Bathing and Showering for Pet Parrots
by Steve Hartman / The Parrot University
First published 1984 -- Updated June 2011
Does my pet parrot need a shower?
Yes, for two reasons, they get dirty, and they need to keep clean to feel comfortable and promote good health. Most of our companion parrots are just a few generations out of the wild. A good bathing program can satisfy many of their natural Needs, Wants and Desires.
Natural Bathing Instincts for Parrots
Parrots in the wild have three main methods of keeping clean. Powder down, water, and preening are all part of every parrot's grooming behavior. The utilization of the three methods can vary widely between species and in a captive environment, will vary greatly for each individual's personal method and degree of interest in grooming.
Powder down is common to all parrots, but to only a few classes of birds. A general rule of thumb is, the drier the climate a parrot species is native to, the more powder down and dander they will produce. All down feathers are not powder down producers. Powder comes from specialized down feathers that continue to grow for an extended period. The fine hair-like extensions continuously break off and coat the skin and feathers. The powder has a slight water repellent property and sticks to everything, including dirt. As the bird preens and exercises, the excess powder falls off, taking the dirt with it, which helps keep the bird clean. Dander from the skin works in a similar fashion. The amount of powder down greatly increases with the health of the individual. This is great for the bird, but not for the PetMaster. Lots of activity will cause the powder to fall off, but will also make the bird healthier and produce the powder at an even greater rate.
Macaws, amazons and other species that come from wetter environments and get rained on every day or two will have less interest in rain, while cockatoos that come from drier environments and see rain less often, go absolutely nuts with excitement. The sound of distant thunder and the thought of a raindrop send our flighted flocks of Cockatoos into an instant frenzy, scrambling to get out in the open and hang upside down with wings outstretched as far as they can reach. They are vocal and aggressive about catching every drop and take a very long time to lose interest if the rain does not materialize. The sound and feel of rain provokes most parrots to instantly preen and clean their feathers. When watching flocks of different species shower, you can see a wide range of responses and interest in rain. Their enthusiasm varies between species and from one individual to another. The level of interest is cumulative but, if it rains several times in a day, or several days in a row the interest will wane. During dry periods interest will build and most parrots will become excited when they come across a branch with dew on the leaves. They will roll around and use their beak and head to aggressively force every drop into their feathers. While cleaning with a hose, I am constantly confronted with parrots that exhibit the most demanding behavior, drooping wings, squatting stance, and huge protruding eyes; they beg for me to stop what I am doing and provide their own personal rain shower.
Preening forms part of all healthy grooming and bathing behaviors. Other than the obvious result of spreading the water and scraping the feathers, the ultimate goal is to make sure every feather is in the correct place and ready for use. All parrots are keenly aware that even one feather being out of place can make them a target for a predator who can more easily keep track of them as the flock moves. Weeks before any parrot is old enough to fly, he has already developed good preening skills.
Uropygial Gland Oil or Preen Gland
Many parrots have an Uropygial Oil Gland located on top of the base of their tail. This gland produces oil that many species of parrot squeeze out and spread over all of their feathers. The primary function is water proofing and feather preservation in wet environments. There may be other less well understood reasons for this oil, like color enhancement in the ultraviolet light range and pheromone distribution. Harness training your pet with The Aviator Bird Harness will ensure he will periodically be allowed to satisfy these most basic grooming instincts in a natural outdoor environment.
Cleaning the Domestic Parrot (Start with the Baby)
Pet parrots do not have the benefit of a natural environment that automatically forces a bird to be clean, so we need to get involved. Good parrot hygiene starts with the baby so plan ahead. With a little patience and planning, you can make the baby's first bath or shower a positive experience. A baby parrot's first introduction to water may establish his lifelong opinion of baths and showers. This introduction usually occurs in the nursery and the significance of these first water experiences is not always recognized by the average hand feeder. A busy breeder with many dirty babies that get a bath in a deep sink while the water is running in a loud nursery may develop a long lasting fear of these factors.
The key is to go slow and be observant so that the baby does not develop a fear of water or fear the location where you introduce the baby to water. At Hartman Aviary, we have bathed thousands of babies, some several times, before they go home. Our babies get lots of dirty life experience going between the indoor night nursery and the daytime outside nursery/flight. They also get handled by scores of volunteer trainers, dive into a communal food fest several times a day, and get to spend lots of time on the ground playing with the toys they may have dropped from above.
Why Do Babies Need Baths and Adults Need Showers?
Adult parrots rarely need a full, "wet to the bone" bath. Adults utilize powder down, rain, and puddles to keep clean. Powder down is vitally important since it traps the sticky particles of dirt from the parrot's body and feathers, and then falls off. (It is like a natural Swiffer Sweeper!© )
Parrots from drier climates, such as most cockatoos, have lots of powder down, while rain forest parrots such as macaws and conures, need much less. Yet, young babies from any region are incapable of producing enough powder down to keep themselves clean. In the wild this is not a problem, because they get covered in powder while keeping warm under their parents. And since most wild nests are in a cavity on the side of a tree or in the top of a dead tree where the top has broken off, the babies often get wet too. Domestic baby parrots do not have those advantages. Once a baby is removed from his parent, he is also removed from his supply of power down. Additionally, domestic nurseries are not usually exposed to rain showers. To make matters worse, the actual feathers of a baby are not as high quality and protective as those of an adult. The reason is simple: rapidly growing babies are producing muscle, bones, and everything else as well as the feathers in about a 90-day period. That is a lot of body development in the space of three months. An adult parrot takes about four months to molt and make a complete set of high quality feathers, and that is without the added chore of having to produce the rest of his body at the same time. You usually don't even need a magnifying glass to see the differences between baby feathers and adult feathers. Baby feathers are a little less shiny, can have small dull spots, stress bars, and often, by the time of the first molt, have lots of small pieces broken off their ends. On dark colored feathers of macaws, conures and amazons, it is easier to see developing damage because worn parts of the feathers tend to turn black. Spray a little water on healthy adult feathers and it should bead up and roll off, while hand fed baby feathers will often allow the water droplets to hang on and slowly soak in. Babies get dirty mostly from hand feeding formula, feces, sticky adult food, and oil from our hands. Even an experienced hand feeder gets formula on the baby from time to time. Babies also dribble and regurgitate formula on each other. Since babies are not good at cleaning their beaks, they often transfer lots of food particles to their feathers when learning to preen. Cockatoos have the disadvantage of showing the dirt easier because of their white feathers, but the darker colored birds can be just as dirty without the dirt being visible. That does not mean they don't need bathing just as much. Remember, most of the dirt we usually wash off ourselves is not visible even with a magnifying glass. To see how much a baby needs a bath, all one needs to do is get out a black light and take a look at your juvenile birds to see just how filthy they are. The larger dirt particles, especially feces and urates, show up like neon signs under ultraviolet light.
The Baby Parrot's First Bath
A large kitchen sink or stationary tub is a good place for a bath. The sink is an unfamiliar place for the baby, so we need a few short visits before the bath. Standing on the edge of the sink, he may be excited. He has a natural interest in rain and has heard the water running in the sink all of his short life. But inside the sink he may be apprehensive, because he may not be able to see over the sides, your voice and running water will be very loud, and he will be hearing something new, an echo. While holding your baby with its feet standing on the palms of your hands, lower the baby into the empty sink or tub. Slowly encourage the baby to step off your hands into the tub. Distract the baby by talking and explaining to him what is going on until he becomes comfortable in this new place. Ten seconds may be long enough for some babies. Keep the first visit just long enough for the baby to realize he is in a strange place, but not long enough for him to become too concerned. Repeat this process a few times over the next few days, increasing the time spent in the tub. When the baby can spend a couple of minutes without becoming scared, you are ready. If he does not take to the new situation quickly, try placing a few of his favorite toys in the sink. Throughout the entire procedure, keep your face close to the baby and tell him everything you are doing. This will make him very comfortable. Because baby parrots usually get stinking dirty they may need a little soap to get them clean. There is no reason to purchase a special soap or shampoo. If it is safe for you, it is safe for your pet. Almost any soap used for normal daily cleaning of human skin or hair is suitable for baths and showers. A nice smelling human baby shampoo is recommended for baths. The only concern is the possibility that an individual parrot, like an individual human, may have special needs because of sensitive skin, allergies, or an aversion to a particular smell. Babies at Hartman Aviary are bathed with a dishwashing soap like Dawn, the same soap conservationists use to clean oil coated wild birds. Fill the sink with about one inch of warm soapy water. Never submerge the baby's body unless it is medically necessary or the baby shows an inclination for this situation. Birds' air sacs extend throughout the body cavity and the water pressure from submersion will cause the body cavity to slightly collapse, causing discomfort. While holding your baby with its feet standing on the palms of your hands, lower the baby into the water. Slowly encourage the baby to step off your hands into the water. If the baby becomes scared, remove him immediately and repeat the same process you used to get him accustomed to the sink. Distract the baby by giving it a little attention until it becomes comfortable with the warm water on its feet. After a few seconds or minutes, you can begin dribbling a small amount of water over the baby's back. If the baby is not objecting, continue until the baby is soaked. Soon you will be able to use a washcloth as the baby becomes more comfortable. Eventually, you will be able to use deeper water, up to a couple of inches, and the spray nozzle found on most sinks. A great tool for removing dried formula and other thick dirt is a soft toothbrush. Allow the dirt to soak for a while and the toothbrush will work like a comb to remove formula, especially around the mouth where fingers might be too big to grab the small formula particles. Low quality baby feathers can quickly become totally saturated. Where an adult would dry quickly, a baby will take too long without a little assistance from you. Babies soaked to the skin will chill quickly while in the tub if the water and/or room is cool. When clean, remove the baby and place him on a towel on the counter or table. Wrap the baby in the towel to keep him warm and begin drying. Change towels if it becomes soaked. You can fold over a couple paper towels and place them between the wing and body to quickly absorb some of the water. Use a hair dryer to finish drying the baby. Baby parrot skin is very thin and sensitive and can burn easily if you are not careful. By keeping your hand on the baby where the warm air makes contact, you will always know how much heat is getting to the baby's skin. If it is hot to you, it will feel like a burn to the baby. With the dryer's heat setting on low and your hand between the dryer and the baby, begin drying his head first. A wet head has more cooling impact than a wet body. Do not forget that his eyes will be affected just like yours would with warm air blowing on them. Start with the head, the progress up and down his body, working on drying the down. If you focus on the down, the baby will stay warm and the feathers will dry at the same time. Holding the dryer behind the baby will blow the air under the feathers and dry the baby faster. If all went well, your baby has received a lot of personal attention, had a positive experience, and smells clean and fresh.
Healthy adult parrots will not normally need a bath, but should have a shower every few days. Showers are not only an opportunity for your parrot to stay clean, but can also be great entertainment. Shower time is also social time, a time when your pet gets to spend quality time with you. Adults need only water to help clean the feathers. The powder down, oil, dander and preening will take care of removing the dirt. Soap and shampoo is not recommended for adult parrots because it can remove natural oils that are important for good parrot hygiene. Light rain and a walk in the grass is a perfect place to take a bird that is learning to wear The Aviator Bird Harness. If you have not been working with a harness, you have three other options. Sink and sprayer nozzle, spray bottle, and the bath shower.
Some adults that had good sink-bath experiences as babies may be unexpectedly jumping into the sink on a regular basis and not need a shower. The issues here are those birds that flap in the sink, or quickly fly and flap spreading water all over the house. Small pump up water sprayers are preferred over spray bottles. Spray bottles can work well with most birds, but squeezing the trigger, the bottle shaking, and the uneven spray may be scary or annoying to some birds. Some owners have used spray bottles to discipline noisy birds in the past. If you have an adult bird that was subjected to this torture in the past, you may be unknowingly terrorizing him. It is possible to find small pump-up sprayers made just for bathing parrots. Shower perches for parrots are a great invention. These perches generally attach to just about any shower wall with suction cups. Many have an arm that swings out from the wall to be folded away when not in use. For the less adventurous parrot, you will use the same cautious approach used to get the baby used to the tub and water.
Most shower perches attach to glass windows as well as shower walls. Attach the perch to a window in a room your companion is already comfortable in. After several short sessions on the perch, even the most cautious parrot will begin to develop a fondness for this new perch while enjoying the great view. The next step is becoming accustomed to being on the perch in the shower. This is a small room that echoes and smells differently than any place he has ever been. A few short trips into the room and shower will accustom him to the new place. If he has never been in the bathroom, you may need to start slower, just walking in and out of the room over a few days time. Again, use the same approach to introduce the sound and feel of the running water, and to become used to standing on the perch in the shower. Initially the perch should be placed in an area where the bird will not be in the direct path of the water. He will get his shower from the water splashing off of you. If he exhibits a desire for more, move him closer. Most parrots will not want to get soaked to the bone. The degree to which your pet will want to get wet is a factor of species and individual personality. There is usually no need to provide soap for the parrot. Feathers, for the most part, are self-cleaning due to powder down. Powder down continuously develops on parrots and falls off, carrying dirt away. The shower rinses off dust and surface dirt, moisturizes the feathers, and makes it easier for the parrot to preen. While any regular soap used by us is safe for your pet, it may be difficult to remove the entire residue from the feathers. Mild dishwashing liquid or hair shampoo will rinse away easily. The small amount of soap splashing off you will not be a problem. Normally, adult birds will not need to be dried. If they are healthy, the feathers will not absorb as much water as babies. Given enough room, they will flap their wings and dry themselves. The exceptions will be cold days in winter and those crazy parrots that develop a water fetish and soak every part of their body.
Parrots do not swim well but healthy adult parrots float. Every part of a parrot is less dense than a human, and healthy adult feathers and down repel water much better than human hair, so parrots will float better than humans. Birds also have air sacks the length of their bodies which, like our lungs, will cause parrots to be buoyant and float.
Baby parrots have more body fat and very low quality feathers that can quickly soak up water. Adult parrots with clipped wings have higher BMI because they are not flying which can lead to lower quality feathers. Any parrot, adult or baby, with clipped wings will have great difficulty propelling themselves through the water. Care must be taken any time babies and any clipped parrot is around water they cannot stand up in.