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Stress-Free Travel Tips For Pet Birds

If your pet bird doesn't like to travel, use these tips to teach it to enjoy traveling with you.

By Chris Davis

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We enjoy having our pet birds around, often to the point of not wanting to vacation away from them. Although a pet bird’s physical requirements can make certain types of travel and locations impossible, there are many cases where traveling with our pet birds will work out well, especially if the destination is a place where they will be safe from teasing, theft and environmental harm, such as fumes or predators.

Timneh African grey in travel carrier
By Gina Cioli/BowTie/Courtesy Omar's Exotic Birds
Take your pet bird on short trips to get it accustomed to traveling.

When considering traveling with your pet bird, minimize the amount of stress put on your pet bird. View traveling from his perspective. Is your pet bird accustomed to travel, or will that be a new experience? Does he dislike travel? Are there existing problems? If so, they can often be overcome, with timely intervention.

Tami writes:

Dear Chris,
I would like to take our 4-year-old African grey parrot, Rocco, with me when I go on vacation to visit my family. We are planning to take the 200-mile trip by car, but I am concerned because Rocco does not like riding in the car. He growls and seems fearful and jumpy while we are driving.

At home, Rocco is friendly, well-socialized and loves new people, as well as being with me, my husband and our 14-year-old daughter. It seems that it is just traveling that upsets him. What can we do to make him more comfortable in the car, or is that an impossible dream?

Pet birds might not enjoy traveling for several reasons. Sometimes, they haven’t had good experiences in a carrier, or they get carsick, or they are frightened by excessive visual stimuli. Early trips often are only to the veterinarian or groomer, places that sometimes have negative associations. The pet bird quickly decides that being in the car equals discomfort. This situation can be alleviated by rewiring your pet bird’s programming.

I recommend always transporting birds in comfortable and familiar travel carriers or cages. This is a good general practice, not only for travel, but for necessary evacuations or in the case of illness. Consequently, everyone needs to make the travel cage a positive environment for their birds. For travel purposes, this needs to be done far in advance of the vacation. 

Do this gradually. First, turn the carrier into a “treat” room, where Rocco only receives treats while inside. Leave the door open if that is the only way he will initially accept it. Later, after he becomes more comfortable inside the carrier, the door can be shut for literally a second or two while he eats his treat, and then it can be reopened. Over time, the door can be kept closed for longer periods.

When gradually altering behavior, take very small, progressive steps and only go to the next level, such as the closed door, after Rocco is very comfortable with the preceding step. Each new and potentially frightening step should only last a second or two before returning to a place of comfort. Lavishing verbal praise is very important, as is offering favorite treats only inside the carrier.

After Rocco is comfortable in the carrier, use it to take him out to the car. Place him inside the car, give him a treat, and then immediately take him back into the house and let out of the carrier. Partially cover the carrier, three quarters or so before taking him outside. Some birds require total coverage for maximum comfort. Let his body language tell you what he needs.

Gradually increase Rocco’s car time. When he becomes comfy in the car, take him with you around town, but don’t leave him alone in the car. Make the trips focused on him. Eventually, most birds are just fine riding in the car, because their positive experiences far outweigh the negative ones.

Not All Pet Birds Travel Well
Some birds suffer from motion sickness, just like people do, and being in the car is physically uncomfortable for them. These poor little guys spend time vomiting and looking miserable. In some cases, the reprogramming can work for them; however, others simply do not tolerate the travel experience well at all, and it seems to be physical in nature. You have not mentioned this in your correspondence, so I don’t think it is Rocco’s problem.

Make Traveling Comfy
Address the visual concerns by covering the carrier completely, at first, and then roll back the cover a little if he feels comfortable with that. Always leave the carrier covered by one half to three quarters so that Rocco can retreat and then walk forward to look out of the front or sides if he feels comfortable doing so. This needs to be done even with plastic carriers that have little holes or grids on the sides. They still create more visual stimulus than is comfortable for many birds.

Make sure the bottom of the carrier is level and immobile. Use towels to level the seat bottom, and fasten the carrier using seat belts to make it more secure during stops and accelerations. Place rough paper towels over newspapers on the cage bottom to create a better sitting surface if Rocco decides not to sit on the perch, and they can be changed quickly when soiled.

Instead of a round perch, I have found that it works better for the birds to sit on a thin block of wood, where they can be secure and not flip around each time the car stops and starts. I make these with a base of flat, thin plywood, about a foot square, which sits on the floor of the cage. The cross, or perch, piece can be almost the width of the cage and anywhere from 2 or 3 inches high, to 1/2-inch to 1-inch wide, depending on the bird’s foot size. For Rocco, the cross piece would be a 1/2 -inch  by 2-inch piece of wood nailed perpendicularly to the flat piece, so that he can sit on the 1/2 -inch portion, elevated 2 inches from the floor. It’s a simple set up, but it keeps his feet from revolving around the perch. If you prefer a round perch, make sure that its diameter is small enough for Rocco to grip tightly.

As in the earlier example, desensitize Rocco to the carrier first. Then, take him out briefly and bring him back in, gradually increasing times. Since your little guy has an outgoing personality, he will probably enjoy traveling once all aspects of fear or discomfort are dealt with. Please write and let me know how he does!

The past few years have shown us that no one is exempt from environmental disasters or health problems and, whether or not we plan to take our birds traveling with us, it is always a good idea to desensitize them so they will be comfortable and unstressed while housed in carriers. After all, it’s the least we can do for our very best friends!

A Pet Bird’s Eye View
The fact that Rocco seems fearful and growls leads me to believe that his situation may be something a bit different, or in addition to negative travel cage associations. It is likely that the little guy is getting too much visual stimulus, and lessening this might make him feel just fine during his journey. 

Look at the world from Rocco’s, or any other parrot’s, perspective. The eyes of predators, such as dogs, cats and people, are set in the front of their heads so they can spot and focus on prey. Their peripheral vision is poor. On the other hand, prey animals, such as rabbits, deer and parrots, have large eyes set wide apart on the sides of their heads. Their peripheral vision is acute and not only encompasses behind and in front of their bodies, but also anything that may be traveling overhead, such as a predatory eagle or hawk.

Prey animals are also hard-wired to act fast. Within the time it took to ask, “Is that a predator?” the prey animal would have become a snack for an eagle or hawk. It is far wiser to leave fast and ask questions later.

This hard-wiring can create problems inside an automobile, where trees, buildings, bridges, electrical lines, airplanes, trucks, sunlight flashing through trees, telephone poles and buildings, and all manner of other looming objects, zoom by. These visual stimuli are overwhelming to prey animal’s sensory apparatus. This triggers a predator/prey, fight-or-flight response in your bird and drives him crazy! Add to that an often uncomfortable perch, and the possibility that this just might be a trip to the veterinarian’s office, and you can see why an intelligent little parrot might not be too happy to go off on a trip with you!

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Stress-Free Travel Tips For Pet Birds

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Reader Comments
Liked the article
susan, westchestet, NY
Posted: 2/17/2012 10:54:59 PM
Good info
alex, brooklyn, NY
Posted: 2/17/2012 10:46:43 PM
very good information to keep our fids happy.
colleen, whiting, NJ
Posted: 2/17/2012 9:42:35 PM
thanks for posting. great info. taking my B&G macaw on the road is always a challenge.
Carol, Silver Spring, MD
Posted: 2/17/2012 12:38:42 PM
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