Heavy metals are found throughout our homes and toxicity is a fairly common ailment in our companion birds. It is life threatening. A bird not diagnosed and treated will certainly die. Fortunately, the vast majority of birds can be saved with proper treatment. Depending on the level of toxicity, the symptoms may take a period of time to present themselves as the level of poisoning slowly increases, or symptoms may appear suddenly, where the bird seems fine one day, and is in desperate need of help the next.
Some symptoms and clinical signs of heavy metal poisoning are:
- lethargy and depression
- decreased appetite and weight loss
- increased thirst
- abnormal droppings: greenish black in color, blood in droppings, diarrhea
- weakness/ lack of coordination: falling from perches, inability to fly or walk straight
- feather plucking/mutilation
Zinc and lead are the two most frequent metals found in a bird’s system, but copper is also toxic and is usually ingested by chewing on electrical wiring and is found in some padlocks. There are many seemingly innocuous things in our homes that contain lead and/or zinc, some of them may surprise you:
Some items containing zinc:
- Galvanized wire and nails
- Some toys: chains, bells, hardware
- Food bowl
Some items containing lead:
- Paint chips
- Solder in stained glass and Tiffany lamps
- Some plastic and vinyl coverings
- Drapery and shower curtain weights
- Twist ties
- Plumbing materials
- Linoleum tiles
- Antique jewelry
- Fishing sinkers
- Some dyed cardboard
- Foods stored in lead crystal or lead glazed pottery and porcelain
Use only stainless steel or nickel plated hardware with your toys. When building play areas and structures for your birds, be certain not to use galvanized metals, which are those treated with zinc for durability in exposure to the elements. Most metals sold through hardware stores are NOT suitable for use with parrots.
Lead in cage paint:
The very worst offenders are the cages and toys that are made specifically for our parrots containing lead in their paints and zinc in their chains and hardware. I urge you to stay away from any bird related products made in China. Unfortunately, many of the cages being sold today have been manufactured there and contain either toxic (which is almost always the case) or unacceptably high levels of lead in their paint.
If you have a China made cage, or an old cage that might have been manufactured before certain laws went into effect regarding lead paint, you can send a scraping to a lab for testing, and follow these instructions for sample collection. Don’t bother using the home tests that are available, they DO NOT work. If you determine that your cage has a dangerous level of lead AND/OR zinc in the paint, you must not put your bird back into that cage for any period of time. Cages are very expensive, so you might use the option to have yours re-powder coated instead of purchasing a new one. Places that do sand-blasting often also do powder coating. Powder coating is less expensive that replacing the cage, and FAR less expensive than the vet bills will be.
If your bird is showing signs of heavy metal toxicity, see you avian vet immediately! The doctor will test the blood for metals and x-ray for foreign bodies. If tests come back positive for lead or zinc, they will begin chelation therapy which binds the metals in the system together so they can be passed, prescribe varying medications, and keep for observation. There will be repeated blood testing to make certain that the levels of metals are dropping. Lead is sometimes stored in the bones and relapses can occur. Survivors of extensive exposure may suffer permanent kidney, liver or neurological damage.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.