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Plants & Pet Birds

Add plants around the house for a more stress-free environment for your pet bird.

By David A. Silver

A moth orchid provides beauty and filtered air in your home 
A moth orchid is a good and safe plant to have around the house.

“Our home is like a jungle!” When our children were younger, I would often hear this comment when they were talking to their friends. I took the statement as more of a commentary on all the plants in our home rather than as a complaint. Even our own friends would comment on all the plants in the house.

When asked, “Why so many plants?” I would say that, besides enjoying all the greenery, I really liked the noticeable increase in humidity in the rooms, especially in the winter. Besides, I would point out, the plants give off oxygen, they filter the air by removing carbon dioxide, and the plants can even remove some of the harmful toxins present in the air. And on top of all that, the plants provide a more natural and stress-free environment. And if all these benefits are good for people, they are especially true for pet birds.

Now that our children are out of the house and on their own, I am gratified to see that their own homes are becoming “jungles.” Something must have rubbed off on them! They don’t have any birds of their own yet, but with our children gone, our own home became filled with even more plants and even more of our pet birds. I am thinking that our house is more like a jungle than ever with all the birds and plants.

Our parrotlet, Zachary, has plants surrounding his cage. In addition to all the plants, there are many toys inside the cage. My wife Char, who buys Zachary all the toys, seems to think it is the toys and our company that keep him content, but of course, I like to think it is the plants and our company that keep Zach happy.

Keep Plants Safe, Too
Note that I mentioned that Zachary’s plants surround his cage, not inside the cage. Trying to keep live plants inside a cage does not work at all. Birds will destroy any living plant inside a cage. They eat or tear at the plants and their droppings make a mess on the leaves. Even outside a cage, a plant too close to the cage can be damaged by birds getting it through the bars.

Debris from the cage can get on the leaves and this, in turn, decreases the plant’s ability to transpire through its leaves. It is important to keep plants a reasonable distance from the cage and to clean plants around the cage on a regular basis. When planning the layout of the plants for around the cage, be aware of the traffic pattern. Easy access to the cage should be kept in mind.

Plants around play areas are also welcome. Our birds’ play gym is surrounded by plants. All our parrotlets, as well as our lovebird, enjoy that area and I like to think that all those plants enhance their play experience.

Our owl finches and Lady Gouldian finches have artificial plants in and on top of their cage with live plants on the outside. The aviary for the Gouldian finches and the hanging cage for the owl finches are outside the kitchen and in a high-traffic area. The live plants have always been around the cages, but since I added the artificial plants to both the inside and around the outside of the cage, the birds are definitely less prone to panic as people walk by their cages. With the Gouldian’s cage, I have to open the cage doors to access feed stations and the living and artificial plants all around the cage have really helped to calm them down when I have to attend to the cage.

One side benefit to all the plants might not be so obvious. On a rare occasion, because of the set up with the Gouldian’s cage, we have had some escapees. Most of the time, I never see the bird escape. The escape is so quick, I only feel a flutter of wings, so I often do not see where the bird has gone. I know the bird must be out because the other birds in the room are making a racket. Invariably, though, the Gouldian that has gotten loose instinctively goes to one of the plants. I usually find the bird after a quick glance around the plants in the room and the Gouldian is caught and safely returned to the cage.

The Plant Room
In our small home, our birds are situated in our living room and dining room. Although we do not have a dedicated bird room, we do have a dedicated plant room. This room can have humidity that is more than 70 percent, even in the winter, and this extra humidity is useful for stressed birds.

Some of our birds’ interactions with the plants are not only entertaining for the birds but provide us with amusement as well. I have a Phalaenopsis orchid that blooms reliably every year. Zeus seems to be particularly attracted to this plant. He never bites the leaves or bothers the plant while it is in bloom. Instead, he patiently waits until the blooms are just about ready to drop. Then he dutifully climbs up onto the orchid and removes each spent blossom one by one. I believe every bird should have a mission and Zeus seems to think that this is his duty.

Plant Management
When choosing plants for the home or the bird room, use common sense. Not all birds react to a plant in the same way. Some birds might have a reaction to plants that are supposedly safe for birds. Always watch your birds when they are on a plant. I allow our parrotlets to take small tastes of plants that are supposed to be safe for birds, but I would never let them eat an entire leaf, even on plant I know to be safe.  

I have a large Philodendron that is tacked to the wall near the Gouldian’s cage. One evening, I came home and discovered that one of the anchors holding the Philodendron to the wall had come loose. Several of the plant’s leaves had fallen on top of their cage, and the Gouldians had a field day with them. The Philodendron is reported to be toxic to the birds, but the Gouldians showed no ill effects. Still, I secured the plant to the wall further from the cage and took care that none of the leaves would get close enough for the birds to reach again.

Managing a number of cages and birds takes time and effort, but adding plants to the room does not necessarily add to the work load. Place saucers under the pots, and you can water plants directly where they are. Take care not to let excess water sit in the saucers for too long. It is far easier to empty a saucer than to bring pots to another area for watering. In my plant room, the plants are on benches with plastic trays underneath. I can water the plants directly where they are and then empty the trays as needed.

Fertilizing plants is necessary but doesn’t necessarily mean more work. A timed release fertilizer for houseplants, such as Osmocote®, works very well and lasts up to three months. If debris gets on the plant leaves, mix one teaspoon of liquid soap into a gallon of water and dip a paper towel into the solution. Then simply wipe off the leaves with the paper towel. Another alternative is to bring the plant outside and give it a vigorous spray with water from a hose. This is extremely effective in preventing plant diseases, such as aphids, mealy bugs and scale.

If a disease problem persists, an insecticidal soap might be necessary; however, never use an insecticidal spray near the bird’s cage. In case of disease, remove the plant to another room or outside to spray the plant. Wait for the plant to dry thoroughly before bringing it back near the bird’s cage.

When I brought home a new plant to add to our home, my daughters would often ask, “Dad, don’t we have enough plants already?” My response was always “I don’t understand the phrase ‘too many plants;’ there is no such thing.” So let’s go natural! Isn’t it about time you got started on your own jungle? 

Supplemental Lighting
Even with sufficient light from windows, plants will benefit from supplemental light. Supplemental light is good for the birds, it is good for the plants and it is good for you. Sources of light can be fluorescent or incandescent, and I use a combination of both types of bulbs. I use the fluorescent bulbs directly over the cages and a combination of the incandescent bulbs and fluorescent bulbs for the plants. Feather-Brite is a brand of compact full-spectrum fluorescent light that is energy efficient. This type of bulb gives enough light for small plants and is excellent over the cages because the bulb emits very little heat.

Most incandescent full-spectrum bulbs are rated at 150 watts and can get quite hot, so I do not use these bulbs over the cages. However, the incandescent bulbs can be directed with their light away from the cages and over the plants, and they give incidental light to the cages without adding the heat. Keep these types of lamps at a distance of 18 to 24 inches away from the plants. This is sufficient to give good light to plants, and it avoids burning the leaf tips.

The duration of the light for birds and plants can be synchronized. I find that some plants benefit from a greater length of time in the light. In that case, the bird cage can be covered at night and the lights can be left on for the plants. But for most plants, they can make do on what you give the birds. For the plant room, I have a timers that automatically turn the lights on in the morning and turn them off at night. The duration of light varies from 12 hours during the summer to 10 hours of light during the winter.


5 Easy Plants For Your Pet Bird Room
1) Schefflera arboricola (Dwarf Umbrella plant): This common houseplant is tolerant of a wide variety of house conditions, including owner neglect. When it is allowed to grow larger, it often develops aerial roots. Smaller socialized birds love exploring this plant.

2) Ficus benjamina (Weeping fig): This is an easy plant that is also tolerant of a wide variety of conditions in the home. It has a tendency to drop leaves during the winter so be sure to keep the area around the cage clean. Pruning will keep the size of this plant manageable. Sap will ooze from cut branches and, though this does not seem to bother the birds, some people are sensitive to the sap. It is best to wear gloves when pruning. Remove the plant to another room, prune, and then leave the plant there until the sap stops flowing.

3) Phalaenopsis orchid (Moth orchid): An orchid? Easy? Of course! This orchid actually requires the lower light conditions found in an east- or west-facing window. The real challenge is not in keeping it alive, but getting it to bloom. A temperature of 55 degrees Farenheit at night over a two week period or more in the autumn will help to initiate flower spikes. And if you do get it to bloom, you and your birds will really enjoy the show. For details on cultural requirements, visit the American Orchid Society web site at www.aos.org.

4) Crassula argentea (Jade plant): This plant needs more light than the others mentioned, but it is quite easy. It requires very little watering. The branches and leaves may not tolerate the weight of bigger birds. The jade plant can adapt to lower light conditions.

5) Bromeliads (air plants): There are many types of bromeliads. The easiest to begin with are Tillandsias. These plants do not need a pot or soil and tolerate indirect to bright, indirect light. They can be mounted on dried grapevine, other types of wood or just hung freely. Hang them a reasonable distance away from cages and near a light source. Bring them to the sink for a good soaking when they require watering. For details on cultural requirements, visit the Bromeliad Society International at www.bsi.org.

For a list of toxic and non-toxic plants, click here.


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Reader Comments
very interesting and thorough article. sincere thanks
janet, henderson, NV
Posted: 5/13/2011 3:03:13 PM
This is a great article. Thanks
Dan, Sandy Valley, NV
Posted: 3/30/2011 3:56:17 PM
Awesome !
Nini, Coconut Creek, FL
Posted: 3/30/2011 8:21:36 AM
I too, live in a 'jungle'....so therefore so does my bird. Haven't heard any complaints yet!
J, KC, MO
Posted: 3/29/2011 9:30:55 PM
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