The summer we’ve just had in Australia has been a bad one. We’ve had extremes all over the country. One half is under water, the other half is melting and that’s NOW. It’s not even summer anymore, it’s supposed to be autumn here. Yet I’m slowly cooking here in a record-breaking heatwave that exceeds what we’ve seen since records began at any time of any year. It seems our weather forgot to read our human calendar and has forgotten autumn for now.
Our wildlife is struggling to cope in these conditions. Baby animals are being dumped because their mother’s milk has dried up. All types of animals are coming in to wildlife rescue suffering severe dehydration. All sorts of animals are looking for water and are turning up in strange places as a result. I say from experience that it is unnerving when your macaw suddenly swoops on something in the kitchen and then helpfully drops a dead lizard in your lap. Lizards shouldn’t be in the kitchen.
Birds too are in the firing line of this heat. I know many people have the attitude of: “Well birds live outside and survive, so it can’t be that bad”, but the danger in that attitude should be obvious to most people. Wild birds are struggling in our current conditions. Extreme heat kills birds easily. A quick google search should give you enough media stories of mass heat-related deaths all over the world to convince you of that. As for pet birds, many of them are used to indoor conditions and just aren’t acclimatised to prolonged excessive heat.
What Does Heat Stress/Heat Stroke Look Like In A Bird?
Heat stress in birds is easy enough to notice. A bird controls its temperature by making use of the insulation its feathers offer. A bird will “fluff up” when overheating, in the same way that a cold bird might fluff up. The fluffed feathers basically form an insulating barrier for the bird. If this fails to work, they start to pant and their wings will droop. This is a very clear sign that the bird is having difficulty controlling its own temperature.
Birds do not have sweat glands and it’s important to realise that they don’t. Water can evaporate off the surface of their skin, but if the insulating effect of their feathers fails to keep them cool, the situation can very quickly escalate and become life threatening. A severely dehydrated bird may show neurological symptoms. I’ve seen birds in the last few days with severe head tilts and that have lost the ability to perch or fly. In really severe cases the bird will ‘go to ground’, which is exactly what it sounds like. They can easily slip into a coma and die at this point.
Preventing Heat Stress/Heat Stroke In A Bird
The obvious thing is to avoid leaving your bird in extreme heat. Don’t leave it locked in a car on a hot day. If you can bring it inside rather than leave it in an outside aviary. Don’t leave your bird sitting in direct sunlight. A little common sense helps here.
Some people will have outdoor aviaries and simply can’t bring all of their birds inside. In those cases shade cloth material can work miracles. Invest in a sprinkler/misting system and have it set on a timer if you are not going to be home during the day.
Make sure your bird has more than one source of drinking water available. That way if one container gets knocked over or contaminated in some way – the other is still there. Remember the larger/deeper the container, the longer the water takes to heat up.
Look at the way you present food. Food spoils quickly in hot weather, so it’s a good idea to avoid leaving it out for long periods of time.
There are two trains of thought on food in hot weather. Some people like to give dry food on hot days (think pellets) instead of a fruit and vegetable based diet because it lasts longer in heat. Those people have a point, but it doesn’t help keep a bird hydrated. Pellets have their place but constantly substituting pellets for a good natural diet is unwise.
I will freeze a food bowl half full of water overnight if I know it is going to be hot the next day. I will then sit another bowl containing food into that frozen bowl in order to keep the food cool when I present it to the birds. I also find it particularly useful to freeze items with a high water content, so I will give the bird a frozen apple, pomegranate, orange or something of the sort. It will defrost in the heat, but stay cooler longer – allowing it to last longer.
Serving fruit and veg in its original skin can be another way to keep your bird hydrated. The skin protects the fruit/vegetable from going off and helps the fruit/vegetable to maintain its water content. So effectively when the birds eat the fruit/vegetable they will gain some fluid from them too.
Treating Heat Stress/Heat Stroke In A Bird
It is dangerous to drop a bird’s temperature too quickly. You can send them into shock, or you may even cause some organ damage. So don’t run and dunk them in ice-cold water.
Move the bird somewhere cool and quiet (so think out of direct sunlight and away from family pets). The best thing you can do to gently bring a temperature down is lightly mist the bird with room temperature water until its skin is wet. If you don’t have a misting device, immersing in room temperature water is the next best option (but don’t leave it in too long or drown it please!) Moisten its feet and legs.
Offer the bird room temperature water to drink and make sure that it has drinking water available if it wants it after initial first aid..
If it’s a severe case or the bird isn’t showing improvement veterinary assistance must be sought quickly. It may be necessary to offer some sort of electrolyte solution to help the bird make it to the vet. Some examples of this include, pedialyte, spark or quik gel – ask your veterinarian for advice if you are unsure of what product is available near you.
Spare A Second Thought For The Wild Ones…
It doesn’t take much to put out a bowl of water in some shade for wild birds/animals, but it can mean a lot to those animals.
Remember the small critters by putting a stick into shallow dishes, so if they fall in they can get out.
A shallow dish on the ground for ground animals and something higher up to protect those that fly from predators is ideal.
Encourage others to do the same.
I can’t thank you enough for this email! I live in Florida, and am a long-time parrot owner. However, this year I got two parakeets. The parrot and parakeets love being out on my patio, where they can fly free as it is screened in. But these last few days have been oppressively hot. In a very short time, the patio had gotten so hot, and one of the parakeets was down in the corner of her cage with wings spread. I quickly got all the birds in side, put them in a shaded area, and sprayed some room temperature water on her. She was sitting on the perch but quite “dazed” for some time. I offered food (your recipe!) millet and even the “junk” seeds so she might eat something. I kept misting her a let her have a quiet space in the corner. Now, she is chomping away on the millet and I think she will be ok! Your email was timely, and even as a “seasoned” bird owner, it’s easy to forget how sensitive the small birds can be to weather changes and hot temperatures. Thank you so very much!!!!
Just yesterday my wife noticed a common sparrow perched on the top bowl of our backyard fountain nearly motionless. She approached the little bird, and nothing…no reaction to her near presence. So she called me. Sure enough. Although eye and slight head movements, it didn’t fly away. I put on a latex glove and nudged the birds breast and it stepped onto my finger. Feathers puffed up and shivering sort of I let it sit on my finger for a while. Then the head tilting began, then quickly the bird went down onto is belly then over onto its side. Saddest thing I’ve seen. A few minutes later eyes now closed, shallow breathing the little bird spreads its wings one last time then gives up the fight while resting in my hand. All of this in about 15 minutes. I just read about dehydration in birds because of this. Never gave it much thought. If there is a “next time” I’ll at least have an idea what to properly do. Thanks for the article.
Thank you, I saw one of house sparrows with an open beak, so I looked it up and immediately poured some cool water for them with ice cubes where puddles collect at the end of the driveway. I have been doing this several times daily since then, and it seems to be a hit. Had a cardinal, gold finch, house sparrow, and red finch all bathing together about fifteen minutes after I had poured out some ice water for them
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