Are Parrots the messiest pets in our homes? My answer would be yes, they are. My cats and dogs go outside to poop. Both dog’s and cat’s dinner bowls are so licked clean that they hardly need washing.
My Parrots? Being an advocate of what is sometimes known as free range Parrots, my two Macaws and two Greys share a bird room and share our living space most evenings. They are rarely caged.
I love TV. My pleasure can be curtailed considerably when Benni Macaw thumps down on a shoulder, birdie bread in beak, and proceeds to rub the crumbs into my hair.
All four pet birds, the two Macaws and the two Greys, like to shred things. They also like to drink from glasses and flick drops everywhere. Ok, when it is a glass of water - less so when it is pomegranate juice.
Is there any neat way to restrain the levels of Parrot mess? An unkind solution is to keep them shut up in a cage. But then – what’s the point of keeping Parrots - amongst the most entertaining and enjoyable pets you’ll ever live with.
And caging or too many hours often leads to undesirable consequences like plucking, screaming and biting. Or a Parrot so bored that it just sits lethargically not even reacting to your presence.
Trying to discover why Parrots are so messy, I researched and found several explanations which comforted me.
Parrots in the wild eat tree seeds and fruit seeds. Some species eat every part of the seed but most eat some and drop some. Recent research on Parrot predation of Critically Endangered Parana pine (Araucaria angustifolia) brought up some interesting information.
In the last 100 years, 97% of this magnificent South American pine tree has disappeared mainly due to unchecked logging. Several Parrot species feed off the seeds of this pine. The researchers surveyed 526 pines and observed 9 Parrot species feeding off them. Parrots carried seeds in their beaks and often dropped some.
When the researchers examined germinated seedlings; they found that the proportion of partially eaten seeds that germinated was higher than that of undamaged seeds. It was an example of how - in an ecological niche - species work together. In this case, pines and trees helping one another.
It is now accepted that in areas where Parrot species have disappeared, plant diversity suffers. I was pleased to learn that my Parrots innate, infuriating desire to scatter seed had a practical purpose in the wild.
In my aviary, the problem is solved by the five bantams who hoover up the dropped Parrot seed (and lay little fresh eggs in return).
Of course, it isn’t just spilled seed or tossed out pellets that are so time consuming to clear up. My friend Maria’s Umbrella Cockatoo, Marco, insists on dunking his pellets in the water bowl. The viscous soup is uneaten and undrunk. Maria’s solution is too remove food bowls and water bowls at night. Then she feeds the pellets first thing in the morning at 7am.
Once they are eaten - Marco has a healthy appetite - she replaces the water bowls. He does not dunk other foodstuffs. Possibly pellets are too dry for him? I suggested that she try moistening the pellets with fruit juice, but she finds her present solution suits her better.
That’s one of the most sensible attitudes to adopt when it comes to devising a scheme of husbandry that keeps your bird in tip top condition and fits in with your timetable. There are also precautions that it’s sensible to take when keeping birds. A scheme of hygiene that doesn’t expose you to zoonotic diseases is worth devising.
There are several diseases that birds can transmit to people. (They are called zoonotic diseases). For your own and family’s health, it is reasonable to know how to prevent transmission of these diseases, although they are rare. Simple hygiene prevents most of the diseases that birds and humans share.
With regular daily hygiene including handwashing after handling the birds, never leaving uneaten food around for long periods, especially in warm humid conditions, it’s most unlikely that you will become ill. In addition, healthy birds don’t harbour infections. Even so, precautions are never out of place.
In our family, no one has suffered from a zoonotic infection in over 20 years of close avian-human interaction. Certain categories of people are considered more at risk:
Elderly, old and infants
Anyone with a chronic disease
Anyone undergoing treatment for a serious illness
Psittacosis or Parrot fever can be transmitted from bird to human. This is transmitted through faeces and through infectious particles in the air. The prognosis for birds is uncertain but they can recover. People will recover if treated early enough with anti-biotics.
Three uncommon diseases are:
Avian tuberculosis is rare in pet Parrots but transmission to people can lead to respiratory infections, swelling of lymph nodes below the jaw and even widespread disease in people with weakened immune systems. The disease can be spread through the air or through the faeces from infected birds.
Histoplasmosis is a respiratory infection in people who inhale fungal spores from contaminated soil or dust. The Histoplasma fungus grows on bird faeces. While this isn’t a big issue in pet birds, it is prudent not to allow faecal matter to accumulate to the point that mould can grow on it.
Cryptococcus is another fungus infection which is uncommon in pet birds. Humans can contract this disease from inhaling dust from dried poop especially pigeon lofts.
Fortunately, these serious conditions are rare and adopting a good hygiene regime should prevent them.
A sensible regime
One of the finest Parrot breeders I know is Mike Hurley in Suffolk. His aviaries are surrounded by full-grown clumps of bamboo and are a joy to visit. His views of hygiene are simple. He believes in social cleanliness. Cages are washed daily with soap and water. Food bowls are scalded.
Aviaries are swept clear of debris on a daily basis. He uses one of the broad-spectrum antiseptics for deep cleans. (My vet uses the same one - F10.) Dilutions of various strengths attack the bacteria and other nasties that can affect our birds. In nearly 40 years of bird breeding, Mike cannot recall a death from a hygiene- related problem. His birds are a picture of glossy feathers and bright eyes.
I like to make a distinction between dirt and destruction. My beloved Parrots are manically destructive; I hope they and their environment are not dirty.
How dangerous is Parrot poop? Well, it doesn’t smell as bad as mammals’ faeces and if the bird does not have a communicable disease, it isn’t noxious. But birds hide illness and some can be carriers without showing symptoms. That is why good hygiene is preventative. One of my chief preventative strategies is plants in aviary and bird room and free circulation of air. Germs love a stuffy atmosphere. Nor are they fond of fresh air.
Another precaution is to observe quarantine when bringing a new bird into your birds’ environment unless you know its full background.
I would like to write with pride that I clean the cages daily. I don’t. But I do change the newspaper linings and the food bowls every day. Wipe up spills. The cages are washed once a week with F10. Cages are semi-dismantled and taken out of doors twice a year and pressure-washed. They look like new when they are brought inside. If only it would last.
If your funds allow you to indulge in stainless steel cages, cleaning is greatly simplified. What you must beware of is any trace of zinc in metal or paint in old or cages made too cheaply. Zinc poisoning - a sometimes fatal hazard - can be avoided.
Everyone has their own standards. However, handwashing after handling birds is sensible. Some will say never kiss a bird, others will kiss their birds frequently.
There are bird lovers unfortunate enough to contract bird- fanciers lung. This allergic reaction to feather dust means that many such sufferers can do longer keep birds. It is tragic when that happens.
Birds themselves are clean creatures and a happy bird will preen every feather once a day. If your bird doesn’t like being showered, providing a shallow bowl to serve as a bird bath will often encourage her to bathe.
In our aviary when it rains, the Parakeets will bathe in the wet bamboo or splash about in fir tree branches. You can imitate that natural wild habit by putting a branch of wet leaves in the cage and seeing if your bird wants to give herself a shower in them.
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