Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

By Carla Thornton

Three-quarter-inch nylon mesh is fine for parrots that aren't big chewers.

SOONER or later, most parrot owners start thinking beyond the bird cage and dreaming of something bigger. Something outdoors. With landscaping. Wouldnít it be nice to have an aviary?

The logistics of building an outdoor flight can seem daunting. Where will you put it? How much will it cost? And donít proper aviaries need concrete floors and building permits?

Itís true youíll have to sacrifice some yard space and cash to make your aviary a reality. But if you keep it small and casual, you can ignore the rest. After all, you want a safe place to park your parrot for a few hours when the weather is nice, not a heated, state-of-the-art breeding facility.

For parrots that spend all their time indoors, a backyard aviary can be a welcome change of scenery. The larger space gives them room to explore, play, fly and chew to their heart's content.

An aviary is also a great way to give your bird exposure to the natural lighting he needs for optimum health.

Best of all, an aviary keeps your parrot safely confined while outdoors, so you can relax. You can work in the yard, read a book on the patio or have friends over for a barbecue, all without having to keep a watchful eye on the feathered member of the family.

After years of promising ourselves "some day," my husband and I finally built our own 55-square-foot backyard aviary. It cost us a few weekends and about $500 in materials, but itís been well worth it.

Now, we canít imagine not having a backyard playpen for Allie the cockatiel, Nelson the lory, and Louie the macaw.

Start planning your aviary now and by spring your parrots can be outside soaking up the rays in their own jungle paradise.

Chicken wire's a no-no
When we first decided to build, I was so excited I immediately ran out and bought three rolls of chicken wire. Thatís what my dad used for all my pigeon and rabbit pen projects when I was kid; why not our aviary?

Then I read that chicken wire is coated with toxic zinc. Doh! Back to the drawing board.

A viewing platform, climbing rope and swing with a food cup attached provide Louie with plenty of distractions.

We made our second pen out of ĺ-inch green plastic mesh and PVC pipe. We knocked together a structure 7 feet long, 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide in the driveway, then ceremoniously carried our masterpiece out into the tiny yard behind our rental house and set it down.

The aviary, as we liked to call it, had no bottom and could be knocked over by a strong wind, so one of us had to be present at all times to keep an eye on things.

To lash shut the slightly warped PVC-and-mesh door, which didnít quite square with the PVC door frame, we used three heavy wires as twist ties.

Usually, one of us sat inside the aviary in a lawn chair. Eventually, we got tired of untying wires every time we wanted to leave or enter, so we just tipped the pen over on its side and ducked underneath.

A real aviary
When we bought a house a year later we dismantled the pen and took it with us but never bothered to put it back together. The new place had a huge back yard, all ours; now we could have a real aviary.

We set aside a third of the vegetable garden for the new, permanent structure, which would measure 10 feet long by 7 Ĺ feet high by 5 Ĺ feet wide.

For your aviary's frame, you'll want a hardy, non-toxic wood. We used redwood, setting each of the four corner posts in a three-foot hole, which we filled with quick-drying cement. We added two-by-four runners at the top and bottom and framed a door.

Even though our pets would never spend the night outside, we installed a heavy wire mesh at the bottom and extended it four inches below the surface for extra reinforcement against burrowing predators.

Since none of our birds fly very well, it was not necessary to install an "air lock"--a foyer with a second door--to guard against escapes.

The search for netting
Next came the hard part: finding suitable netting. The flimsy plastic mesh we used for our PVC pen barely supported Louie, our macaw.

Some professional aviary designers recommend stainless steel mesh. This will last indefinitely and stand up to the most ardent chewer. It will also add hundreds of dollars to your project.

Because our parrots would be spending only a few hours a day outside, if that, we decided to look for the more attractive and less expensive nylon aviary netting weíd seen used at animal parks. It's tough but flexible and easy on a climbing bird's feet. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to have it or know where we could get it.

A Web search turned up LFS Inc., a Seattle-based company that supplies netting mainly to sports and marine facilities. A small corner of its Web site mentions aviary netting for parks and zoos. And they were willing to do a small custom job like ours.

We called the companyís 800 number and ordered sample swatches in green and black. We chose black netting that would be sewn to fit over the frame in one snug piece, like a giant toaster cover.

A few weeks later a bulky UPS box arrived. The final piece of the puzzle was finally here!

We excitedly pulled out our netting, a satisfyingly heavy, well-woven ĺ-inch mesh. It took both of us to carry it.

We pitched the netting over the top of our frame and pulled it down over the four corner posts. But something was wrong. No matter how hard we tugged, the sides stopped a foot above the ground.

Second timeís the charm
Somebody had misread the height measurement and made our brand-new netting too short. Crushed, we pulled it off the frame, stuffed it back in the box and shipped it back to LFS.

A couple of weeks later another box arrived. This netting fit perfectly, with the wide black seams running down each corner post and around the top. It was so snug, we didnít even have to nail the bottom seam to the frame.

Edible flowers such as nasturtiums add color--and munchies--to an aviary.

We finally had our aviary, but something big was missing: landscaping. I couldn't wait to turn the bare ground into a tropical paradise for our birds. With a list of safe-to-ingest plants from the California Poison Control System in hand, I set out for the nearest nursery.

For ground cover, I sowed Master Nursery Sun & Shadow Lawn Seed Blend. Grass from seed is a lot cheaper than sod and grows fast. We had a thick carpet in about three months.

In the front right corner I scattered nasturtium seeds. This perennial has worked out great, dressing up the aviary with edible yellow, orange and red blossoms year-round.

Next, I looked for small shrubs and fast-growing vines that would give the aviary a suitably jungly look.

Against the back wall I planted a gardenia and against the left I planted an airy asparagus fern. In each of the four corners I installed a vine, including two types of deciduous ornamental grapevines, a kangaroo vine and a creeping fig plant.

A small tree trunk with long sturdy branches nailed to the top makes the perfect aviary perch for large parrots.

We had always dreamed of installing a trickling stream or small pond in our aviary for the birds to bathe in, but we decided to hold off on this design element, which suddenly seemed like a lot of extra work. Maybe later.

Tree trimmer helps out
Finally, we needed a tall, sturdy perch for Louie. This was a problem, since the spindly trees in our yard have no extra branches to spare.

After spinning my wheels for a couple of days, I had a brainstorm and called the local tree trimmer who said I could tag along on one of his calls.

The next week I met him at a house in a nearby town where he had to remove several small trees. I drove away with a five-foot-long section of redwood in my trunk.

I dug a two-foot hole in the center of the aviary, set one end of the trunk in it, and filled in dirt around the base--no cement required. For perches, we nailed two four-foot-long weathered eucalyptus branches to the top of the tree trunk.

We added a long rope for Louie to climb on, a swinging perch with attached food cup and a small observation deck.

When hawks attack
We now had a fully landscaped aviary with sturdy netting and a door that latched. But I still found it difficult to leave a bird inside and walk away. I couldnít stop worrying that something could somehow get in.

One day, as I stood on the brick pathway between the aviary and the house, a movement caught my eye. I looked up to see a sharp-shinned hawk plummet from the sky. His target: Nelson, my lory, hanging upside down from the inside top of the aviary.

With the hawk inches away from making contact, Nelson uttered an odd bleat I'd never heard her make before. That seemed to change the hawk's mind and he aborted and flapped away.

After this we decided to cover the top with green shade cloth. Now, predators flying overhead canít spot our birds as easily.

The finished product: a modestly proportioned but verdant Shangri-la for parrots in the author's vegetable garden.

The shade cloth also keeps the aviary cooler on hot summer days and protects Louieís delicate face from sunburn. And since our aviary doesn't have a roof, it also shields against wild-bird droppings.

Weíve had a few other scares. There was the day Louie decided to let everyone know he had spied a strange dog in the yard next door.

We all rushed out of our houses to see what the commotion was. The neighbor, whose children were playing outside, later told us he thought a woman was screaming.

Another time we looked out a back window at dusk to see Louieís white towel, a favorite toy we leave on the aviary platform, jerking about as if on invisible wires!

We finally spotted the squirrel underneath the towel, wrestling it like a cat with a toy.

We chased him out and plugged the hole where he entered but that didnít stop our fuzzy-tailed friend.

Determined to have a nice fluffy towel to line his nest, the squirrel returned later to chew a fist-size hole in the netting. He pulled the towel most of the way through this opening before losing interest. Now we're careful about leaving items in the aviary, including food, that might attract other animals.

Postage-stamp size Eden
In the last two years our backyard aviary has blossomed into a little Eden of flowers, grass and tangled vines.

Maintainance is easy. We water the aviary when we water the vegetable garden. To "mow" the tiny square of grass I spend about 15 minutes every couple of months whacking it with a pair of scissors.

Aside from a little sagging, the nylon mesh has held up well. It seems impervious to our birds' occasional chewing.

We leave our birds outside up to several hours at a time, sometimes while we run short errands.

However, most of the time, I prefer to be at home with a window cracked open so I can hear outside noises.

There's nothing more rewarding than watching your indoor parrot enjoy the freedom of an aviary. The author's lory investigates the leaves of a kangaroo vine.

We bring our birds back inside the house well before dark. That's when raccoons and 'possums turn our yard into a suburban Wild Kingdom.

We always keep the door closed, even when the aviary is unoccupied. This prevents wild birds and other animals from becoming accidentally trapped inside. Even so, I always check to make sure no intruders have entered the aviary before I leave a bird.

Bird by bird
When we were building the aviary, I entertained fond hopes that being outside in a roomy pen would distract our birds into getting along. No such luck.

Nelson, a pugnacious lory, would like nothing better than to dismantle Louie, five times her size.

Louie, once cowed by Nelson's surly attitude, now makes it abundantly clear that he'd like a piece of her, too. Both view Allie the cockatiel as a bite-size snack.

Since having an aviary to romp in hasn't sweetened anyone's disposition, it's become a timeshare property. Some days I ferry birds back and forth all day long so everyone gets a turn. It's a hassle, but that's life with three incompatible parrots.

Nelson the lory enjoys a bath in a ceramic dog food bowl. She'd rather fight than share the aviary, so she takes turns using it with a cockatiel and a macaw.

Life on the outside
Our birds clearly had mixed feelings at first about al fresco living. Louie, the most nervous of the three, sat forlornly on the perch built especially for him and trembled.

Our cockatiel wasn't sure how to walk on grass. I can still picture him gingerly testing the strange green carpet with one foot and then the other. Fearless Nelson adjusted fastest.

Today, all three birds seem to enjoy being outside, as long as it's warm and sunny. Cool, windy or cloudy days seem to make them restless.

When I fill Louie's big plastic tub with water, he climbs down from his perch and sits on the edge fluffed until I mist him with the garden hose.

Nelson loves climbing and chewing on the foliage. The first time she destroyed a tender new vine, I had to bite my tongue to keep from scolding her. These plants were for her, after all.

Now I'm happy to let her shred away. She even enjoys the small bitter grapes the vines produce each fall.

Allie is too old at 21 to do much exploring, but he likes napping in the warm sun.

The funky chicken
But I think the best part about having the aviary has been watching Louie. It's clear he's experiencing some kind of parrot version of Iron John.

When he finds a patch of bare ground, Louie rakes it sharply a couple of times with his beak. Then our dignified blue-and-gold macaw checks decorum at the door and launches into a full-blown boogie with nature.

He scratches in the dirt with one foot, and then the other. He pauses to eye the ground to see if he's unearthed anything tasty, then he scratches some more. He pauses, he scratches, he pauses, he scratches again, with feeling. His eyes shine, his tail waggles, his big blue shoulders move to the beat of the chicken-scratch rumba.

Poultry-based instinct or sheer exuberance? It's hard to tell. But I know Louie never connected with his inner macaw like this when he sat inside a house. Published 2001.


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