In the northern hemisphere, we are heading into summer at full speed. The temperatures are already climbing and air conditioning is running round the clock.
Many people think of parrots as “warm weather animals” and surmise that they are most at home in high temperatures and humidity. Given that many parrots come from tropical climates, it is not an unreasonable assumption. However, summer is actually a season bird owners need to prepare for.
What most people don’t realize is that the hot temperatures of summer are far more problematic for our captive parrots than the cold temperature of winter. In the winter, our only real concern is to keep our birds warm. But since most live in the house with us, barring a power outage, that isn’t much of an ongoing problem.
Keeping The Birds Cool
The body reacts very differently between extreme temperatures of hot and cold. In very cold weather, when temperatures are below freezing, the body will direct blood flow to its core to protect its life sustaining organs when necessary, sometimes at the expense of the extremities. This survival mechanism is true of all birds and mammals.
However, in extreme heat, birds are at a disadvantage. They do not have sweat glands like mammals do. When we perspire, the evaporation of the moisture on our skin cools us. Other mammals with few sweat glands will resort to panting which allows for evaporation in the mouth to help regulate their temperature. Birds have dry mouths and while we will see them panting when they are overheated, it is a reaction to heat stress, not a means to combat it. It tells us they are in trouble.
The fact is that captive birds who have not been deliberately acclimated to temperature changes do not last long in high temperatures. Birds that are brought outside infrequently should have very limited time in direct sun (15 minutes or so) and should be watched closely. If you see your bird holding its wings away from its body, has a fluffed appearance or is panting, it needs relief from the heat. Bring it to cooler temperatures and soak it down to the skin with room temperature water. Never use cold water – it can result in organ damage, shock and even death.
Keeping Food And Water Fresh
When our parrots are on a proper diet, they are provided with daily portions of fresh produce every day. In any weather, it is important not to let these foods sit out at room temperature for long enough that they can start to collect bacteria. In the warm weather it is even more important to be attentive to the food bowls because food reaches room temperature more quickly.
Moisture (provided by the food) and warmth (provided by the season) are the main criteria that allows for unrestricted growth of bacteria and mold. It is important to collect dishes quickly following a meal or provide foods with lower potential for bacterial growth while you are away.
Water dishes can also harbor unsafe amounts of bacteria. It is important that your bird always has access to fresh water, but many parrots are food dunkers and their water collects bacteria more quickly in the summer.
Birds are also known to foul their water with their droppings making it undrinkable. Hot weather can lead to dehydration and water should be replaced on an “as needed basis” – this might mean several times a day. You can offer multiple sources of water in the cage and be sure to place dishes out of the poop-zone as much as possible.
The warmer weather also promises the return of the longtime arch-nemesis of the human race: the insect! House flies, ants, fruit flies… they are a fact of life.
They will eventually find their way to where food is, and as we know, where there are parrots, there is food. Everywhere.
Keeping the environment clean will help to eliminate, or at least minimize, the problem. Most often, discarded foods (like the ones UNDER the cage) and unemptied trash cans are the problems in homes where birds reside. Produce thrown in the trash will begin to rot quickly in warm weather and will send out the party invitations to these unwanted pests. We have to actively look for thrown food and we will find it in the most unexpected places.
Mostly, insects are just an annoyance but while ants and fruit flies are not known to carry disease, the same cannot be said of the common house fly and we should do what is within our control to keep them at bay. We bird owners need to work a little harder at cleanliness than those in the average bird-less home.
West Nile Virus
Mosquitoes get their own special call out in this category as they are carriers of the deadly West Nile Virus. Technically, the fault originates with contaminated wild birds upon which mosquitoes feed, but as a bird loving site we can’t, in good conscience, blame anything on a bird. So the mosquitoes will have to take the fall on this one.
West Nile Virus can be contracted by our parrots if bitten by an infected mosquito. Especially vulnerable are macaws whose bare face patches are unprotected by a covering of feathers. When symptoms (drowsiness and imbalance) are evident in a parrot, the disease is usually quite progressed.
At present, we have no defense against the virus. A vaccine is being worked on, but it will be a long time before our birds can be protected with their own vaccine. In the meantime, our only recourse is to limit the amount of mosquitoes in the environment.
The CDC considers West Nile Virus to be a seasonal threat.
I hope that you are thoughtful enough to supply water sources for the wild birds in your area during the brutal heat of the summer, but do remember to change the water often as standing water can eventually become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
With the warm weather comes open windows and heavy foot traffic in and out of the house. There are many more opportunities for the escape of un-caged birds than there are in the winter months. You may have noticed how many more lost bird postings there are at this time of year.
Make sure all open windows are screened. Devise a system that clearly alerts all members of the family as to the bird’s whereabouts.
When my daughter was young, I hung a red bell on the door handle of any home entryway that could allow our birds to escape while they were out of their cages. That meant either knocking before entering so birds could be restrained, or using an entry where there was no red bell. We were all trained to verify the location of each bird before leaving the house.
One of the main causes of escape is when owner take their birds outside unrestrained. Over and over, people are warned that clipped birds CAN fly, that a loud sound or unfamiliar sight can cause even the most time-tested shoulder-bound bird to fly off in fear. Many are gone for good.
Always take your birds outside in a carrier or on a harness. Never get so comfortable that you come to believe you can forecast your bird’s actions. Birds do things for reasons that are their own, which may or may not make any sense to a human being. Many birds fly off terrified and do NOT return to the safety of their owners arms as would be expected, but instead fly further away. You can save yourself and your bird a lot of suffering if you follow this advice.
The warm weather opens up all kinds of opportunities for fun activities with our birds that includes fresh air and sunshine, and increases socialization. These are healthy for our birds both physically and emotionally and we should take advantage. When you use common sense, the hot weather will be easier to manage and our birds can remain safe.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.