One of the hardest things for bird owners to come to terms with, especially new bird owners, is the fact that we can’t rely on our eyes to determine the health of our birds. Because sick parrots are targeted by predators in the wild, they hide the appearance of illness until they are no longer able to do so. Eventually, as their illness progresses, they become lethargic, their wing begin to droop and their perching becomes unsteady – all indications of a very sick bird.
With our companion birds, it is the same. There are two things to watch for that will give us hard evidence of a health crisis before it gets to that point: we can monitor their weight and watch the consistency of their droppings – weight loss and poor quality droppings are two symptoms of illness our birds cannot hide from us.
Being vigilant in these two area will help you avoid coming home one day to find your bird puffed up and perched on floor of her cage. You hope to catch illness before it gets to this point.
But being aware of the appearance of the feathers will also be an enormous help to you as your bird’s guardian. Feather may not tell you definitively that your bird is sick, but they can give you hints that something is wrong and help you sidetrack an oncoming illness or they can indicate problems with the environment.
What To Look For…
Your bird’s feathers should always be bright and lustrous. They should look and feel healthy and your bird should preen them meticulously. If your bird is not carefully tending to the feathers it should be considered a sign of illness.
When your bird preens, she will spread oils secreted from the uropygial gland (preen gland) which helps to condition them. The activity of dispersing the oil manipulates the barbs and barbules (see diagram below) and realigns them. In this process, dirt and debris is also removed.
If your bird is not preening, the feathers will eventually become ratty or ruffled in appearance (picture what your bird looks like after being toweled) and they may even appear dirty. You might notice dried fecal matter around the vent that is not being removed by your bird. In this event, you need to get your bird to the vet.
Even when your bird is caring for her feathers, there are signs that will point you in the direction of a potential problem. Here are some of the most common feather problems we see – and what they might mean for your bird’s future health:
Dry and brittle feathers – Feathers should be soft and pliable and should not feel course and dry. Dry feathers might indicate a humidity problem in the house. This will eventually result in dry and itchy skin which can bring on plucking. It will also eventually dry out the nasal passages which generally brings on an infection if not addressed. You might notice your own skin and hair feeling dry. A humidifier will help – especially in the winter months which are among the driest.
Dull color – If your bird’s feathers look drab, it is often the result of a lack of sunlight. Many of us without outdoor aviaries have to rely on full spectrum lighting in lieu of natural sunlight. If your bird has access to neither sunlight nor full spectrum lighting, the lack of the vitamin D3 they provide will eventually become a health issue. Vitamin D3 is necessary to the absorption of calcium in the diet. Calcium is crucially important to your bird.
Discolorations – Feather discolorations, such as black tips on feathers, or the appearance of feathers that are not part of the normal coloration of your parrot species (such as a yellow feather on an eclectus where there should be a green or red feather) are problems that are almost always dietary in nature. This will tell you that you have work to do on your bird’s diet, and you cannot put it off. You should also see your vet about this. Dietary issues affect the liver and feather discolorations are an indication that the problem has been ongoing. Your vet can diagnose the condition of the liver and prescribe supportive care while you work on improving the diet.
Stress Bars – These are bands of either discolored or de-pigmented segments or structurally weakened lines that run crosswise through the feathers. In very young birds, they are generally caused by temperature or other environmental fluctuations during the production of their first set of feathers and, as long as the bird is properly cared for, future feathers will grow in normally. In older birds, it reflects a more serious problem as it indicates that there are inadequacies in the bird’s care. It almost always suggests a dietary issue, but it can also be a result of a period of emotional stress. Since stress bars occur during the formation of the feather, look back around the time of your bird’s last molt to find the cause. Antibiotics will sometimes be responsible.
Damaged feathers (NOT related to feather plucking or barbering) – When you find feathers that are damaged, it is sometimes the result of a fall and it should be an infrequent discovery. If you find damaged feathers often, take a look at your bird’s feet to be sure his grip is appropriate and that there are no foot or leg injuries and no pressure sores on the feet. Watch your bird to make sure he is perching stably.
Try to determine if your bird is experiencing night frights which might cause feather damage and arrange the cage to minimize any contact with things in the cage during a panicked moment or in a fall. If a single area of feathering seems disrupted, but not the result of plucking, you might find there is a toy or even the cage bars that are rubbing against your bird while she is perched in a favorite spot. A few months ago, after rearranging one of the cockatiel cages, I noticed the very end of his tail was curled upwards. It turns out his tail was touching the cage bars when on his most used perch.
Dark feathers – This might mean there is excess fat in the blood. It is, again, almost certainly the result of poor diet, but this indicates the problem is becoming serious and you should see your vet right away to determine the cause of the discoloration and for medication as needed.
Oily feathers – I have never know feathers that are oily in appearance to indicate anything other than advanced liver problems. The liver is a regenerative organ. However, areas that are scarred and damaged by disease are beyond repair. When there is more tissue in that condition than healthy tissue, well…your vet cannot work miracles, but he can help by providing supportive care to increase your bird’s chances.
Molting – Old feathers that need replacement get molted out. That is the natural process. However, when you have experienced any of the above, molting periods take on a heightened level of importance. The appearance of healthy new feathers tells you that you are on the right track with your bird or tells you there is more work yet to be done.
Barring any diseases like PBFD, the single biggest factor in your bird’s feather health is the diet. A seed or pellet only diet is not adequate to maintain the health of your bird and sooner or later malnutrition will take hold.
Hopefully, this post will make you feel a little less like a helpless bystander while your parrot tries his best to hide important health information from you. Whenever you notice a change in your bird’s appearance, it means something. Take note.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.