Winter is in full swing in the northern hemisphere of planet earth. I live in Florida, which is considered subtropical, but we still endure some brief periods of freezing temperatures. Up north, where I grew up and spent most of my life, it is much colder and the consistent lower temperatures are a pervasive “chill you to the bone” kind of cold. If you have an older, drafty house, it can be kind of hard to keep temperature even and comfortable from room to room.
We get a lot of inquiries here at BirdTricksStore about how cold is too cold for our parrots. The concerns generally stem from the knowledge that many parrot species originate from warm climates. It is presumed that because parrots have evolved to live in warmer temperatures, they would be intolerant to the cold. That is not entirely true.
In Florida, especially here in Orlando, there is a HUGE amount of tourism from South America. Retailers here rely heavily on that revenue – in some areas it can account for up to 80% of their business. It is cheaper for South Americans to travel to the states to make name-brand purchases, which are outrageously expensive in their own countries.
In January and February, peak tourist season for Brazilians in particular, one of the main items they are shopping for are winter coats. It gets cold in South America. If you ask them, they will tell you it gets desperately cold. “Desperately cold” to them means 40 degrees Fahrenheit (about 4.5c), sometimes colder. That means that their wild parrots species can and do tolerate those temperatures.
In Australia, a country that is about as large as the United States, the seasonal temperatures throughout the country vary widely. In the south, it can dip well below freezing. While Australia does have a couple of migratory species, parrots are not migratory birds and they stay put to endure whatever their local climate has to offer.
Some people have acclimated their birds to life in an outdoor aviary that do well in temperatures down into the 40’s (f). Acclimated birds have physical mechanisms in place to protect themselves from extreme temperatures:
Feathering. Temperature acclimated parrots produce feathering that will serve as insulation to the cold, as do the oils in the feathers. Birds will fluff up when they are cold to produce air pockets in the feathering that further insulates them. An un-acclimated bird has not produced this feathering through necessity, and is not able to comfortably or safely withstand the same lower temperatures.
- Scales. The feet are covered with scales that can retain heat. However, temperatures below freezing leave the lower extremities vulnerable and exposed. In very cold temperatures, the body protects its most vital parts, the organs, by regulating blood flow to them to keep them warm. Feet (fingers, noses etc.) are considered expendable and will be forfeited to save the systems that are necessary to preserve life if the temperatures call for it.
Regardless of a parrot’s natural place of origin, the only climate that matters is the one in which they live. Most companion parrots are not acclimated to cold temperatures. They have adapted to the temperatures common within our homes, generally between 65 and 72 degrees (18c-22c). While they are capable of enduring much lower temperatures, they are not prepared to.
Acclimating your bird to cold temperatures is a slow process since it requires the development of appropriate feathering – something that does not happen overnight. The best way to acclimate is to start allowing your bird to experience lower temperatures gradually and comfortably. As the days grow shorter as the fall months approach, the night cool lasts longer and allows a bird to slowly develop that which is needed to provide for the obvious oncoming cold season. A bird should not experience anything more than a 10, perhaps 15, degrees F change in temperature in the beginning stages to comfortably make the transition.
However, if you live in a cold climate where winter storms sometimes cause power outages, don’t go into a panic. A single heat source, such as a fire place or wood burning stove (when used safely and smokeless) can provide adequate warmth for your indoor parrot until the power comes back on. Covering three sides of the cage and facing the open side to the heat source (from a safe distance) will help maintain and stabilize the cage temperature.
In temperatures above freezing, cold, itself, is not a killer, but the energy expenditure to maintain body heat weakens the immune system and leaves a parrot vulnerable to disease. If your bird is healthy and on an appropriate diet, it will be fit enough to handle the cooler temperatures of a drafty house or the relatively short cold period during a power outage.
Wild bird species rely on the higher fat and caloric diet that life in the wild requires. They expend far more energy from their level of activity and they need fat reserves to maintain the metabolic rate needed to regulate their temperature during the very cold months.
In captivity, an appropriate diet for a bird does not include a high amount of fat by comparison. In fact, it is detrimental to their overall health since they aren’t able to burn nearly as many calories with their relatively sedate lifestyles. A high fat diet will lead to obesity and the diseases that come with it.
For a sheltered companion parrot whose typically consistent environment has suddenly changed, its overall health, often determined by diet, can make the difference in its ability to tolerate a sudden temperature change.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.