaller than a conure, but each type of small bird has its own individual quirks. Here are just a few:
“A lot of people don’t realize that finches love swings,” Lauster said. “These can be the regular little swings from the pet store … Many of them will also play with small toys in their cages.”
“Too many daylight hours will send a canary into molt and totally confuse their internal clocks,” said Horst. “Many people write asking why my canary stopped singing. I’ve found the number one reason is amount and consistency of light they are receiving.”
Canaries, too, enjoy swings but they don’t climb the way hookbills do so a ladder isn’t necessary except as an extra perch, Horst added.
Budgies enjoy “bonk” toys, such as a springy one or the classic bouncy penguin toy, said Diane Grindol, the “Small Birds” columnist for BIRD TALK. For some reason they appreciate something resilient they can hit their head with, Grindol explained.
Because of their acrobatic nature, budgies also need swings and plenty of things to hang upside down on. “One of their most endearing features is that they are acrobatic clowns, and often appear to defy gravity,” Willis noted.
“A parrotlet’s home is their castle,” said Molenda so any perceived intrusions might be met with a bite. Molenda recommends removing your little parrot during cleaning. Swiftly offer your hand inside the cage for a “Step up” and then place the bird on a playgym. A well-trained bird will step onto your hand out of instinct, but a moment of hesitation on your part could mean a nip. Allowing a parrotlet free-flight throughout the house can lead to its assumption that the whole house is its territory, Molenda cautioned.
Parrotlets have voracious appetites, often eating more than a cockatiel that is twice its size, so Molenda keeps four food dishes in the cage at all times. One might offer pellets or seed while another holds fresh food. They’re not typically water-dunkers, but a tube waterer cut downs on contamination and frees up another dish for food.
“Lovebirds make soup of everything,” said Edwards. They put everything in their water dish whether it is food or a piece of newspaper (they love to shred newspaper). This means frequent water changes to keep the drinking water fresh.
These birds are crafty escape artists. “Do not use cages with those doors and feeder doors that slide up and down — lovebirds can lift those and either escape or guillotine themselves,” said Charlene Beane a lovebird breeder for 15 years and an editor for The African Ark. They also enjoy slipping through the bottom of the cage while you are changing the liner — keep an eye on them!
Some cockatiels are prone to night frights and many people recommend keeping a night light on to reduce this phenomena. Madison runs a bird-safe fan constantly to both increase air circulation — cockatiels are notorious for their dander — and to create a “white noise.” “The white noise seems to reduce the ‘shock’ of (for example) one of my dogs trotting by the cage in the middle ofthe night for a drink of water, etc,” Madison said. “I used to get frequent night frights with the birds before the ‘white noise.’”
Just One More …
Small pet birds easily entrance their owners with their lively personalities and inevitably the individual begins thinking of adding to the flock, but not all of these small birds get along together.
Perhaps to make up for their lack of size, lovebirds and parrotlets can be particularly territorial of their cages. Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of thinking that these birds should be housed in pairs, when really they may want nothing to do with a cage mate and may even attack the other bird.
“Parrotlets are like potato chips – you can’t just have one,” said Molenda. People want to take home five of them, but, unfortunately, the reality of the parrotlet personality is that it can be something of a bully, which means you may end up needing five separate cages when these birds reach maturity around 6 months of age, related Molenda.
“You do not mix lovebirds with anything,” said Wendy Edwards, a lovebird breeder for 15 years and the Mid-Atlantic director of the African Lovebird Society. She stopped breeding her lovebirds in colonies because the weaker ones were being attacked and killed.
Budgies have been successfully housed with other parakeets such as the Bourke’s or splendid, but Willis doesn’t recommend it. Her English budgies always beat up on the other parakeets, although she had a group of smaller American budgies that got along with a pair of Bourke’s.
Cockatiels are known for their somewhat passive nature, but this passivity makes them easy targets, even for smaller species such as lovebirds. “The cockatiel gets along well with most birds,” said Allen. “However, many other birds do not mix well with species other than their own, so the compatibility of the cage mates should be researched before housing together.” You might try housing other laid-back Australian species such as the Princess of Wales or barraband parakeets with cockatiels.
If you have a large aviary, you might be able to house finches of varying species together, but it will depend on the individual bird as well as what type of care each needs.
Many pet bird owners buy birds of different species so the birds don’t breed. Be aware of each bird’s size and temperament and move cages and schedule playtime accordingly.
Planning is critical when housing any bird. When trying to decide on a cage for your small bird, put yourself in its feathers for a moment and then decide which cage size you might prefer.