There are a lot of reasons we might lose power; it isn’t just a seasonal event. Of course, we brace for it when there is a severe storm on the way, but there are crashes due to excessive usage, equipment failures or damage caused by accidents. Every now and then squirrels or a flock of feral quaker parrots get the blame, probably unjustly.
I know many of you know I live in Florida, so I want to point out that I grew up in New England and lived most of my life in Chicago. I understand cold weather and the pervasive effect that a long season of freezing temperatures has.
When the temperature drops below freezing here in the south it might last two or occasionally three days but not long enough for the ground or bodies of water to freeze. 20f degrees (-7c) here is not the same as 20f degrees in the north. We southerners still complain bitterly, though, and act as though an ice age has hit, but it is our plants that suffer the most.
There are many with parrots living in the north who live in fear of power outages in the winter. I am most afraid of summer outages.
Most people do not realize that hot weather is much more dangerous than cold weather. If there was a power outage in your area after you left for work in the morning during below freezing temperatures then you would return home to find your power has been out for hours. Depending on how warm you typically keep your house and how well it is insulated, your house would not yet be “cold”, but chilly. Your birds would be fine.
If the air conditioning were lost under the same circumstance during the summer heat, you would very likely return to dead or dying birds. Without air movement and ventilation, your house would become an oven within a few hours. I live with this concern through most of the year here in Florida.
When we are dealing with a power outage there are two main concerns: climate control and lighting. These are the things we tend to address first and worry about the loss of refrigeration and cooking after.
When we have birds, though, we have to be doubly careful of the solutions for which we opt. Because of their sensitive respiratory system, we cannot use anything that burns any kind of fuel which emits oily, smoky, toxic fumes which you can smell. The combustion produces carbon monoxide as a by-product, which you will not be able to detect.
This means nothing that is run on gasoline, kerosene or propane can be used in the house, not even for just long enough to warm things up. NO camping equipment that burns fuel is suitable for indoor use (not even the ones that run on propane that manufacturer’s claim are safe): lamps, heaters, stoves, etc. This is not something you should do even if you don’t have birds.
In a perfect world, home owners would have solar power or a power generator to fall back on to keep the lights on and the temperatures more comfortable at least for part of the time. I think it’s reasonable to assume that most people do not have either. Many of us are not home owners. This might mean roughing it until the power comes back on.
As I mentioned earlier, the bigger problems arise from excessive heat. When the power goes out and it is over 80f degrees (27c), the walls in your house are your worst enemy. The sun will raise the temperature and the wall will hold it in. Even your carpeting and furniture will absorb and hold in the heat. After a surprisingly short period of time, it will become increasingly difficult to breath, then heat stroke, unconsciousness and death.
When parrots are suffering from excessive heat, you will at first notice a change in the position of their wings. They will keep them folded into a closed position but deliberately hold them away from their body to allow air to circulate there.
If conditions do not improve for the bird, the next thing you will see is drooping wings. The difference being that the wings are slack and hanging instead of being intentionally positioned, and you might also see open mouth breathing. At this point your bird is in trouble, and you will have to act quickly by soaking it down in lukewarm water. (NEVER use cold water as this can cause shock and even death).
Obviously, you want to prevent this from happening at all, so be sure to keep your bird near north or south facing open windows (where there is less direct sun), in a room with cross-ventilation if possible, and keep him soaked down with warm water, all day if necessary.
- Pick one or two rooms in the house to live in and focus on keeping just those rooms cool. The best choice is one room with windows on more than one wall offering good cross-ventilation. Otherwise, you might be able to get better ventilation taking advantage of open windows in an adjoining room.
- Keep your doors and curtains or blinds closed in rooms that you are not occupying during the day, especially if they have an east or west exposure.
- At night open up all windows and curtains to utilize the cool night air. Close the windows and blinds in unused rooms again in the morning.
- Sometimes it might be cooler outside in the shade.
There is actually a lot more control you have over the cold than you do the heat. You will no doubt be worrying about your bird getting too cold, but birds are very resilient and can handle colder temps better than we think they can. Consider this: wild birds can survive a week of unseasonably cold temperatures. Our indoor birds are sheltered and dry – they will survive as well.
Unless the temperatures are below freezing, your bird will not be in immediate danger. Cold air doesn’t kill. It does, however, lower the immune system so the disease prevention team is otherwise occupied while trying to maintain body temperature. That leaves them more susceptible to disease, but a healthy bird will come out of the experience well.
- Pick a single room in your house to live in while the power is out. The smaller the better as it is easier to heat a small room with low ceilings.
- Close off all other doors in the house. Keep the curtains or blinds closed in those rooms.
- Keep blinds open during the day and closed at night in the room you are occupying to utilize heat from the sun.
- Close off all air vents.
- Roll up towels to put under doors or drafty windows.
- The basement might be the warmest place in the house. The ground will keep it insulated and more moderate in temperature.
- If you have a fireplace, remember that smoke is a problem for birds. Make sure your flue is open. If your nose is not reliable, check frequently for smoke using a flashlight. Send a beam of light across the darkened room and the smoke will be evident in the light.
- Open the doors to the outside as little as possible to avoid letting the cold air in.
- After you are done cooking outside, use the residual heat from the grill to heat up pots of water and bring them inside.
- Keep your bird’s cage covered with a sheet or blanket on three sides and point the open side towards any heat source such as a fireplace or a sunny window. Smaller cages are easier to heat up than larger ones and are easier to re-position throughout the day as necessary.
- Don’t put your bird too close to the fireplace. The cover on the cage can hold in too much heat and it will also hold in smoke if it is in the air. So be aware of that, and check your bird often.
- Make sure you have beeswax or other non-paraffin type candles for a light source. Paraffin is a petroleum product and is not safe for use with birds.
- Keep your bird in the cage. Even if your fireplace is screened and the candles are extinguished, your house will be dimmer than normal and it is easy to lose a bird in dark places. It is also very easy to accidentally step or sit on them.
- When possible warm up your birds drinking water and wet food (warm NOT hot!). Warm grains and pasta is a good choice for your bird while in the cold. Dry food shouldn’t be heated.
- A power inverter might become your best friend in a power outage. It is a device that allows your electrical appliances to be run on battery power (using the cigarette lighter in your car or cables connecting to a 12v battery.) This is a BIG help for bird owners as it will allow you to heat up sources of warmth for your bird, such as hot water bottles in a microwave and heating pads which can be placed in the tray on the bottom of the cage. A word of advice: make sure you get a power inverter that can handle the wattage of your microwave.
- Don’t forget about the heater in your car! It can warm you up for a bit in a pinch.
- I reiterate that you must NOT use a generator or camping equipment, like lanterns, heaters or stoves in your house!
This experience doesn’t have to be the nightmare that you anticipate it being. In fact, you will probably discover how much more resourceful you are than you thought. You will be happy to get back to normal, of course, but the experience will stay with you and make you just a little bit better than you were.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.