Filled with bright colors, youthful shrieks and myriad toys, the room appears a cross between a gymnasium and an extravagant park playground. A tangle of ropes and twine dangle from the ceiling, and toy trees rise from the floor. The sun-filled room sounds like any 3-year-old’s dreamscape, but it’s actually a playland for feathered friends.
Julie von Bergen has maintained this 500-square-foot bird room since she and her husband remodeled the third-story attic of their 1906 wood-frame Chicago-area home 16 years ago.
They have gone to great lengths to make their home a "birdhouse," but they are far from alone in keeping chirpy chums — and taloned talkers — as pets.
One in every 20 homes in your neighborhood is home to birds, according to the American Pet Products Association. An estimated 5.7 million American households have pet birds — and some homeowners go to great lengths to create exotic indoor aviaries for their beaked buddies.
The von Bergens’ bird room features a kaleidoscope of accessories, including handcrafted, hypoallergenic toys draped from the ceiling for playing, and ceiling-slung, multicolored ropes for climbing and perching.
A gray parrot perches on a ceiling-hung toy in Julie von Bergen’s custom-built bird room. Photo/Julie von Bergen
There’s abundant twine for chewing, single-sheet vinyl flooring below for easy cleaning, a lavish amount of sunlight from four skylights that can be propped open to allow fresh air to waft in from above, and a 6-by-7-foot west-facing picture window that floods afternoon sunlight into the room.
The making of a bird room: The von Bergens gutted their attic to make room for a bird room. The photos above show the construction in progress and the finished room. Photo/Julie von Bergen
Currently, 18 birds call the room home: five cockatiels, four Congo African gray parrots, three Timneh African gray parrots, two Senegal parrots, two Rose-breasted cockatoos, one love bird and a parakeet.
And they all get six hours a day of out-of-cage playtime.
There is no shortage of toys for residents of the von Bergens’ bird room. Photo/Julie von Bergen
Believe it or not, a bird room like this might just be what the vet ordered.
There are a number of dangers and toxins in homes, said San Francisco-based veterinarian Leila Marcucci, so she strongly recommends that bird owners create a separate, safe area for birds, such as a cage. "Setting aside an entire room to create a bird-safe aviary is another option for many homeowners," she said.
Even if you have a bird room, she said, it’s also important to consider the placement of a bird’s cage relative to windows, because if a bird is placed in the center of a large window, it may feel threatened by actual or perceived predators.
The residents of von Bergen’s third-story cuckoo’s nest rock out to satellite radio. They don’t appear to care much for classical music, said von Bergen. And when it’s time for fun and the sun is shining, she said, they prefer rock music — Ozzy Osbourne, Led Zeppelin and Nickel Back.
As for day-to-day music, their preference is jazz, which they imitate in their chattering, said von Bergen — along with garbage trucks, morning doves and crows that they hear in the world that seeps in from beyond their windows.
Taking on a bird, she said, can be a huge commitment — even if you aren’t remodeling to accommodate them. African gray parrots, the fifth most popular pet bird — behind lovebirds, finches/canaries, cockatiels and parakeets, in ascending order of popularity — can live to be 60 or 70, she said. Julie has four.
"It’s kind of like getting married or having children," she said.
Natural light from large skylights and windows fills the von Bergens’ bird room. Photo/Julie von Bergen
Anything but cheap
Food for von Bergen’s winged companions costs $300 to $350 a month. It’s an organic, vegetarian diet that features "birdy bread," organic corn bread mixed with veggies and lima beans; "birdy fried rice," organic brown rice with turmeric; and sides of organic fruits and vegetables and organic sprouted seeds.
Parrots have a cognitive awareness comparable to a 4-year-old human child, said von Bergen. So, at 4 p.m., she said, the chattering starts, with some birds vocalizing their hunger: "Supper? Where’s supper?"
Jonathon Moseley and his wife run a parrot-breeding business out of their three-story Columbus, Ohio, home, and every room — outside of one bedroom and a bathroom — is bird territory. There’s even an isolation room for one of their crankier birds, Don, a 50-year-old sulfur-crested cockatoo.
See a video of one of their amazing bird rooms here:
Their business transcended a money-making endeavor a long time ago, said Moseley. "It’s a labor of love, now," he said. Caring for the 50 or so birds who share their home involves daily cage cleaning and feeding — it amounts to about $150 per day in associated costs, which leads Moseley to doubt that it’s a break-even undertaking.
"We live, eat and breathe this," he said.
The business side of the enterprise has suffered some, said Moseley, because they started taking in fosters, birds that no one else wanted because they are old, handicapped or just a little crabby.
Keeping it clean and safe
To make cleaning up after their birds easier, the Moseleys put down cheap, single-sheet linoleum flooring, which they clean with vinegar and water everyday. They also lined the walls with an inexpensive plastic-coated wall board.
"They throw their food at the wall!" said Moseley.
Von Bergen designed and built her space, from the beginning, as a bird room, so she made sure it had a special filtration system that removes bird dander, a collection of feathers and dust that sheds from birds and can build up and trigger allergies in some people.
A duct fan helps bring in fresh air. Conservation-minded, she also outfitted the room with LED, or light-emitting diode lighting, avoiding compact fluorescent lighting because birds’ eyes can pick up its slight flicker, which can irritate them, she said.
As birds are chewing creatures, von Bergen used child-safe paint to coat the bird room’s walls, and its pine woodwork is coated with a water-based finish.
Lights in the Moseleys’ bird rooms are nested in PVC pipe to prevent damage. "Birds chew on anything," said Jonathon Moseley.
Not just about inside birds
Gavin Shire, a spokesman for the American Bird Conservancy, said that maintaining a bird-friendly home is not just about the home’s interior.
If you’re a cat owner, he said, you should consider whether you are doing your part to protect birds in the wild by preventing your cats from attacking and killing birds.
Likewise, folks who have birds as pets can consider screened or netted outdoor areas to prevent predators — including wild birds — from attacking their birds.
Shire said he built what he calls an outdoor cat patio or "catio" — an outdoor screened enclosure framed with two-by-fours that are connected to his house. The "catio" prevents his three cats from roaming the neighborhood and killing birds.
Outfitted with driftwood shelves he scavenged from the Potomac River and climbing logs gathered from an Atlantic Ocean beach, the structure allows the cats to have outside time without ravaging the neighborhood bird population. His cats access the "catio" via a cat door in the basement and through an enclosed pathway under his backyard porch.
Each year, by some estimates, said Shire, cats kill — out of instinct, and not necessarily hunger — up to 1 billion birds in the U.S., most of them wild birds in urban settings.
Of the nation’s 80 million pet cats, he said, 43 percent have access to the outdoors. If you add to that an estimated 60 million to 120 million feral cats, that’s a lot of bird-killers on the loose.
Homeowners should also consider putting special tape on their windows, said Shire, to prevent birds from crashing into the clear glass. Tape, or other items visible to birds, helps birds avoid these collisions with glass, which typically are at speeds of 20 to 30 mph and can be fatal.
Bird collisions with home and office-building windows kill from 100 million to a billion birds each year, estimates the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some cities have made moves recently to address this problem in civic space.