By Dorotheé Sensen
I’m often asked about letting my birds fly freely around my apartment, so I thought I’d try and put together a little page about letting them fly. I tried not only to tell my experiences but also consider other situations.
Why letting them fly?
Well, actually I think that birds don’t belong inside houses but outside in the wild where they can fly around as they like, since that is their natural way of moving around. That’s why I’d never have decided to get a bird as a pet. On the other hand, you can’t simply let birds free that have lived in captivity for generations, and so when Benji came to me I thought it my responsibility to at least give her a life as natural as possible. Not everyone has the opportunity to build an outside aviary, or a big flight inside the house where it’s possible for the birds to fly and get the exercise they need in safety. A cage should at least be 24″ (about 60cm) long, even for one pet canary. A cage that is 36″ (about 90cm) long is even better; the rule is ” the longer the better”! But often enough pet birds live in a smaller cage where they can only hop around a bit but can’t practice their wings.
So Benji was allowed to fly around, first only in the mornings and in the evenings when I was at home. Then of course it happened that she wouldn’t go back into the cage in the evening, and I let her sleep in a plant at the window (that was changed some time later, now sleeping is in the cage for my birds!). And of course it happened that she wouldn’t go back into the cage when I had to leave for work, and so I let her fly in the living-room, door almost closed, when I was away.
Of course, I couldn’t let them fly all day if I had lots and lots of birds – that’s one reason that I don’t want to breed. And I wouldn’t let them fly all day if I had children, dogs or cats or other pets for which birds are prey. But all that is not the case here, and it’s so much fun to have them fly around.
I also feel that they are so much more like other pets such as dogs and cats this way, much more responsive and tamer (after all, they have a choice!) Though my birds aren’t hand-tame (yet; but I keep working on that!), Benji used to come to where I was for short visits and to see what I was doing, often she flew circles around my head – in short, we all enjoy the fact that they can fly around. And, I think they are much healthier, happier little birds because they can fly around; I’m convinced my Benji wouldn’t have been so long with us, ill as she was, if she hadn’t been allowed to fly as she wanted.
Maybe you don’t want to let your birds fly around all day like I do, or maybe you haven’t got the opportunity to do so — but perhaps you consider to establish certain “flying hours” for your birds? Then read on!
Isn’t it dangerous for them to let them fly?
Of course there are certain dangers that must be eliminated before you can let your birds fly. These are for example:
Humans and other pets
You have to be careful when moving around during flying time for the birds. Sometimes they sit on the floor, and there’s the risk you could step on them. (I’ve learnt recently that canaries are ground nesting birds and stay in low shrubby places in nature.) Also, if you move too fast near the birds, they could panic and crash into something.
Other pets such as dogs or cats mustn’t be in the room where the birds are flying around. Even other pet birds can be very dangerous for your canaries! For example hookbills (parrots, parakeets), but even some kinds of finches can severely injure and even kill a canary.
Open doors or windows
You really have to be careful there! Sometimes I hear of birds that sit on the shoulder of their human when guests enter the house, or when the windows are cleaned – I don’t know if I can believe this. It’s a fact that Benji had flown away from somewhere, and she’d certainly have flown away from me if she’d had the opportunity. Lady would be curious enough to fly and look what’s on the other side of the window if she could. About Tweetje I’m not sure, he doesn’t fly around much anyway – but I’d never presume they wouldn’t fly away!
So, either doors and windows have to be closed (which is not difficult during certain flying hours), or they have to be screened. That’s what I have done, I screened those parts of my windows that I want to open to let fresh air in. I have these screens on all year round so I needn’t worry about open windows.
But, I’ve been told that these screens themselves could mean a danger to the birds – at least the cloth screens because the birds could get caught with their nails in the screen and dangle to death! (Seems I was lucky there, my birds knew and respected the “borders” before I put the screens on and never tried to fly at them!) An alternative to cloth screens are plastic screens (available in garden supplies) or wire mesh.
Also, if they can fly around in several rooms like here, or if you enter/leave the room during their flying hour, remember to check the tops of the doors before you close them; they like to perch up there!
Window panes and mirrors
Like the outside birds that crash into window panes sometimes, our pet birds don’t consider window panes as a border and try to fly through them; also they want to fly to the room they see in a mirror. So shades and curtains should be drawn at the windows, and mirrors should be covered while the birds are flying.
Of course this is hardly possible where the birds can fly around all day. When Benji came to me it was winter time and already dark outside when I returned from work. So in this case the window pane was a border that she could see. When I first let her fly in daylight, I stood in front of the window when she flew towards it so she would slow down and land in a plant or on the window sill rather than try to fly past me. I think having (big) plants at the window helps; they land in there, like to climb around and look outside. If they try to fly further from there they won’t be so fast and aren’t likely to hurt themselves when they get to know the “border”.
You could also put plastic screens or wire mesh on the window panes for a while to teach the birds that the panes are solid stuff. I’ve heard of a case where a first generation of birds had been taught “glass” that way, and when the next generation went out of their nest, their parents took them to the glass and pecked at it to show them that they can’t fly through it. This story strongly reminded me of how my Benji showed the other birds where the “borders” to their little world were!
Just be careful not to move too fast near them when they sit in a plant at the window, so they don’t panic!
Dangers in kitchens and bathrooms
I think kitchens and bathrooms are the most dangerous rooms for flying birds – that’s why they are forbidden areas for my birds! They wouldn’t know if the stove is hot, if there’s boiling water in a pot; also there can be soapy water in the sink or bathtub. Open toilets are deadly traps for birds! I always keep the doors to these rooms closed when I’m not in there myself.
Also, I don’t light candles anymore, and I’m careful where to put the water when cleaning my rooms.
Poisonous plants and other things
When the birds are sitting in a plant in the window, they will nibble at the leaves, rub their beaks at the twigs, pick in the soil in the plant pot … There shouldn’t be any poisonous plants in the room(s) where the birds are allowed to fly! Also better avoid fertilizer for the plants in the rooms where they fly.
Also be very careful about the potting soil you use for your plants! In many soils, there are fertilizer pellets mixed in which would be tasted by our curious birds! When you bring in new plants, be sure to repot them with an un-fertilized potting soil!
I haven’t any fresh flowers anymore, or (if I’m given some) only in the rooms where I’m present when the birds fly in there. Firstly, the blossoms could be poisonous for the birds, and secondly, they could fall into the water-filled vase when climbing in the flowers.
I also haven’t had a Christmas tree in here, or a bunch of “Christmas twigs”, since my birds live here. These trees are poisonous for the birds, and they can get caught in the decorations.
I won’t try to give you a list of safe and poisonous plants here (there aren’t so many plant names in dictionaries!), but would rather refer to Sharon’s and Doris’s lists of poisonous and safe house plants – their pages helped me a lot when I first had Benji! There’s also the Caution! the bird safety page at the New England Exotic Birds Sanctuary homepage for more information.
Also, look out for other things that could be poisonous for them, for example things containing lead! Though canaries don’t nibble at hard things like hookbills, it’s better to be on the safe side. More dangers: avocado left in a fruit bowl (danger to the fruit if you leave it in a bowl, too!); medicines and toiletries, sugar bowls, candy dishes; spoiled food garbage in sink or trash can, or cleansers or room deoderizers. Not to forget cigarettes and filled ashtrays!
Deep vases, urns or bowls
When a bird lands on a vase, it could slip and fall into it. Down there it has no chance to spread its wings and get out!
If you don’t want to put all your vases and similar things away, you could fill them with paper towels – that’s what I have done to eliminate this risk.
Not only empty, but also filled glasses/cups can be dangerous for your birds – they could try to taste your drink and fall into it!
Book shelves, sideboards etc.
These can be dangerous because the birds could get behind them and get stuck. On shelves where the books are put nicely in a row the birds could slip and fall between books and wall. In the room where I keep my books, I’ve put them close to the wall; my birds hardly land on the shelves, but you never know.
That doesn’t apply to my flat, but it’s obvious that running ventilators/fans are a deadly hazard for your birds! So just don’t let them run during flying hours.
That also doesn’t apply to my rooms, but I’ve heard of a case where a bird got stuck to such a strip when flying past it. Better don’t use them or put them away when the birds are allowed to fly.
During flying hours, do never vacuum in the room where the birds are loose! They can get sucked up before you know it. Because my birds can fly around all the time I have to vacuum the room while they are loose, but I always know where they are, and I’m always ready to turn the vacuumer off if they come too close to it!
Be careful about the curtains in the rooms where your birds fly, and the blankets and doilies that lay around. The birds could be caught with their nails in loose-woven textiles, and dangle to death or severely hurt their legs!
Dangers to your stuff from the birds
Finally some words about the dangers that arise to your own stuff if you let your birds fly. Of course they let fall their droppings everywhere, also on your TV set and your computer! That’s why I always cover my TV at daytime. They also sit down on and investigate letters, magazines and other paper things where their droppings will be afterwards, so if you mind that be sure to put these things away before letting them fly.
Well, that’s all I can think of now. If you know of another risk that’s not listed here please let me know! I’m well aware that I’ve been lucky so far that nothing bad has happened to my birds, but then, there are certain risks for them also when they are kept in a cage only. It works for me and my birds – it just required a bit of learning on both sides 😉
What about the mess?
Of course, birds let their droppings fall whenever they need to, whereever they are; but, the mess isn’t really that bad, by far not as bad as I first thought! After a while, the birds had established “their areas” and “their ways” through the rooms and hardly land or fly over “my areas”. They like to sit at the window, so I’ve put paper towels on the window sill which are changed if necessary. I’ve also put towels and paper towels on the floor in front of the windows, where they like to sit in the swings, and in front of their cages, where they sometimes sit for a while on the landing perch.
If by chance they make a mess somewhere else, there’s two ways: on a hard surface, it’s best removed if fresh, whereas on a surface like carpets or sofas you should in any case let it dry! It can then be scratched off easily, and the powdery remains can be vacuumed away.
All in all, I’ve much more work to dust and vacuum the seed hulls near their cage than to remove their droppings!
How do you get them back into the cage?
Well, that’s a tricky one, especially if the birds aren’t yet used to flying ;-). There are several methods. First what I’ve done:
I approached the birds in a way that they were between me and the cage, told them “Be a nice bird, go back into the cage”, and slowly moved towards the cage. When they sit at the window, I – slowly!!! – move my hand between them and the window pane so they fly away from the window. I had to be very patient and repeat these processes several times the first days, but they very quickly understand what they’re expected to do. Sometimes, of course, they don’t want to – that’s when I leave the room for a while (to not get angry and loud), and try again later; when I then return, however, they often are already in the cage! (Seems it’s not so interesting for them to trick me out when I’m not there:-))
Nowadays, I must only say “Sleeping is in the cage!”, and they know they have to return into their cage. If they have a nest in the window, I take that plant away and wait for a while, it most of the times works within 5-10 minutes. Getting them into the cage during daytime is another thing – they know very well that there’s something unpleasant about to happen when I want them in the cage then (vet!!!). It takes about 15-30 minutes, seldom longer; after all, they want to be nice birdies!
If the birds are used to perching on a stick that you hold out to them, you could also approach them with that stick and try if they perch on it and let themselves carry back to the cage; or you can gently direct them to the cage with that stick (or to a place where you’re able to pick them up).
You could also show them a treat such as a fresh lettuce leaf and let them watch you putting it into the cage. I did this in the beginning, and it worked quite well. Of course, they shouldn’t have food outside the cage for this to work. After a while they will return to their cage anyway if there’s no food and water outside, so if you have time enough just wait for this and close the cage door.
If nothing of this works and you have to catch them, try doing so in the dark. Birds can’t see in the dark and mostly hold perfectly still when you get them. If the room’s too dark for you to see anything, get a flashlight, turn it on just long enough that you know where the bird is, and when you’ve turned it off you can grip the bird’s “image”. Good thing with this method is that you don’t have to chase them around for catching them.
There are also nets for catching birds, you only have to be careful not to hurt them with the wooden or metal ring when catching them. (There are, however, nets with padded rims so it is less likely to hurt the bird with it. They are distributed by Bird Breeder Connection [address can be found on the Mailorder Suppliers page of the Canary List Info Pages.]) But you should try to not move too fast to not throw them into a panic, and you probably would have to tire them out first before you can get them.
If nothing else works there’s still a light cloth that can be thrown over the bird so that it can’t move away and you can get it. I personally would not do that; my parents did it with Benji the first evening she was there, and she never again acted that tame as she did before they caught her that way.
Thanks to …
Many thanks to Marian Cochran, Linda Hogan, Patti Petit, Susan Treesh and Ginger Wolnik for their help putting together this page! I truly learned a lot from your advice.
A hint for those who are searching for pages on keeping (and breeding) canaries – don’t forget to visit Linda Hogan’s World of Canary Tales and the Pacific American Singers Club home page (maintained by Ginger Wolnik) for most valuable information!!!
Well, that’s about it! If anyone knows of something that’s missing here, please let me know and I’ll be glad to add it!
I wish you and your birds much fun when you let them fly!