Veterinary Blog

”MOVE IT OR LOSE IT!” From a Parrot’s Point of View


Dear readers, permit me to introduce myself. My name is Pedro, and for those readers that haven’t heard of me yet, I am a youthful Amazon parrot in the prime of my life. For this same group of folks, I would like to add (with tacit modesty of course) that historically, we parrots as a species are gifted with an intelligence and beauty that has appealed universally to people throughout the ages. Even further, we are considered to be one of the most adaptable and flexible species on the planet. But forgive me… I digress…

Personally, I feel very fortunate to be enjoying a fantastic life with a couple of humans that adore me and work hard to keep me healthy and happy. Of course, like all dependents they periodically need to be guided and rewarded for positive behaviors and when necessary have some privileges removed if they become misguided or misbehave. Now, having my humans care for me so very well as well as live a very healthy lifestyle themselves makes me proud of them having these priorities! In sharp contrast to our family’s lifestyle, I find it quite distressing know that there is a large segment of the human population that chooses to complacently set themselves up to the health risks of a sedentary life rather than put out a little energy to keep themselves in better shape. As a common example, I will refer to those folks that prefer a couch potato existence lounging in front of their noisy flickering machines and munching on crispy crackers after their working day. In my opinion, they would be much better off health-wise with fewer crackers and way more brisk walks around the block, perhaps with a leashed parrot on their shoulder or a least some bird seed in their pockets to feed wild birds in the park. But, dear readers, in all probability, I am most likely screeching to the converted so will drop this subject for now.

Now, bear with me just a moment to allow me to make a personal confession before I veer back to my main topic for today. I do have a certain pastime that I pursue with shameless passion. My obsession is surfing the net. I exercise this delightful hobby using my owner’s iPAD, which I am permitted to use when they are at work. (They also have a smaller iPhone, which I have little interest in since I much prefer the larger tablet touch screen, which provides me with much more foot and beak room).

Now that you all know me a little better, I will plunge into the depths of this article without further delay. My focus today is based on a “MOVE IT OR LOSE IT” theme. Or to be more explicit, we birds of ALL varieties and species need regular exercise, to stay healthy in body, spirit and mind. Of course, a well balanced varied diet; fresh air, clean water, sunshine, adequate shelter and yearly check-ups by our doctors are also essential to help us maintain our optimum health but I am choosing to focus today on the significant benefits of exercise for birds. Also, later in this article, I will offer some simple suggestions to guide any of you readers that are bird owners on how to provide exercise for your lovable feathered companions in ways that are fun and rewarding.

Now, as almost everyone knows, all living creatures can benefit from regular exercise routines and that small changes can achieve significant gains. Regular exercise strengthens the heart, circulatory system, bones and muscles. It helps with weight management and strengthens the immune system. Additionally, exercise improves digestion, helps to restore natural body rhythms, and can prevent the development of many diseases and disorders such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, depression and anxiety. In contrast, lack of exercise in any living creature, be it a parrot, person, dog, cat lizard or fish, contributes overall to muscle loss, poor conditioning and deterioration of overall health. Take for example any bird type. One should never forget that in the wild, we birds fly free and are very busy and active spending about fifty percent of our day finding food. Those of us who are less fortunate nowadays ,who are spending most of our days existing in a form of solitary confinement in a cage are functioning at only a small fraction of our potential capacity. So it is very easy to see why a sedentary life can so easily lead to degenerative conditions, including obesity, hardening of the arteries and heart disease in inactive birds as with inactive people. Now, you may be surprised to learn that well-researched studies indicate an alarming incidence of atherosclerosis, a serious disease of major blood vessels in companion birds, especially parrots. Atherosclerosis is very similar to the human condition in which artery walls thicken as the result of a build-up of fatty materials within the artery walls. Eventually, it can cause a total blockage of blood flow within the blood vessel. There is a strong association of this disorder to high-fat seed diets and inactivity. There is no question that captivity – and too much fatty food always available in a dish right under our beaks – leads many of us birds to an early demise from this disorder.

By now, dear readers I am sure you are anxious to start learning about how to start an exercise program for your beloved feathered friend. However, before you start your bird circuit training or sign him up for any marathons (just kidding of course), you must first ensure that your bird is fit enough to get started on any kind of exercise program. So, a visit to your bird’s veterinarian is necessary for a general health and fitness exam. The doctor will be paying particular attention to your feathered friend’s heart and respiratory system, body weight and stress tolerance. He or she may also wish to perform a few basic blood and fecal tests to assist in his assessment of your bird’s general health. Also, your vet may trim your bird’s nails and feathers if needed.

Of course, as with any exercise program, it is best to start slow and build up from there. Remember that even slow starts can reap significant health benefits to your bird. However, a trip on your shoulder from cage to kitchen and back to the cage does not qualify as significant exercise for either of you!

Within their cages these little guys need enough room that they aren’t bumping into their perches or toppling over their cage accessories as they spend their day. A cage size accommodating at least three times their wing spans in height as well as width, is a minimum guideline to give them enough flight room to be able to safely flap their wings, execute short flights and to flutter from perch to perch as finches and canaries are wont to do. Small amounts of food positioned at opposite ends of the cage can encourage more activity. Also, consider placing the cage close to a window, (avoiding drafty windows of course and not in prolonged direct sunlight), because this encourages these small bird folks to engage vicariously in what is happening outdoors.

Sturdy resting perches are as important to us birds as are park benches to fitness buffs that run on trails. Perches also provide us with an opportunity to exercise our feet and to keep our beaks trimmed and tidy. Perches need to fit our feet, be supplied in varied diameters and textures, and be well secured. There are no shortages of sources of perch materials that are safe but please avoid sandpaper perches for all of us birds large and small…these are hard on our soles and certainly are not effective as nail files, as some people are lead to believe. We don’t care much for metal perches either since they can be quite cold and slippery. Rope perches are okay but should be laundered regularly. Natural perches made from untreated wood like apple wood or aspen are also fine, since they not only provide exercise for our toe muscles; they also keep us gnawing on the bark and the wood. For some shy birds, greenery in front of the perch for them to hide behind can make perches more attractive to them so that they will use them more often. Also, moving perches around now and then can be a beneficial method to keep our lives interesting and fun.

Many birds also enjoy swings, but they do need to be secured well. Horizontal bars on the sides of birdcages are very important for birds that like to climb, such as parakeets, cockatiels and lots of playful parrots. However, be sure that the bar spacing is small enough that the climber can’t get its head jammed through them. Of course any sharp wires, loose toy threads, jagged metal edges or exposed splintery wood edges, need to be eliminated to avoid us acquiring cuts, abrasions or tangled toes.

It is easier to encourage small pet birds like budgies, canaries, cockatiels, and lovebirds to fly and exercise in a cage than it is to encourage a larger bird to do so. However, all kinds of birds can be allowed to experience the joy and benefits of exercise associated with flight time outside of their cages, but it should always be under an owner’s supervision. It is obviously safer for us to be kept in our cage or aviary when not being supervised since we can make ourselves very difficult to catch if we have the opportunity to find a secret hiding place. Also, it goes almost without saying that a bird in the cage is worth two hiding in the heat vent!

Very important precautions that owners need to take prior to allowing for our indoors flight are to close all windows and doors that open to the outdoors since if the opportunity presents itself, most birds will fly away, answering to the call of the wild. (Present company excepted of course!). Also, one should be sure to pull curtains across windows and cover up large mirrors since more than one bird has tried to fly through glass, with a broken neck being a most unfortunate result. Further precautions include: screening off of a fireplace, avoiding having any water-filled vessels lying around, or the toilet lid up, making sure the ceiling fan isn’t on that the stove isn’t hot and that hot beverages aren’t accessible to your bird friend. Another very important safety measure to take prior to allowing us our out-of –cage experiences is to keep any pets confined especially those sneaky, pesky cats that keep one eye closed and one eye open just waiting for the ideal opportunity to munch and lunch!

Oh, and another thing…we birds prefer that you keep our cage door open since we generally like to return to our sanctuaries after a while to rest on our perches and catch our second wind or just to regroup. I would suggest you sit still when you let any of us out of our cage, especially at the beginning until we can orient to the room; even more so for our first few times out. Also, expect those of us that aren’t used to flying to get tired fairly soon and make more frequent landings.

It’s more difficult to get larger species that have become sedentary to fly for exercise unless you have a large outdoor aviary, which few people do. For those owners that enjoy honing their carpentry skills, information can be readily acquired online regarding aviary construction. Your bird will love you for this but do be sure to allow for protective measures such as shady places of retreat from direct prolonged exposure to sunlight and also avoid any potential contact with wild birds that possibly could transfer parasites or disease to your birds. Another rather fun way to encourage exercise in larger birds is to purchase a Harness and Leash (feather tether), which can be a great way for both you and your bird to enjoy the great outdoors!

It is very important to know that all birds are SUPER-SENSITIVE to toxic chemicals so all cleaning chemicals, nail polish chemicals, and basically any chemical or product that can be carried in the air that has a strong, lingering odor can readily kill us. Therefore, keep us out of kitchens, bathrooms, and recently cleaned areas. It is also very important to not allow us to chew on curtain rods that contain lead or on your costume jewelry, which also can contain lead or other toxic metals.

Earlier in this article you will recall that I mentioned that your bird’s veterinarian might clip the wing feathers of your bird, especially if allowed to be outside of his or her cage at times. Some owners do not clip their birds’ wings so they can fly normally about. However, as described previously, flighted birds are subject to increased risks such as escape, flying into windows, landing on hot stoves flying into ceiling fans, or possibly, on occasion into your hot soup! Therefore, for your bird’s safety and for your peace of mind it is usually best to have your bird’s wing feathers clipped. Be sure to entrust your bird’s doctor or a trained bird professional to perform this task because they know best how to trim our wing feathers so that we can land nicely instead of falling with a thud on our keel bones. Properly done, the procedure doesn’t hurt a bit other than ruffling of our contours and composure and the trade-off is that it may just save one or more of our lives.

As most astute bird-owners know, we are in general an inquisitive, social, playful lot. We can quickly learn neat games of an interactive nature with our owners and also can enjoy new and challenging toys for our own self-amusement when left to our own devices. Further, play, especially involving interactions with our owners can also help with riddance of many bad habits some of us may have such as feather plucking (similar to compulsive hair pulling in you humans), destructive behavior, and un-welcome screaming all of which are generally due to boredom or frustration.

Some examples of fun toys that can be made at home include:

  1. Smooth natural wood blocks equipped with wells to secure treats like nuts and fruit
  2. Natural leather strips to chew on
  3. Treats tied to swings
  4. Paper towel rolls or twisted paper cups with treats hidden inside
  5. For more creative owners, playpens can be set up as universal gyms.

It is important to be always keep in mind that plastic toys and plastic bottles are only safe for small birds since us larger folk are more driven to search and destroy these toys and sometimes be injured by the chewed pieces.

To conclude, in a nutshell, regular exercise allows us birds to live longer and have more powerful lungs so that we can entertain everyone with our songs and quaint dialogue over many of these healthier, happier years!

Postscript: It has been a toss up for me whether to set up a twitter or a Facebook page. I kind of like the idea of exchanging “tweets”, however, for now Facebook is working for me. I will be sure to let you know of any changes.

Just one more thing…I have been checking daily on eBay for a parrot-sized treadmill but no luck so far. If any readers have any leads I can be e-mailed privately at PEDRO @ or at to the attention of Pedro.

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