The Ethics Of Bird Cage Flooring

Merlin & Nemo

My galahs Merlin & Nemo checking out the day's deposit of fresh grass

There are many different ways of setting up the lower half of your cages and aviaries. Most people (myself included) have some sort of wire grill at the base of their setups.

There are many advantages to this. The main one is obviously that a bird’s poo and waste will fall through the grill, which let’s face it – is a much healthier alternative to a bird eating spoiled food or getting covered in its own excrement.

It’s not just your own bird’s poo that might be of concern. The threat of wild birds needs to be considered as well.  If a wild bird lands on one of your outdoor aviaries and just happens to poo, it’s nice to know that there’s a grill in place for it to fall through, effectively preventing your birds from coming into contact with it or any diseases that might be transmitted by it.

Similarly, suspended aviaries are great because they’re easy to clean. They’re commonly used as a means of preventing rodent infestation. A mouse can’t easily burrow into an aviary if it isn’t resting on the ground.

Fid my Blue & Gold Macaw

My Blue & Gold Macaw, Fid, seems to enjoy foraging in grass if it's dumped on the aviary roof.

In one of my vet science university subjects, we were looking at some ethical studies regarding lab rats. The studies we were looking at were concerned with the ethical guidelines of how to set up a lab rat’s enclosure. So in this particular instance we weren’t getting into the rights and wrongs of animal experimentation (I really don’t want to start that debate here). Instead, we were looking at if a rat does happen to be kept in captivity, what guidelines should be in place to ensure it’s kept in decent conditions. These studies focused specifically on the floor of a rat’s cage.

Traditionally, it had been common practice to have a wire grill at the base of a rat’s cage – much for the same reasons that we do with birds. However, in a rat’s case, the rat would not be spending most of its time sitting on a perch. Instead it would be sitting on that wire grill at all times. Well, you can imagine the sorts of problems that would cause for a rat. The foot injuries alone meant that the practice of keeping a rat on a grill 24-7 was cruel. The studies that I read in class, were looking for alternative housing arrangements for lab rats.

For fairly obvious reasons, a lab rat’s environment needs to be able to be kept sterile or in the very least clean. A completely solid base was therefore out of the question as it was impractical to have a lab rat running around in its own excrement. Instead, guidelines were implemented to make 50% of an enclosure’s base a grill and 50% solid, which effectively gave the rats a choice of what type of flooring they wanted to stand on. They found that rats in this style of housing were intelligent enough to use the grill as a toilet (without needing to be trained) and that they would then spend the rest of their time on the solid base.

Cocky Boy

My elderly disabled galah benefits from part wire/part ceramic tile flooring. He uses the wire as a toilet, which prevents him from becoming covered in his own poo.

Ok, so what has this got to do with birds? Well it’s maybe not as critical an issue with birds because we’re not seeing foot injuries due to a bird being permanently stuck on a grill.  Our bird’s feet are effectively saved from that by their perches. However, it’s interesting to think about the ethical side of just having a grill as the base of your cage/aviary. It never hurts to look at something we’ve all taken for granted as normal and ask questions like: Is this actually ok? Is it cruel? Is this the best that we can do? After all, if people hadn’t done that with regards to other issues, we’d probably all still be using dowel perches and feeding all-seed diets.

There are five basic ideals of animal care that have been pretty much drummed into me while studying vet science at university. These ideals are meant to assist with ethically keeping animals in captivity – be it at a zoo, a sanctuary, a shelter, a farm, a vet surgery or even privately at home. Some of you may have already heard of the ‘five freedoms’.

These five freedoms are something we should be endeavoring to give to any animals within our care:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
  5. Freedom from fear and distress
My galahs Merlin and Nemo

Sometimes I'll grow my own tray of grass to give to the birds. Using a basic seed mix - it doesn't take long to shoot.

So in terms of the lab rat’s flooring, it’s not so difficult to see that just having a grill as a base was conflicting with a few of those ideals. In term’s of the average companion parrot though, I think there’s only one of those ideals that a grill really conflicts with and that’s the ‘freedom to express normal behaviour’.

If I look at my own flock, I live with four galahs/rosebreasted cockatoos. As a species in the wild they are known as ‘ground foragers’. If I want to find a wild galah, I don’t walk out my front door and look at the nearest tree as my first option to find them. I’m way more likely to walk out my front door and accidentally step on one as it’s happily digging up (mum says ‘destroying’) the front lawn.

Wild Galahs foraging

Wild Galahs/Rosebreasted Cockatoos foraging

The reality is that the wild ones spend most of their time waddling around on the ground. I can’t say the same for captive ones because as a general rule, we don’t give them the desirable environment to do this. Those kept in larger aviaries might have access to the ground, but most companion parrots don’t live in large aviaries. Okay, they wander around our houses but that’s not the same as digging up a patch of grass and probably not the case when we’re at work during the day. Which makes me wonder: Can we do better?

My galahs Merlin & Nemo

Merlin and Nemo playing in a tray of sand. They love to roll in this in hot weather, I believe it heps keep them cool. (Chickens display a similar behaviour helping them control mites.)

I still use grills in the bottom of my cages. After all, there are plenty of good reasons to do so. However, I’ve done something about giving them the opportunity to waddle around on a flat surface too. I’ve found the easiest way to do this is to use ceramic tiles. So like the studies did with the lab rats, I’ve divided their cage floor space into some grill and some flat. Also like with the lab rats, I’ve noticed that my birds tend to use the grill as a toilet. Admittedly though, some of them needed a little training to perfect this.  (“Potty training your bird” is covered in the Birdtricks.com basic stop biting course.)

Ceramic floor tiles are cheap, easy to clean and easy to move. I’ve found that my local hardware store sells leftover colours for as little as 50cents a tile. I’m not worried if the colours don’t match! I can strategically place them so that they aren’t directly under main resting perches (less chance of poo), which is more convenient than a tray that indiscriminately covers half the floor space.

Foraging

My galah Morgy, foraging in grass on top of her ceramic tiles

I’ve found that my galahs spend a lot of time on the ground now that I’ve done this. My other species of bird? Not so much. In the wild, lorikeets, eclectus parrots and macaws spend most of their time in a tree’s canopy. It doesn’t surprise me that they choose their perches over the ground (although they do go down occasionally). My galahs still sleep on their perches at night and for most of the afternoon, but in the morning and early evening they’re almost always down on the ground sifting through whatever I’ve put down there.

Galahs aren’t the only ground foragers commonly kept as pets. Many species of bird might possibly benefit from us re-looking at our lower cage setups. It’s definitely worth thinking about.

Wild Corellas

Wild Corellas foraging on an oval

Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.

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