THE GREAT OUTDOORS: ENRICHMENT - OR DANGER - FOR OUR BIRDS?

(Originally published in the May 2004 issue of Parrots magazine)

By John Geary

The warmer weather is upon us, and that means many of us will spend more time outdoors. If we share our lives parrots, they may spend some of that time outside with us. While taking our feathered companions outside may seem like a great idea, as responsible bird caretakers, we have to stop to consider if letting our birds experience “the great outdoors” is truly in their best interests. If we decide “yes,” we then must decide how to let them experience it. Part of that “how” involves how much freedom we allow them. If their wings are not trimmed, do we allow them some supervised free flight? If their wings are trimmed, do we allow them to wander around the lawn or the garden, or do we take them outside only in a cage?

Even taking them outside in a cage is no guarantee of safety, as they may still be exposed to the growing dangers of West Nile Virus, Asian bird flu and diseases from wild birds, which can all cause illness and sometimes death.

There are some benefits to taking our birds outside, but there are also many detriments.

TAKING OUR BIRDS OUTSIDE: PROS

Sunlight. Exposure to a full spectrum of light, including UV, which helps increase vitamin D and can help digestion and absorption of other necessary vitamins and minerals. (Be aware, however, the same effect can often be achieved by use of full spectrum light devices installed indoors.)

Companionship. Another positive benefit is the fact they have the pleasure of our company in the outdoors, rather than being stuck inside while we soak up the summer rays.

New surroundings. They can experience new types of stimulation in an environment different from their normal surroundings. (Be aware too much stimulation can also be more stressful).

TAKING OUR BIRDS OUTSIDE: CONS

Danger from neighborhood cats. You can usually deter cats, but don’t let your guard down for a minute, even if your bird is caged. A slight scratch by a cat’s claws can result in a fatal infection in birds, because of the bacteria present in cats’ claws.

Danger from birds of prey like hawks, eagles, etc. Don’t be too sure your presence in the yard will deter flying raptors. A few years ago, an owl crashed right through a southern Alberta woman’s living room window in an attempt to get at her exotic birds. Some of them were killed. Also, if something startles your bird into jumping down from your arm, shoulder, or a perch, or up into a tree, a predator may strike before you can react.

This is not a concern restricted only to those who live in the country. While living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada (a city of nearly one million people), we often saw hawks fly over our house and once even had a young bald eagle land in our front yard’s large spruce tree.

Escape through flight. More birds seem to be lost this way than through any other type of accident. Something may startle your bird, causing instinctual flight. Don’t count too much on any bond you have with your bird. I know someone who was very bonded with his macaw, but one day while outside in his backyard, the bird flew away and never returned.

Even if you keep your bird’s wings trimmed, they should never be trimmed so severely that the bird is totally incapable of a controlled descent. That means feathers may grow back between trims just enough for the bird to fly away - and just far enough that you may lose him forever. Don’t forget, a captive-raised bird not used to flying outside may not develop the navigational skills of a wild bird, and can quickly become disoriented and lose its way, even if it does want to return.

Sudden flight and accident. If something startles your bird, it could fly away - right into a car driving down the road, or into a neighbor’s swimming pool.

Eating poisonous plants. There are numerous species of common backyard plants you may think of as harmless; however, many of them contain substances that are poisonous to your parrot. You might be very surprised at what is poisonous; the list includes daffodils (the bulbs); English yew (the needles and seeds); and laurel (all parts) to name just a few. For a complete list, visit the website www.parrot-rescue.co.uk/article.asp and click on the link, “Dangerous Plants” found on the left hand side of the page)

Complicating this factor is the presence of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers you may have used on your lawn or garden. If your bird is wandering around right after you’ve fertilized your lawn, all he has to do is swallow one pellet, and he could become the guest of honor at a birdie funeral.

Overexposure to sun. While it’s great to let Polly catch some rays, too much direct sun can affect your bird adversely, causing her to overheat if you’re not careful.

Insect predators: West Nile Virus adds a new danger to the mix. With the increasing incidence of this mosquito-borne virus fatal to birds, taking your bird outside even in a cage or harness can present a potential risk.

Wild birds. As well as carrying WNV, native species can carry other diseases which may present no real problem to their immune systems, but which could be very dangerous for parrots.

IF YOU DO TAKE YOUR BIRDS OUTSIDE …

So now that we can recognize and identify many of the outdoor hazards to our birds, here are suggestions as to how we can deal with them.

Safety from predators. Stay alert and never leave your bird unattended in the yard, whether he is in a cage or loose, with trimmed wings or in a harness.

Safety from his own instincts. This article will not delve into the topic of fully flighted birds, as that involves a whole different set of skills (for you and your bird) and issues to consider.

While outside, it is wise to supervise your bird very carefully, keep him on the ground (unless it’s been fertilized recently!), not in a tree, where flight becomes a much greater possibility.

To be on the safe side, seriously consider taking your bird outside only in a cage or in a harness. In a cage, the bird cannot fly away, and is usually safe from any predator, unless you leave the yard or fail to be alert to what’s happening in the air or on the ground near your bird.

Harnesses can be a very good way for your bird to experience the outdoors, although while many birds accept harnesses, many will not. There does not seem to be any general rule by species - some greys may accept them, others may not; some cockatoos are fine with them, while others hate them, and so on.

Safety from plants. If you let your bird wander around your yard, make sure any plant he may investigate is not poisonous. Keep him away from any plants that are poisonous or that have been sprayed, and off a recently fertilized lawn.

Safety from heat stroke. Pay attention to your bird’s body language; if she starts to pant or hold her wings out from her sides stiffly, get her inside, mist her with water and provide her with water to drink, quickly.

Safety from mosquitoes. You may want to fashion some sort of mosquito mesh cover to place over your bird’s cage when outside, to reduce the chances of a mosquito bite.

Also, try to take him out during mid-day and avoid taking your bird outside in the early morning or evening when mosquitoes tend to be more prevalent.

Another way to reduce the risk to your bird is to use a “dining tent” popular with campers. The all-mesh sides allow you and your feathered companion to sit outside virtually insect-free.

It is important to remove any sources of stagnant water from your yard to reduce potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Change the water in any outdoor birdbaths every day or two, remove old tires, flowerpots, etc. that may contain rainwater. They are potential mosquito-incubators.

There is some debate as to how much of a real risk WNV, or the latest scare, Asian bird flu, represent. If you do take your bird outside, be aware that there is always some risk involved, always some chance you could expose your bird to a disease for which it may have no defence.

Safety from wild bird diseases. Aside from the consideration that your bird may suddenly fly from a tree, trees can also diseases from wild birds. It is also wise to keep your own bird away from birdbaths, or any other areas used by wild birds.

FINALLY …

When making a choice as to whether to take your birds outside, remember what Antoine de Saint Exupery said: " ... if you tame me ...You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed ..."

By taking these tame birds into our lives, we are assuming responsibility for creatures incapable of surviving on their own in our world. Once they’ve escaped, they will not survive northern hemisphere winters, in most areas they will not find food sources, and their chances of avoiding predators are slim to none. We have to weigh our desires against their health and welfare. We are responsible for the safety, the health and happiness, the very lives of these wonderful, loving, trusting creatures – not something to be taken lightly.

John Geary is a PIJAC Certified Avian Specialist and Vancouver-based professional freelance writer/photographer with publication credits in more than 40 magazines in Canada and the United States. A former editor of the Calgary Psittascene, and a member of the African Parrot Society, he shares his life with Congo African greys Nikki and Coco.