Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

Wish you could take your bird on vacation, too?
You can! All you need is the right
equipment and a can-do attitude.

By Carla Thornton

A portable perch with attached food cup makes it possible for Mercury, an African grey, to enjoy a day at the beach.

SUMMER IS IN full swing and so are your vacation plans. You're looking forward to a trip to the cabin, the family reunion, perhaps a stay in a nice hotel.

There's just one problem: you can't share any of it with your favorite animal pal, your bird. Or can you?

It's tough leaving your bird all alone while you go off to have fun. Pet sitters are expensive and, let's face it, you worry anyway. (Did the sitter show up? Is your bird eating?)

Worst of all is having to look your feathered friend in the eye and say goodbye as you walk out the door yet again. After all, he's pacing on his perch; you're as free as a…well, a bird. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Well, who says you can't take your bird with you?

Many bird owners are doing just that – packing their beaky pals into the car, camper, on the plane, sometimes even on the water. It's not as easy as loading up Fido, or as common. According to a 2001 survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, only two percent of pet lovers take their birds on vacation (compared with 80 percent who take dogs and 15 percent who pack cats).

However, checking into the hotel with Tweety is an increasingly viable option, and can be very rewarding for both of you. All that's required is a few extra pieces of equipment and following some precautions.

If a long trip with your bird does not sound appealing (or possible, if you're traveling abroad), all is not lost. As many owners have discovered, shorter jaunts with their parrots can be fun, too.

Travel rules
Our pet birds can safely go almost everywhere we do, as long as we're careful to prevent escape, protect from temperature extremes, and guard against other animals. Admittedly, a flighted, unhousebroken pet makes hitting the road more challenging. But travel with a bird can work.

"I've traveled a lot with my bird and the experience has been overwhelmingly positive," said Mona Delgado of Seattle, who has taken her African grey, Phinney, to eastern Washington state, southern California, and Illinois to visit family. Delgado, her husband and Phinney have traveled together by air, automobile and even boat.

"The birds definitely benefit," said Delgado, who also sometimes takes her Senegal, Babylon, and cockatiel, Pretty Rita. "They become a bit more trusting and confident. I also enjoy having my birds with me."

For most traveling parrots, wing clips are mandatory; the last thing you want on your vacation is to mount a recovery mission for a bird that's flown the coop in a strange city.

Some type of well-constructed carrier also is a must; a variety of reasonably priced models are available for all types of travel, ranging from car to plane to even hiking with your bird. If you can't find a carrier made for birds that you like, you can modify one made for dogs, cats, ferrets or other animals.

You'll want to invest in a collapsible cage you can pack in your suitcase and set up again at your destination, an extra set of food and water bowls and toys, and non-perishable food and treats.

It's a good idea to get your bird a checkup before embarking on a trip. Finding medical care for yourself away from home is challenging enough; locating a veterinarian experienced with birds might be impossible.

If you're driving out of state or flying, you'll need a health certificate issued by your veterinarian. Airlines require it and state border authorities may ask for it in order to determine if your bird is traveling from an area under quarantine for Exotic Newcastle’s Disease.

Day trips
If possible, you should introduce your bird to travel gradually by taking him on short trips close to home. Many owners enjoy taking their birds on "walks" around the neighborhood or for short car rides to the pet store or a friend's house.

Before taking him out, you will want to make sure you can control your bird's movements at all times. Never let him ride on your shoulder unrestrained; it takes only a moment for him to flutter into the path of a car or unfriendly dog.

Mercury in harness
Mercury the African grey fought the harness at first, but now she knows it means a trip outside.

If he will wear it, a harness is an excellent way to safely take your clipped bird on an outing.

Bird harnesses are made of lightweight nylon similar to that used for dog leashes. The harness fits over the body and under the wings and attaches to a lead on the bird’s back or chest.

Harnesses are available for almost every size of parrot, even cockatiels. The trick is convincing your bird to let you wrap this strange new and vaguely snakelike object around his body.

Unlike your typical easy-going canine, most birds need lots of encouragement to wear harnesses.

Slow and easy and lots of rewards are key to successful harness training, says Sara Beth Scudder of Birmingham, Ala., who trained her African grey, Mercury, to wear one.

“Never rush it, regardless of how frustrated or impatient you may become,” she advises. “Introduce the harness like you do any other toy. Bring it into the room, play with it yourself, smile when you handle it and slowly bring it closer to your parrot.”

Scudder recommends leaving the harness within your bird’s reach and rewarding him with a treat if he touches it with his beak. Then begin bringing the harness into contact with the bird where he’s most comfortable being touched.

“For Mercury, it was her feet and then her chest. Gradually work toward the back. That will take quite a while. If your parrot is really not in the mood to see that harness, then back off. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for negative association.”

The first time she wore a harness Mercury was “not a happy parrot,” said Scudder. “Getting it on her was quite a battle for some time. Now, she usually stays pretty still. I highly recommend taking on the challenge if you are dedicated to helping your parrot enjoy life from another angle, exercise, see new places and have a sense of freedom.”

Strapping on your bird
Another safe and fairly convenient way to take a bird for a stroll is inside a carrier you can strap on as a backpack or frontpack.

Mona Delgado gets ready to take Phinney, her African grey, for a "walk" inside his custom-made Hobo bird carrier.

Unfortunately, unlike dog and cat pouches, which come in a variety of styles and sizes, there are only a couple of hands-free carriers made for birds. With their rigid frames, necessary for leaving enough room for a perch, they can be very bulky.

Mona Delgado puts her African grey, Phinney, inside a carrier called the Hobo when they go visiting friends.

The Hobo is a backpack, but Delgado wears it in front because Phinny "bounces too much on my back."

The Hobo, for which Delgado paid about $65, is vinyl and equipped with inside perches and food and water cups. It weighs only about two pounds, but it's so large that a wearer would have trouble tying her shoelaces. It's no longer being made.

Recently, Global Pet Products began offering a similar hands-free carrier called the PetPocket Bird Carrier. Like the Hobo, it can accommodate a small to medium-size bird but it has no food or water cups. It weighs the same as the Hobo, about two pounds, but it's not as large. It comes in one size, with an interior 12 inches wide by 7 1/2 inches deep by 13 inches high.

Luana Feigelstock bought a $39.95 PetPocket online so she could treat her greycheek parakeets to outings at the same time she walks her pomeranian. When passersby peer closer at the contraption strapped to Feigelstock's chest, they inevitably cry, "You've got birds in there!", she says, laughing. "I've stopped a little bit of traffic."

Pet Pocket
Luana Feigelstock models a Pet Pocket Bird Carrier with two of her grey-cheeked parrots perched inside.

Although she's had the PetPocket only a short time, Feigelstock already considers it indispensable because she dislikes hand carriers. "I’m a hands-free person."

She especially likes the beveled design of the dowels, which she says makes it easier for her birds to stay perched, and the smaller zippered opening at the top that lets her slip a hand in to comfort them.

But the best part is "they look around and they look up at me. We are on a walk. They can see me and I can see them."

The Cadillac of wearable bird totes is the Poco Pack. Although designed primarily to be carried by hand or slung over one shoulder, the Poco can be ordered with the Hiker's Delight option, which includes wider shoulder straps and a waist belt for $10 extra.

Poco Packs come in different colors and sizes (small for $35, medium for $99 and large for $109) and can be further customized with a mesquite perch, a name patch and even mosquito netting to protect from West Nile Virus.

The drawback is that custom orders may take several weeks to receive.

Let's go for a bike ride!
Whenever Karola Stotz wants to get some exercise and spend some time with her bird, too, she pops him into a customized wire bicycle basket. Then off they pedal to the park or the University of Pittsburgh, where Stotz works as a postdoctoral research associate.

Stotz's bird, an eclectus named Racal, seems to love the wind in his feathers and whistles loudly when Stotz pedals faster, she says. "He likes it a hundred times more than a ride in the car, where he complains about every bump." A wire cookie cooling rack serves as a lid to prevent the bird from climbing or falling out of the basket.

Racal doesn't mind passing cars if there aren't too many, said Stotz, although "he screams at buses and SUVs (good birdie)!" Racal also disapproves of dogs, which he "barks" at as loudly as possible.

Karola Stotz checks on Racal the eclectus before embarking on a bike ride around her Pittsburgh neighborhood.

However, he likes pedestrians, at whom he wolf whistles, much to Stotz's embarrassment "because they always think it's me."

Stotz and her husband now plan to rig a second bike with its own bird basket for their new female eclectus, Ruby.

On the road
Assuming your bird doesn't insist on playing annoying highway games (Twenty Questions, anyone?), having him along on a car trip could be a delightful experience for the whole family.

To acclimate your bird, first try driving him short distances around the block or in town. In rare cases, he may experience motion sickness at first. Some bird owners say a taste of ginger helps.

Never leave your bird in an unattended vehicle, even with the windows cracked. Birds are just as susceptible to heatstroke as dogs and children.

Chris Biro, a bird trainer in Amboy, Wash., believes car rides are a valuable way to build trust and a good relationship with a pet bird.

"Sitting and watching a movie with your bird will offer some good peaceful time together also but does not offer the stimulation afforded by the moving car and ever-changing outside environment," he says. "The time in the car is reasonably quiet and peaceful while at the same time the bird is getting to look out the windows and see an amazing world pass by."

Biro has crisscrossed the country several times in the company of his large collection of macaws, cockatoos, conures, and Amazons, always with one or two birds perched on his shoulder.

Biro does not believe in confining his well-behaved birds to carriers. The benefits of on-the-road shoulder riding far outweigh the odds that a bird will become a projectile in an accident, he figures.

Buckle up
Most owners say they prefer to keep their car-riding birds in secured carriers.

Carriers should be large enough to be equipped with food and at least a few toys. Keep water dishes low while in transit or provide only juicy treats such as slices of fruit. (You can offer your bird bottled water when you stop.) Avoid placing a carrier near an air bag.

A few bird carriers, such as Drs. Foster & Smith’s $64.99 Pet Coupe, are specially made to work with seat belts. However, most bird owners find that customizing an existing cage or another type of less expensive animal carrier works just as well for them.

dog crate
Collapsible dog crates like this one are convenient to store and can be modified for a bird.

Bart Van Hoyweghen, his wife and four kids wouldn't think of taking a car trip without including Wacko, their two-year-old African grey.

"He's joined us already several times for the weekend," said Van Hoyweghen, a freelance software engineer who lives near Brussels.

Van Hoyweghen bought a 19 1/2" by 23 1/2" by 23 1/2" collapsible dog crate and added two perches and a water and food bowl for Wacko. This year, seven people and a dog will be crammed into the family's Toyota Previa when they leave on vacation, so Wacko's cage will ride in the trunk, which opens into the passenger space.

Sara Beth Scudder takes Mercury the African grey for car rides in a tall but lightweight wire bird cage she secures in the front seat with a lap belt. While the cage is bulky, barely fitting into Scudder’s Altima, she likes the room it gives Mercury.

Scudder says Mercury knows the command "hold on", so when the car has to stop suddenly, "she is very good about holding onto her perch tight." Scudder keeps a harness on Mercury so all she has to do on arrival is snap the lead on and "then we get out and go on our adventure."

For taking along Mercury's large collection of toiletries, Scudder uses an old beach bag from her lifeguard days. She packs newspaper, paper towels, a couple of old dishcloths, water bottle, pellets, seed mix, Nutriberries, toys and a butter knife "to scrape poop if needed cause it lifts it off soooo well".

She also takes a wooden dowel for emergency step-ups, styptic powder in case of bleeding, a couple of plastic bags to store any messy items, and an extra shirt for herself.

All the trouble is well worth it, says Scudder, who takes Mercury to the pet-supply store to pick out her own toys. "She is a perfect little angel and she seems to really enjoy getting out. If birds smile, this is when she does. She just loves to chat with you. We have had some of our most fun times in the car. She just makes us laugh so much."

Trailer for two
Mary Allison feels the same way about taking her birds, an African grey and a sun conure, on the road. "Greycie likes the radio on when we're traveling," she says. "She whistles and talks. She likes to look out, so we give her the spot right next to the window."

The birds and four shih tzus ride in style in a 31-foot trailer that Allison and her husband bought just so their animals could go on vacations with them.

"I resisted buying a trailer until my husband told me, 'If we buy a trailer, you'll always be able to take them with us.' I decided he was right. It was the only way he could travel as he likes and I could take care of my 'kids'".

Each bird has its own dog kennel, which is bungeed down to an elevated custom-made wooden stand. Each kennel is equipped with toy blocks for chewing and grapevines the birds can cling to when the road gets bumpy.

While in transit, the birds get snacks of celery and grapes. When the family stops for the night, Greycie and the conure go into roomier wire cages where they're fed pellets and seed.

Last summer, humans, dogs and birds drove from their home in Texas over 4,000 miles to Cape Cod, Mass.

This year the Allisons are only driving to Arkansas, but their two grandsons will be joining the entourage. "It will be interesting," says Mary Allison. "Each boy will have to hold a dog and I'll have to keep two in the front seat."

While it offers a great view, Mona Delgado stopped using her acrylic carrier because it overheats.

Carrier shakeout
Over the years, Mona Delgado has tried over a dozen different carriers for her birds, including the discontinued Hobo, an acrylic carrier, small carriers made for cats and rodents, and several knockdown cages.

Her least favorite: the acrylic carrier, because it's heavy at five pounds and can overheat, despite numerous air holes. "It has a velcro latch on it and I had to leave it open for air."

Delgado's favorites are her old Hobo and her collapsible wire dog cages, which she can pack in her suitcase. The only problem with the latter is that you have to constantly attach and detach perches, dishes and toys.

On one trip, a toy that Delgado failed to reattach securely at her destination fell during the night and frightened Phinney so badly she thrashed and broke several feathers. "There was blood on the ceiling of my brother's house," she recalls.

The friendly skies
If your destination is far away, don’t rule out air travel for your small- to medium-size bird. For an extra fee, many airlines allow "household" birds in the cabin as long as they are confined to a carrier that fits under the seat in front of you.

It's best not to check your bird as luggage. Some airlines no longer offer this option anyway because cargo holds can reach temperatures of over 100 degrees in the summer.

MOST MAJOR airlines allow pet "household" birds to travel in the cabin with their owners. An exception is Southwest Airlines, which does not transport pets of any type. United Airlines allows finches, canaries and parakeets in the cabin, but not larger parrots.

  • ALASKA AIRLINES, (800) 252-7522. $75 each way/not counted as your free carry-on/maximum carrier dimensions 24" long by 24" wide by 8" high.
  • AMERICA WEST, (800) 2FLY-AWA. $80 each way/counts as your free carry-on/maximum carrier dimensions 17" long by 16" wide by 10" high.
  • AMERICAN AIRLINES, (800) 433-7300. $80 each way/counts as your free carry-on/maximum carrier dimensions 23" long by 13" wide by 9" high
  • CONTINENTAL (800) 575-3335. $80 each way/not counted against number of free carry-ons/maximum carrier dimensions 22" long by 14" wide by 9" high.
  • DELTA, (800) 221-1212. $75 each way/not counted as your free carry-on/maximum carrier dimensions 17" long by 12" wide by 8" high.
  • NORTHWEST AIRLINES, (800) 225-2525. $80 each way/not counted as your free carry-on/maximum carrier dimensions 17" long by 12.3" wide X 8" high
  • UNITED AIRLINES, (800) 864-8331. Only canaries, finches and parakeets. $80 each way/counts as your free carry-on/maximum carrier dimensions 17" long by 12" wide by 8" high
  • Every airline has different requirements for in-cabin pets, ranging from the size of the carrier to how far in advance you should arrive. Call ahead well in advance to confirm policies.

    Most airlines charge $80 each way for pets traveling inside the United States. If the airline counts your pet as your free carry-on, you may also have to pay extra to check additional luggage. (A personal carry-on such as a purse or backpack will still be allowed.)

    Many airlines require health certificates issued by your veterinarian within 10 to 30 days of travel. At check-in you may also be required to remove your bird from his carrier so it can be inspected, so be prepared to restrain him so he can’t escape into the airport.

    Like any travel with a pet, flying with your bird isn't guaranteed to go smoothly. You can increase your chances of a good experience by reserving a seat in the back of a flight that isn't full.

    If things go well, let the airline know, says Mona Delgado. It will build goodwill for next time.

    "Alaska Airlines and TWA have always been very good and the flight attendants seem to enjoy having a bird on the plane," says Mona Delgado, who has flown with her African grey, Phinney. "I make sure and write letters to these airlines expressing my gratitude because they don't have to allow birds and I would hate to lose that privilege."

    Wondering how Beaky would like sharing a condo with you in Mexico? Traveling outside the United States with pets is more challenging.

    Other countries have their own health regulations and strict documentation requirements before they will admit an animal. It’s up to you – not the airline - to contact the embassy or consulate in your destination country to find out what the requirements are.

    Checking in
    As more people opt to take their furred and feathered friends on vacation with them, more hotels are opening their doors to pets. Some charge nothing extra for the privilege. Others levy a small nonrefundable fee of $5 to $15 per day. A few require hefty deposits and limit your choice of rooms to certain ones, such as smoking.

    Few pet-friendly hotels mention birds, but that doesn’t mean they won’t welcome you. In fact, a caged bird may sound more attractive to a hotel than a dog or a cat, said Rod Welch of, one of a slew of Web sites that offer listings (see Hotels for the Birds).

    SO MANY HOTELS now accept pets, finding one that's bird friendly may be as simple as picking up the phone and calling your favorite place to stay. If not, numerous Web sites offer listings of pet-friendly lodgings. Be sure to follow up with the hotel yourself to confirm details.

  • Digital City. Limited to 37 major cities.
  • Will provide up-to-date report on pet policy of any hotel in its system. Includes international listings.
  • 1-click Pet Friendly Hotels and Resorts
  • Pet Friendly Hotels. Includes discounts.
  • Pet Friendly Travel.
  • PetFriendly – Hotels. Motel 6, Red Roof Inn and Studio 6
  • Includes beds and breakfasts, ski resorts, campgrounds and beaches. Discounts at lodgings with online reservations capability.
  • Travel Pets. Includes bed and breakfasts and cabins.
  • "We have called hundreds of pet-friendly hotels," said Welch, "and I can't remember one that prohibited birds. In fact, some hotels that accept dogs do not accept cats. Birds should be happy about this!"

    Chris Kingsley, a spokesperson with, said his site soon would allow visitors to search hotels by the type of pet they accept.

    "We have a lot of hotels that accept all kinds of pets, within reason," he said.

    Some sites will book a room for you at a discount and doublecheck a hotel's pet policy to make sure it's up-to-date. However, you should speak with the hotel yourself so you can make sure its policy fits your needs.

    Ask if leaving your bird in the room is all right (some hotels forbid leaving pets alone). To make sure housekeeping does not use dangerous aerosols around your bird, you may have to forego cleaning or plan to be there. What happens if your bird screams?

    These questions recommended by Pets on the Go will help ensure you don't get stuck with an inferior room. When you call, write down the person's name with whom you speak in case you need it later.

    At the hotel, keep the Do Not Disturb sign out when you go out. When you check out, make sure you’ve cleaned up any messes and leave a generous tip so you (or another bird owner) will be welcomed back.

    Travel advisories
    Traveling with their humans poses some special health hazards to birds beyond the obvious ones of escape and predators.

    Those who yearn to share the road with their Quaker parakeet should first check the breed's legality in destination states. Because escaped pet Quakers are especially adept at surviving in the wild, some states have banned them as environmental nuisances and may confiscate and destroy trespassers. They include California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming.

    A few states, such as Georgia, allow passage without prior notice as long you’re out of Dodge within 24 hours. For more details on where Quakers are welcome - and not - visit Quakerville, an online community for Quaker enthusiasts.

    This summer, traveling birds face two additional complications: the West Nile Virus and Exotic Newcastle’s Disease.

    While so far the West Nile Virus has not been as virulent this year as predicted, you should avoid exposing your bird (and self) unnecessarily to mosquitoes, which transmit the disease. Over 150 people in the United States have died from West Nile Virus since 1999, when it first entered the country. However, it kills mostly birds. Symptoms include lethargy and difficulty walking

    The West Nile Virus is a good reason (among many others, including wild predators) not to take your bird tent camping with you. Wherever you vacation, avoid taking your bird outside in the early morning or evening, when mosquitoes are most active.

    Avoid southern California
    Exotic Newcastle’s Disease may also cramp your traveling style this summer. A contagious and always-fatal viral disease that affects most species of birds, END was discovered at a Los Angeles chicken farm last October and reported in five states this year.

    Quarantines now have been lifted everywhere but in seven southern California counties. However, some states may still be skittish about allowing pet birds to cross their borders without a health certificate declaring them healthy and not from an affected area.

    Under no circumstances should you drive or fly a bird into an area still under quarantine: the California counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Ventura and Kern.

    If authorities discover you trying to leave, your bird will be confiscated and detained by the USDA for up to three months and you could pay a fine up to $25,000, according to Larry Cooper, a spokesperson for the END Task Force of California.

    This outbreak of END has resulted in millions of chickens – and about 300 pet parrots – being destroyed, said Cooper. Fortunately, it's waning.

    "We’re hoping that the remaining quarantines will be lifted within six months," he said.

    Travel broadens
    There is no type of pet bird best suited to travel. It all depends on the individual. One person's mellow cockatiel might make cross-country trips with ease, while another's is too skittish to carry across the room.

    If you’ll be spending your vacation days sightseeing, taking your bird may not be worth the trouble and risk, no matter how much you may enjoy seeing one another in the evenings. After all, your bird can sit alone all day in more familiar surroundings at home, and in a bigger, more comfortable cage than his carrier.

    Your bird may have to work up to a long vacation. The first time she took her African grey, Mercury, to Daytona Beach, a nine-hour car trip, the bird was very quiet and did not eat much the first two or three days, recalls owner Sara Beth Scudder.

    But Mercury is becoming a better traveler. "Each time is better," says Scudder. "Her adjustment period is shorter, regardless of where in Daytona we stay."

    Mona Delgado takes her African grey Phinney almost everywhere she goes, including on the boat trips that her husband, a yacht captain, pilots. They have traveled on numerous types of vessels, including a 70-foot trawler and a 32-foot catamaran. "It is actually easier to travel by boat because you can keep the bird in the cabin while you go out to eat," says Delgado.

    The only problem they've ever had was the time tugboats kept passing by and shining their bright lights into the cabin. It disturbed everyone, including Phinney, but "there were no long lasting side effects; just a lot less sleep for all of us."

    Delgado thinks her decision to show Phinney the world, albeit via some unusual ways, has been a good one for many reasons, but two stand out. One is that it has provided some of the visual and mental stimulation the bird would be getting in the wild. "I don't think birds were meant to stay in one place all of their lives."

    A side benefit is that Phinney is getting to know some relatives that might be important to her some day.

    "My family knows my bird even though they are all in Illinois," says Delgado. "I am brainwashing my neices to love parrots because I hope that one of them will want to inherit Phinney when I get too old and feeble." July 2003. All rights reserved


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