There are around 9000 different species of birds that are alive today and the range of sizes, shapes, colours and temperaments are every bit as varied as you would expect. There are many types of birds that are kept as pets or in aviaries, principally from the parrot family and the passerine family of small, perching birds such as finches. While there is no one-size-fits-all advice sheet that can tell you about your bird, there are some facts that are relatively standard to all avian species. So the basics of understanding your bird is what we are looking at here.
Most of the birds alive today come from a range of families that are placed in the superfamily called Neognathae. The other superfamily, the Paleognathae, are mostly extinct save for the large flightless birds such as ostriches and emus. Many of the species in this superfamily have been kept by humans in one form or another for thousands of years, from chickens, turkeys and peacocks to parrots and canaries. Today most companion birds come from the parrot family including the budgerigar, lovebirds and macaws while many aviary birds are from the passerine family, which includes families of finches, exotic finches, sparrows and many other familiar faces.
From the extreme of the 4-inch finch to the 40-inch wingspan of the large parrots, pet birds come in a wide range of sizes. Because they are designed to fly, birds weigh very little with even the largest macaw only weigh around 2.5 pounds (1200 grams). Most of this is because their bones are particularly light and filled with air to allow them to fly.
Bird’s metabolisms run at a far higher rate than humans do and they have a higher body temperature, usually around 101 to 108 degrees F depending on the species. Birds are generally very active and the more active the species, the more food they need to consume. For example, highly active birds like hummingbirds need to consume their body weight in food every day just to survive. Birds also have a very effective digestive system that keeps turning the food into energy quickly and efficiently to keep them moving.
Heart rate is also, unsurprisingly, a lot quicker than in humans, against dependant on the species. A human heart beats around 70 times a minute but a small song bird’s heart may beat as many as 500 times a minute and that of a hummingbird can be 1000 times a minute. Their heart rates can also increase when frightened – at rest the Umbrella Cockatoo is around 120 beats per minute but this goes up to 300 when frightened or nervous.
Lungs work differently for a bird than for a human. Humans’ lungs work a bit like a bellow in that we breathe air in and out. Birds’ lungs are continuously filled and they have air sacs that take in fresh air and expel used air and carbon dioxide. These air sacs also work to send warm air around the bones in water birds and others that can stay afloat on water as well as keeping up body temperature. On the turn side, the system can also dissipate heat generated when flying.
When humans are warm, we sweat to help cool ourselves down but birds don’t have this option. Usually, holding out their wings is a good method to cool off and a quick bath is a great option. Birds also pant to help reduce their body temperature but this can be a sign of serious overheating. Panting means they are breathing quicker than normal and often there can be a fluttering at the throat. This expels heat through the mucus membrane of the throat.
There are some signs that a bird is overheated; hot feet, red nares (the nasal openings) and even their beaks will feel hot. Hot breath is another pointer and these can be signs that a vet is needed for advice to cool the bird safely. Some of these methods to relieve heat can also be symptoms of other illnesses such as fever or a respiratory disease so a quick evaluation is needed and you may need to get in touch with your vet.
Vets will sometimes recommend putting the bird in a bowl of tepid water to help cool them down but never cold water as this can induce shock. Make sure the beak and face are out of the water and that the bird doesn’t inhale any water. Once the nares return to the normal colour and the breathing rate settles, then you can return them to their home, as long as it isn’t in a spot where they will simply heat back up.
Feathers are a bird big weapon against low temperatures. Sitting with feathers covers their feet is a common method to reduce heat loss as is fluffing up their feathers. Some species will sit with their darkest coloured feathers nearest the sun to absorb extra heat. How susceptible birds are the cold temperatures vary between species, though just because a bird is originally from a hot climate doesn’t mean they will need heat. Many birds have been in this country for generations and are more adapted to our climate. Drafts can be the biggest worry when in a cage so should be guarded against.
If a bird is sitting with feathers fluffed up for a long period of time, this can be a sign they have a chill. Keep a thermometer handy to check the temperature in the aviary or around their cage and look for possible sources of drafts. If a cage is standing near a window, this can be the coldest part of the room and could be causing the bird to have a low temperature so moving it to a warmer spot away from the window may help solve the problem. But beware because fluffed feathers can be a symptom of other problems or of a serious illness, so any sign of fluffing for an extended period should lead to a health check.