Every year hundreds of birds suffer from health problems caused by their environment. Their human companions are often shocked (and horrified) when they discover that their bird has been exposed to a hazard in their own home, often a hazard of which they were not aware. Birds, in many ways, are like toddlers – capable of finding new ways of hurting themselves as soon as we turn our backs on them for even a moment!
There are lots of different poisons in our homes. Some, like fly sprays and rat poison, would seem to be obvious but many owners do not recognise the threat they constitute to their pets. Rat poison, in particular, is very palatable to a parrot. They often come in a box – hardly a challenge to a parrot’s beak – and are stored up high to keep them out of reach (just remember that birds can fly!). There are many other pesticides and herbicides that can kill or harm your bird, so great care must be taken to lock them away in a parrot-proof cupboard. Also, be aware that some of these poisons may have a residual effect in the environment and can be dangerous even weeks after they are used in the house.
Lead and zinc are poisons known as heavy metals. While not as common in houses today, they are still definitely out there. Lead was used in paint, battery terminals, solder, lead shot, fishing sinkers, cosmetic jewellery, and even bird toys – and it is still used for these purposes today. Zinc is used as galvanising to rustproof, especially on cage wire. Both are very toxic, affecting many internal organs including the intestinal tract, the kidneys, the liver, and even the brain, and causing vomiting, excessive thirst, and urination, and sometimes seizures. Lead can be a slow acting poison – a bird can take in a small amount over days, weeks, or months until there is enough in their body to cause problems. Zinc is more of an acute poisoning resulting from eating a large amount of zinc flakes in one sitting. Both require urgent veterinary care.
Other poisons, such as naphthalene moth balls may seem relatively harmless but can be deadly if eaten. Some plants, fruits, and vegetables such as avocados, garlic, and onion can also be quite dangerous.
It should not be a surprise to anyone that electricity can be dangerous, but birds still get access to electrical cords and appliances. Apart from the risk of electrocution, there is a real fire danger to both people and property if a house is not fitted with appropriate safety devices such as circuit breakers.
Kitchens are a surprisingly dangerous place for pet birds. Even though companion birds usually enjoy human company, the kitchen is one part of the house that birds should be excluded from at all times. Some of the hazards include:
- Companion birds are very sensitive to air contaminants. Whatever they breathe in goes through their bodies very quickly. This sensitivity, coupled with their small size, makes it especially dangerous for birds to be in the kitchen when you are cooking. Teflon and other non-stick cookware (containing polytetrafluoroethylene) can release fumes and particles that may be harmful (and often fatal) to birds. In addition, cooking utensils can be dangerous if accidentally overheated.
- In addition to cooking fumes, birds are highly sensitive to a variety of other gases, such as aerosol sprays, non-stick sprays, spray starch, perfumes, smoke, self-cleaning ovens, and natural gas. Always turn the exhaust fan on or open a window before cooking. It is important to make sure that your kitchen is properly ventilated. Even if your bird is not in the kitchen, these fumes and gases can spread through a house or unit very quickly.
- Never leave your bird and hot pans unattended, even for a few minutes. Birds have been known to land in saucepans of hot oil, causing such severe burns that they die. if your bird is out of their cage, they might come too close to the hot plate, suffering severe burns to the feet.
- Store toxic items out of your bird’s reach. This includes all cleaners, pesticides, insecticides, mothballs, and both prescription and over-the-counter medications. Some cleaning agents may cause mild stomach upset, but others can cause severe burns to a bird’s tongue, mouth, oesophagus and stomach (including the crop – a pouched enlargement of the oesophagus at the base of the neck of many birds that stores food prior to digestion).
- Keep your bird away from food and drinks that could be dangerous. These items include avocados, onions, garlic, chocolate (in any form), coffee, tea, salt, soft drinks, alcohol, and mouldy or spoiled foods.Protect your bird from the stresses in the kitchen. These include rapid changes in temperature and high traffic flow. Each time you cook, the temperature of the kitchen increases and then returns to normal. The repeated change in temperature could cause discomfort to your bird. The flow of people into and out of the kitchen is often high compared to other rooms in the house. This high traffic flow can cause stress which could lead to behaviour problems in some birds.
- Kitchen appliances can be dangerous, especially if your bird can fly. Dangerous appliances include stove tops and hot plates, open ovens, toasters, kettles, boiling water in the sink, and hot cooking oil. Birds can also get cuts from sharp objects and could potentially drown in a sink or even a small bowl of water.
- Keep in mind that butter, margarine, and vegetable oils can get onto your bird’s feathers, matting them and possibly exposing skin. This can cause a sudden change to your bird’s body temperature, leaving them vulnerable to a chill.
- Be careful using fly spray, rat poison, and cockroach baits in the kitchen. Make sure that they are safely locked away out of reach, and never spray any aerosol around your bird.
Windows and fans
Dozens of birds need veterinary treatment each year after colliding with a moving ceiling fan or a closed window. The damage caused ranges from stunning to fractured beaks and skulls. Wherever possible, draw a curtain across any closed window and turn off the fan in a room before allowing a bird free flight outside their cage.
It often surprises people that their dog or cat ‘who has always gotten along with the bird’ has suddenly turned on a bird and attacked it. Dogs and cats, at the end of the day, are predators – and birds are a prey species. Unexpected movement or a playful nip by a bird can trigger an attack and given the differences in size, this rarely ends well for the bird. All dog and cat bites should be treated as an emergency as the bacteria in their mouth can cause a fatal infection (septicaemia) in less than a day.
Attacks by wild birds are common, especially when birds are left unattended on a veranda or a pergola. Butcher birds in particular seem to regard budgies and cockatiels in a cage as a drive-through take away. Scalping injuries, broken wings, and legs, and even wings and legs physically ripped from the body can be the result. The moral is – never leave your bird unattended outdoors.
Another common injury is the result of fights between pet birds, often of different sizes. Poor socialising skills and an inability to get away from each other can lead to physical conflict that rarely happens in the wild. Beak injuries seem to be the most common damage, and the upper beak can even be ripped right off.
Small children interacting with comparatively fragile birds can be disastrous. They can step on them, drop them, frighten them into doing unexpected things, and even lie down on top of them. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that children and birds, when interacting, are always closely supervised.
Heat and cold stress
Although many wild birds are tolerant of temperature extremes, companion birds are – quite simply – not well adapted to environmental extremes. Often overweight and physically unfit, they struggle on very hot days. In cold weather, particularly on days when the temperature drops below zero, they simply can’t get warm. Some birds even get frost bite. It’s often not just their overall body condition, it’s also the size and positioning of their enclosures that puts them at risk. Closed in their enclosure, they are unable to move into the shade (or into the warmth of the sun), they just have to endure.
A heat stressed bird will hold their wings out from the body and pant heavily as they try to blow off excessive body heat. Cold stressed birds sit quietly, with their feathers fluffed, as they try to conserve body heat. (Note that this same behaviour is seen in sick birds with a low body temperature.)
It’s important to realise that you have accepted responsibility for your pet’s welfare, and this includes protecting your bird from environmental extremes.
Make sure that, on hot days (greater than 33°C), your bird has extra water available. If you can’t move them indoors, consider using a garden misting system to cool down the air around them. You may be able to use a gentle fan to keep the air well ventilated. If shade is not available, perhaps placing a tarpaulin or other cover on the roof may help to keep the direct heat off the birds.
On cold days (less than 4°C), you may need to increase the energy levels of your bird’s food (e.g., adding nuts and seed). Place your bird in a warm room but don’t cover the cage. If they are outside and the weather is windy, you may need to erect some shelter to block the wind.
Keeping your bird warm is only half of the equation when it comes to helping your pet make it through the colder months safe and sound. Many home heating systems can make the indoor air very dry, robbing a bird of much-needed humidity in their environment. Low humidity levels can lead to dry skin, brittle feathers, preening issues, respiratory problems, and more in a bird. Gently mist your bird or provide extra water to raise the humidity in the enclosure through evaporation.
1. Doneley B (2018) Avian Medicine and Surgery in Practice: Companion and Aviary Birds, 2nd ed. CRC Press.
2. Australian Veterinary Association Household hazards for birds. https://www.vetvoice.com.au/ec/pet-ownership/household-hazards-for-birds. Accessed 9 May 2023