There is a lot of debate over whether or not it’s a good idea to give your bird a mirror.
Generally speaking, mirrors for birds can be a harmless enrichment activity. That’s how most bird people see them and it’s true for the large majority of birds. However, our birds, just like us, can take a fun activity and turn it into a dangerous obsession.
A Word About Mirrors in General
Going forward in this article I’m going to say “mirrors” quite a lot, but I want to make sure you know exactly what I mean by that. Any time I say “mirror”, please imagine that it says “A mirror made specifically for birds that contains nothing toxic, is in good condition, and is appropriately sized for your bird”
Really though, just “mirror” is much shorter, so why all the extra bits? It’s not simply a matter of me being pedantic, (although that could be easily argued) regular mirrors can be dangerous to your bird. Physically, regular mirrors are prone to breaking and well, just being generally sharp.
Mirrors that are made specifically for birds are made to be pretty indestructible. Many of the mirrors made for birds are actually made of highly polished stainless steel, which is very safe, even for birds who love to chew on things. Personally, I prefer stainless steel mirrors with a beveled edge, but many of the mirrors you can get for your bird are surrounded by some kind of decorative plastic.
It’s very important to monitor any toy your bird has access to that has plastic on it. Plastic is soft enough that an industrious bird can tear it apart and possibly ingest pieces of it, so it’s a good idea to replace toys with plastic on them (or any toy) if they start to show too much wear and tear.
So are Mirrors Bad for My Bird?
Mirrors aren’t inherently bad for your bird in the way perfectly round perches are, they can provide hours of fun for any bird that likes them. In most cases, if a bird is getting enough attention, exercise, and mental stimulation in its day to day life then having them play with a mirror on occasion is perfectly safe.
Some people worry that without a mirror, their bird will be lonely when they are away from the house. This seems like it would be a valid concern because birds (the types of birds people tend to keep anyway) are highly social animals. In addition, many birds form very strong bonds with their people, so they probably will miss you when you’re gone.
This doesn’t mean that you have to run out and get a mirror though, although mirrors can be fun, they’re never really necessary. If you provide your bird with plenty of safe and interesting toys in their cage, then they’re usually able to keep themselves entertained until you’re back and you can play with them in person. Spending enough time actively interacting with your bird is one of the most important things you can do to ensure your bird’s happiness whether you give them a mirror or not.
When you get a bird a new toy, it’s usually best to introduce it slowly. Some birds, especially some Cockatoos, are incredibly suspicions of new toys, so slow usually the best way to go with any new changes to their environment. When you’re introducing a mirror, you should be more careful than usual about monitoring your bird.
If your bird starts to show signs of obsessive or aggressive behavior toward the mirror, then your best bet is to remove it entirely and find a different toy. Troubling signs to watch out for in your bird tend to fall into two broad categories, overly affectionate, and overly aggressive.
The Root of the Problem
Both of the behaviors we’re focusing on today as problematic for a healthy bird are rooted in the same misconception. These birds see their reflection and think that there is another bird in the room with them. This is usually more of a problem with smaller birds and the reason why has to do with an interesting experiment called The Mirror Test.
The Mirror Test is an experiment that’s used on animals to determine whether or not they recognize themselves in a mirror. A sticker or spot of non-scented paint is placed somewhere on the animal and they are then shown a reflection of itself. Animals that recognize that they are looking at a reflection of themselves will generally reposition themselves in front of the mirror to get a better look at the new marking.
For many years, it was thought that only mammals had the capacity to recognize themselves in a mirror like this. For a long time, animals like Great Apes, Asian Elephants, and Bottlenose Dolphins have been the stars of experiments like the mirror test, experiments that search for a sense of self-awareness in animals.
That is until one of my favorite birds, the Eurasian Magpie, strutted onto the scene. The Eurasian Magpie shocked researchers by being the very first non-mammal animal to pass the mirror test. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all birds or even all Magpies would recognize themselves in a mirror.
There is some anecdotal evidence of pet birds recognizing themselves in a mirror, especially in larger Parrots and Corvids. Some birds, even if they don’t recognize their own reflection, simply see a mirror as something shiny and interesting to play with. Other birds seem to think that the reflection they see is another bird entirely.
Most of these birds will treat this other bird as a curiosity, but will never veer into dangerous or unhealthy behavior. However, a small subset of bird will have a much stronger reaction to the mysterious other bird in the mirror, and these are the cases we have to watch out for.
If your bird starts to show signs of obsessive or aggressive behavior toward the mirror, then your best bet is to remove it entirely and find a different toy. Troubling signs to watch out for in your bird tend to fall into two broad categories, overly affectionate or obsessive, and overly aggressive.
Overly Aggressive Behavior
Interestingly, aggressive reactions to a mirror are actually the easiest of the two to deal with. In these instances, the bird thinks the other bird is invading their space. They may perceive the mirror-bird as a threat.
These birds react to a mirror with aggressive postures, they may fan out their tail, puff up the feathers on their head, even hiss (cockatiels mostly) at the mirror. Some birds even go so far as to attack the mirror itself.
The easiest solution is obviously to remove the mirror and move on to another type of toy. If your bird starts to have aggressive reactions to any reflection, then that could be the start of some problematic behavior, and you might try using the mirror toy as a training device to desensitize your bird to its own reflection.
In this case, you would slowly introduce the mirror in the same way you would any other new toy. Put the mirror somewhere outside of the bird’s cage (or aviary), but close enough they can still see it. Make sure they still have access in their cage to all of their favorite toys and over time, move the mirror closer and monitor their reactions closely.
If your bird has a disproportionate reaction to mirrors, it’s probably not a good idea to keep a mirror in your regular rotation of bird toys. For aggressive birds, I would use the mirror sparingly as a training tool, but keep it put away from your bird for the majority of the time.
Overly Obsessive Behavior
At the other end of the spectrum, overly affectionate or obsessive behavior toward a mirror can be difficult to deal with, not in the least because the behavior is so heartbreaking to watch.
Theses bird experience the same basic misconception that the aggressive birds do, they think the reflection in the mirror is another bird. Unfortunately, these birds start to treat their own reflection as a beloved companion, or even as a mate.
If you notice your bird has begun staring at the mirror for long periods of time or talking to it obsessively, they may have started to form an unhealthy bond to their own reflection. A bird in this condition might even start behaving aggressively toward you and protectively toward the mirror.
If your bird starts regurgitating food for their reflection in the mirror, then they have progressed to treating their reflection like a mate, and they are definitely way too attached to the mirror. Behavior like this is unhealthy for your bird and the mirror needs to be taken away, but it has to be done delicately to prevent your bird from feeling traumatized by the separation.
Birds that are suddenly separated from what they perceive as their mate can become even more aggressive or even depressed. It’s best to place the mirror outside of the cage but in a position that the bird can still easily see it while placing a bunch of fun and interesting toys inside the cage. Try placing high-value treats on the toys to distract your bird from the mirror.
The goal is to slowly move the mirror away from the bird while keeping them entertained and occupied with other things, eventually removing the mirror from the room entirely for short periods at first, and increasing the time the mirror is out of the room as your bird becomes more engaged in other activities.
An Ounce of Attention is Worth a Pound of Mirror
One of the main reasons people decide to give a mirror to a bird is because they worry that the bird will be lonely when no-one is home. Really though, if your bird is getting enough active playtime and attention when you are home then they should be fine in the time you’re away.
Additionally, make sure that your bird’s cage is a stimulating environment for them to explore while you’re gone, and they should be able to entertain themselves. Some people underestimate how important it is for a bird to learn to entertain themselves, but if they constantly rely on you for stimulation it can lead to behavioral problems down the road.
Most birds never have a problem with mirrors, and with careful monitoring on your part you can catch any warning signs early on and remove the mirror if it becomes a problem.
Some people are dead set against giving mirrors to birds, while other people keep mirrors in their bird’s cage all the time with no problems. A good middle ground might be to only give your bird a mirror when you’re out of the house, and remove when you get back home.
Whatever you decide for your bird, I hope you can go into the situation with a little more information on the risks involved and the danger signs to watch out for.
Until next time Bird Lovers,
P.S. Does your bird like mirrors? Let me know about your experiences in the comments, and follow me on these lovely social media icons to get more awesome bird info!