Q: I make a lot of toys for Puffin, my african grey, by myself. Her favorite ones are the hanging toys that I string up with rope, but now she bites through the rope and they end up on the bottom of the cage and get “messy”, if you know what I mean. I want to use chain so she can’t bite her toys down but I don’t what metal is safe to use. What do you suggest?
Ashley G, Scranton, OH
A: This is a great question because while there are a few metals that are safe to use with parrots, there are many that are not. Making the wrong choices could result in heavy metal toxicity, which is dangerous for your bird and can be fatal if not treated.
Heavy metal toxicity most often occurs in birds when they have managed to ingest or chew on metals containing lead or zinc (most commonly seen) or copper, usually the result of chewing on wiring or pennies minted before 1982. Once swallowed, any pieces of metal that the bird’s body doesn’t pass will lie within the digestive system and continue to leech toxins into the body. The following is an x-ray of a bird with lead in its gizzard (ventriculus).
Some symptoms of heavy metal toxicity are:
- lethargy and depression
- decreased appetite and weight loss
- increased thirst
- abnormal droppings: greenish black in color, blood in droppings, diarrhea
- weakness/ ataxia: falling from perches, inability to fly or walk straight
A bird may simply show signs of general and non-specific illness. The good news is that there are medications to relieve the symptoms of metal poisoning in birds and chelation therapy to help remove metals that remain in the bird’s body. There are cases, however, where metals remain unpassed by the bird despite all efforts. Largely, though,metal toxicity is repairable as long as it is caught before too much damage has been done.
What Metals Are SAFE?
We don’t always know the composition of the metals around us. Some are alloys, which are a combination of metal used together to increase the strength or the resistance to corrosion in the final product. The problem is in determining which metals are used in each alloy.
Chrome (aka chromium or chrome plated) is the perfect example – it is an alloy that is sometimes safe, but sometimes incorporates zinc and there is no way for us to know one way or the other. Because of the possibility of zinc, I will not use chrome with my birds – even though it probably is safe.
On the other hand, stainless steel, is an alloy that IS safe – even though stainless steel combines about 11% (ish) chromium with steel in the product. (I know what you are thinking… “she just told us chromium contains zinc!”) Since chromium might only contain a small percentage of zinc, and stainless steel contains only a percentage of chromium, levels are lowered and overall, it is safe. In fact, stainless steel is the preferred metal to use with parrots. It is a hard surface that can stand up to a large beak and is easily cleaned.
Metals that are nickel plated are also safe for use with parrots.
Steel and iron are safe metals, but they will rust when introduced to water. Because water is common in the parrot environment, if only for the purpose of cleaning, neither iron nor steel are good choices in the long run.
Aluminum is also a safe metal. It doesn’t rust like iron or steel, but instead corrodes into an aluminum oxide, a grayish white substance that is powdery in appearance. Unlike rust, aluminum oxide is non-toxic when ingested or handled.
It is important not to use any metal that is galvanized. Galvanizing is the process during which metals are plated with a thin coating of zinc to make them less corrosive. When intended for outdoor use, these metals are galvanized to make them weather resistant.
Most of the metals parts that come with toys from reputable stores and manufacturers will be either stainless steel or nickel plated for the purpose of safety. When a part needs to be replaced and the hardware store is your only option, be sure to ask for the stainless steel version of what you are looking for. It will be more expensive, but well worth the cost.
Toxic metals show up in the most unexpected household items – from toothbrushes to drapery weights. Keep your bird away from any metals that you can’t identify as safe with certainty. Make a general rule that states no metals except stainless steel, nickel plated and aluminum should be used in your bird’s environment, and when in doubt, don’t.