Tony Silva NEWS: Q & A “How can I detect a sick bird?”

November 5th, 2015 | by Tony Silva
Tony Silva NEWS: Q & A “How can I detect a sick bird?”
Tony Silva NEWS

QUESTION: How can I detect a sick bird and what steps should I take before getting it to a veterinarian?

ANSWER: Birds are masters of disguise. An ill bird will mask its illness until its condition has deteriorated enough where it can no longer pretend to be healthy. At that point the signs become apparent. Why do birds do this? In the wild snakes, mammals and other birds often predate upon them. If they reveal that they are ill, they can become easy prey, or they can jeopardize the flock, or the flock may eschew them as they can attract the attention of a predator.

Ill birds invariably become inactive; they may be quiet and may suddenly change their behavior. An overly active bird will stay in a secure part of the aviary, usually the rear and perch quietly. As its condition worsens, it will rest on both feet; healthy birds often rest on one foot and hold the otherfoot clenched near the body. The feathers may become fluffed. Most ill birds stop feeding. They hold their breast feathers flared to disguise the weight loss. The droppings will also change during illness.



They can become black, soup green, yellow or tar-like, or they can contain undigested seeds. To note the changes it is important to become familiar with a normal bird dropping, which consists of three parts: a fecal part (solids), urates (white) and urine (liquid). The color, amount of each and consistency can vary depending on the condition of the bird, diet and its breeding condition.

A bird that has fed on beets will produce a normal textured but reddish colored dropping, and an incubating hen will produce a more copious and liquid dropping, as she spends time in the nest and cannot evacuate her bowels as frequently as when in the aviary. On an ill macaw, the facial skin will appear emaciated. On almost all birds the feet will appear dried out. If you pinch the skin where the toes join on an ill bird the skin will pyramid. This is indicative of dehydration. In a healthy bird the skin will immediately return to its normal position.

On first detecting an ill bird, it should be removed from its cage if it lives with a mate or flock and brought into a quiet and warm area. Single pets can be left in their cage, which should be partly covered to provide tranquility. Try to keep the ill bird feeding. Any food that the bird will eat should be offered, even if it is not the healthiest. I would not feed French fries to a healthy bird but would be willing to try these if the bird was ill. Warm oatmeal or whole grain rice or pasta, whole wheat bread with peanut butter, peas and anything else that will stimulate feeding can be tried. Replace the drinking water with an electrolyte based drink. This will help reduce dehydration.


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plucked African Grey Parrot (c) Joel Zimmer. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


The time from the detection of outward illness to death can be very short because of the fast metabolism that birds have; it can be a couple of days on a small bird to a week in a macaw. The probability of recovery depends on how quickly the bird is examined by a veterinarian. In other words, with each passing day, the probably of saving the bird decreases exponentially.

The veterinarian will examine the bird, in all probably will run a series of tests and perform cultures and sensitivities. These will indicate what drug is most effective against fighting the cause of illness. Some veterinarians based on experience and the appearance of clinical signs will prescribe medications pending test results.

Insuring that the bird receives nutrition and fluids is important. Understanding how to tube feed and what preparation to use is very important, as ill birds will need supportive therapy. In many cases this includes giving the severely dehydrated bird fluids under the skin. This is a procedure that must be explained by a veterinarian if deemed necessary.



Keeping the bird warm is also important before, during and after the veterinary visit. This will deter its condition from deteriorating rapidly. I would strive to keep the bird at around 33 deg C (91 deg F) while it is ill.

I understand that in many parts of the world there are no veterinarians that can see a bird. These aviculturists are often forced to experiment with locally available drugs. The problem with this is that the drug chosen may not be effective in killing the pathogen.

When there is clearly no avian veterinarian available, try to find a general veterinarian or laboratory that can perform cultures and sensitivities. This will increase the chances of success.



Caveats when treating at home are several, as follows:

1)When treating with antibiotics, remember that orally is best. Placing an antibiotic in the water is never as effective as it relies on the bird drinking enough for it to be effective. Most antibiotics are bitter and deter drinking, which aggravates the level of dehydration. Also some antibiotics cannot be given orally and can only be injected.Irrespective of the means of administration, treatment should be for a minimum of 7 days, possibly longer, to insure that the pathogen is eliminated.

2)Holistic medicine may work, but in a truly ill bird only antibiotics will be truly effective. As an example, earlier this year we treated a mild bacterial case with an antibiotic identified through culturing and sensitivities on one of my birds. I decided to add curcumin to the formula that the bird was tube fed because a friend had recommended it as a natural bactericidal. In fact, the curcumin introduced another pathogen, which proved difficult to destroy and required even longer antibiotic therapy. (That the curcumin was contaminated with salmonella was detected through culturing of the dried powder.)

3)Tonics and many supplements that are used in some parts of the world have not been tested on birds. I have seen more damage from their use than most would suspect. These elements can contain high levels of arsenic, lead and iron, which can prove harmful to birds. Tradition may recommend their use, but be cognizant that they can aggravate the condition. As an example, last year an aviculturist in India contacted me about a bacterial problem in his lories. There was no veterinarian experienced with birds in his city, so I decided to help. He then started asking on the internet for advice and against all better judgment used a liver tonic. That tonic contained iron, which causes iron storage disease in lories. By not following the advice recommended and listening to all of the advice on the internet (much of its from people with good intentions but no experience) he ended up killing 13 birds from hemochromatosis. Then when the birds were dying he was frantically pleading for help again. It is difficult to provide help anew when the original assistance, based on experience and sound science, was ignored.

4)Viruses cannot be treated. Some can be vaccinated against but antibiotics will not cure them, nor will tonics.

5)Apple cider vinegar does not cure a disease. It works on some low grade fungal infections. An anti fungal is usually required when treating with antibiotics.

6)Understand disinfection and how to best disinfect the cage that the ill bird was housed in or alternately the sick cage. The best means is always to remove organic matter with soap and water and then to apply the disinfectant, as many lose their strength in the presence of fomites.

Finally I must stress that prevention is always easier than treating an illness. A stress free environment, balanced diet and hygiene can never replace a therapeutic course in a flock.


Title photo: (c) Matthew Wilson. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


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