As soon as you acquire your new pet bird, you should have it checked out by a veterinarian familiar with birds to ensure it’s healthy. Birds from shelters and pet stores typically have been housed with many other birds and may have been exposed to infections. Transitioning to a new home is stressful to birds, and stress can suppress their immune systems, bringing out underlying illnesses.
Until you can get your new pet bird to the veterinarian for a check-up, and even after your bird receives a clean bill of health from a veterinarian, you’ll want to be aware of what signs to look for that might indicate that your bird not well. Birds don’t necessarily tell you that they’re sick. Unlike dogs and cats that are regularly touched by their owners, birds live in cages, and their owners do not necessarily touch them every day. Birds are prey species in the wild, so they’re innately wired to hide illness, so that they don’t get eaten by a predator. As a result, bird owners may not notice that their birds are sick until they are so sick that their birds can no longer hide their illness.
When birds eat, they normally waste a lot of their food. So, it’s often hard to tell how much of it they’re actually consuming. To know how much your bird is eating and to be sure it’s not losing weight, you have to be really attentive to how much food you offer every day and how much of it falls to the cage bottom or is left over in the food dish.
When birds get sick, they often “fluff up” their feathers, trapping air between their feathers and their bodies to keep warm, as if they have a fever. Sick birds also sleep a lot and often tuck their heads underneath their wings. Very sick birds may not touch their food at all and as a result produce very few droppings. I encourage bird owners to get a sense of how many droppings, on average, their birds produce when they are healthy by counting the number of droppings they see on their bird’s cage paper at the end of the day. Knowing this number can help a bird owner figure out whether a bird is sick and is eating less.
Sick birds may have changes not only in the number of droppings, but also in the color and consistency of droppings. There are three parts to a normal bird’s droppings. The stool is the green/brown part of the dropping, the white part is the solid part of the urine that’s called uric acid, and the clear part is the liquid urine. Birds with kidney disease typically produce very watery droppings. Birds that have gastrointestinal problems may have diarrhea or very soft stool; the green-brown part of their droppings may not be formed at all or may be poorly formed. Birds that are not eating very much may only have clear urine in their droppings and no green or brown stool, at all.
Another sign of illness in birds is less vocalization. Healthy birds usually chirp, squawk, and even screech throughout the day. Sometimes when birds are not feeling well, their voices can actually change. There are certain conditions in birds, like hypothyroidism (goiter), in which their thyroid swells. The thyroid gland is in a bird’s chest, not in its neck, as it is in mammals, and when it swells, it presses on their voice box and can change the way the bird sounds. Birds who have respiratory conditions also can sound different and may cough or sneeze more, just as mammals with respiratory disease do. On the other hand, birds who are painful may vocalize more. They may scream to indicate that they’re not feeling well.
These are all general signs that a bird is sick. If you see any of these signs in your bird, you should have the bird checked out by a veterinarian right away. Being able to recognize illness is a very important skill a responsible bird owner must have to help keep their birds healthy. From the day you get your new bird home, you and your family members should work on developing this skill by getting to know what’s normal for your new pet and being attentive to subtle changes. With this skill, your new pet can depend on you for proper care for many years to come.