Margaret A. Wissman, DVM
Winter as we know it in most of North America is a fairly unnatural season for the tropical birds that share our homes. Psittacines and passerines native to tropical climates would never be exposed to the lower levels of humidity, cold temperatures, winter winds, snow or variations in sunlight/darkness that occur in the more temperate climes. This presents a unique set of challenges when it comes to caring for our feathered companions.
Most of our pet parrots and passerines are native to more tropical environments than the one they are currently living in, so while they can and do adapt to living within a cooler temperature range, this does require that their metabolism speed up to maintain body temperature. If your bird is sitting with its feathers fluffed up, it might be using its feathers to better insulate against the cold, and it might require a warmer ambient temperature.
Birds will not catch a cold from being in a draft, but, of course, it makes sense that no creature, human or avian, would be comfortable remaining in a drafty area for any length of time. Keep all cages in areas away from drafts, windows or doors. Especially in the winter-time, make sure that birds have cotton rope or wooden perches, which are warmer than plastic, cement or metallic perches.
Older birds might not adapt as well to being housed in cooler conditions. This can aggravate an arthritic bird, so special care might be needed during cooler months. Discuss with your avian veterinarian any special concerns that you might have. Your avian vet might suggest a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID) or environmental changes to help keep the geriatric bird more comfortable during the winter months.
During the winter, homes that are heated often have very low humidity. Because most birds come from very tropical, hot and humid environments, they don’t do as well when living in a low-humidity house. Remember that moist tissues are happy tissues, as we were taught this in veterinary school. Many pet birds suffer from sinus problems during the winter, especially Amazon parrots.
Birds are much more likely to acquire a low-grade bacterial infection of the sinuses or the upper respiratory tract if housed in a low-humidity environment. Bacteria or fungi that would normally be simply and easily removed from the respiratory tract by microscopic hairs called cilia, often become stuck to the dry tissues, where they may set up housekeeping, resulting in clinical infection. Sinus problems can be exacerbated by vitamin-A deficiency (hypovitaminosis A). Vitamin A is very important for the integrity of the mucous membranes and the proper functioning of the tissue lining the respiratory tract and oral cavity.
One sign of very low humidity in the home is literally when sparks start flying due to static electricity. In the summer, water in the air helps to dissipate static electricity, so it is much more noticeable in the winter-time when humidity is very low. To prevent your birds from getting zapped, which can make them afraid of being handled, get in the habit of touching an object prior to attempting to pick them up. Run a humidifier in the bird room, if possible, a make certain that the water well contains just clean water. In some cases, it might be beneficial to also run a vaporizer if your bird is prone to developing winter sinusitis.
Take your bird into the bathroom while you shower (ensure that the commode is closed to prevent accidental drowning if your bird flutters in that direction), so that your bird can enjoy the high humidity. If your bird likes to get wet, allow it to dry off in a warm place, so that it doesn’t become chilled.
Want to know about how to keep birds warm in cold weather?
Bird Winter Nutrition
Provide Healthy Light To Birds During