It wasn't too long ago that the culture-shattering news arrived that the cat had replaced the dog as America's pet of choice. Because dogs needed running room and lots of attention, and more Americans were away from home all day and living in structures that could accommodate about one good leap from a nimble pooch, Old Blue was knocked off by Mittens.
Cats were fastidious, cheap, didn't care whether you were home as long as the food dish was full, and were perfectly happy in a studio condo.
If this minimalist pet trend continues, people long on love for animals but short on real estate may find themselves scaling down to yet another species, and Dann Perrin-Powers may find himself in the position of guru.
Perrin-Powers' passion is birds, particularly the small, cheerful kind that are easily kept as pets. He has been keeping, breeding and lecturing about birds for 26 years. He said if you have the sort of yard that makes great Danes claustrophobic, you may have the perfect setting for your own aviary.
Not a cage containing a single budgie, but a real aviary, landscaped and teeming with chirping birds.
"We're getting smaller and smaller yards," Perrin-Powers said, "and we're having to go with smaller pets. With an aviary, you can have a number of interesting pets interacting with each other in a space that would never hold a dog. I've even seen people who live in condos enclose their patios and turn them into aviaries."
Building and stocking an aviary is a fairly easy task, he said, provided you shop and plan judiciously and have basic carpentry skills. And, depending on the size of the aviary and the number and type of birds it contains, it can be built and stocked with a good variety of colorful species for as little as $200.
The main consideration when planning an aviary is, of course, the well-being of the birds it will contain. And if the birds you want are of the colorful tropical type, you'll want to remember that tropical birds do not take well to cold, wet, windy weather. They need a place to escape from it.
So even with the common rectangular box aviary, Perrin-Powers said, a refuge can be included. Just don't overdo it.
"The old style," he said, "was to build cages with plywood and put wire on the front to see in. I encourage people to get rid of the plywood, except for maybe on the back wall to hang nest boxes and feeders.
"We have to remember that we're raising birds, not bats. We don't want to build caves. People have had poor success because their aviary is too dark."
Ideally, he said, the box aviary should have a wooden back with wire on the front, sides and top. The sieve effect can be blunted--and a refuge created--by using Filon (clear corrugated fiberglass) to line two sides from the ground to about halfway up, and to cover about a third of the roof. This will allow you an unrestricted view of the birds while allowing them to hide from rain and wind.
The wire should be dense enough to keep the birds in but not so dense that you have trouble seeing them from the outside. A trick to further enhance your visibility, Perrin-Powers said, is to paint the wire flat black with a paint roller.
"When you do that, the wire just disappears," he said. "It makes the birds look like they're just sitting there in a garden."
If you want to get creative, the garden is exactly where they'll be. Many bird fanciers plant the floors of their aviaries with a wide variety of plants and ground cover that not only dress up the environment but that attract tiny insects on which the birds feed.
Perrin-Powers said hop seed, Carolina jasmine, bottlebrush and any of the small acacias work well. He cautioned, however, that many plants that look attractive can be poisonous to birds. About 80 species of plants have been tested and found to be suitable, he said.
If you have any doubts about diet, check with a local zoological society. The Species Protection Project near Lake Elsinore, which establishes breeding populations of endangered species, is also a good resource. Perrin-Powers is its director and can be reached at (714) 678-3081.
Water is essential--ideally, fresh running water. Standing water, he said, quickly becomes brackish and unpleasant, and birds will not only drink it but splash around and leave droppings in it.
"The food and water dishes have to be tended and cleaned regularly," he said. "We have to remember that when birds are in the wild, nature cleans up after them. In the wild they don't sit in a given space like they do in an aviary."
Running water, powered by a recirculating pump--or, as in the system Perrin-Powers uses, on a drip system--solves much of the problem, while making it easier for the birds to drink. Common soft-billed birds, he said, do not immerse their bills in water to drink, as do doves. They turn their bills upside down and catch drops from falling water.
Also, he said, "soft-billed birds don't even breed well unless they're near running water."
How much space is needed?
"Basically a bird the size of a parakeet requires one square foot of space," Perrin-Powers said. "And height doesn't mean a thing. You see people with these bird cages that are not very big around but that are very tall. But birds are not helicopters. They don't fly up and down."
Perrin-Powers said he would not want to build an aviary with a floor area smaller than 4 feet by 8 feet. However, he said, one can fill an aviary that size with about a dozen birds.
An interesting starter flock, he said, could include pairs of hook-bills (such as cockatiels), parakeets, diamond doves, button quail and two or three pairs of zebra finches.
The cost for building materials and birds would probably be less than $200, he said, but many spend more.
Joe Fratt, an auto dealer and bird fancier who lives in Laguna Hills, said he paid about $700 for his aviary. Then again, it's not just any aviary.
It was intended to be a gazebo. Fratt bought it in kit form from a local home supply center and customized it into what probably comes close to the ideal aviary.
"There was some planning that went into this thing, believe me," he said. "If we have an earthquake, this thing will be standing, and the house will come down."
Before putting his gazebo/aviary together, Fratt poured a 1 1/2-foot-thick foundation of concrete to keep out burrowing animals. He then enclosed the gazebo in flat black wire and built a peaked roof.
Then, because he "wanted to have something that was aesthetically nice but was also serviceable," he built an annex onto the gazebo, a sort of small room with a door that could be shut and latched, allowing Fratt to sit in a chair and watch the birds at close range. Small doors were installed near the baseboards so Fratt could reach into the aviary and change the food without disturbing the birds. It also allows him access to a second, smaller aviary attached to another of the walls of the room.
Fratt decorated the floor of the main aviary with plants and white rock, which he turns over and hoses down periodically. This, he said, washes the droppings into the soil, where they act as fertilizer for the plants. Running water is provided by a series of small stair-step pools fed by a pump. Nest boxes and perches are attached to a central pillar.
A floodlight atop the pillar turns on automatically at night "so that if something frightens the birds at night they're not going to be crashing into things," Fratt said. "Also, if one of them gets sick, they'll go toward the light to keep warm. But if you keep things clean and make sure you have good fresh water all the time, they're not going to get sick."
The entire aviary, Fratt said, will hold up to 50 birds; he has 21.
If history repeats itself, he will probably acquire many more. Fratt's previous house in Costa Mesa had an atrium off the bedroom.
"I planted the atrium with nice tropical plants and I thought, well, I'll throw a few birds in there, maybe six pairs," he said. "I ended up with 300 birds. They started multiplying, and it got interesting to me. It turned into a nice hobby."
Bird hobbyists often belong to one or more special-interest groups, such as the South Coast Finch Society or Orange County Bird Breeders, both in Garden Grove. Perrin-Powers attends monthly meetings of 17 bird organizations. Through such groups, hobbyists often acquire birds and advice on how to care for them. Another popular source for birds is the Magnolia Bird Farm in Garden Grove, Perrin-Powers said.
How devoted can one get to this hobby? Perrin-Powers said he has no fewer than 800 pairs of birds. And they will breed.
"You get kind of hooked on it," Fratt said. "It sounds crazy, but you do. It's nice to sit by the pool or in the dining room and just look at the aviary."