We still get beginners asking what type of aviary should they build: a walk-in aviary or a hanging cage? To help those that asked the question and to remind the older breeders of their journey from walk-in aviaries to suspended cages I referred to an article written by Vera Dennison twenty years ago. What she wrote then is still relevant today, so if those of you with suspended cages will forgive me, I am going to reproduce the contents of that article for the sake of newcomers to bird breeding.
If you keep birds purely as a hobby, then you do whatever you are comfortable with. If you are breeding birds to produce income then the hanging or suspended aviary is the way to go for parasite and disease control. 40 years ago the idea of a cage with the same length and breadth as an aviary suspended above the ground or floor was novel! Today the suspended aviary has proven to be the very best method for the control of internal parasites and many infections.
What is a Suspended Aviary?
A suspended aviary is a box of rigid galvanised wire which requires next to no framework. It is usually hung from the rafters in a barn or a roofed structure. Suspended aviaries stand on four legs, approximately 1m off the ground with a door or doors on one side and a nest box outside (or inside if preferred). One end of the box is closed on at least two sides and the top.
This cage provides the birds with their basic needs: it contains the birds, keeps predators out, it provides shelter and security and nesting opportunities.
These cages can also be used indoors where the cages are suspended from the roof trusses. The cages we use do not actually “hang”, but they are known internationally as hanging cages so we will therefore use this term.
We tried a number of different types and sizes of wire before eventually deciding that the most versatile type was welded mesh measuring 25mm x 13m x 1.6mm thick. We used this wire to build cages for all types of birds, from lovebirds to Amazons. The mesh is strong, requires no framing, and does not allow small predators such as mice and snakes into the cages. It also keeps out small wild birds, which could eat all your birds’ food and contaminate the softfood, water and cages. The suppliers of the mesh also sell C-clamps and the pliers needed to join the wire. We cut the mesh into four equal lengths using an angle grinder, joined the four pieces in the length to form a box, and finally added the ends.
Since then we have deconstructed, moved and rebuilt the cages as and when necessary; all with relative ease and speed.
The size that we have found most appropriate, and which we use for Conures, Australian and Asiatic Parakeets, Lorikeets, Greys and Amazons and small communities of lovebirds, is 3m long x 900mm x 900mm (900mm is the width of a roll of mesh) or 3m x 1200mm x 1200mm (the mesh also comes in rolls 1200mm wide). For a number of years we successfully kept Sun Conures in a cubical cage measuring 1200mm square. We built smaller breeding cages (600mm x 600mm x 1.8m) for the Pyrhurra Conures, and larger L-shaped cages measuring 3m x 1.2m x 1.2m plus a bit extra to form the L for our Eclectus pairs. We do not believe that each species has its own specific cage size. Rather, it is necessary that the birds can open their wings completely so that they can fly from perch to perch, and they must have a secure nesting site where they feel safe and private. Any other space would surely not be used often.
We have several communal cages of 8m x 1.2m x 1.2m which are ideal for 10 to 12 young birds that need social interaction with other birds of the same type. These cages are also suitable for groups of breeding pairs like Greys, for example. They have enough space for extra feeding bowls, perches and nestboxes so that there are enough for all the birds.
We cut two door openings in one side of the cages. These openings are big enough (60cm x 65cm) so that the birdkeeper can reach in to catch the birds etc. We then cut a piece of mesh slightly larger than the opening and attached on one side to form the door. We use pieces of wire, various clamps designed for pet use, or plastic curtaining wire with hooks on each end as door latches.
Visual Barriers and Shelters
Our property is level and we could therefore easily erect rows of aviaries approximately 1m apart. However, these cages are also ideal for uneven ground or embankments. The cages were put up end to end with barriers of steel plate in between. The steel is attached to the cages with gutter bolts. We used poles to raise the cages to 1m above the ground and gutter bolts were also used to attach the cages to two planks running horizontally between the poles. There is no other framework.
The steel plate is placed as a visual barrier between adjoining cages so that each end is closed thereby. Steel is used to enclose 1/3 of the rear of the cage on the side from which the cold wind blows, and 1/3 of the cage is also roofed on the same side, creating a dry, safe, sheltered area on one end of the aviary. These back walls and roof are 1.8m long.
Each group of fifty cages is completely enclosed by hail net spanned between poles and wire, forming a tent around the entire group. This tent is also occasionally extra security in the event that the birds are out of their cages, as well as providing protection from wind and direct sunlight. The hail net also keeps out the wild birds and prevents their droppings from contaminating the cages with diseases or parasites. One of the tents is actually made of shade cloth but despite the fact that it casts 70% shade, the birds bred well.
The fact that the birds are kept in completely separate groups prevents diseases from spreading from group to group.
Rodents do get into these tents and need to be prevented. We place poison in their burrows and close the mouths of the holes. We prefer not to use poison tablets as these can be carried by the pests and placed in areas where they are attainable by the birds.
For preference, nestboxes should be hung on the outside of the cages to facilitate inspections. Placing them on the outside also means that owners do not have to enter the cage, thereby invading the birds’ space. However, the nestboxes do need to be protected from the elements and we achieve this by lining the outside of the box with plastic and creating a metal roof. The nestbox itself is made of 2.5cm thick pine and is completely furnished with weld mesh inside so that the birds can’t chew through them. We use pine shavings as nesting material. Large, heavy nestboxes must be placed on a pole for support, but smaller boxes can easily be hung up either inside or outside the aviary by means of two bent nails as hooks.
One perch is placed under the shelter and the other is on the opposite end of the cage. They are attached to the wire with staples because they must be as secure and firm as possible.
All kinds of chewing materials and toys can easily be hung up in the cage to keep the birds busy. Branches, corn husks, pine cones, pieces of fruit, vegetables etc. can easily be placed on the bottom of the cage where they can’t be infected as they would be if they were placed on the ground with the birds’ droppings and old food.
Food and water dishes can be placed on the bottom of the cage as well, under the roofed portion but not directly beneath the perch. When food is spilled it falls out of the reach of the birds where it can’t be reached in their quest for food. Food bowls clamped to the underside of the cage where they can be removed and replaced without having open the cage door are even better. Birds are prone to play with their food and water bowls, spilling all the contents within minutes. Having the bowls attached to the underside of the cage prevents the birdkeeper from having to enter the cage, makes the feeding process much quicker, and the food and water can’t be spilled and wasted. Not only is waste prevented, but there is no spilled food to attract unwanted rodents.
We allowed the grass to grow beneath the cages so that the ground is completed grass grown. This has a cooling effect and stops the heat from reflecting off the bare ground during the hot summer months. The grass also helps to raise the humidity level. During the breeding season we allow the grass to grow so that the presence of an unknown gardener mowing the grass doesn’t disturb the breeding birds. We don’t use mechanical mowers but rather cut the grass by hand with a slasher. Although the grass might not be as tidy or hygienic as river sand that is regularly cleaned and replaced, we still prefer the grass beneath the cages.
GENERAL HEALTH AND HYGIENE
On the whole, our birds are very healthy and their feathers are clean and clear. Over the years we have achieved very good breeding results and we are certain that our birds are content. Cages and nestboxes are regularly scrubbed clean and disinfected, especially before new birds are introduced. Lorikeets are definitely better off being accommodated in suspended cages due to their messy eating habits.
We have never painted the cages’ mesh and it was only after ten years that the mesh showed signs of rust and needed to be replaced. “Under no circumstances must the wire of the cages be painted with paint containing lead, and birds must never be exposed to any other source of lead either. Before it can be used, galvanised wire must be left outside for several months where it can lie in the rain and sun, or it must be scrubbed with vinegar and rinsed with water” (from EVERYBIRD -a guide to Bird Health, by Pat Macwhirter, Inkata Press, Melbourne).
It is possible for birds in hanging cages to contract internal parasites and then need to be dewormed, but we have never had this problem. When buying new birds it is advisable to always deworm them. Because the birds are never on the ground where there is less chance of coming in contact with their own and other birds’ droppings, and droppings from wild birds can’t get in. Our birds are more likely to be free of parasites.
Because these cages are relatively small and close together, the birds can be threatened by the presence of strangers such as visitors who sometimes arrive in groups. The visitor or visitors and the birdkeeper also normally talk loudly and make hand gestures etc., and all this in quite close proximity to the birds which don’t have long flights where they can escape from the disturbance. Although this disturbance does no physical damage to the birds it is still stressful because it is out of the ordinary. Birds are not disturbed by regular activities such as normal nest inspections, cleaning around and under the cages, feeding times etc., but unusual activity will cause stress.
Over the last number of years, more and more South African aviculturists are deciding to use hanging cages at least partially if not entirely. This is occurring not only in areas with milder climates, but also in the coldest parts of the country because nest warming is now possible. Some breeders have made improvements to the basic cage design, and it is wonderful to see these developments: there are attractive door frames and latches, feeding bowls and other clever methods of providing food, and partitions that improve the aesthetics of the cages. Design and layout of aviaries has also improved, automatic water systems have been installed, sprinklers can provide a cooling mist on hot days – the list of developments is exciting and endless.
Something that we did not do, for example, is to build a roof for the assistant who feeds the birds, and on rainy days he gets soaked. Some breeders have built roofs that cover not only the requisite 1/3 of the cage, but also the feeding passage behind the aviaries. This roof is also slightly raised above the cage and the nestbox and prevents the nestbox from getting too hot.
A person could spend a lot of money in improving and renovating, but these extras are by no means necessary. Birds that are healthy and happy, are fed a balanced diet, and have a mate that they like, will breed in the simplest of cages. All the extras are more to please the owners than the birds.
Many readers have expressed an interest in this economical and simple method of housing birds, and we invite readers to share their experiences with hanging cages with us and the newcomers to this wonderful hobby of ours.
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