How to Go Cage Free

Creating a parrot lifestyle without cages. It can be the perfect fit for some flocks.

How to Go Cage Free

I have been researching the care of companion parrots ever since they captured my interest at age 18. Now at age 30, I run a small rescue out of my home that specializes in special needs birds, including parrots with behavioral issues and some with what would consider depression. I take pride and enjoyment out of offering a variety of fresh healthy foods daily, rotating toys a couple times a week, and spending one-on-one time with each of them. Lets put it this way: I never shower alone!

But even after doing all of that, I still felt that I needed to do more. They seemed happy, but something was still off. I visited the Foster Parrots, Ltd. sanctuary in 2013. At first, I thought it was going to be a sad experience; there are around 500 parrots in their care. But when I arrived to see all of the huge free-flight setups, I discovered how happy those birds actually were. It was then that it hit me: I need to find a way to eliminate as many cages as I can.

Even if they are born in captivity, parrots are wild at heart. They are not domesticated animals; their brains are not wired for life in a cage. Depending on the bird, some think of their cage as a safe place to go to sleep and eat, but others act out, get depressed or start feather picking from boredom. The huge, most important part to consider when thinking about going cage free is (pay attention): You must know your bird, and if you have a flock, you absolutely must know your flock.

It took about a year for my rescue, Hurlin’s Parrot Rescue, to convert to going mostly cage free, and we are still changing things weekly. Keep in mind that we have a flock of 20, and it is a slow process because I allowed everyone to adjust at their own pace. In the beginning, I built jungle gyms hanging from the ceiling out of untreated manila rope. I hung a variety of toys, and they used that as a supervised playtime area – supervised so I could learn who may get along with who, or who was going to be a issue with other birds.  As an important note: The large birds such as the Macaws are always kept in separate rooms, the Cockatoos in another separate room, and then the Amazons and African Greys in another.

The next step was to add large hanging perches made out of bird safe woods such as poplar, maple, untreated but de-barked pine, and Manzanita wood. It is important to hang all items with either stainless steel chain or plastic chain, depending on your birds (many will chew plastic chain).  I installed dishes directly to the stands and hung toys from the chain so they could reach them. Who got to try out their cage free setup first was based upon each individual’s behavior during the supervised playtime trials.  For example, I started with the more shy birds that would need more time to establish their territory, let them get situated, then moved on to the Timneh African Greys who had already established their flock. All the while, I routinely weighed each bird to make sure they were maintaining their weight and not losing due to any stress that may be associated with the big changes. My flock personally had no weight concerns during the transition, but better safe than sorry.

safe parrot toy chainsWhen choosing your chain, also make sure that it is safe for little birdie feet. There are certain types known to trap toes.

Meanwhile in the Macaw room, I hung all five of their ceiling play stands in the same day and moved the cages out. Shower curtains were also hung on the walls to assist in their giant poops and food flinging. I did this transition more suddenly because everyone was already used to each other; most had been in the same room for over a year. There is one handicapped Green wing Macaw in this flock, Paco, whose feet were so badly injured that they are paralyzed. Even she is cage-free: I made a play stand that works for her from hula-hoops wrapped in fleece fabric. This works wonderfully, since she is unable to climb or perch, she would just sit in the bottom of a cage all day and crawl through any poop. I had to wash her blankets and bathe her daily. Now she just aims her butt off of the play stand and poops on the papers like everyone else, usually with a little happy dance afterwards!

handicapped parrot playing on toyEven handicapped birds have the potential to live cage free, like Paco the Green Wing Macaw.

During the transition, only a few problems occurred: My Scarlet Macaw, Booboo, who is normally a high-anxiety bundle of nerves and plucks herself accordingly, did pluck her feathers during the first week of the change. Aside from being more nervous than usual, she otherwise seemed happier than normal and in bright spirits, and even began to play with toys – something I never saw her do before. She has now fully adjusted and stopped plucking (until another hormone season comes around, most likely).

There are four birds who unfortunately can never be cage-free, but I found this out in the very beginning during supervised play times. One is our male Eclectus, who puts a lot of effort into chasing down the Amazons, and in turn his friend Velvet also cannot be cage free, because she will find a dark corner and get “nesty”, which is something that we avoid here. The Eclectus species also has different dietary needs. Another caged bird is Toby, our “hot” yellow-nape Amazon, but that was common sense and expected, as he is highly hormonal to the point of unpredictable attacks. And the fourth is Buddy the Red Lory for obvious reasons: he’s a completely different species with different dietary needs, and he is a little guy that could easily get hurt.

About three-to-four months after switching to cage free, there is one bird in particular, Spooky the Timneh African Grey, who began to claim to entire room as his territory and bully the other birds, so as a precaution he maintains a cage while we are not home, but the door is opened at all times when we are home. His setup may or may not go back to cage free again in the future. This is a great example of how flock dynamic can change over time, and you as the caretaker have to be prepared to make any changes that come with it. For me, that was regretfully adding one more cage to the bird room, making five cages total – not bad at all if you consider the flock of 20.

I often get the question of “what if a bird gets adopted, or needs to join the flock?” Similar steps will be taken if another bird is relinquished to our rescue and has the possibility of going cage free. Of course, we maintain our quarantine procedures; our quarantine room is an entirely separate room from any of the other bird rooms. Then, once we are positive the new bird is healthy, he or she is brought into the bird room in a cage to gage reactions from the flock and the newbie. From there, the new bird can move to an open-cage status, then possibly cage free. It is important to note that the majority of birds that are easily adoptable into approved homes will not transition to our cage-free flock. This will avoid stress on them if they find a new family, and it will prevent stress on our own flock. With every bird that comes and goes, the flock is affected and the dynamic changes. We take the time to get to know each bird before making any decisions – as much time as it takes. It is our responsibility to do what is in the individual’s best interest, and for our existing flock.

As for maintaining the cage free setup, new toys, swings, boings and other perches are hung and changed out regularly to keep everyone busy. Most of the birds are flighted and will explore the room, but they always return to their “safe spot” on their own play stands for food, water or sleep (with the exception of a few that prefer sleeping up on the ropes). 

foraging african grey parrotIt's important to keep your flock busy by adding random foraging areas and rotating toys.

I wish that I could tell everyone that eliminating cages was all sunshine and rainbows – a piece of cake – but it takes a lot of thought and even more work! It may not be for every flock, and I can’t make that decision for you because only you can truly know your birds. Only you know what your setup is capable of and what is realistic for you.

What I can say is that I have no regrets. I have never seen my birds happier. The sparkle in their eyes shines brighter; they chatter more and interact with each other more, even just vocally from across the room. The vibe in the room is much more lively and happy, and I no longer feel the guilt of seeing so many cages lined up around the walls like little jail cells. 
A few birds in particular have completely turned around: for example, Ariel, a bird who was locked in a cage for ten years and very difficult to handle due to her mood swings (I self-diagnosed her as being bipolar with possible depression), now constantly asks for me to hold her and accepts preening, almost to the point of cuddling. The first time she did this is a moment I will never forget; it was the kind of moment that reminds a rescuer why they rescue in the first place. Tears of joy filled my eyes. Another change happened in my African Greys, Shelby and Remy. With the cage-free setup they go wherever they please, and that often involves following me wherever I am in the house, which is something I love. They fly back down to their rooms when they decide it is bedtime. Their confidence has become higher from having that independence.

rescued military macawAriel is a more emotionally stable bird after going cage free.

Another perk for me personally, aside from the happy aura radiating throughout my bird rooms, is that this setup is very low maintenance compared to having cages. I spend less time scrubbing cages bars and bottom grates, which means I can enjoy more time interacting with the flock. What used to take a full day to clean now only takes a couple of hours – and that is a full on OCD bird room scrub down. We have leftover rolls of 48” wide paper donated by our local newspaper distributor. The paper is cut into large sections to completely cover the floors in each room. Smaller sections are laid over the main paper for the extra poopy spots for ease of changing it, and it makes the larger portion last longer. I sweep daily, and I wipe the walls and change papers in their entirety a couple times per week.

chewing parrotBe prepared to sacrifice your wood trim... And doors!

I still continue to make changes to the bird rooms, and this will be an ongoing thing. Another large phase that will take place in spring/early summer 2016 is switching out all of the wood trim for tile or stainless – whichever I find the most cost effective (or the least ugly). Lucky for the flock, I didn’t care for the wood trim we had in those rooms, anyway!

parrot roomA glimpse of the mostly cage-free setup. Buddy the Red Lory's cage is to the left, and to the right (not pictured) are the other two cages for Velvet and Shifu, and Toby.

parrot cage free roomAnother shot of the same bird room showing the other two cages. An air filter and backup heat (vented to the outside) is also in the photo.

Main Points for going cage free:

  •     Know your birds.
  •     Be patient and observant.
  •     Weigh your birds regularly to make sure they are maintaining weight and health.
  •     Be prepared to make changes as flock dynamics change.
  •     Adjust with the flock; you are part of it.
  •     You better not care about your trim or possible furniture in the room, or have plans to change to un-munchable trim, like tile.
  •      Keep them busy by changing out perches, toys and foraging activities. It’s like having a caged setup, but on a larger scale with no bars, so you have to get creative.
  • Enjoy watching your flock be a flock, and take pride in being part of it.

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