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Flight risk great for birds out in public

In a place known for its pirates, Jimmy Buffett fans and tropical weather, it's no surprise to see a macaw, cockatiel or budgie out in public, perched on someone's shoulder. For many pet owners, it's the reward of a tight bond developed over the course of a bird's long life.

For many bird experts, it's cause for concern, or at least caution.

Avian expert Peter Helmer, a veterinarian for the Animal and Bird Hospital in Town 'N Country, Temple Terrace and New Tampa, says he gets a call at least monthly from an owner whose bird flew away. The result can be devastating. Helmer lets his own parrots, an Amazon and a Derbyan, out in his lanai but doesn't risk taking them out.

Here are a few questions bird owners might want to ask before taking their pets outside.

What's the danger in going out with your bird?

Many people are under the misconception that if a bird's flight feathers are clipped, they can't fly. Not true. Getting spooked or hit by a gust of wind can send a bird in flight, depending on the bird's strength and how much their feathers have grown back. Helmer recommends trimming feathers about every six months and keeping them long enough so they can glide to the ground, if necessary. Cutting them too short can cause a bird to lose its balance, fall and injure itself. He also advises against pinioning a bird, the equivalent of removing a person's hand at the wrist. That's typically reserved for zoo birds, not pets.

So what's the safest way to take a bird out?

Try a harness, such as the Feather Tether ($11.99 and up at They work like a dog leash and will prevent a bird from flying away if startled. They come in different sizes and are available widely online and at pet stores. The younger the bird, the more likely it will adapt to a harness. Training older birds may be difficult or even impossible. Another good option is a "bird in a bubble" travel cage. Transparent bird carriers, like the Wingabago ($179.99 at, allow birds to see what's going on without feeling vulnerable.

What happens if a bird flies the coop?

Birds that are microchipped have the best chance of getting reunited with their owners. Metal leg bands typically help breeders differentiate between birds but aren't traceable if a bird shows up at an animal shelter or veterinary office.

How do I prevent a bird from having a bathroom accident?

Designed for flight, birds don't have bladders to store excess baggage, such as poop and pee. It comes out when it comes out. Still, large birds can be trained to poop on command, say over a garbage can or appropriate place. For smaller birds, try a FlightSuit diaper, a reusable diaper that looks like a vest and comes in a variety of colors and patterns ($20.99 and up at Like the harness, it takes some training to get a bird accustomed to it. In the absence of a diaper, a piece of cloth over your shoulder also works, provided you don't mind bird poop close to your face or hair.

What if I'm thinking about getting a bird?

Helmer recommends people read Dr. Brian Speer's book, Birds for Dummies, which spells out the pros and cons of bird ownership. "I think birds are great pets for the right owners," Helmer said. "But birds are high maintenance. I cringe when people tell me they don't have time for a dog so they'll get a bird."

Flight risk great for birds out in public 02/25/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 6:04pm]
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