Bob and Liz Johnson

(Condensed version was published in Bird Talk in the June, 2003 issue under the title "Try a Free Flight Aviary")

The beautiful natural habitats that most zoos provide for their animals today have not always been the case. It is hard to imagine that not very many years ago, the standard housing for even large animals was a small cage. Zoos, however, have responded to the research on the physiological and psychological needs of animals as well as to the cries of the viewing public by constructing at least psychological space with natural settings for their animals.
Today, the sight of a gorilla in a steel bar cage or a killer whale swimming in circles in a small tank is considered to be cruel and inhumane.

Those who keep tropical fish also generally provide them with a habitat full of aquatic plants, grasses and undersea-type paraphernalia. Horses are generally provided pastures where they can roam and graze. The better dog kennels provide runs where the dogs can exercise. Those who keep waterfowl tend to provide natural-looking ponds.
Reptiles are usually given natural habitat-type terrariums. It seems that most animals kept as pets or for the enjoyment of humans are given a taste of what their natural life was meant to be.
Yes, attitudes toward animals are evolving, but what about parrots?

Parrots, naturally creatures of the air and boundless space, seem to be the last captive animals for whom a natural lifestyle is being considered.
Many are still living in the small sterile environment of a cage, unable to embrace in any way the unique and wondrous lifestyle for which they were created.

The avicultural world has made tremendous advances in recent years in the fields of veterinary care, nutrition, hygiene, and behavioral advice, yet the plethora of neurotic behaviors that are occurring among pet birds would indicate that something is still missing in our understanding of birds’ needs.

Evolutionary echoes in their genetic make-up still cry out for the need to fly and be a part of nature. Perhaps because they are so charismatic, humans have taken them from their natural environment and tried to edit them for our own convenience. We ground them and try to make them into feathered mammals, but in reality they are birds after all. Neurotic behaviors often stem from being forced into an unnatural environment. Could this be the missing link?

Biologists have often used the term “flying primates” to describe parrots’ intelligence and their complex social life. Yet few people would think it ethical to keep an ape in a cage in their front room.
Cages have been associated with birds, however, since the dawn of birdkeeping. Even the term ”cage bird” has been applied to pet birds so much that it has become a generally accepted descriptive term.
Perhaps it is just easier this way, since birds’ natural behaviors are not compatible with the lifestyle of most people and are such that they pose a danger to our homes and to themselves in our homes. We are still living in the Dark Ages in this respect. Little progress has been made in the housing aspect of birdkeeping, except perhaps for better quality or slightly larger cages.
They are still cages, which curtail a bird’s natural behaviors. Old ideas die hard.

Although the following statement by Peter Freund, a physicist at the University of Chicago, as quoted in HYPERSPACE by Michio Kaku, refers to a Cheetah, it could just as easily be referring to a parrot: “Think for a moment of a Cheetah, a sleek, beautiful animal, one of the fastest on earth, which roams freely on the savannas of Africa.
In its natural habitat, it is a magnificent animal, almost a work of art, unsurpassed in speed or grace by any other animal. Now think of a Cheetah that has been captured and thrown into a miserable cage in a zoo!
We see only the broken spirit of the Cheetah in the cage, not its original power and elegance…we only see the Cheetah when its grace and beauty have been stripped away.”
Viewed apart from their natural surroundings, parrots can express only a very small part of their full potential. They are more beautiful and complete when viewed within the context of their natural environment.
We owe it to them to provide at least a semblance of this natural environment even if it means simply psychological space within the confines of a home. Adding a few non-toxic trees and plants and exposing the birds to fresh air and unfiltered light (not necessarily direct sunlight, but light that is not filtered through glass or plastic), in a wired-in area outside when the weather permits is a big step toward enhancing a bird’s environment and thus making a bird’s life more in accord with the life he was designed to live.

Although most people understand that light acts as a nutrient in the sense that it stimulates the production of vitamin D in the body, the fact is that it does far more than that by acting as a nutrient for the endocrine system.
Each of an organism’s glands is nourished by a different frequency of the light spectrum, which is needed for the optimum functioning of that gland. Thus if one is not exposed to the full spectrum of light frequency, one or more glands will be unable to function at maximum efficiency.

All the knowledge we have gleaned in recent years about exercise physiology and the need for vigorous exercise for people goes double for birds. They obviously were designed for flight.
Saying that they get enough exercise climbing around their cage or playing with toys is like saying that we get enough exercise walking from the TV to the refrigerator.

David McCluggage, DVM, in his book “Holistic Care For Birds” (pgs. 50, 51) states, “Birds are meant to fly and are most happy and secure when they can.
If a bird cannot fly, its cardiovascular system won’t work hard enough to remain healthy.
They need to fly for fun and for exercise and to escape from danger. A bird that cannot fly will tend to be more fearful because it knows it is vulnerable.”

Birds expend tremendous amounts of energy in flight and they are gifted with a metabolism that provides this bountiful energy. When confined to a cage or otherwise prevented from flying, this pent-up energy must be diverted in some way. This could well be a factor in much of the psychologically caused feather plucking, self-mutilation, excessive screaming, biting, and other neurotic behaviors.

Imagine a young child who is brimming with energy and who normally runs, jumps, climbs, skips, and hops to expend it, being confined to a telephone booth with food and a few toys. This bottled up energy would surely soon be expressed in some form of deviant behavior.

There are people who will argue that some birds, especially some Amazons, are sluggish and prefer not to move much. This merely shows that these birds adapt to inactivity as readily as some people adapt to the couch potato syndrome. This behavior in no way implies that inactivity is natural or healthful.

Contrary to popular opinion, we have found that birds do not lose their pet qualities when given space to fly. They become less codependent and more self-directed, but still enjoy interacting with people. They seem to enjoy sharing the same space with their humans, which is why we prefer walk-in type habitats rather than suspended flights. A non-domineering relationship develops and human and bird become co-inhabitants rather than captor and captive.

There is an alternative to clipped wings and confining cages or even free flight in a house or outdoors, which is fraught with danger. Natural habitats are the wave of the future.
Many people who keep softbills provide these for their birds but since they are seldom addressed as housing for parrots, there is little or no information on exactly how to do this within the confines of a home. Many people have felt that although a natural habitat would be ideal for their pet, it is not feasible in their situation. The scope of this article, besides presenting a rationale for the need for natural habitats, is to suggest ways this can be done to fit almost any space or budget.

If a bird is to have free flight inside a home, care must be taken to bird-proof his space.
No hot stove or pans of hot water, no open toilets, no ceiling fans on, no open doors or windows, no dogs or cats who are unaccustomed to birds, no uncovered mirrors for him to fly into, no other birds in a cage (this poses a danger of bitten toes), no valuable furniture or decorations, etc. If this seems like a monumental undertaking, one might consider providing their bird or birds with a space set up specifically for them with an environment that they can relate to and feel comfortable in … in other words a free-flight habitat.

Health experts have said for years that it is healthful to walk barefoot in the grass due to the low-frequency energies emitted by the earth, but only recently have scientists measured these energies. Living beings were designed to resonate to this natural frequency pulsation in order to evolve harmoniously. Dr. Andrija Puharich found that the earth’s pulse rate of 7.83 Hz makes people and animals “feel good”. Birds seem instinctively to feel this energy, as when given the opportunity, they enjoy walking, rolling and playing on the ground.
Trees also conduct this energy and birds seem to gravitate instinctively to trees. Ground is the base of the rainforest and we have kept birds this way for more than 25 years with excellent results.

An extremely important consideration when placing more than one bird in a habitat is compatibility. At first, because it is a new situation and neutral territory, most birds will cohabit peacefully. After they become acclimated and especially when they mature and bond with another bird, many species will become territorial and attempt to drive the others away.
We find that these squabbles occur more frequently among those of the same species as opposed to interspecies interactions. Also, many of the problems we have encountered are the smaller birds such as Lories, Quakers and Conures annoying or even attacking the Macaws and Cockatoos.
We have thus had to separate the aggressive type of small birds not only because they were in danger themselves but also because they pose a danger to the others.
Once when two of our Red Lories decided to bond and build a nest on the ground, they viciously attacked any bird that came near. They even attacked their own siblings everywhere in the quarter-acre habitat.
Needless to say, they were separated from the others.

It has been our experience that, especially with macaws and Amazons, it is advisable to have the habitat within view of one’s house or preferably, attached to the house for better monitoring of the behaviors. Like people, friendships are not always permanent and sometimes those who were formerly best buddies suddenly become archenemies and fights can ensue. Interactions must be carefully monitored.

There are some birds that have adapted so well to life in a house as functioning members of a family, that they prefer this to life in a habitat with other birds.
We have a few macaws who seem to be perfectly happy to interact with us in the house and want no part of life outside, but even these don’t want to be locked in a cage.
They are in full flight, but seem instinctively to know how to behave while inside.
Each bird is a unique personality and it is necessary to observe and accommodate the proclivities of each one.
Freedom is awesome to one who is unaccustomed to it and in many cases a bird who has been confined to a cage and has never known freedom will seem frightened at first even when placed in a larger cage. This reaction is not natural, however, but one that has been instilled by years of confinement.
It takes patience and gradual acclimatization to slightly larger and larger cages until finally the inhabitant discovers the joy of flight and what it is like to be a bird.
Then they usually want no part of being in a cage again.

Additionally, handicapped or extremely shy birds can easily become targets for the bullies, so these should never be placed in a free-flight with fully flighted birds.
Many birds tend to pick on the weaker ones and the non-flighted birds become very vulnerable.
Nature is seldom compassionate.

It is not advisable to place any type of boxes or small enclosures in a free-flight with more than two birds unless one is absolutely certain that the species of birds to inhabit it are colony dwellers, such as Quakers or some species of Cockatoos.
Even though the human may intend them for shelter or sleeping quarters, most birds usually perceive them as nestboxes and can become very territorial and aggressive when anywhere near what they perceive as their nesting site. If, however, your intent is to breed a pair of birds, then a nestbox in a free-flight habitat situation for just that pair will help to promote healthier and happier parents and thus healthier and happier babies.

The three main objections to building a habitat seem to be:

(1). You think you can’t afford it … (Solution). If you can do the labor yourself or con a friend into doing it for you, you will be surprised at how inexpensively it can be done.
It does not require any special ability and even if you are the type who always hits the nail squarely on the thumb, you will be amazed at how easily you can complete a simple habitat enclosure.

(2). You think you don’t have the space … (Solution). Hopefully, we will be able to give you a few ideas about how to use the space that you do have in ways that you hadn’t thought of before.

(3). Both of the above … (Solution). Both of the above.

The easiest, quickest, and cheapest way to build a habitat is to utilize an existing enclosure such as a spare room, a porch, an enclosed or screened patio, a gazebo or even a garage. Even a portion of one of these spaces can sometimes be sufficient, depending on the number and size of your birds. A word of caution here, NEVER keep your bird on a screened porch or patio unless you have secured it with a heavy wire mesh.
Even if your bird is in a cage, a predator can tear through the screen and grab the bird before you even know he is there. Although the most common culprits in these cases are raccoons, one of the many such cases I know about involved a couple who were having lunch on their patio and had their bird in a cage on a table next to theirs less than six feet away.
A cat came through the screen, knocked the cage off the table, ripped it open and took off with the bird before they could even stand up. Even though they found and shot the cat the next day, it was too late to help the bird.
I also know of several cases where a raccoon came through the screen of an open window into a house and took a bird out of the living room or bedroom. We have heavy wire mesh over the outside of every window of our house.

If you have artistic inclinations, the habitat can be made a part of the décor of the house.
One of the most beautiful habitats I ever saw was built as an island in the middle of a living room.
It was a free-form design about twelve feet in diameter with plants, trees, a pond, a waterfall, and three birds all enclosed with 1¼ inch diameter round glass rods running from floor to ceiling about 2 inches apart.

Another area, seldom used, that can be utilized, if you have very small birds, is the top of the walls where they meet the ceiling. You can build an enclosure that attaches to the wall and the ceiling coming out from the wall and down from the ceiling about 2 or 3 feet and extending completely around the room. This should be attached to a small walk-in sized enclosure that you can enter to interact with your birds. The advantage of this is that it is space that generally is not used for anything else. Another space saving possibility is to construct an oversized bay window enclosed with wire and screen that can be opened or closed according to the weather.

The ideal habitat would consist of a room with a window or door leading to the outside through which the birds could fly into an outdoor enclosure during the day and back into the room at night to sleep with the window or door closed in cold weather.
The outdoor enclosure can be any size from a window box attached to the wall outside the window to a large free-flight rainforest size enclosure. The inside part of the enclosure can be anything from a window box attached to the wall inside the window to the entire room. If there is a problem with the neighbors, a small outside enclosure or window box can be concealed inside a lanai or behind a decorative privacy wall. The most important factor in any habitat design is that it has easy access for you to enter and interact with your bird or birds.

All portions of the room comprising the interior portion of a habitat should be protected with sheet metal paneling, especially any wood trim. This is true also for any part of the outside wall to which they have access.

Before beginning construction of an outdoor habitat, it is wise to check with zoning restrictions and requirements for your particular area. Some counties require a permit for any permanent structure, such as that which might involve a poured concrete slab or footing.

If you are going to build an outdoor habitat, although there are many possible designs, there are a few fundamentals that must be included for it to be successful.
First, the outer perimeter should set on a footing that extends at least two to three feet below ground level.
An alternative to a footing would be a three-foot wide strip of wire mesh laid flat a few inches below the surface of the ground all the way around the outside of the perimeter wall.
The inside edge should be firmly attached to the bottom of the perimeter wall before being covered with dirt. This will prevent predators from digging under the perimeter wall to get in.
Another protective device that could be considered is an electrified fence, about 12 inches high, completely around the area. You can easily step over it but it will keep most animals away from the area, thus removing the stress the birds have from just seeing them. An option that offers multiple advantages is to construct your perimeter wall out of concrete block and attach your wire framework to the top of the wall. This will prevent predators and other animals from climbing around the outside of the habitat.
It will give the birds inside some protection from high winds and it will prevent the birds from seeing all of the strange animals that stress them so much as well as preventing passersby from seeing the birds.

Not all predators have to tunnel under the perimeter to gain access to the habitat.
Some of the most dangerous can go right through the wire. Rats can go through 1”x 1” wire easily and so can some pretty good-sized snakes.
Mice can go through 1/2”x 1” wire and so can smaller snakes. Of course the most dangerous of all, the mosquito, is unhampered by either size wire.
Thus the outdoor portion of any habitat must be enclosed with screen to keep out mosquitoes as well as the many other kinds of biting and stinging insects. This is for your benefit as well as the birds if you have an indoor/outdoor habitat. The screen must be at least 4” away from 1”x 1” wire and at least 2” away from ½”x 1” wire to keep the birds from tearing it up. The screen, however, will not keep out rats or mice who can chew holes in it and then go through the wire. Additionally, raccoons will tear out whole sections of screen looking for a way to get in. So, unless you use the concrete block wall as your choice for a perimeter wall, you will need a layer of ¼”x ¼” or ½”x ½” wire mesh outside the screen to protect the screen. A possible alternative to this outer wire might be to use Pet Screen (manufactured by Phifer) instead of regular screening. They claim that it is seven times stronger than regular screen and impervious to cats and dogs. The sample that I inspected looked like it would probably hold up to a raccoon as well; however, since it is a relatively new product, I haven’t heard from any long-term users yet.

It is important to utilize construction materials that are appropriate for the kinds of birds you have or will have. Most enclosures use some form of wire mesh. There are many kinds of wire mesh on the market today plus new ones coming out periodically. Selecting which to use will often require some compromises since no one wire has all of the desirable qualities to fit all situations.
Do not let price be your primary guide as no matter how cheap it is it can be very expensive if it does not do the job you are using it for. If you are building an enclosure to house a variety of species, then you must use wire that will accommodate the largest specie. The strength of the wire is a factor of both the gauge and the size of the opening…the larger the opening the more leverage that can be brought to bear to bend or break the wire. However, the wire serves more than one purpose.
In addition to serving as the basis for an enclosure to keep your birds inside, it serves to keep predators outside and it serves as a medium for your birds to climb and play on.
Also, if installed properly, it serves to enhance the rigidity of your framework.

The key factor for keeping your birds in the enclosure is the strength of the wire. A welded wire with ½”x 1” or 1”x 1” openings will generally accomplish more of what you want from a perimeter wire. Less than a ½”x 1” opening presents the risk of a larger bird getting his toe caught when flying off from the wire. Greater than a 1”x 1” opening offers more leverage for the bird to bend or break the wire and you would need to use a heavier gauge wire.
A 16ga. wire will safely house birds up through Amazon size. For birds larger than Amazons up through Blue and Gold size macaws you need at least 14ga. wire and for Greenwings and Hyacinths you need at least 12ga. wire.
For those who prefer to use ½” x 3” wire for Greenwings and Hyacinths, the added leverage would require a minimum of 10ga. wire. Many people like the look of some of the new woven wire meshes available today, however, other than the aesthetics I find the welded wire to have more advantages.
Although a woven mesh will keep your birds in and predators out, it does not offer a comfortable medium for the birds to climb and play on nor does it add rigidity to the framework.
In fact, if proper tension is not kept on it a bird can pinch or catch a toe in it.

Stainless steel wire has been available now for quite a few years but the price is still prohibitive for the average person. Although stainless steel would be your best choice, galvanized steel has been in use for a long time and with a few precautions will safely do a good job for a lot less money. If you do decide to use galvanized wire, be sure to get a brand that is galvanized after welding.
Most are not.
I have used a number of different brands and I have found that I like the Aquamesh wire made by Riverdale Mills the best. The first and most important precaution to take when using galvanized wire is to be sure that the wire you use is heavy enough so that your birds cannot tear it up.
If a bird breaks off a piece of wire and swallows it, his digestive juices will rapidly dissolve the zinc coating and it will be absorbed into his body so quickly that it can have fatal results.

Before using galvanized wire you should weather it for about a month and then go over it with a wire brush and white vinegar to remove any loose zinc powder or burrs.
You should also keep your bird’s calcium level high and give him some apple every day.
Calcium blocks zinc absorption and the pectin in the apple helps to flush out zinc as well as many other toxins. (Actually zinc is an essential mineral in small quantities.)
If in addition to all this you will read a current book on natural health and nutrition, you and your bird can both enjoy far greater than average health even with the galvanized wire.

Never use wood except for perches, swings, or toys that you don’t mind having chewed up and especially never use treated wood for anything. I have found that the aluminum square tubing made for screen enclosures works best for the perimeter framework because you can screw the wire mesh to the inside using ¾ inch, # 10, hex washer head, self drilling (“tek”), sheet metal screws and just roll in the screen on the outside.
Other possibilities that might be considered would be the framework kits for shadehouses, greenhouses, or carports. You could also construct a framework out of PVC pipe, PVC conduit or galvanized steel pipe or conduit. The most important thing to consider when choosing is can you adapt your choice to meet the minimum standards necessary for a successful habitat.
If you have any screen enclosure companies in your area, it would be advisable to get several estimates for the framework and screen from them. Because they buy the materials wholesale and prefab the entire structure at their plant, they can often build the entire framework with the screen at about what you would have to pay for the materials to build it yourself.

The size of your habitat should, of course, be as large as you can make it.
There are certain minimums, however, that are necessary to achieve desired goals.
You need to have sufficient space to prevent overcrowding for the number and kinds of birds that you have.
This is especially important if you have more than two birds or if the two birds you do have are not extremely compatible. Overcrowding can cause psychological stress creating arguments and fights resulting in injuries or death. A good minimum to strive for is 2.2 cubic feet for each gram of the total number of birds in your enclosure. The length of your habitat will be the limiting factor in allowing your birds to fly.
For a bird to attain a sustained flight the habitat must be long enough for him to fly in a straight line for at least two seconds. To allow for continuous flight, the habitat must be wide enough so that when the bird reaches the end of the habitat he can circle around and fly back without having to stop and restart. This means a length of at least 10’ to 12’ for Parakeets and 50’ to 60’ for Hyacinths and a width of at least 5’ to 6’ for Parakeets and
30’ to 40’ for Hyacinths.

Any outdoor habitat or outdoor portion of a habitat should have a location, design, or camouflage that prevents passers-by from knowing that it is there.
In addition a good security system is advisable since bird theft has become a major business in this country.

Your habitat design should offer protection from the elements such a rain, wind, sun, cold, heat, etc. An indoor/outdoor habitat pretty much takes care of this problem as it gives the birds a choice when outdoor conditions become uncomfortable. Most birds love to take a bath in the rain but after about ten or fifteen minutes they start looking for a way out. They also like to sunbathe for short periods of time but prefer being in the shade during the mid part of the day.

Plants and trees are an essential part of any habitat. This can also present one of your biggest challenges as although the birds enjoy them, what they enjoy most about them is seeing how fast they can destroy them. You should choose plants that are non-toxic but I have not found any list that I totally agree with. Many lists name some plants as toxic that I have had growing in my habitat for years and do not name other plants that I had always considered toxic. My feeling is that it is best to err on the side of caution and when in doubt leave it out. Although in the wild parrots eat some plants believed toxic without any ill effects, many believe this is because the mineral rich rock they ingest on the cliffs protects them. As a precaution, I give my birds a product called Mezotrace tablets (found in most health food stores), which is a similar rock, put in tablet form as a mineral supplement for people. I put them in their seed dishes and even though they taste like a rock all of the birds love them.

Although an outdoor habitat should have direct access to the house, it will probably have a door opening to the outside also. Any openings to the outside should have two doors in series spaced far enough apart so that the first door can be closed before the second is opened. The outer door should be secured with a double cylinder deadbolt lock.

A serious threat to your birds can be the various environmental toxins found in today’s society. If you have a swimming pool near your habitat, you must keep your chlorine level at a minimum and if you should ever need to shock your pool, remove your birds to a distant location first. You might want to consider ozone purification instead of chlorine. It’s much safer and more effective. Lawn spray is probably the number one killer of wild birds in most residential areas and can be just as deadly to parrots.
Wind drift can carry its deadly effects for an amazing distance. When you are building any outdoor habitat, if the ground you are building it on has ever been sprayed with any type of lawn or garden spray, you should turn on a sprinkler and soak it for about forty-eight hours before putting your birds in it. Parrots love to play and dig in the ground and you want to be sure that all toxic residues are flushed deep down into the soil. It would also be a good idea to go over the area with a magnet to pick up any nails, screws or other small pieces of metal that may have been dropped there even as much as twenty or more years previously when the house was being constructed.
If you don’t find them your parrot will. If you have an indoor habitat or in the indoor portion of your habitat you can use potted plants but do not use commercial potting soil as most of these are impregnated with pesticides and fungicides.

The number one problem that most people have with parrots is neighbors.
As a precautionary measure you should have walls, trees and bushes placed appropriately around your house and habitat to absorb sound before it reaches your neighbors.

Inside your habitat you may want to have a waterfall, pond and/or fountain.
A waterfall should not have a heavy flow of water and any ponds or fountains should be no deeper than the length of your smallest bird’s legs and have a non-slippery bottom.
You should have perches and swings scattered throughout but leave an unhampered flight path for continuous flight. You will also need to have multiple food and water locations throughout, as if you have several birds, sometimes one will decide to guard the food dish and not let anyone else eat. You can make numerous healthy foods available to your bird in many interesting ways in a habitat.
For instance, a sprout garden can be planted either in the ground or in a planter and covered with wire mesh about 1” or 2” above the dirt.
This allows the birds to eat the sprouts as they grow but not dig in the soil and destroy the seedbed.
You can also attach (by tying or impaling on a nail) various fruits and vegetables to the trunks or branches of the trees for your birds to find and eat.

If you should need to have two or more sections in your habitat, be sure that two layers of wire at least two inches apart separate them. Also, never put a bird that is in a cage in with free flying birds unless the cage is double wired. Birds love to bite toes through the wire.

As you design and build your habitat, keep in mind that Murphy’s Law is very applicable when dealing with parrots. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. It is much less expensive and easier to anticipate the problems and prevent them to begin with than to have to redo what you have already done at some later date, not to mention the consequences that can befall your parrot.
We have tried to include here the problems that our birds have taught us about, but there are always new unanticipated ones cropping up. To update your information or if you have questions that have not been answered, go to our website .
Remember, when you take control of a life you have an obligation to make that life worthwhile.

Go for it.


1. The Human Nature Of Birds by Theodore Barber, PhD

2. The Body Electric by Dr. Robert Becker

3. Cross Currents by Dr. Robert Becker

4. Hyperspace by Michio Kaku, PhD.

5. Holistic Care For Birds by Dr. David McCluggage, DVM

6. Health And Light by John Ott

For more information about creating aviaries
or habitats, visit