Tips for Building Cages & Aviaries
The environment you provide for your birds is very often the key to your success. Too often the keeper has to adapt and improvise. A cage designed to fit into a living room may be suitable for a single pet parakeet or canary, but entirely unsuitable for other species. Such glittering all-wire contraptions offer no security or protection from drafts or sunlight. If birds have to be kept in a cage, a box cage is almost always the best option. In aviaries, destructive species such as large parrots, or nervous species such as most falcons, require special environments. There is little point in giving a pair of parrots a wood-framed, planted aviary, the birds will destroy the plants in a few days and chew their way out of the wooden structure in a few weeks. The size and design of cages and aviaries alike need to take the species into consideration. It may sound odd to say that an aviary can be too large, but for safety and security this is often the case, and many collections of birds open to the public have their stock on display in aviaries larger than is really required simply to satisfy the demands of a public who do not understand the needs of the birds. Very often, it is the smaller off-exhibit aviaries where successful breeding takes place. In many countries, there is a legal minimum size for cages, which makes sense but is sometimes difficult to interpret. For example, a bird cage must be large enough for the occupant to spread its wings in any direction. This makes almost all parrot cages smaller than the law requires. The fact that many pet parrots spend more time out of their cage than in is no defence. It is against the law to restrict any bird for periods longer than one hour, except for travelling or at an exhibition. On the other hand, the minimum size allowed for a canary, 10 x 8 x 8 inches (25 x 20 x 20 cm), is still too small in my view. A cage should allow any bird to keep its feathers in good order. Too many large macaws have their tail feathers shredded and broken because the cage is not adequate. There are very few species of small birds that cannot be successfully kept in cages, and suitably sized box cages are the standard fitting for the bird rooms of most serious aviculturalists. Box cages are not just convenient, many species feel comfortable in this type of cage, and remain relaxed and in good condition. Box cages are just that, boxes with a wire front. They are available in a multitude of sizes and a number of materials. The most usual are plywood and melamine-faced blockboard.
A more expensive option is stove-enamelled steel. Plastic is becoming more popular, since it lasts well and is easily cleaned, which is very important, for it is essential that cages be kept clean and free of bacterial build-up. I have never understood how canaries are able to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of depositing their droppings on the ceiling of a cage. If you decide to build your own cages, for example to fit your bird room, it is important to research the design properly. A standard treble breeding cage for canaries and small finches is 42 inches long x 10 inches deep x 15 inches high (106 x 25 x 38 cm), divided in three by removable sliding panels. However, it is better to increase it to 48 x 14 x 16 inches (122 x 35 x 40 cm); the extra size will make little difference to the service space in a room, but gives much more space inside, and a feeling of greater security for nesting birds. A double breeding cage is also suitable but a treble allows you to put a male bird in the center section for a female on either side, thus improving the chances of compatibility. When building a number of breeding cages, it is often best to build in block form, that is in one unit three or four cages high. The resulting saving on materials may allow you to improve the quality of the accommodations. It is important not to cut corners, but to build well and to last. The cage may be no more than a simple rectangular box, but the arrangement of the front and the floor will make a great difference for good or bad. The design of the wire front needs some thought. What should the bar spacing be. Do you need feeder holes? Are the doors large enough to service the inside and allow nest pans or boxes to be taken in and out, while not large enough to allow the escape of tiny finches, which move like lightning? Cage front manufacturers provide a vast array of options from stock, but if your needs are not met, they will generally build fronts to your specifications at little extra cost. The front rails should allow the entire cage front to be removed for cleaning. Trying to scrub out a cage through a 5-inch (lO-cm) door will soon illustrate the need for this. The bottom rail should allow space for a deep removable tray. Too often, the bottom rail is so close to the cage floor that stray seed and droppings jam the tray when you are trying to slide it out. I like a tray at least 2 inches (5 cm) deep, which allows easy removal and also retains most of the seed husks and other detritus that appear on the cage floor. All species of birds benefit from bathing and in doing so splash water everywhere. The resultant damage to wood or masonite tray bases makes the extra cost of steel or aluminum trays well worthwhile. The interior of a cage may look attractive painted in gleaming white, but I have found many birds are much more at ease in pale green or blue, so much so that breeding improves significantly. Many bird keepers, including parrot keepers, now house their birds in all-wire suspended cages that keep maintenance and cleaning to a minimum.
While I understand their feelings, and the breeding success rate shows the birds are reasonably happy, I do feel that the sterile environment leaves something to be desired. Most bird keepers start off with a converted garden shed, or a spare room in the house, as their first bird room. Many never advance beyond that stage, while others go on to build palatial constructions that surpass their own living conditions with computer-controlled environments, running water, and even piped music. The minimum size for a bird room fitted with tiered breeding cages is 6ft. x 8 ft. (1.8 x 2.4 m). If a garden shed is used, it must be provided with good lighting and ventilation. These vital requirements for good health are inadequate in most small sheds. Temperature control is also important, a single-skinned wooden construction needs added insulation, or the bird room will be an oven on a hot day and a freezer on a cold one. If you are improving lighting by enlarging windows, you should also install safety screens. These avoid injury to birds hitting a closed window, and escape if the window is open. The door should also be secure and backed up by a safety door. It is amazing how many birds escape, either when the door is left open or, having escaped from their cage, through the door when the keeper opens it. When using a small building as a bird room, it is worth considering using skylights rather than conventional windows. This leaves wall space free for additional cages or an inside flight. Natural lighting is always by far the best, but there are times when artificial lighting is a must. The choice of lighting now available includes fluorescent tubes that closely mimic daylight. Dimmers and pre-set timers now let you control day length without the problem of forgetting to turn off the birdroom lights. With small exotic species, additional day length gives a longer time to feed, very important during long, dark winters in northern areas. Heating is not always needed in a temperate climate. Species such as canaries, European finches, and parakeets do not really need a heated bird room, but exotic softbills and small seed eaters will not survive in temperate areas without some form of heating. Tubular electric heaters and fan heaters, which should be thermostatically controlled, are usually preferred and the newest ceramic heaters are the best. Be sure they are strong enough to keep the temperature at the required level during very cold weather. Whatever type of facility you use, it should be easy to clean and vermin-proof. A build-up of discarded food attracts vermin, and mice, rats, and ants are easier to attract than to repel. Any wooden structure placed directly on the ground is a gift to vermin trying to get inside, so you should either have a solid concrete base or raise the structure above the ground. If you use a solid concrete base, do not forget to lay a waterproof membrane under the concrete, or any floor covering will quickly draw water through, filling the room with the smell of decay and mildew.
Brick buildings are especially prone to dampness unless properly constructed and ventilated. If you use rodenticides to kill mice or rats, take great care where you place the poisoned bait, which is usually made from grain. Keepers of birds of prey must be especially careful, for their birds will try to kill any rodents that enter their quarters, and if they have already taken poison, they will be lethal to the birds. Technology has now come to our aid with the invention of sonic vermin repellents that emit high-frequency sound, above the upper limit of human hearing, to drive away rodents. If you live in an area where rodents abound, it would make sense to investigate the cost of such a unit. There are as many kinds of aviary as there are of cages, if not more. Manufacturers can provide a choice to suit most pockets, from a small wire flight with an inside shelter to a vast structure designed to suit the largest species. If you decide to build your own, as with cages and bird rooms, build well and build to last. With planted aviaries, particularly those that have plants growing up the sides, the wire must be of the highest quality, for replacing it is an arduous task. Whatever the size of your aviary, and even if it is only occupied during summer months, a proper shelter is a must. A small built-on shelter may be ignored by the birds unless it is light inside, and the food supply is placed there. It is generally simpler to cover one end and part of the roof. Planting should be done with care, avoiding any plant that may be poisonous. Yew, laurel, and laburnum should not be in or near the aviary. Climbing plants add color as well as cover, but are probably best planted outside a small aviary, for it is important to retain as much flying space as possible. There are many attractive species of honeysuckle and clematis that make ideal plants for garden aviaries, with Russian vine as a standby for rapid establishment of cover, and also to provide a source of insect food. Note, though, that this rampant plant will take over the whole of a small aviary in one season unless it is ruthlessly cut back. The aviary floor needs to be concrete if parrots are the occupants, but it can be fine gravel or grass for most other species. Concrete and gravel allow easy cleaning, with washed gravel giving an especially fresh look. If the aviary roof is covered, sand over a concrete base allows small finches, canaries, and parakeets to forage for grit. A dry floor is easier to maintain, and sand can be washed, dried, and reused. Make it a standard practice to underwire any aviary that does not have a concrete floor, and also bury a heavy-gauge close wire mesh around the perimeter at a minimum depth of 18 inches (45 cm). This keeps both rodents and foxes out, and keeps enthusiastic diggers such as pheasants in. Very small aviaries should not have grass floors, for with all species the grass usually cannot stand the wear it is likely to get.
On the other hand, a planted aviary of a good size can often become an extension of the backyard, and I have often seen aviaries in which lawns and flowerbeds flow naturally through the enclosure uninterrupted. If your aviary is large enough to support it, a shallow pond could be added as a feature, but there are dangers in ponds, especially with birds that bathe at inappropriate times, such as just before roosting. With ground-dwelling species, it is possible that night disturbance may cause them to fall into the water and drown. Water is vital for waterfowl, however, and if these birds are kept in an aviary, the water supply needs to be constant and fresh. You should he aware of the dangers of digging a deep pond within an aviary. Initially such a pond will be welcomed, and your ducks will have a wonderful time diving and swimming in the clear water. But in a remarkably short time, the water will turn brown, then black, and will soon be no better than an open sewer. Changing the water in a deep pond is a major exercise, it is far better to construct a shallow pond that call be quickly drained and cleaned. I am not in favour of letting the water drain out over the surrounding area and prefer any water flushed from a pond to go into the drains. Waterfowl kept in a small yard may bring legal problems with local environmental officials unless strict attention is given to the method of cleaning. Indeed, any aviary should be built in accordance with local planning regulations. If you have close neighbours, it is sensible to advise them of any plans you have and also make them aware of the type of birds you intend to keep. In urban areas, the height of any construction may be controlled, as is the distance from the boundary fence. If you get the dimensions wrong, not only will you upset your neighbours, you may be forced to tear your aviary down in the middle of the breeding season. The variety of options for housing birds of any species is enormous. Several specialist publications cover this subject alone, and give full details of construction. Get your aviary right the first time, and you will save yourself endless problems.
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Hamilton & District Budgerigar Society Inc.