When it comes to choosing what to put in the bottom of a bird cage, there are a number of options which generally fall into two categories: litters—usually made from paper, wood, corn cob or walnut shells—and papers. Both have their pros and cons, and depending on the type of bird and cage being used, there’s a perfect bedding for every bird home.
It’s important to keep a bird’s unique anatomy in mind when choosing any bedding, because some litters are not safe to use with pet birds. For example, all birds have a sac in their throat, called a crop, where food is stored and food pieces can be ground up—usually by other food bits—but sometimes by grit or gravel. However, it is important not to give a dish of grit or gravel because birds may overeat it, especially when ill, and that can cause an impaction in their crop—which can cause illness or death. In truth, parrots don’t need any grit while softbill birds like finches can be given a small pinch once a week on their food if needed.
Some bedding has been known to cause crop impaction, including walnut shell litter that is ground up fairly fine and corn cob, which is often small granules that will expand when wet. Although usually not a problem with finches, parrots love to eat anything and everything that they can get their feet or beak onto. Even birds that have a grate on the bottom of the cage have been found with walnut shell or corn cob bedding in their crop because they could reach the tray with their beak or feet. Parrots are very intelligent and curious, so tell owners not to assume the birds can’t get to something until they know for sure.
Unless the cage is hanging at least three feet above the bedding, corn cob should not be used with birds. Besides the fact that it causes impaction if eaten, it can carry a fungus called aspergillus, which may be found in places that are warm, moist and have droppings or food—like a birdcage tray. Corn cob bedding is known as a substrate for growing and carrying this disease-causing mold, which can cause aspergillosis in pet birds, an infection that can be deadly. Birds are particularly susceptible to this airborne contracted illness because of their unique respiratory system.
Unlike other pets such as cats and dogs, which are mammals, birds do not have residual air left in their lungs after exhalation. Instead, fresh air constantly moves through their respiratory system from the nostrils to one pair of air sacs, then through the lungs to another pair of air sacs and then out. It allows them to fly at high altitudes where the air has less oxygen. It is also why birds, usually canaries, were brought into coal mines in the past as an early detection system. If a miner hit a poisonous gas pocket, the bird would die before a person would be affected. Thankfully, technology was developed to detect any dangerous gas leaks, so birds have not been needed for many years.
Though corn cob bedding is sometimes used for years without any problems, it’s better not to take a chance. Safer bird litters are those made with paper or wood, usually in the form of pellets, crumbles, shreds or shavings. It’s best to use a litter that has some weight to it, as birds like to flap their wings for exercise and shavings can go everywhere. Like small animals, never use cedar wood products around birds as the odor it gives off can cause respiratory and other health issues. All-natural heat treated pine, aspen and paper pellets that have nothing added in terms of colors, deodorizers or scents, and very little to no dust, are the safest to use with pet birds.
Bird owners will sometimes prefer to use litter because it looks cleaner than paper in the cage trays, but paper is actually the best to use. Often, if a bird is ill, it will try to hide it until it is so sick it may not recover. One of the first symptoms that can show something is wrong with a pet bird is a change in the droppings that cannot be explained. For example, when a bird eats blueberries, their poop may take on a purplish color, which is normal. But if there is a color change not attributed to food, or a change in consistency, it can indicate the bird is ill and needs to be looked at by an avian veterinarian, especially if behavioral changes have been noted as well.
Although white paper towels and black and white newspaper can be used safely in a tray, colored paper or printed paper towels should not be used, since color ink can be poisonous if ingested. The problem with using paper towels is that it can be expensive, they are not waterproof on one side and may stay moist, which can allow harmful disease-causing organisms to grow. Therefore, it is best to use bird tray liner paper made specially for the bottom of bird cages. Besides being safe, it allows the owner to easily watch for changes in the droppings. These liners are usually antimicrobial and waterproof on the bottom side to keep the tray dry and easier to clean. Bird tray paper can come precut or in rolls, and is much cheaper and safer to use overall compared to paper towels.
Whether litter or paper liners are used, they must be changed out often. Depending on the size of the cage, the species of birds kept, the type of food fed and how many birds are kept in the cage, this can mean anywhere from every day to once a week. Parrots, for example, are very messy eaters and like to throw their food, which means they need the bottom tray cleaned out more often than finches, which are mainly seed eaters and usually cleaner.
To help save time, bird owners can layer paper cage liners, up to seven or so, in the tray and throw out the top layer every day or as needed. If using a litter, changing it at least once or twice a week is necessary, and more often if the bird is particularly messy. At least once a week, the tray needs to be removed and washed out with mild soap and water, and rinsed until no residue remains and it is clean. The whole bottom of the cage including the grate, tray, bottom and lower bars, should be cleaned and disinfected with bird safe products and rinsed thoroughly with water until completely sanitized at least once a month, or as needed. Bird owners can find products that will help unstick droppings that have dried on the cage or they can let the area soak in warm water for a few minutes to help with cleaning.
If an owner wants to keep their birds healthy, they will avoid the certain litters and papers noted above, and keep the cage tray and bottom clean. Birds can be very strong and healthy pets that can live many years, or even decades, if their cage and dishes are kept clean, fed a variety of food that is best for their species and kept in a safe environment. PB
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.