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Articles concerning owning pet birds as pets as a whole.

Grit, Calcium, Salt and Water – Wild Bird Feeding “Extras” – Part 1

While any food provided to wild birds is beneficial, there are a few items that are very important to their health, especially in the winter, but which are often over-looked by well-meaning avian enthusiasts.


Pigeons, Doves and many other birds must swallow small stones, sand and similar materials (“grit”) in order to break down seed coats and other foods before digestion can take place.  Grit is often in short supply during the winter, being either covered with snow or frozen to the ground (in NYC, I’ve observed English sparrows on buildings, pecking at gravel within brick mortar).

You can help winter birds along by providing pet bird gravel, sand and oyster shell (available at garden supply shops) in snow-free locations.  It is best to keep grit separated from food, as it will be used slowly and may become contaminated with feces if it lies out too long.


Calcium is especially important as winter turns to spring, since female birds utilize this mineral to produce egg shells.  However, insects, the main source of calcium for many species, are often scarce at this time of the year.  Our Wild Bird Mealworms will be most appreciated by nearly every bird that visits your feeder.  You can also supply calcium by mixing oyster shell and ground-up eggshells into your wild bird food.

Food and Shelter

Of course, food and shelter are important concerns year-round.  Please be sure to check out our extensive line of bird and wildlife foods, houses and feeders.

Next time we’ll cover a few additional winter-feeding essentials.


Further Reading

Winter is a great time to try your luck at hand-feeding wild birds.  Please see Hand Taming Wild Birds for more details.

Woodpeckers, chickadees and other acrobatic birds will put on quite a show if given the chance – please check out Feeding Woodpeckers and Other Avian Athletes for details.


The Magnificent Cockatoos – Pros and Cons for Potential New Owners – Part 2

Cockatoo in SydneyStriking in appearance, playful and affectionate when socialized, hardy and possessed of complex, interesting personalities, Cockatoos have much to recommend them as pets (please see Part I of this article for more information).  Today, however, I feel it is important that we also consider some of the difficulties that may face the Cockatoo owner (or person owned by a Cockatoo!).

Need for Contact

A high degree of sociability renders Cockatoos as wonderful companions but in need of a great deal of human contact.  Even more so than many other parrots, Cockatoos left alone for long periods nearly always begin to scream or to pluck their feathers.

A typical working schedule does not allow for enough interaction time…two birds should always be kept in such situations (on the positive side, Cockatoos often get along well with other parrots, including lovebirds and other small species).

Housing Considerations

Cockatoos are extremely active and need a very large cage  or outdoor aviary.

The degeneration of powder-down feathers forms a fine, powdery “dust” that Cockatoos use in grooming and waterproofing their flight feathers.  This material spreads like windblown ash, and invariably winds up on furniture, clothes and floors.  Air filters and spraying the bird with water daily (Cockatoos like this!) will help, but powder down will remain a fact of life for the Cockatoo owner.

Potentially Troublesome Characteristics

Palm CockatooEven by parrot standards, most Cockatoos have very loud voices.

Cockatoos are inveterate wood chewers, and can demolish furniture and perches that would stand up to the largest macaw (or, it seems, axe!).  Interestingly (or annoyingly!) they are quite systematic in their “projects”…once a potential target has caught its eye, your Cockatoo, no matter how well trained, will usually find a way to get at it.


While most species can learn to repeat a few words, Cockatoos are not the most gifted mimics (they do excel in learning tricks, however).

Further Reading

You can read about a unique “digging” cockatoo, the Long Billed Corella.

An interesting article on powder down and its relation to health and illness in cockatoos is posted here.

For some idea of the impressive carrying power of a cockatoo’s voice, check out this video.



Cockatoo in Sydney image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Snowmanradio
Palm Cockatoo image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Doug Jansen

Light and Color Vision in Birds – Improving our Pets Quality of Life

Recent research on avian vision at Sweden’s Lund University has revealed that birds lose their ability to see color at twilight.  These findings have inspired me to consider how we might use lighting in order to improve the health and breeding potential of captive parrots, finches, doves and other birds.

The Findings

The article, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, points out that birds need 5-20 times the amount of light as do humans in order to see color.  By day, birds have extremely sharp color vision, and see both UVB light and a far greater range of colors than do people.  However, their color vision disappears at twilight – far earlier in the day than does that of any other animal studied thus far.

Light’s Effect on Captive Birds

I believe it is important that we consider the type of light we provide to our birds…the zoos in which I have worked are now experimenting with full spectrum lighting in their bird exhibits.

Poor light quality and intensity may explain the difficulties experienced in breeding otherwise hardy bird species in captivity.  Light can have some unexpected implications for reproduction.  Captive female desert iguanas (lizards native to Southwestern North America), for example, rarely reproduce unless given full-spectrum lighting…without UVB light, they cannot see the pheromone trails laid down by males.

Similar scenarios are likely at work where birds are concerned.  Indeed, there are indications that proper levels of UVA and UVB light encourage natural behaviors, reproduction and strong immune systems in captive birds.

Providing Birds with Appropriate Light

Fortunately, a number of options are open to bird owners.  Exposure to natural sunlight (bearing in mind that glass and plastic filter out UVB rays) is the best of these, but when this is not possible a high quality Full Spectrum Bird Lamp should be utilized.

Further Reading

The new findings on light intensity should be valuable in explaining certain aspects of bird evolution and behavior.  For example, the chicks of Gouldian, firetail and zebra finches, all of which nest in dark tree hollows, sport light-reflecting nodules near their mouths.  To read more about this survival strategy, please see my article Flashy Finch Chicks.


A Most Unusual Psittacine – the Pesquet’s or Vulturine Parrot

You’re not likely to run into a Pesquet’s Parrot ( Psittrichas fulgidas) at your local pet store, as they are quite rarely kept even in zoos.  Also known as the Vulturine or Vulture-headed Parrot, this bird is so unique that I just had to introduce it here.

Shockingly Odd!

Pesquet's ParrotHaving worked for a bird wholesaler during the heyday of parrot imports, I was well-acquainted with many unusual species by the time I first laid eyes on a Pesquet’s.  I had even seen some of the relatively few photos of it that existed at the time.  However, I was awestruck upon coming face to face with a group on my first day as bird keeper at the Bronx Zoo…photos did not do justice to this parrot oddity.

The head and throat are largely bare of feathers, and the beak thin and hooked – making the head look quite small for the 18-inch body.  This imparts, as its alternative names suggest, the appearance of a somewhat offbeat vulture.  But no vulture is clad in the jet black and brilliant red feathers of the Pesquet’s parrot.  I also noticed that, rather than climbing about in typical parrot fashion, these characters hopped, flitting their wings as they went.  I was left “aviculturaly disoriented”!

Diet-Driven Evolution

Diet seems to have guided the loss of head feathers in the true vultures and the Vulturine Parrots.  Both feed on foods that could easily gum up and otherwise foul feathers – carrion in the case of vultures and figs in the case of their parrot namesakes.

Flower blossoms and nectar comprise the remainder of the diet of these highly specialized fig-eaters.

Range and Status

Pesquet’s Parrots are limited in range to mountainous rainforests in an area spanning the length of central New Guinea.  Unlike most other resident parrots, they do not occur on any of the offshore islands.

Their feathers are sought after by certain indigenous peoples, and illegally collected chicks command astronomical prices.  This, along with logging in some areas, has led to their inclusion on Cites Appendix II and a designation of “Vulnerable” by the IUCN.

Please try to visit a zoo that exhibits this amazing bird – you’ll certainly leave with a better appreciation of the great diversity that exists among the world’s parrots.

Further Reading

You can read about the captive breeding of Pesquet’s Parrots here.


Pesquet’s Parrot image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Lohachata

The Magnificent Cockatoos – Pros and Cons for Potential New Owners – Part 1

Cockatoos are among the most highly-desired of all parrots – even attracting folks who never considered bird ownership before laying eyes on one.  But these entertaining and intelligent beauties come with good and not-so-good surprises, even for those who have kept other large parrots.  Today I’d like to present their finer points, next week the “less fine”.


Whether white, black or infused with color, Cockatoos are incredibly striking in appearance and possessed of strong, interesting personalities.

Cockatoos take well to people, and are far easier to “get to know” than are many other parrots.  Socialized individuals are very playful, and love being handled – many folks consider them more like cats or dogs than birds in this regard.  Inquisitive and athletic, Cockatoos sometimes learn an astounding array of tricks.

Even the largest species are rather docile and far less likely to bite than are most other parrots (nesting birds are an exception).

In contrast to many captive birds, well-maintained breeding pairs of Cockatoos almost always raise their young successfully.

Cockatoos are hardy in general, and even those species native to warm regions will, if acclimated properly, fare well at quite low temperatures.  With a properly constructed shelter and protection from drafts, year-round outdoor housing is often possible, even in temperate climates.

Further Reading

A most amusing “dancing Cockatoo” video is posted here.

I was very fortunate in having worked with the rare and beautiful Palm Cockatoo.  Please see Hand Rearing Palm Cockatoos for more information.

The Brookfield Zoo’s beloved 76 year old Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo is a wonderful ambassador for parrot conservation.  Read more here.



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