Learning To Recognise The Early Symptoms Of Illness In a Bird

Otto, my male Musk Lorikeet. Swinging, eating flowers, upside down in the wind.

Recognising the early symptoms of illness in a bird can be extraordinarily difficult. Often when we realise a bird is sick, the small window to do something about it has already passed. To those who have discovered a love of birds, it’s a frustrating and scary thought. 

When I last took my elderly Galah/Rosebreasted Cockatoo Cocky Boy to the vet, an observing vet student sat in on my appointment. He hadn’t had a lot to do with birds and was intrigued that they could live so long – let alone be diagnosed with a heart condition. Understandably, he had questions about how I’d known something was wrong in the first place and how the diagnosis was made. What was the first symptom?

The reality is, I don’t know what his first symptom was. The onset of the condition would have happened before he came to me and the condition was well and truly disguised because Cocky Boy had so many things wrong with him. Cocky Boy displays a lot of “symptoms” when he is in his normal state. It is a lot more difficult picking an illness with him than it is in an otherwise healthy bird.

Merlin, my galah/Rosebreasted Cockatoo destroying perches (again).

The first sign that told me that something was even more wrong than normal was the fact that Cocky Boy chose a different sleeping location at night from his normal sleeping perch. He chose to sleep about 4-5 inches behind where he’d normally sleep. When I explain it like that, it doesn’t really sound like much of a symptom, does it?

Well the vet student laughed because he thought I was joking. When he realised I was not joking, he gave me this look that I’ve seen before; a look I’m sure many other bird people have seen. It was the: “You’re a crazy weirdo!” look that non-bird people tend to get, when you start talking to them about your birds. What he actually said was: “You have to NOTICE where your bird sleeps?!”

Well I laughed. The poor guy had no idea what he’s got himself in to. I imagine two weeks working with an avian vet and he’s going to learn just how crazy bird people can be. I’d love to be there on a day someone walks in complaining that their bird’s poo has changed colour. He was used to working with cat/dog owners (who as a rule don’t analyse every little thing their animal passes). I imagine some of the observations of bird owners are going to really freak that vet student out.

Why just destroy perches? Nemo and Merlin systematically chew threw everything when they're healthy.

It is becoming common knowledge amongst bird owners, that monitoring a bird’s weight and droppings are the most effective ways of picking up on the early stages of an illness. When you think about it, it’s pretty cool that there are that many bird owners out there that care enough to get online and share that sort of information.

In my last post I talked about what it means when your bird fluffs up. I was talking about when your bird is reacting to some sort of stimulus, not fluffing up as a symptom of illness. It triggered a few questions about how to tell if your bird is fluffing up because they are ill?

Birds have a higher body temperature than us humans. Most birds have a normal temperature range between 40°C – 42°C (104°F – 108°F). When they are ill, they sometimes struggle to maintain this. “Fluffing up” is a way a bird can increase or maintain its temperature, without having to expend much energy to do so. It’s why a sick bird will often do this.

Morgy fluffed up for her afternoon rest on a cold day - normal behaviour for a galah.

That doesn’t mean that all “fluffing up” is a sign that a bird is sick. A bird will also fluff up as part of its normal behaviour. Many perfectly healthy birds will actually sleep fluffed. That shouldn’t worry you. The only time to worry is when a bird does it at an abnormal time or for an unusually extended period of time. So when you are looking for symptoms of illness, what you are really looking for are changes in your bird’s habits and behaviour.

Cocky Boy changing his sleeping perch happened a full week before he lost any weight or had any changes in his poo and he wasn’t fluffed at that stage. So while it hadn’t been a critical sign, the change in sleeping perch was a sign of what was about to happen.

On the actual day of that ‘non-urgent appointment’ I found Cocky Boy fluffed and unable to perch properly. When he hit that stage, his condition had become critical. I was very relieved that I had already made the appointment (because it can be very difficult to get into my avian vet).  The emergency critical care and providing an external heat source are quite possibly the only reason he made it through.

Cocky Boy when he 'went to ground'.

Sometimes you will hear people call an inability to perch properly “going to ground”. It’s exactly what it sounds like. The bird is usually found on the bottom of their cage, usually in a ‘nesting like’ position. (Obviously feathers are fluffed to help the bird maintain its temperature.) It’s not that the bird can’t grip a perch anymore, it’s more that the bird is now so sick that it is doing everything it can to conserve energy and save itself. A bird that has ‘gone to ground’, needs urgent veterinary assistance.  This is definitely a symptom we should all be aware of.

Now that I know that Cocky Boy has a heart condition, with hindsight I can see more past symptoms of his illness. The most notable is that in every photo I have ever taken of him – his beak is slightly open. I never linked that to him having a heart problem because it was his normal expression. He could close his beak and did so regularly for extended periods of time, so I never realised it might be a problem. Now I look back and think that that the frequency of him sitting with his beak open as I took a photo was a sign that he was having trouble breathing. At the time, I thought it was just him. 

An old photo of Cocky Boy. I would have said he was healthy and happy here but now I look at his open beak and wonder...

So even when watching for changes in your bird, you can miss something that your bird had before they came to you. Annual health checks that included blood tests didn’t pick up on Cocky Boy’s heart condition. It’s very frustrating that it took a minor infection to make his heart condition worsen enough to make it noticeable. On the flip side, Cocky Boy has severe arthritis and has had other health issues which also helped disguise his heart problem (some of the symptoms overlapped).

I guess in a nutshell, I’ve learned it’s important to monitor the obvious signs like weight changes and poo changes. It’s also important to make a note of any physiological or behavioural changes. Picking up on an illness could be noticing something as small as your bird’s posture slightly changing. (I keep a visual health diary to help me with those sorts of signs.)

A current rescue case. This is a wild bird, that is fully flighted but he was drawn to my yard (hearing my birds). I trapped him because he was displaying a number of symptoms (fluffed, badly groomed, looking for an easy feed, lethargic, slow moving and his flock ditched him). He's currently quarantined at a wildlife shelter awaiting blood test results. If all goes well, he'll be treated and I'll release him where I caught him. Luckily he has found help while he is still strong enough to fly. Early intervention increases his chances. 

The trick to discovering an illness early enough to treat it, seems to be to know what is normal for your bird and also what is normal for its species. If you’re worried about something, don’t be afraid to go to the vet. The worst that can happen is that you are wrong, your bird is healthy and your vet may decide you’re a little crazy. Speaking as a person who is pretty sure their vet thinks they’re completely loopy, there are worse things to be called!

NOTE: Many parrot illnesses can be attributed to poor diet. To keep your bird healthy and strong enough to fight off disease, it must receive proper nutrition every day. Do you know what the appropriate diet for your bird is? Click here to learn more: Cooking for Parrots.

Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.

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