For as long as man has held a fascination with birds, he has understood the necessity for their housing while under his care. Despite their straightforward structure and uncomplicated intention, pet bird cages have transformed from simple, boxy reed and wood structures to some of the most imaginative and complicated miniature architectural configurations ever created. As time went on, and our understanding and knowledge of better avian care and husbandry developed, the bird cage changed yet again to a more straightforward and utilitarian design.
The early bird cages were built for the very same reason we build them today: to house birds. Cages display birds, keep them safe from predators and prevent their escape. Early cages were handmade net enclosures and simple boxes created from materials such as wood, rope, woven reeds or bamboo. Later on, some birds of the past were even employed in simple, tiny cages to carry out very dirty and dangerous, yet highly respected work, such as canaries in coal mines. (The birds were used to forewarn the presence of noxious gasses; if the canary fell dead off its perch, the miners would know to evacuate the mine).
Ancient Ruins, Ancient Enclosures
Not all early cages were made in this traditional “cage structure” manner, however. An ancient ruin in the northwest corner of the Mexican state of Chihuahua called Paquime or Casas Grandes boasts the remains of a rather unusual aviary.
Before the Spanish ever crossed the Atlantic, an ancient people were breeding scarlet macaws. Paquime Indians of this Pre-Columbian, Puebloan community built and occupied an elaborate settlement made from adobe from about 900 to 1340 A.D. What was found there by archeologists was astounding: Approximately 56 macaw pens made of adobe. This site is more than 500 kilometers north of a macaw’s indigenous home.
These pens were made of adobe clay, shaped and smoothed by hand. Made of the same material that was used for housing people, they resemble a rectangular flower pot with a round plug at the end. The adobe kept the birds cooler than if they were housed in any other manner, and the pens contained stone doors and plugs. Research suggests that large-scale breeding of scarlet macaws occurred there long before the industrial age. These ancient bird breeders harvested the birds’ feathers for use in their ceremonial religious rituals, a common Meso-American practice. They most likely traded these feathers with Native American societies in the southwestern United States as well.
Roosts In The Wild/Roosts In Our Homes
The bird cage mimics a bird’s roost or home in the wild. Parrots in the wild make their homes in the hollows and cavities of trees. Birds have a natural inclination to seek a place that is enclosed. Simply put, when a cage is properly set up, a pet bird finds refuge in its cage and views it as a safe retreat to rest, relax and feel safe. The cage is regarded as the bird’s home and sanctuary. A good-sized cage with the addition of a playgym or playstand so your pet bird can spend time during the day outside of its cage is an ideal setup. This mimics a bird’s natural behavior of leaving the roost during the day and returning at night for sleep and safety. This method of keeping birds has become a more widespread practice as quality playstands have become commonly available. The designs are sturdier with additional bird-friendly features.
Over the centuries, the interest and popularity of keeping birds has waxed and waned. Their popularity soared in the 14th century only to plummet until they came into fashion yet again in the 17th and 18th centuries. They became even more cherished and loved by the higher classes of society. Considered exotic, rare and difficult to obtain, parrots were the chosen bird to demonstrate how fashionable and wealthy the household was.
All birds were considered to be in vogue and stylish at this time for many reasons. Songbirds provided a background noise that was pleasing to the ear and many cages were designed to be carried from room to room with the owner. They were the first “portable entertainment” long before the transistor radio, the stereo or the iPod.
The styles and designs of bird housing evolved and morphed from simple, rustic-looking boxes, to wild, wonderful and sometimes ostentatious architectural structures. As the birds themselves became more respected and held in higher esteem, their housing became more elaborate and pretentious. These cages housed many species of birds, including parrots.
The cages that have survived time and tell the story of these eras are still coveted to this day. Known to be toxic for a bird’s housing, serious collectors often pay top dollar for the more ornate and elaborate designs, typically used for interior decorating. There is a market for rustic cages as well. Because these rustic cages were made of perishable materials, not many survived the ages, which makes them valuable.
Many of these cages were built to represent monumental buildings, such as the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower or a Georgian mansion. At one point, parrots were only housed in these fanciful cages to roost. During the day they bided their time on T-stands or circular perches nearby.
Ornamented and structurally lavish cages became popular among the noble classes in Europe around the 14th century. Experts and collectors agree that of these early cages, the most talented artisans were the French and the Dutch.
In France, a guild of cage makers was licensed and chartered by royalty to fabricate cages generally made of iron or brass wire. These guilds of artisans made cages specifically for male and female songbirds. At the same time, in other areas of the world, cages were being built out of bamboo, wicker, wood, rattan and reed. Early examples of cage work the Chinese artisans fabricated in the 18th century were exotic models that were simple in design and unadorned, but were aesthetically pleasing and made with beautiful materials.
The Cage As Decor
During the 17th century, when birds became trendy once again, bird keeping was considered chic in England and France. But they took a step beyond making cages merely to keep birds in them; cages became a decorative item strictly for display. These decorative cages were often made with mahogany and brass, fitted with porcelain and silver bowls. It seems that the “airiness” and the impact a bird cage lends to an interior design adds a compelling visual effect that pleased many homeowners.
In the 18th century, birds lived in dwellings that were more reminiscent of houses for people than for the birds themselves. Birds, especially songbirds, were quite popular and very much in fashion among the very rich. Often made of expensive and exotic woods and built like miniature architectural models, these structures were found among the very rich and fashionable people of England and France. The cages birds occupied might have reflected the design of real buildings and perhaps were models of “what could be” in the mind of the cage architect.
While structurally beautiful, most of these fantastic cages did little to support the needs of the bird. Often dangerous for the birds and difficult to clean, it’s amazing that the birds survived in these structures at all. They were often painted and constructed with lead-based materials and had exposed nailheads. Beautiful? Yes. Practical? No.
Keeping pet birds was so popular during this time that mechanical cages became all the rage. These novelty trinkets became even more popular during the Victorian Era, when a trendy wedding gift was a gilded cage with a mechanical bird that flapped its wings, sang and hopped about. It was the blender of its era!
20th Century’s Designs
Before the late 20th century, little was known about the physical needs of birds. Regarded as little more than “decor” to liven up the household, birds added distinction to the families that owned them.
At the beginning of the 20th century, bird cage manufacturers like Hendryx, and Jewett & Company stepped up their manufacturing to keep up with the popular canary and budgerigar market by producing painted tin cages. The use of tin gave way to brass in the 1920s with the addition of a tall stand, making it easier to care for. This style of cage stood alone on the floor rather than being placed on a table or hung from the ceiling.
As cage design progressed, these wire cages that hung on a stand became popular for years in both round and square versions. Now, due to a better understanding of a bird’s need for feeling secure, round cages are rarely manufactured in the United States. Birds appreciate the security of a wall or solid structure behind them. Their survival instinct makes them wary, always seeking a safe place to perch. A solid structure behind them affords them the knowledge that nothing can sneak up behind them.
Later on, plastic cages became the trend with the approach being that of practicality, utility and function rather than aesthetic concerns. However, it has been generally accepted that the durability and life of these cages is limited.
Today’s best cages, such as stainless-steel and powder-coated models, are long lasting.
Although the initial cost is more, investing in a stainless-steel cage is worth the money, as these models are tough, sleek and quite durable with proper care.
A Step Forward For Pet Birds
As we learned more about avian medicine and nutrition, we became more informed of our birds’ cognitive needs: their need for a large, clean environment, toys, room to move, play, flutter their wings, stretch their legs and opportunities for social interaction. As this knowledge increased and became more widely known, cage design followed suit.
Cages began to reflect the needs of the birds rather than the interior decorating requirements of the household. Designs morphed yet again and moved seemingly backward in time to the original simple designs that are easy to clean and maintain, yet manufactured with modern materials.
Today’s quality cages are geared with the bird’s comfort and welfare in mind, as well as ease of maintenance by the caregiver. They’re bigger, as the generally accepted minimum cage sizes have increased. Fitted with solid hardware and complete with bird-safe bowls for feeding, most cages are designed to accept the addition of perches, toys, swings, boings and other accessories. Some are manufactured with playgyms attached to the top and other functional additions. Essentially conceived as an “outside-in playground,” today’s cages can provide enrichment, activity opportunities, a healthy, clean environment, and the security and serenity a roost provides in the wild.
Ann Brooks, founder of Phoenix Landing, a nonprofit avian welfare organization, suggested that the bigger the cage, the happier the bird. “I’m smitten with the 64- by 32-[inch] cages for all birds but the very smallest. These provide the opportunity for many ‘rooms’ in your bird’s house to allow for exercise, foraging, variety, fun activities and even flight. If your bird spends many hours of the day inside a cage, then make sure you have room for the largest one possible!”
While today’s housing is a vast improvement on the relatively prehistoric fabrications of the past, the return to the simple box design with uncluttered lines that are a easy to keep clean and access appears to be here to stay.
As it turns out, the original builders of these first simple boxes probably had the right idea all along. And what will happen in cage designs of the future? Time will tell.