A Look at the Healthy Bird


When you live with a companion bird, you should spend as much time together as possible during the day. This will enable you to spot problems far earlier than anyone else can. Your veterinarian can help guide you but will not be as familiar as you are with your companion, Finches and Canaries, for example, may require that you watch them as they interact with each other in their aviary or cage.

You can do all but the hands-on examination this way. The main concern is that your bird must be comfortable with the method. A Budgie may allow you to touch it, or it may not. Avoid staring directly at small birds and some large ones. Predators stare at prey, and small birds will feel vulnerable. Frightening the bird will certainly stress it. You can look obliquely at such birds while reading the paper or appearing otherwise occupied.

Set up a pattern. Perhaps your first visit with your bird in the morning before work. If you are not a morning person, perhaps you do your first real visiting in the afternoon when you get home. This will allow you to become accustomed to your companion’s appearance and actions at a certain time of the day.

As you greet your bird, look at its feathers. They should shine and should be in good condition with a well-cared-for appearance. Feathers should be in place, a sign that the bird feels well enough to groom itself. The color of the feathers should be similar to others on that part of its body.

A Budgie, for instance, should have uniform stripes on its head and black and

colored wavy marks on its wings. The feathers on its abdomen and tail all should look similar to each other. Under the bird’s tail, the feathers should be clean and without droppings or staining from droppings on the feathers near the vent. Feathers should not be damaged by chewing or “picking.”

A normal bird will molt, losing old feathers to allow new ones to grow in. The number of times the bird molts during a year depends on many factors, including the temperature in your home and the change in the number of daylight hours you experience where you live. Make a mental note of when your bird tends to molt; this will help alert you to an abnormal molt.

A bird should never lose all its feathers in a normal molt, nor will it have bald patches. Simply put, all healthy birds have beautiful plumage that is soft and colorful. If your bird falls short of this, it has a problem that needs to be addressed.

Birds that usually have powder down, such as African Greys, Cockatoos and Cockatiels, should have enough on their feathers to leave a coating on your hand after you touch them. Their beaks should also show evidence of powder down. Healthy Cockatoo beaks look gray because the black beak is covered with white dust. A wet or sick Cockatoo’s beak will look black.

Listen to your bird’s breathing as it sits calmly on your shoulder, on your hand, or on a perch next to you. Never chase and capture your bird to do this because you can stress your bird and lose its trust. In addition, the breath sounds you hear will not be normal. The breath sounds of a calm bird should be quiet; the bird should be breathing through its nostrils with its beak closed. The tail should remain steady as the bird breathes. The nasal passages should remain clear of discharge. Any sneezing should be dry.

A healthy bird holds its wings evenly at its sides. At times, it may rest on its perch with one foot up. If your bird is always resting with one foot up, it may be starting to get sick. Likewise, never resting one foot could mean that a bird is sick. This behavior can be compared to you lying around all day, lacking the energy to get anything done. When they sleep, most birds turn their head toward the back and tuck the beak under the trailing edge of the wing as it rests on the bird’s back. This mannerism varies in birds; after a short time, you will know what is normal for your bird.

When your bird yawns, look at the inside of its mouth and at its tongue. Don’t force your bird’s mouth open. If your bird yawns several times a day, it probably has a sinus infection. It is trying to open up its ears by yawning, just as you do when you feel your ears are plugged (such as when you change altitudes quickly in a plane).

Notice how much your bird eats and drinks each day to establish a norm. Only you and the bird will know what is normal for your bird, and your pet relies on you to interpret the information. Any changes in eating and drinking patterns can be an early warning of problems to come.

Eating and drinking less than normal could indicate a problem. Increased thirst is another sign of a problem. What is less commonly understood is that eating too much may be a sign of disease. We often see sick birds whose appetites seemed so robust that their owners never suspected an illness. Sick birds have increased energy needs and they often try to meet those needs by increasing their food consumption.

Get used to your bird’s aroma. Each bird has a unique odor, just as people do. As long as the bird remains healthy, it will retain this aroma. Some smell like ginger, pepper, artichokes, or other pleasant scents. Any odor from the bird’s beak should be pleasant, indicating a normal odor. A bird’s droppings should never smell; if they do, there is a problem.

Your bird should maintain a regular schedule and level of activity. Kakarikis and Lovebirds, for example, are active almost all the time and maintain a frenetic activity level. A Finch or Canary may also maintain a high level of activity. An Eclectus Parrot, on the exact opposite of the spectrum, usually exerts very little energy throughout the day.

Many birds wake up with the first light of dawn ready to eat. After they eat, they may play for a while and then nap. They may eat again at midday and then nap again. If the family generally meets for dinner and spends time together in the evening, the bird may adopt this pattern and exert the most energy for play and family interaction in the evening. Your bird will set its own schedule, and you will soon know what that routine is.

A healthy bird usually sits on its perches or on the top of its cage, not at the bottom of the cage. It should rest on one leg with no difficulty, pulling the other one up for a snooze. The resting foot may withdraw into the abdominal feathers in cool weather and remain outside the feathers when the bird feels warm. Some birds, Lovebirds, for example, like to lie around on the bottom of the cage, even burrowing under the cage papers.

As your bird plays inside or outside its cage, make sure its wings work properly. Any odd angles or refusal to fly in a normally active, flighted bird could indicate trouble. Watch as the bird uses all its joints in the legs, feet, wings, and neck. Look for any potential stiffness as the bird uses these joints in normal activity.

Look for overall strength and vigor in your bird. Did it have a habit of flying around the room three times but now is tired after only two trips around the room? Did it used to climb vigorously and jump up on its playpen but now seems to labor up the playpen ladder? Such changes in behavior may be early signs of illness.

Each day, look at your bird’s droppings. They should be well-formed in a generally round shape (though not perfectly round). Most of the time, the urates from the outside with the feces on the inside. This can vary. If you know what is normal for your bird, you can easily spot abnormalities.

The fecal portion of the drop-ping should be dark green to brown. There can be a small amount of water with the dropping (the urine). Droppings that consistently have relatively large amounts of urine (watery droppings) may indicate a problem. There will usually be a white-colored, solid portion of the dropping, the urates. Larger amounts of urates in the droppings could indicate kidney disease.

Droppings may be other colors if the bird has eaten foods that could influence the hue. Strawberries, beets, or red food pellets, for example, could turn the droppings reddish. The droppings should be semisolid without whole pieces of seeds or other foods in them. Droppings should never have an odor; sour, pungent, or even sweet-smelling droppings indicate the presence of an intestinal problem.

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