By Gina Cioli/BowTie Studio
Most ficus trees are safe for bird aviaries.
This might be a trend that bird owners can appreciate. Jeff Radzak, developer of the JWR Exotic Bird Environment Air System, compiled a report entitled Domestic and Tropical Plants in Aviaries. After studying two groups of birds, one of which lived in a planted environment and the other of which lived in a bare flight, Radzak found that birds did better in a planted environment. "I watched the birds’ behavior, metabolism, appetite and overall condition,” said Radzak. "The birds surrounded by tropical plants seemed to exhibit more natural behaviors. They bathed more frequently, ate more and were more active in general.”
Tropical plants can be a perfect addition to an aviary or even set off to the side of your bird’s cage. Planted aviaries are most practical outdoors where rain, wind and sunlight help maintain plant health and, depending on climate, inhibit the growth of mold and bacteria.
Although fully planted aviaries are beautiful to behold, they are not feasible inside most homes. Parrots can quickly decimate a painstakingly planted environment. Flung seed, pellets and soft foods will eventually attract insects and possibly even rodents. Mold and bacteria find friendly hosts in the soil, on discarded food and decaying vegetation. Bird droppings accumulate quickly on soil or leaves. Mealy bugs, whiteflies and even fruit flies might begin to invade the space. There are ways, however, to bring the outdoors in.
Plant A Jungle Indoors
If you bring plants indoors, choose plants that are nontoxic to birds. Avoid plants grown from bulbs or any plants commonly associated with holidays. Mistletoe, holly, yews, lilies, amaryllis, daffodils and hyacinths all contain toxic properties. Although listed as safe on some plant lists, ficus plants are members of the rubber tree family and contain an irritant sap that may adversely affect birds that chew on stems or leaves. If you are in doubt about the safety of any plant, don’t buy it.
"There is no real way to know how ‘safe’ is determined, especially for a less common plant,” said Donna Muscarella, Ph.D., at the Laboratory of Molecular Toxicology at Cornell University’s Veterinary Medical Center. "I’m sure no one is feeding plants to birds to look for toxicity.”
Muscarella explained, "Toxicity depends on so many factors: the dose, or amount of plant, ingested, part of the plant ingested, differences in the ability of individual birds to metabolize and detoxify. This is also true of humans and accounts for the sometimes huge differences in side effects that different people experience when taking a medication as well as differences in chemical metabolism among species, which can be very significant. I personally keep just spider plants, ferns and bamboo.”
The common spider plant grows quickly in medium light and is easy to propagate from the plantlets that grow on runners once the plant has become pot bound. Hang spider plants from ceiling hooks, display them on pedestals or cluster together for a dramatic effect. They’re inexpensive, and leaves suffering beak damage can be trimmed away without damaging the looks of the plant.
Umbrella trees, areca palms, bamboo, eucalyptus and dracaena are quite easy to care for and make nice tropical additions to an avian habitat as well.
Play It Safe
Take some precautions with plants for your bird’s area. Although most nurseries do not treat plants with systemic pesticides, it never hurts to ask. Systemic pesticides are often mixed with water or soil and taken up into the plant’s structure, rendering the plant itself poisonous to insects and possibly birds.
Rinse the foliage to remove dust and sprayed-on pesticide residue. Re-pot the plant, using a clean planter and sterile potting soil. If you are concerned about remaining traces of pesticides, purge the plant by allowing it to grow for several months before placing it near your bird. If small flying insects, whiteflies or aphids besiege your plants, investigate nontoxic pest management products.
My Amazon parrots don’t pay much attention to the potted plants in their sunroom, but they do love to rout around in the soil. Because I’m mindful of the possibility of mold and bacterial contamination, I discourage this activity. A layer of smooth stones or marbles that are too large for birds to break or swallow on top of potting soil also keeps birds out of the soil and is an attractive alternative. Try marbles for a flashier look. Wood mulch could attract mold and insects, and of course, birds should not be permitted to ingest any non-food products.
Potting soils can contain active microbes, including bacterium, mold spores and yeast off-gassing. If you have a lot of potted plants, you might want to invest in an air filtration unit specifically designed for birds that protects the environment from airborne microbes.
"Molds that are ubiquitous in the environment, such as Aspergillus fungus, can pose a problem under certain circumstances,” said Muscarella regarding the danger of mold in potting soil. "Some bacteria, or more often their spores, such as Mycobacterium avian, which causes avian tuberculosis, can survive in soil. I would avoid the direct exposure of our pets to soil. There is also a possibility that trace minerals and heavy metals, such as lead, are present in soil.”
Robert Monaco, DVM, Dip. ABVP — Avian, of the Old Country Animal Clinic in New York, suggests taking extra precaution. "Check with the manufacturer of the potting soil for additives and see what it says. Check the specific ingredients to see if there are toxins or chemicals.”
Think Outside The Bird Cage
You can go one step beyond tropical plants and beautify your bird area with added accessories. Fence off an area just outside a window or glass door and plant it as a backdrop for your bird’s cage or play area. In addition to lush plantings, install accent lighting, a fountain, small fish pond and even some statuary. Your bird should be safely separated from the garden but still able to enjoy the spectacular visual effects.
Place potted plants on pedestals of varying height near your bird’s cage but out of beak range. A full-spectrum light, illuminated for several hours each day, will benefit both birds and plants.
Paint an old bird cage and fill it with fast growing potted plants or silk flowers and greenery. Hang it beneath a skylight, or place it on a pedestal or table.
Stencil or paint jungle foliage on the wall behind your bird’s cage, or put up jungle-themed wallpaper. Use water-based paints and products.
Fresh air and scrupulous cleaning keep mold, bacteria and insects at bay. Occasionally spritz the soil in planters with white vinegar. The acidity will inhibit mold. Open a window at least part of every day. Install skylights that open to let fresh air inside. Remove uneaten bird food and fallen plant matter from the room or cage each day. Choose your plants carefully and place them strategically. You’ll find that it’s pretty easy to be green.
Choosing Tropical Plants
Bougainvillea — Bougainvillea
Butterfly Cane — Areca lustescens
Bromeliads — Anans comosus
Dracaena — Dracaena spp.
Dragon tree — Dracaena draco
Eucalyptus — Beaucarnea recurvata
Jade plant — Crassula ovata
Passionflower — Passiflora caerulea
Schefflera — Schefflera actinophylla
Bird of Paradise — Poinciana and related spp. (Seed pods and flowers)
Caladium — Caladium spp.
Elephant’s Ears or Taro — Colocasia spp.
Figs — Ficus spp. (sap)
Interested in learning more about bird aviaries?
Build An Outdoor Bird Aviary
The Best Finches For The Bird Aviary
Create A Safe Bird Aviary