For those who don’t know, I live with a very young Blue and Gold Macaw named Fid. I believe he is currently around 12 months old, although I can’t be 100% sure. What I can be sure of, is there is a very good reason why the first sentence he learned to say was “You’re a BRAT!!!!”
Friday started in a very typical way. After I unlocked the padlock on his sleeping cage’s door, Fid refused to wait to be let out. He happily unlatched his door and took off, climbing to the top of my Eclectus Parrot’s cage. He proceeded to jump up and down on the cage’s roof in a delighted attempt to make Pepi swear at him in Eclectus. Pepi started screaming at him, which seemed to spur Fid on more.
Biting back some human words that I don’t want Fid to learn, I got Fid’s attention and said “Get OFF!” There was a pause, where Fid stopped jumping and cocked his head to look at me. Deciding I meant business he flew off and landed on the ground nearby. My sigh of relief at being listened to lasted a millisecond as Fid then proceeded to throw a tantrum.
A Fid tantrum is a sight to behold. We’re talking a squawking, flapping, stomping, and rolling mass bouncing across the living room floor. It doesn’t take much to trigger one of these tantrums. Usually it’s anger at a difficult foraging toy or something of the sort. In this case, it seemed he really didn’t like being told not to torture Pepi. As usual, the tantrum lasted about 60 seconds, after which he suddenly shook himself and happily waddled off as if nothing had happened.
Except the tantrum had happened and this time he was leaving a trail of blood behind him.
I scooped him up and checked him quickly. Within seconds I was covered in blood. It was running off his tail, fast enough to leave a pool very quickly. Naturally, I reached for the corn flour that was in the pantry nearby. No time for delicacies, I put Fid (who by this time was almost limp in my arms) on the kitchen floor and upended the box over his tail. Scooping piles of corn flour off the floor, I continued to drop it over the area the blood was coming from, until it stopped running.
The source of the problem was a blood feather and not just any feather either. It was the central tail feather. In other words, the biggest, thickest, longest feather he’d ever grow. That meant it was the one with the potential to bleed the most too. He’d lost a lot of blood. It wasn’t good.
I think the only thing that kept me from going into a blind panic was that I knew what a blood feather was and I knew what to do about it. I’d had seconds to react. That meant no time to jump on the Internet and google ‘blood feather’, no time to run down to the shops to get something to stop the bleeding either.
The first thing to do in this situation is to stop the bleeding. I had styptic powder in my First Aid Kit and realistically that would probably have been better than Corn Flour. That said the Corn Flour was within 2 metres of where I was and at the time that was preferable to running off to grab my First Aid Kit from a different room. Corn Flour is safe and does work – so either would do.
The second step of dealing with a blood feather is aimed at preventing it from starting to bleed again. Usually this means pulling the feather out. It’s one of the reasons why pliers, tweezers, forceps or a pair of hemostats is kept in a bird’s First Aid kit. Once a feather is pulled, a new one will begin to grow to replace it.
A lot of people don’t realise what pulling a feather out actually means to a bird. The larger feathers actually grow into a bird’s bones. Plucking a feather can actually inflict a lot of pain on your bird. It would hurt. You might think that’s only for a second, but that isn’t necessarily true. If inflicting pain doesn’t worry you – damaging the trust and relationship with your bird might. Then there is another little problem. If the feather is large enough, the site you pulled the feather from can keep bleeding.
Needless to say, I dragged Fid straight off to the vet. If this feather needed pulling, I wanted it done under anesthetic.
So what is a Blood Feather? Basically it is a new feather that is currently growing. The shaft of a bird’s feather, acts a bit like a vein. It is a tube, providing the blood supply needed for a feather to grow. The feather emerges from the tip of this tube or sheath gradually as the feather grows. If the sheath or tube is damaged somehow during this growth phase, depending on the location and type of feather affected, it can cause excessive bleeding. When the feather is fully-grown the shaft dries out and there is no longer any blood flowing through it. Check out the pictures below:
You may have noticed that your birds are particularly sensitive about being touched when they are moulting. I know my flock can be quite touchy about having their pin feathers knocked. If you knock the feathers in the wrong way, it hurts. The pain encourages the birds not to remove their feather sheathes before the feather is ready for them to be removed. It’s a natural part of feather development.
In most cases, I’d say it’s unlikely that a bird would bleed to death from a small damaged blood feather. If you get a lot of feathers damaged at the same time, or a major one like Fid’s, it’s definitely possible that the bird could go into shock from excessive blood loss and that in itself could be fatal. It’s quite a scary thought.
In Fid’s case, the vet was initially relieved to see that the sheath was only damaged at the top of the feather. The damage did not stretch down to the base. IF Fid could be kept quiet and prevented from knocking it again for a few days, chances were the feather’s development would catch up with the damaged sheath and it would be ok. It might grow out a bit deformed, but at least it would grow out. It would have been helpful if the feather had been saved as its presence would help protect other new feathers coming in. By now, you have worked out from the pictures in this post, that this positive outcome never eventuated.
Blood feathers might be a normal part of a parrot’s feather development. Damaging them and causing them to bleed is not. Night frights are probably the most common cause for them to bleed. Fid’s tantrum was what knocked his tail, but that really shouldn’t have been enough to damage the feather as badly as it was damaged. Bouncing around the house is actually a normal part of Fid’s behaviour. He should be able to flap across the room quite safely.
I have been having feather issues with Fid. His long illness earlier this year, his poor quality diet before I got him and a really bad wing clip done before he could learn to fly (also before I got him) have all really impacted on his feather quality. The feathers that he has been shedding have been quite abnormal. They’re covered in stress bars and breaks. The new ones coming in are fine and his blood tests are normal so I expect these problems to resolve in his next few moults. The problem is, when it comes to his tail – he doesn’t have strong old tail feathers there to protect the new ones as they come in. The chances of him accidentally damaging the new ones are very real.
As luck would have it, I was cleaning aviaries on Monday when I noticed something was NQR with Fid. He was standing funny and his feet were stained red. I hadn’t fed him Beetroot that morning. There was blood spattered over his perch and a pool of blood forming below him. He’d knocked the same feather. He was losing blood quickly.
I did the flour thing again but this time it was even harder to stop the bleeding. It took much longer to get it under control. I got on the phone to the vet. The feather needed to come out.
Meanwhile, Fid was trying to do it himself. He was pulling out any tail feathers that he could reach. He was pulling the wrong ones. I had to keep him calm for four hours while he fasted for an anesthetic. Keeping a hungry, grumpy macaw that is in pain, calm for that long when you can’t give them food? I was having a very bad day. I gave him paper and wooden toys to destroy. All he wanted was food. It wasn’t pretty.
The vet pulled the feather under anesthetic. Even under anesthetic Fid reacted to it being pulled. The vet had to put him quite heavily under. It was NOT something that should be done with a conscious bird. The resulting bleeding was a lot easier to control with him unconscious. Even now, he’s still acting like his tail is bothering him.
He came out of the anesthetic ok, but he wasn’t himself yesterday. I’m watching him and he is happier today. He’s covered in pin feathers. It’s like his body has decided he’s healthy enough now and he’s just sprouting feathers everywhere. This could very easily happen again. It’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to keep him out of trouble while his tail comes back in. He’s just so clutzy!
It really scares me how quickly something can go wrong. I can’t say it enough. Help your bird develop normal feathers. Do your health checks and catch diseases early so that these problems don’t get the chance to become serious. Prevent illness by getting your bird onto a decent diet. If you haven’t already, check out the Birdtricks Natural Feeding Program. Fid is on it. The changes I have personally seen in his blood test results are nothing short of a miracle. He has new healthy feathers coming in – I just have to find a way to protect them as they do.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.