How to Travel With Birds

Colourful flying parrot isolated on white


It seems that flying pets are all the rage these days, but those pets aren’t necessarily birds. Anyone who has traveled by plane with any regularity over the past several years has seen an increase in the number of pets accompanying their owners during air travel. In fact, it seems downright strange if there isn’t at least one companion animal on your flight.


While dogs and cats make up the majority of pets you’re likely to see on a plane, bird owners—especially those with tame parrot species—do like to bring their feathered companions on vacation with them. Most of the time, domesticated birds love to travel. However, like all pets, they will do better if they are trained to deal with the process, preferably while they are young. It is unfair for an owner to expect an older pet parrot that has never left the home to be fine going in a car or on plane without any training.


Th first thing that bird owners need to consider is whether or not they need to bring their pet. If they are moving, that is an easy yes, of course. But if the owner is just going on a short vacation, their bird would probably be better off staying home or in a boarding facility. If the owner has a second residence that they go to regularly, then their pet should be taken along—especially a pet parrot that is strongly attached to its owner. In this case, the pet has likely been traveling with its human from the beginning. Thus, it will consider it normal to go on trips and will not be overly stressed when traveling.


If the owner has to move far away with a pet bird, then he or she has to make a choice if it will be better to travel with their pet by car or plane. If it’s an extremely long distance, it may be less stressful in the long run for all involved if the bird travels by plane. If it’s a pet parrot, traveling in the cabin is preferred, as this will be less stressful. Unfortunately, the largest commonly kept parrot species—macaws—will not fit in an approved airline carrier, which must be able to go under the seat in front of the owner. Some cockatoos would be too large to fit comfortably as well. If this is the case, the owner must decide whether or not to ship the pet bird in cargo, which can be extremely stressful for a bird that is not used to traveling.


Whether the pet bird will fly in the cabin or in the cargo hold, the owner must be completely aware of all the regulations of the airline their bird will be traveling on, as each can be different. Of course, an owner first needs to be sure that birds are allowed, since many airlines will not take them.


What to Bring

An airline-approved carrier is the first piece of equipment needed for a bird that is traveling by plane. If it is going into the cabin, again, it must fit easily under the seat in front of the owner. Any crate used must be extremely durable. Even small parrots have very strong bills made for chewing, so a hard plastic crate with thick metal bars is important to avoid an escape. Soft carriers should never be used with parrots.


Note: any bird that is traveling by car or plane must have both of its wings trimmed so it cannot fly. It will not hurt the bird and the flight feathers will grow back. A flying bird inside a plane or car can easily cause injury to other passengers or the pet itself, which could actually die as a result. Of course, losing the bird is another possibility if it gets out a door or car window. Pet owners should never take a chance on this issue.


Birds want to perch, so putting a durable one that is strongly attached in the carrier is highly recommended, if there is enough space. Parrots are perfectly happy walking pigeon-toed on the bottom of a crate if necessary, but finches and canaries really need to have a perch to stand on to feel more secure. Swings and other items that can move should never be used in a travel crate or cage. This is true of food dishes as well.


Depending on the size of the crate and the length of the flight(s), offering food and water may be necessary. In some cases, cut up fruit can be both food and water for a pet bird, but only if the bird has eaten these foods in the past. A pet parrot can starve to death in its own home if given food it is not used to eating. Offering anything a bird has not eaten or has not used before, like a water bottle, will not work. Part of getting a pet ready to travel may involve giving it a water bottle beforehand, for example, so it will be used to getting its water this way—and it’s better to use than a water cup, which can spill.


A veterinary health certificate will be needed for any bird traveling by plane, and sometimes by vehicle when crossing state lines. Be aware that some species of birds are not allowed in certain states, or the owner may need a permit to keep that species. These must be obtained before travel, usually within a certain time period, depending on what kind of paperwork is required.


Traveling with pets does not mean just being prepared with the right equipment and paperwork, but being sure the pet is ready and can handle the situation without a lot of stress or fear. It will depend on a number of factors including the bird itself, as some species like African greys, and even certain individuals, can be more sensitive to change than others. Therefore, owners need to take as much time training their bird as needed to be sure their pet is ready for the trip.


This can include keeping the pet in its crate for short periods of time, and even going on car trips with them in their carrier and giving them lots of praise and treats to reward them. Make it a positive experience for the pet.


Many bird owners opt to travel with their pet by car, as it can help avoid many of the hazards that come with airline travel, especially if the pet bird must go in the cargo hold. Sometimes, traveling in its own home cage in a car can relieve a lot of stress for the pet and make it easier for the owner. Whether the bird will be traveling in a care in its own home cage or a travel crate, the owner should take a pet that is not used to traveling on short rides, and then longer ones, to get it used to being on the road. PB


Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.