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Articles concerning owning pet birds as pets as a whole.

An Overview of Less Commonly-Kept Cage and Aviary Birds – Part 1

One could spend a lifetime caring for a small number, or even a single species, of the most frequently encountered pet-trade birds, and never lack for new and interesting experiences. However, sometimes we long for something different – after all, keeping birds in captivity has long fascinated human-kind and many, from hummingbirds to ostriches, do amazingly well given the proper care.

I became aware of the possibilities open to serious aviculturists early on, while working for bird importers and later as a bird keeper at the Bronx Zoo. Many of the most interesting species that I encountered are now bred in captivity and available in the pet trade. Asia and Europe have always been hotbeds of species availability, but North American breeders have much to offer as well (many of our native species are popular pets overseas, but generally illegal to keep here in the USA).

Today I would like to introduce you to some birds that you may wish to consider when expanding your collection. All are well-established in the pet trade, and have been captive-bred for many generations. Please bear in mind that the care of most differs greatly from that required by more familiar pet-trade species. Future articles will cover other such birds, and captive care in more detail.

Be sure to research carefully before attempting to keep a new bird, and please write in with your questions and with your “wish list” – I and the Bird Room staff will do our best to help you to acquire the species in which you are interested.

Golden-fronted Leafbird, Chloropsis aurifrons
This gorgeous nectar-feeding specialist is one of my all-time favorites. Active and alert, it needs a bit of room to thrive, and cannot tolerate temperatures below 65 F or so. Golden-fronted leaf-bird

The back is colored dark green, fading to grass-green on the yellow-bordered breast, while the throat and wing-curve is blue. The face and crown are highlighted in black and gold, tinged with purple iridescence. Although slenderly built and but 8 inches in length, leafbirds can be quite aggressive towards other species – making up in agility and attitude what they lack in size. Golden-fronted leafbirds range from India and Myanmar south through Sumatra.

Leafbirds require a quality softbill diet, such as moistened Pretty Bird Softbill Select, as well as crickets and mealworms. Nectar and a fruit-based mix (Goldenfeast Nectar Gold and Tropical Fruit Pudding Blend), as well as diced banana, apple, papaya, orange and other fresh fruits, should be offered on a daily basis. They quite literally pick up and inspect nearly every bit of food offered, scattering a good deal in the process, and so need to be fed more heavily than similarly-sized birds (this hold true also for birds that consume a good deal of nectar). They drink copiously and bathe frequently. Image referenced from Wikipedia.

Pekin Robin, Leiothrix lutea
Pekin RobinThe somber gray-green back of this charming little bird is brilliantly offset by the orange breast. Shy and a mere 6 inches in length, pekin robins do best when kept in pairs or small groups, in a quiet cage or planted aviary.

These birds are favored pets in their native Southeast Asia, and are well-established in the USA as well. Those I cared for formed small flocks during much of the year and were not aggressive towards each other when paired (they were, however, in a large exhibit – breeding-season aggression may occur in smaller quarters).

Pekin robins will accept the foods listed as above for leafbirds, but do not require nectar. They should also be given a daily ration of small seeds, such as may be found in a high quality finch mix . Image referenced from Wikipedia.

Red-crested Cardinal, Paroaria coronata
With its dark gray back, bright scarlet head and crest Red-crested cardinals at feeder in Venezuelaand white breast, this small South American import makes a striking addition to any collection. In common with all cardinal-like birds, they need a large cage or aviary and are best housed in pairs. Most tend to be shy, but once settled in take readily to captivity and may even breed if given enough space and a stress-free environment.

A feeder I established at a field station in Venezuela drew several of these birds daily – they seemed curious about me, and would leave their food to inspect me from a safe distance. Captives retain this trait and never fail to notice all that goes on about them.

This and the closely related red-crowned, or Dominican cardinal, P. dominicana ( a popular pet in its native Brazil) will thrive on finch seed prod and fresh fruit, and should be offered 2-3 small insects daily as well.

Check back next week for the rest of this article.

The Chinese Painted Quail (Button Quail, Blue-breasted Quail), Conturnix chinensis, and the Japanese Quail, C. japonica – Part II

Click The Chinese Painted Quail (Button Quail, Blue-breasted Quail), Conturnix chinensis, and the Japanese Quail, C. japonica, Part 1, to read the first part of this article.

Although ideally suited to a grass-bottomed outdoor aviary, button quail also do quite well in large bird or small animal cages, such as the Pets International Premium Hutch or My First Home. Button quail are ground dwelling birds, so floor space is the most important consideration in cage selection.

Button Quail

When startled, these tiny birds explode straight up with great force, and can injure themselves in low-roofed cages. You may wish to trim their flight feathers if injuries are a possibility in the cage you provide. Despite their friendly demeanor, button quail are easily frightened by unexpected noises, and so should be housed in calm surroundings.

Newly hatched button quail are, quite literally, the size of bumblebees – check that they cannot squeeze through the cage’s mesh.

Button quail should be given as much room as possible – they are always in motion and youngsters in particular seem to explore endlessly. A raised, flat shelf in the cage will be used by the birds as an observation point – you may be surprised at how interested they seem to be in what goes on about them.

Like other quail and pheasants, button quail relish dust baths and do not bathe in water. A sand-filled bowl should be provided for this purpose.

Drinking bowls must be shallow and, for the tiny chicks, should be filled with pebbles or marbles to prevent drowning.

Light and Heat
Button quail do well at normal room temperatures. Their cage should be lit by a full spectrum bulb designed for use with birds.

A high quality finch seed mix, such as Vitabird Finch Seed, should form the basis of the diet. Button quail also relish greens, and should be given small amounts of kale, romaine and similar foods, as well as sprouting grass like the Vitakraft Sprout Pot. Tiny mealworms, crickets, waxworms and other insects are a valuable addition to the diet, especially when they are breeding. Button quail do not open the seeds upon which they feed, and so a constant supply of suitably-small grit is essential. Millet sprays  hung at head level will keep the birds busy and all who watch them amused.

Social Groups and Compatible Species
Button quail should be kept in pairs or small groups (“coveys”) of 1 cock and several hens. Males have the endearing habit of offering small insects to females, who are alerted to the treat by his high-pitched “peeps”. Males usually fight with each other and should not be housed together (this includes chicks of over 2 months in age).

They also get along admirably with nearly all finches, canaries and other softbills, and with those parrots that will not harass them. A pair will add greatly to your enjoyment of a well-planted aviary stocked with finches and similar birds.

Button quails breed well in captivity – year round if in good condition and provided with a daylight period of 10 hours or so. Females are, however, quick to abandon their eggs (the eggs can be easily hatched in a commercial incubator). Cocks often harass sitting hens – those that do not will settle near the nest, apparently to assist in detecting threats.

The simple nest is constructed on the ground, often in the lee of a grass clump or log if such is available. Females lay 6-10 eggs, which they incubate for 16 days without help from the male. The young can follow their mother shortly after hatching, and are sexually mature within 2 months. The sight of a hen leading her thimble-sized brood about really must be seen to be fully appreciated. The chicks are very curious and tend to get into all sorts of trouble by wedging themselves into tight places, so be sure to check their cage carefully.

Chicks hatched in an incubator can fend for themselves right away, and make delightful pets. They will likely imprint upon you (see you as their “mother”) and will follow you about incessantly. Such birds sometimes fail to breed as they mature, but more than compensate for this by the close bonds that they form with people.

I hope that you will give these entertaining fellows a try – although a bit of a change from what most bird fanciers are accustomed to, button quail are well worth considering.

Information about button quail in the wild can be found at:

Grit and Gizzards – how birds digest seeds


Seed-eating birds utilize a unique process in order to digest their hard-shelled diets. Digestive enzymes cannot penetrate the seed shells (for doves and other species that swallow the shells) nor, in some cases, the inner seed covering (species that crack seeds before eating). To get around this, birds have evolved a muscular organ known as the gizzard, or ventriculus, to help grind their food into smaller pieces.

Seed-eating and certain other birds increase the gizzard’s effectiveness by swallowing stones and gravel, which are stored and act as grinding surfaces. These stones are periodically regurgitated or passed in the feces, possibly to prevent their becoming smooth and, consequently, less effective. Be sure to always have grit available to your seed-eating birds, prod or they will not be able to derive adequate nutrition from even a well-planned diet. Bits of cuttlebone also help to grind seeds, but only temporarily.

Pigeons swallow huge amounts of gravel, as they consume their seeds shell and all. While working with reptiles years ago at the Bronx Zoo, it was standard practice to trap pigeons for use as crocodile food (sorry, pigeon fanciers – I like pigeons too, but it was impossible to keep them out of certain exhibits, and they were implicated in the spread of diseases to the collection and staff). However, tests showed that the pigeons’ lead levels were incredibly high, due in part to ingesting the heavily-polluted Bronx gravel, and we ceased the practice (the pigeons were and remain fat and healthy none-the-less).

In the Bronx community where I grew up, “city” pigeons featured in the diets of people from several European countries. Elderly but quick-handed women tossed wet towels over pigeons as they came to feed on fire escapes (on bread put out by the same women, of course!) and knocked the squabs from nests with long bamboo canes. I never protested, despite my interest in all things avian, as their quick reflexes were just as likely to be used against annoying children as tasty pigeons! Well, that neighborhood is still home to some quite elderly people, so perhaps the lead-laced pigeons have not had their revenge!

A number of fishes and crocodilians have gizzards and utilize stones – more on that in the future.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Ailments Afflicting Parrots, Canaries, Finches, Mynas and other Cage and Aviary Birds – Part 2

Click here to read the first part of this article.

Foot Ailments

Bumblefoot (swollen toe joints)

Bacterial infections (often Staphylococcus) take hold in small wounds on the feet (received from splinters, glass, frostbite, etc.) especially if droppings have been allowed to accumulate.

Prompt antibiotic treatment is necessary if surgery is to be avoided; if left untreated, gangrene will set in, resulting in loss of the foot.

Calluses (thick, hard pads on bottom of feet)

Can result from perching on perches that are too hard, or that do not vary in width.

Be sure main (roosting) perch is of a width that allows toes to extend ¾ of the way around. Other perches should be of varying widths and materials; including A & E Rope and Cable Perches and similar perches allow the bird to choose a soft surface on occasion. Concrete perches should not be used as main perch but rather only as accessory perches, i.e. near the food bowl (and not at all if calluses are present).

Feather Ailments

French Moult (damaged feathers, loss of flight and tail feathers, bleeding)

Caused by a viral infection (Polyomavirus), French moult usually afflicts young parrots. It is rarely fatal but bird may be unable to fly thereafter.

There is no known treatment; recovered birds may still harbor the virus and thus should not be bred.

Feather Cysts (small lumps on the feathers)

Most common in canaries, this condition is genetic and the result of inbreeding.

Incurable; care should be taken to avoid breeding related birds or related lined of birds to each other.

Respiratory Ailments

Tracheal Mites and Gape Worm (wheezing, difficulty breathing, gaping, coughing, voice change/loss)

The parasites responsible for these conditions may be spread by other birds (in the case of mites) or through foods, such as earthworms, that may harbor gape worms.

Ivermectin and other anti-parasite medications are effective treatments. Infected birds should be isolated from others.

Psittacosis (fluid dripping from nostrils, breathing difficulty, exhaustion, inflamed eyes, sometimes accompanied by diarrhea)

This bacterial (Clamydia) disease is readily transmittable to people and can be fatal.

Contact your family doctor and veterinarian immediately.

Digestive Ailments

Salmonella Infection (huddled posture, diarrhea, stained vent feathers, lethargy)

This bacterium can be spread by roaches, rodents, wild birds, infected pet birds and seed contaminated with rodent droppings, and is most common among birds kept in unclean and crowded situations.

Salmonella is readily transmitted to people, and may be fatal to very young, elderly or immune-compromised individuals. Veterinarian-administered antibiotic treatments are often effective.

Candidiasis (mouth open and tongue extended; white fungus may appear along inner surfaces of the bill)

This fungal disease usually occurs in the presence of Vitamin A deficiencies, and is most commonly seen in nectar feeding birds (lories, hummingbirds, sunbirds).

Antibiotics and Vitamin A supplements are usually effective.

Reproductive System Ailments

Egg Binding (swelling about vent, straining, labored breathing, sitting on floor, puffed feathers)

The inability of a female bird to pass an egg is usually the result of a calcium deficiency.

Although lubricants applied to the cloaca (vent) sometimes help, veterinary intervention is usually required. A well-balanced diet that includes the correct amounts of calcium and other minerals is particularly important for females of all species.

Cloacal Warts or Papillomas (small, hard growths on and about the cloaca, or vent)
Cloacal warts are most commonly seen in South American parrots, particularly Amazons and macaws. They may constrict the cloaca, causing constipation and preventing the bird from breeding.

Silver nitrate (bathing the affected area) cures the condition, but afflicted birds should not be allowed to breed until they have been wart-free for at least 1 year.

Information concerning commonly encountered ailments (parakeets and related species) is posted at:


Diagnosis and Treatment of Ailments Afflicting Parrots, Canaries, Finches, Mynas and other Cage and Aviary Birds – Part 1

As with all pets, a nutritious diet and proper environmental conditions are the most important factors in maintaining the health of captive birds. When health concerns do arise, you should seek veterinary assistance. The following information will help you to identify, avoid and treat (while awaiting a veterinarian’s advice) commonly encountered bird ailments. It is a good idea to always have on hand a basic first aid kit, such as the VSI Pet Care Kit

Please remember that many bird-borne illnesses are transmittable to people, where they can cause severe or even fatal reactions. Consult your doctor concerning appropriate preventative steps, even if your bird is healthy. Emerging diseases, such as Avian Flu and West Nile Virus, should also be discussed.

A Word about Stress
After working with hundreds of bird species over several decades, I can say with certainty that stress is one of the most important underlying factors affecting the health of captive birds. This applies to a greater or lesser extent to different species and individual birds, but it is of concern to all.

Unfortunately, the problems caused by stress often manifest themselves in ways that seem unrelated to stress, and so we may wind up treating an illness but neglecting its underlying cause. For example, the fungus Aspergillus is common in nearly all environments and causes healthy birds no trouble at all. Years ago, however, bird keepers noticed that birds of many species became ill with Aspergillus infections (Aspergillosus) when moved from one cage to another. Samples taken in zoos showed that this occurred despite the fact that fungus levels were the same in both cages.

The explanation is that the transfer of a bird from its usual home to another is an extremely stressful event, especially for secretive species (i.e. birds of paradise in zoos, or certain finches in the pet trade) or shy individuals. The stress weakens the bird’s immune system, and pathogens that were otherwise destroyed by it now render the bird ill. So common is this phenomenon that many zoos now routinely medicate birds before moving them to new exhibits.

Immune system stress can arise from other factors as well – threatening cage mates, noise, poor diet, inappropriate temperatures, boredom and so on. Be sure to learn as much as you can about your pets, and provide them with the proper captive environment.

Eye Ailments

Red, swollen or closed eyes are indicative of an infection or traumatic injury. Please be aware that such is also seen in birds infected with Psittacosis, a serious disease that is transmittable to people.

Apply an ophthalmic ointment or drop (drops are often washed away by the eye’s secretions). Be sure to keep the cage bars and perches clean, as birds often rub sore eyes on these.

Check back on Wednesday for the conclusion of this article.

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