Your bird's diet is one of the most important considerations of his or her overall care. Feeding a balanced diet can prove to be a challenge. Therefore feeding plans should include a high quality formulated diet specially prepared for birds.
This is where it gets complicated and you may hear different views from different sources.
Some will say that birds should only eat pellets because to add anything will corrupt the nutritional balance of the scientifically formulated food. They have a point.
Others will suggest that not all birds have the same dietary requirements: some are granivores (seed eaters), others fructivores (fruit eaters) and others yet are omnivores (they'll eat anything). So a pellet diet needs to be supplemented by the appropriate type of food: grains to the granivore, fruit to the frugivores, table foods to the omnivore, and so on… They too have a point.
Finally there are the die-hard homemade diet believers who feed their birds their own blends of foods. And some of these birds look great!
So which advice should you follow? First consult an avian veterinarian who you trust and bring up these points of discussion. Also know your bird and that species natural diet type. And observe: nutrition is an evolving process and your bird may look great one diet and awful on another.
Also keep in mind that a bird likes to pick and choose and an owner likes to please. If your bird prefers one food type, our observation is that that is what he ends up being offered the most. Owners beware!
So the following is a description of options available to you for feeding your companion birds. And keep in mind that a wide variety of commonly available foods incorporated into the diet contributes to a healthy stimulation of your bird's senses. With food, we not only feed the body but also the mind.
Formulated Diets (Pellets)
Formulated diets available in the pet food industry offer convenience to the owner and nutritional balance to the animal. Appropriate formulations can be obtained to address special age-, activity-, therapeutic- and stress-related needs.
Formulated diets may be purchased as pellets, nuggets, crumbles, "chew bars" (Avicakes or Nutriberries) or hand-feeding premixes. Ask our personnel to show you these alternatives.
Some birds are naturally cautious and fearful of unfamiliar items; they will often restrict their diets to narrow ranges of familiar foods. For some birds, any new food, introduced suddenly, can frighten them so that they will deprive themselves of all food. As a result, nutritional deficiencies can develop. Therefore converting a seed-eating bird to a formulated food must be done with great scare because the bird may not be immediately recognized these new items as food.
To avoid this, we recommend several methods for converting a bird to a pelleted diet.
Converting your bird to a pellet diet:
* Mix pellets with your bird's accustomed diet, about 10% worth at first. Then gradually increase the amount until they win your bird over completely.
* Crush the pellets and sprinkle them over the seed.
* Fill a dish with pellets and leave it all day long with Avicakes and Nutriberries, while giving your birdseeds for short periods each morning and evening.
As a temporary measure, sunflower seed eating birds must be first weaned from this diet by replacing the sunflower seed mix with a safflower seed mix. Safflower seeds are less addictive than sunflower, but have a higher fat content.
The entire conversion process, from tentative to total acceptance may take about a month or more, depending on the bird. Starving your bird to introduce it to eat pellets is not an option. The rapid metabolism of birds requires continuous food intake. A small bird cannot go hungry for more than 24-36 hours without risking starvation. You can spice up your bird's pelleted diet by adding food from the dinner table, as long as it accounts for no more than 20% of the diet. Once your bird begins eating pellets, his droppings will change colour from green or black to brown. And because a pelleted diet causes a bird to drink more water, they'll also become looser, wetter and even bulkier.
During the conversion to a pellet diet, it is imperative to weigh your bird daily, using a gram scale. The maximum allowable weight loss during the conversion period is 10%.
Alternate Feeding Plan
Unfortunately, many first time bird owners believe that seeds, seed treats and other items that are sold on the market as "bird food" provide complete nutrition. Seeds lack 21 nutrients from 4 food groups: protein, minerals, trace minerals and vitamins. No seed diet can be a complete diet. Therefore, other foods, such as those comprising a lean, almost vegetarian type diet, must be added to balance the nutrients missing in seeds.
Please note however that we do not recommend using a not pellet based diet. But here are a few things you should know if you plan to complement your bird's diet with alternate foods:
Approximately 60% of the daily food consumption may be selected from whole grains and grain products. Common food items include various birdseeds, cooked brown rice, oats and oatmeal, dry corn, barley, wheat and whole grain bread.
Vegetables could comprise approximately 10% of the diet; they provide some essential vitamins and minerals needed by birds, but not all. Light-coloured vegetables with very high water content (e.g. iceberg lettuce, celery) are the least beneficial. The most valuable vegetables to feed are dark green and leafy or dark yellow. Important sources of vitamin A, frequently deficient in seed diets, are found in broccoli, endive, escarole, carrots, parsley, pumpkin, winter squash and sweet potato. These may be fed raw (more often has a higher nutritional value) or cooked.
Fruits should be offered in limited quantities in order to prevent overconsumption by the bird. The diet should include less than 5% fruits. Most birds do not need outside sources of vitamin C except during periods of illness or high stress, but high vitamin A containing fruits are desirable. These include papaya, cantaloupe and apricots.
Sources of protein
Mature legumes (e.g. cooked beans such as soy, navy, kidney, mung, lentils or mature peas) may be offered in amounts up to 25% of the diet and provide a valuable source of protein. High fat containing legumes such as peanuts should be limited. Small amounts of tuna or other fish, beef, chicken or eggs may also be offered.
Sources of Calcium
Excessive consumption of milk products by birds is not advised, so the calcium needs must be provided through other means (although birds do enjoy small amounts of yogurt, cottage cheese and hard cheeses). It is generally believed that the greater the consumption of seeds in the diet, the higher the need for supplementary calcium. This is most easily met by mineral supplements in the form of cuttlebone, oyster shell and/or a mineral block. If the bird refuses to eat those items, crushed calcium tablets, liquid or powder can be mixed with other foods.
The time and effort involved in preparing foods, and the difficulty in balancing the nutrients make owner compliance the most difficult aspect of an alternate feeding-plan. Birds will not choose a balanced diet if given free choice.
This makes feeding an alternate, non-pellet based diet very difficult to achieve.
Fresh water must be provided at all times. Vitamin and mineral supplements should not be added to the water:
- They oxidize rapidly and therefore lose their potency.
- They create an enriched environment for bacterial growth and pollute the water.
* Carefully monitor TOTAL food consumption during a diet change.
* Introduce very small pieces of a single new food at a time. Do so repeatedly over a 2-3 week period until the bird adjusts. Do not give up.
* Gradually reduce the total volume of seed offered as consumption of other foods increases.
* All food and water cups should be cleaned daily and spilled food removed from the cage.
* All supplemental vitamins may be recommended by your avian veterinarian but are not necessary when feeding a pellet diet.
* Some food forms can occasionally help provide sources of activity for the bird: berries, corn on the cob, and limited amounts of whole nuts.
Do Not Feed: avocado, fruit pits and seeds, ground cherries (those that are sold with a lantern like cover), tomato plant, chocolate, butter, foods containing high fat, salt, or sugar, or alcohol. Also, many houseplants are toxic if ingested.
The necessity of providing hard, indigestible grit (different from mineral supplements described earlier) is controversial. Birds who husk their seeds do not require grit for digestion. Grit does aid digestion in birds that eat their seeds whole (doves, pigeons) but oyster shell can serve this purpose and provide a source of calcium as well.
Overconsumption of grit may cause digestive tract irritation or obstruction and so we advise you not to give your bird free access to it.
However… grit does aid the passage of inadvertently swallowed indigestible foreign objects, small pieces of metal for instance. In these cases adding a dozen pieces of fine grit to the food is recommended. Consult your avian veterinarian if you suspect your bird of having ingested a small foreign object.
Special dietary Requirements
Lories, lorikeets and related species require specialized diets in captivity, one of which simulates nectar. A formula mix that contains known essential nutrients can be offered dry or moist, and can be supplemented daily or several times a week with fresh fruits and vegetables, pollen and mealworms.
Special diets are available for soft-billed birds. Because Toucans and Mynah birds have a tendency to develop iron storage disease, one should offer a formulated diet with low iron content. These birds need diced fruit and vegetables daily.
A healthy bird can tolerate temperatures that are comfortable to its owner. Birds are amazingly resistant to cooler temperatures. Although gradual changes in temperature are not a problem, sudden drops in temperature may be a potential threat.
Pet birds can adapt to a wide range of humidity levels, although birds native to subtropical climates may benefit from localized increases in humidity in the home thanks to a humidifier (with clean frequently changed filters), some time in a bathroom with a running shower, or frequent spraying the feathers with water (preferably in the morning).
Light and Fresh Air
Opportunities for supervised access to fresh air and direct sunlight (not filtered through glass) appear to be beneficial, as long as shade is available. Be wary of predators and always remember that even if your bird's flight feathers are trimmed, he can still fly a good distance if spooked. It's best to play safe and take your bird out in a cage or use a harness.
Full spectrum lamps can be used above your bird's cage to counter the grey days of winter. You may also have heard of providing your bird with UV (ultraviolet) lighting because UV light is responsible for vitamin D synthesis and calcium absorption. However, because our knowledge in this field is insufficient and the lamps available are of variable quality we recommend that you get guidance from your avian veterinarian.
The largest cage that can be accommodated in the home is recommended for birds that are expected to be confined most of the time. The cage must be strong enough to resist bending or dismantling by the bird, made of non-toxic material, and designed for safety and ease of cleaning. Wooden cages are not recommended for obvious reasons. In most cases, the cage would need to be wider than it is tall to accommodate stretched wings; however ample height should be provided for long tailed birds.
Optimum perches are clean, easily replaceable, appropriately sized, natural wood branches from pesticide free and nontoxic
trees (e.g. elm, some fruit trees, Manzanita). Rope perches are also an excellent choice.
Perches of several different diameters, shapes and textures are preferable. Do not use sandpaper perch covers or other abrasive materials as they will damage the skin of your bird's feet.
Perches should be placed at various levels to encourage climbing and provide exercise. A single well-placed perch may be adequate for agile climbers like psittacines because they tend to prefer the highest perch even if more are provided. Two perches, one on each end of the cage, should be available for species such as finches, which prefer flying or jumping to climbing.
Perches should be placed to prevent droppings from contaminating the bird's food or water, and to prevent the bird's tail from contacting food, water or the floor of the cage.
Food and Water Bowls
The use of wide bowls rather than deep cups displays food attractively and may encourage the bird to eat new items. Healthy psittacines with normal ambulatory skills can easily approach the food and water bowls; therefore it is not necessary in these cases to place bowls directly beside the perch. Birds often overeat or chew on food dishes out of boredom.
A daily cleaning of the cage floor and bowls prevents problems with food spoilage and alerts the owner to potential signs of illness. A weekly, thorough cleaning of the cage with plain soap and water followed by a good rinsing is suggested.
Newspapers, paper towels or other plain cage liner paper is safer and preferred over wood chips, chopped corn cobs, kitty litter or sand as cage substrate under the grating, so that the appearance and number of droppings can be monitored on a daily basis. The latter mentioned litters are dusty and may, if ingested, cause digestive obstruction.
Many birds benefit from the availability of a retreat inside the cage for a sense of privacy (e.g. paper bag, towel, box). But if your bird is a female beware: dark spaces can simulate a nest box and stimulate egg laying.
Sleep and rest are important for your bird. You can help him get the best quality sleep either by placing the cage in a room away from your evening activities or cover the cage with a thick and dark cloth. Make sure the bird is sleeping in a quiet place (i.e. away from the television if it is viewed in the evening) for 10-12 hours a night.
In appropriate species, opportunities may be provided for exercise in the form of supervised freedom from the cage or flying in the home.
Pet birds are intelligent, active animals that need their psychological needs addressed. Locate the cage near family activity in the home. Toys are useful as mental diversions and tend to encourage physical exercise and beak wear; however, they must be selected with safety of the bird in mind. Chewable items include branches, rawhide dog chews, natural fiber rope and soft white pine.
One of the best and easiest activities to offer your bird involves foraging. In the wild birds spend countless hours on the ground searching for food items: they dig, they scratch, they chew, that is … they forage. Creating a suitable foraging environment for your bird is essential: spread toys, vegetables, stones or marbles and food on a tray or on the floor and let your bird explore; alternatively, allow your bird to walk on the ground outdoors (supervised and harnessed or feathers trimmed, of course). It's good exercise that will keep him or her happy, calm and healthy.
Minimal body care is required for the healthy, well-fed pet bird. However, confined, indoor pet birds that resist a varied diet are prone to require more attention in the care of beak, feathers, feet and nails.
Long nails can remain hooked on cage wires, toys or material, resulting in injuries as the bird attempts to free himself. We recommend regular nail trims.
Keep feathers dry and free of oily substances. Never apply ointments or greasy products to skin or feathers. Soiled feathers may be gently cleaned with a mild detergent solution (e.g. baby shampoo) followed by thorough warm water rinsing and drying in a warm environment. But be careful: never fully soak your bird. Feathers are her insulation and a soaked bird will be unable to maintain normal body temperature.
Flight feather trim (wing clip)
A bi-annual flight feather trim may be necessary to prevent escape or injury, or for taming and training. But do be careful! Flight feather trims must be adjusted to the bird's weight, life situation and habits. A bad trim can have serious consequences ranging from feather picking
, to trauma from falling to phobias. Have it done by someone who considers all these aspects.
Molting is a normal physiological process when feathers are lost and replaced. This may occur 1-2 times annually and may last from 1 week to 2-3 months depending on the individual and his or her environment.
During the molting of feathers, additional fat, protein and vitamins may be required in the diet. As a new feather develops, the bird will pick at the pin feather cover to open it. This should not be interpreted as "feather picking" or the presence of mites. Pure water is the most appropriate feather spray.
Identification: leg bands and microchips
It may be wise to remove leg bands to prevent injury. If a band must remain on the leg for identification purposes, check under the band occasionally for signs of dirt accumulation, swelling or constriction of the leg. As well beware of toys in the cage that may hook on to the band and trap the bird.
We strongly recommend microchips for permanent identification of your bird. Implantation is a quick process, usually done with no anesthesia, and is less accident prone than a leg band. It also cannot be removed if your bird is lost or stolen.
Pet owners are accustomed to taking the family dog or cat to the veterinarian for an annual check-up. It is even more important for a pet bird to have regular examinations, because birds tend to have very subtle symptoms of disease.
Because owners are often unaware of symptoms in the beginning stages of disease in birds, annual check-ups are advised for early identification and management of potential disorders. Also, new information of interest to the bird owner is continually becoming available. Most owners bring in their birds twice annually: every 6 months for grooming (nails, wings, possibly weight) and annually for their exam.
New Bird Exam
An examination of a newly acquired bird within the first three days after purchase is recommended in order to protect the investment of the owner, to uncover and prevent possible disease conditions and to educate the owner about appropriate bird care.
Even if the new bird checks out "normal", results of diagnostic tests in the initial patient record provide valuable references for subsequent examinations. Ask our staff for our booklet entitled "complete avian profile".
Isolation of new birds
Isolation and quarantine of a new bird is the first and most important thing an owner should do if he/she owns other birds. In order to protect other birds on the premises, it is advised that all newly acquired birds be maintained separately for a period of at least six weeks following purchase.
Many air-borne viruses and bacteria may be spread from room to room by central air conditioning or heating systems; in this case, an off-premise location is preferred.
Quarantine is essential for all new birds, even those that are believed to be healthy.
The following are the components of the Exam:
Your veterinarian is very interested in what you know about the background of your bird – his or her age, sex, origin, length of time in the household, diet, caging. Even if the bird has been a household pet for a long time, the veterinarian should be advised of any contact, direct or indirect, with other birds. Examples of indirect contact would be the owner's buying of bulk seed from open bins in a pet shop that houses birds, or visiting other aviaries, bird shows or bird markets.
From an initial, critical observation of the bird in the cage, the veterinarian can determine general body conformation (obesity, tumours), posture, attitude and character of respiration. Although many internal problems may not be evident from a step-by-step, hands-on examination, an experienced avian veterinarian will be able to note abnormalities in the feathers, skin, beak, eyes, ears, cere, nares, oral cavity, bones, muscles, abdomen and vent.
Once a bird has become an adult, the weight should remain relatively constant. Checking the weight occasionally, especially at the annual examination, will give valuable information about your bird's health. A bird's weight should be measured in grams for larger birds and in tenth of grams in smaller ones, not ounces, in order to detect small increments of change.
Appraisal of Droppings
The appearance of the droppings
- volume, colour and composition - may help the veterinarian generally assess the bird's health and consider certain disease conditions. Most birds are nervous in the clinic, so their droppings may be abnormally loose there: if possible, bring the latest (24 hour) cage paper for your veterinarian to evaluate. A faecal sample may be examined microscopically to determine the presence of internal parasites.
Depending on the bird's history, results of physical examination, species, age and general condition, your veterinarian may suggest some of the following diagnostic techniques that will assist in evaluating your bird's health:
Several screening tests are available for the detection of psittacosis. This is important as part of the new bird exam or annual check-up because the causative agent, Chlamydophila psittaci, may be transmitted from birds to humans.
A blood sample might be taken to determine the amount and distribution of red and white blood cells. The information may suggest the possibility of certain diseases, and further tests may be indicated for confirmation. A series of chemistry tests performed on the blood sample may point to imbalances in biochemical functions and suggest the possibility of organ dysfunction.
Your avian veterinarian may recommend a culture of the choana (throat), cloaca (vent), crop (oesophagus), or some other tissue/fluid samples to determine abnormal growth of bacteria or yeast. At the same time, antibiotic sensitivity may be done to determine an appropriate antibiotic to be used if bacterial growth requires therapy.
X-Rays may be used to assess the internal condition of your bird. The presence of old or new fractures, the size and relative relationship of internal organs, the presence of foreign bodies or soft tissue masses such as tumours, and the condition of lungs and air sacs are often evaluated with radiographs.
Tests are currently available for the detection of certain viruses in birds. Screening is particularly important for breeding birds, as there are pathogens that do not manifest themselves until the bird is under stress, such as during egg laying, breeding, or weaning. Viruses that can be detected include Polyomavirus
disease and Circovirus
(PBFD) and Bornavirus
General medical considerations
Signs of Illness
The pet owner frequently misses early signs of illness in birds. As a survival tactic in the wild, a sick bird will attempt to maintain a normal appearance as long as possible, so that by the time any symptoms are obvious, the bird has usually been ill for some time.
The bird that "dies suddenly" may be the result of failure to observe changes in the appearance or behaviour of the bird prior to that time. For this reason, owners should familiarize themselves with early signs of illness in pet birds so that any therapy and care by their avian veterinarian will have a more favourable outcome.
It is a good idea to regularly weigh your bird. A weight loss of 10% or more could be the first sign of disease.
The following symptoms may not require emergency treatment, but because they are abnormal, your avian veterinarian should check any bird showing these signs:
- Broken, bent picked or chewed feathers.
- Unusual or dull feather colours.
- Stained feathers over nares or around the vent.
- Crusty material in nostrils.
- Redness, swelling or loss of feathers around eye.
- Flakiness of skin or beak.
- Loss of pattern, baldness or sores on bottom of feet.
- Lameness or shifting of body weight.
- Overgrowth of beak or nails.
- Minor changes in talking, biting or eating habits.
- Low reproduction in breeding birds.
- Abnormal droppings
If these early signs are missed, they may progress to:
Signs of Serious Illness
The following symptoms may indicate a serious health problem and veterinary assistance should be sought at once!
- Significant changes in number and appearance of the droppings.
- Decreased or excessive food and water consumption.
- Change in attitude, personality or behaviour.
- Fluffed posture.
- Decreased vocalisation.
- Change in breathing or abnormal sounds.
- Change in weight or general body condition (weight in grams).
- Enlargement or swelling on the body.
- Any bleeding or injury.
- Vomiting or regurgitation (head feathers pasted).
- Discharge from nostrils, eyes or mouth.
- Loss of balance, unable to perch on both legs.
Evaluation of Droppings
Observation of droppings is one simple method of monitoring your bird's health. Paper towels, newspaper or other smooth surfaces can be used to line the cage bottom so that the number, volume, colour and consistency of the three components of the droppings can be noted daily. A bird's normal droppings will vary in appearance depending on its diet.
Feces (food waste material from digestive tract) can differ somewhat in colour and consistency. Diets with high seed content usually produce homogeneous black or dark green feces. Birds on formulated diets normally exhibit soft, brownish feces.
Urine is normally clear liquid and is present in small volume. A diet high in vegetable and fruit matter will increase the urine component, as will a pellet diet.
Urates (creamy white waste from the kidney) are often suspended in the liquid urine or appear to wrap around the feces.
The sick bird may exhibit:
- Decrease in the total number of droppings
- Colour change to yellow or green of the urates or urine
- Increase in the water content of the feces (diarrhea)
- Increase of the urine portion (polyuria)
- Decrease in the feces volume with increased urates (polyurates)
- Presence of blood
Some normal variations may be seen in impending egg laying females, baby birds on hand feeding formulas, the first void of the morning, conditions of nervousness and stress, or following a large meal of a specific coloured food (e.g. blueberries). Thus, the owner should evaluate several droppings under normal circumstances before becoming alarmed.
Dangers and accidents
Most accidents can be prevented:
- Have wing and nail trims done by a professional
- Don't give your bird free access in your kitchen while cooking
- Always supervise your bird when she is not caged
What to Avoid
- Sandpaper covered perches
- Air pollutants such as cigarette smoke, insecticides and toxic fumes from overheated Teflon-coated utensils.
- Mite boxes or sprays.
- Easily dismantled toys such as balsa wood, small link chain items, toys with metal clips or skewers, or those with lead weights.
- Access to toxic houseplants, ceiling fans, cats, dogs, young children.
- Access to cedar, redwood or pressure treated pine chips as cage substrate.
- Any metals /wires containing lead, copper, zinc, gold or silver.
- Toxic foods: AVOCADO, fruit pits, chocolate, rhubarb leaves.
Heat and food are the two most important considerations for temporary care of the sick bird until it can be seen by your avian veterinarian: The bird should be kept quiet and handling should be avoided.
A temperature of 28-33°C (85-90°F) should be maintained for sick birds. A temporary incubator can be made by placing a heating pad or a hot water bottle along the side or floor of the cage and draping the entire cage (or 3/4 of it depending on intensity of heat source) with towels, a blanket or cage cover. An infrared or 100 watt light can be used as an alternate heat source. If the bird starts breathing rapidly and holds its wings away from its body, the temperature is too hot, so monitor bird regularly. Certain types of room heaters (e.g. kerosene) should be avoided near the bird.
Every effort must be made to encourage the sick bird to eat. Cups of food should be placed adjacent to where the bird is perched, or food can be scattered on the bottom of the cage if the bird is off the perch. Offer the bird's favourites, by hand if necessary. Offer millet to small birds. The smaller the bird, the more critical the need for prompt attention.
Do Not Use Ointments or Give Alcohol
Transporting a sick bird
To take a sick bird to the veterinarian, place him in a cloth lined box with a pierced cover, or in his transport cage. Do not put water in the box or cage, but do place pieces of his favourite foods. If it is cold out cover the box or cage with a blanket or towel and place it in a plastic bag, which serves as a cold/wind barrier. Open this bag once in the car to allow air circulation. Travel with a companion if possible and hold the box or cage securely on your lap. Your avian veterinarian will need the cage paper from the last 24 hours, and bring any special treats that would encourage your bird to eat should he have to be hospitalized.
Specific medical problems
Chronic egg laying
Chronic egg laying is a common problem, especially among the finches, canaries, parakeets, lovebirds and cockatiels. Keep in mind that a female does not need a male around her to lay eggs!
A few of the problems an egg-laying female can develop include vitamin and mineral deficiencies, cloacal prolapse, retained egg or egg yolk peritonitis.
Egg development requires increased energetic and nutritional demands in vitamins, protein and calcium and more. A balanced diet is essential for every bird, but is even more important in laying females.
Moreover, environmental enrichment, proper socialization and a healthy living environment are all key elements in avoiding egg related problems and providing a better quality of life to your birds.
Environmental therapy to reduce or stop laying
1. Gradually change the photoperiod to 14-16 hours of darkness vs. 8-10 hours light for two weeks. This might induce a bird into believing that "winter" has arrived and egg laying can be reduced.
2. Remove all toys object toward which the bird displays sexual behaviour (feeding, mounting).
3. Block access to places that look like nests (cavities, boxes, drawers) and materials (papers, fibres) that could serve in nesting.
4. Do not remove eggs as they are laid. Doing so encourages her to replace the eggs by laying new ones. Allow her to sit on the eggs for the normal incubation period for the species (usually 2-3 weeks) until she loses interest. Only then remove the eggs.
5. Re-arrange the furniture: change the cage location, periodically modify and rotate placement of perches, bowls and toys to provide a changing environment which is less conducive to egg-laying.
6. An egg-laying female makes extensive use of her reserves of calcium and protein: an enriched and balanced diet is crucial to avoid metabolic problems. You may need to add dietary calcium (a cuttle bone, oyster shell) as well as multi vitamin that contain vitamin D3.
7. Reducing calories can significantly reduce or stop laying. Try eliminating foods high in fat or very high in protein. Any significant food restriction should only be undertaken with the guidance of your avian veterinarian as weight loss occurs quickly in birds.
8. A bird that has an exclusive relationship with one owner may have developed a "couple" relationship. Petting a bird, particularly on the lower back, can sexually stimulate a bird and should be avoided. Group interactions (meal time, play) should be encouraged rather than exclusive interaction with only one person.
9. A male cage-mate may harass the paired female. An occasional 'cage break' from the male can lessen the egg laying in the female. Consider purchasing a second cage for this purpose to provide occasional respite for the female.
If chronic egg laying persists despite all these methods, medical therapy may be necessary.
Medical therapy aims to reduce or stop the production of eggs. Currently, the medication most often used is Lupron. Administered by injection, it works by blocking the hormones that stimulate egg production. This product is safe and effective, but can be expensive if it needs to be used long term.
If Lupron proves ineffective, another long-term treatment is now available: a Deslorelin implant. This medication works similarly to Lupron and is an implant, the size of a grain of rice, placed under the skin and is effective for 6-18 months. In the long run, it can offer a less expensive and less stressful solution for the problem of chronic egg laying.
Surgical sterilization is a permanent solution. Generally, this option is considered as a last resort in birds that do not respond to other treatments and lifestyle modification. The reason for this is that as compared to cats and dogs, this surgery is not routine but rather of a higher risk.
Medical treatment should always be used in conjunction with environmental and behavioural changes in order to optimize the therapy.
Feather picking or plucking is a behavioural problem in birds that results in feather, and occasionally skin damage. Feathers can be over preened and chewed, broken or completely removed. This condition can occur gradually over months or years, or in some cases, literally overnight.
Usually the activity will limit itself to certain areas of the body such as the chest or the thighs or the back. In a few cases birds will chew feathers on the whole body. However, even in the worst cases, the head feathers remain untouched since the bird cannot reach them and the flight feathers and tail feathers are not removed. The location of the picking can sometimes give insight into the cause of the problem.
There are several reasons why a bird may engage in this destructive behaviour:
Healthy feather growth requires a balanced diet. Without proper nutrition, feathers become dry and lack-lustre, may break easily and lack normal ultrastructure. In an attempt to restore feathers to normal, the bird will over preen them and cause further destruction, thus beginning a vicious cycle of preen and damage. Consult our handbook, our web page on diet or one of our staff to ensure your bird's diet is healthy.
Stress and Environment
Birds are susceptible to stress. Common stressful situations for birds are:
- Change of homes/owners
- Addition or loss of a cage mate or human family member
- Lack of stimulus/ boredom
- Lack of opportunity for socialization
These stresses can result in displacement behaviour: over preening and feather damage.
Most parrots sold are handfed babies. A bird's first year is of utmost importance in creating a well-balanced independent individual. This process can be thwarted by well meaning but over caring owners. The result is a badly adjusted bird who will demonstrate several inappropriate behaviour patterns as the years go by, one of which is feather picking.
It is crucially important that prospective owners of baby parrots never buy an unweaned bird and be well informed on how to raise a young bird.
Flight Feather Trim
Improperly trimmed feathers can promote feather picking. The cut feather shafts rub against and irritate the bird's flanks causing over preening in the area.
We encourage wing clipping to be tailored to each bird and their unique situation. Some birds must have their flight feathers clipped in order to avoid accidents or reduce dominant behaviours. Young birds should only have very conservative feather trims if any. Other birds can remain fully feathered and able to fly.
Birds can learn competent flying and landing skills with help from their owners. Specially designed harnesses can be used when taking a bird outdoors. Naturally, they must be taught to wear these harnesses and not all birds will accept them. Some may even learn how to remove them, so always be attentive! Flighted birds can also be provided with safe, enclosed outdoor areas to fly in. If your bird is fully flighted, remember to pay close attention to open windows and doors through which he could escape.
The benefits of flight are twofold:
The physical benefits include proper muscle development, joint maintenance and strength, good cardiovascular function, reduced obesity, and the avoidance of accidents that are due to poor flight control and ability.
The psychological benefits include the building of confidence and self-assurance. The ability to fly promotes curiosity and exploration and can relieve boredom.
Remember though, that each situation is unique, and that the decision to allow your bird to fly or not must be made keeping both your and your bird's needs and temperament in mind.
Feather picking can be a reflection of pain or discomfort. A bird that plucks his feathers at the base of the neck may have a crop infection. A bird that chews his toes may have nerve damage in the leg and may be experiencing a "tingling" sensation. Feather picking can be the first clinical manifestation of systemic chronic disease.
External Growths and Infection
Skin and feathers and follicles (roots) must be closely examined for evidence of viral, bacterial or fungal infections or cysts, which can lead to feather picking.
Internal or external parasites can cause itching and subsequent feather damage by picking. Your pet may have been sold to you with these parasites or he may have contracted them from another bird. Once infected, a bird cannot rid himself of these unwanted pests on his own. Your avian veterinarian will advise you on the appropriate treatment.
Physiology and Hormones
Reproductive hormone levels in birds fluctuate during the year leading to behavioural changes. One of these may be the plucking of feathers on the abdomen in females to prepare for egg laying. It is postulated that in a number of these individuals, this behaviour does not subside but intensifies into feather picking because of sexual frustration. Hormone treatments have been used in these cases with varying success.
Whatever the cause, after its onset, this behaviour may become a permanent activity in the presence of positive reinforcement. Indeed, once the bird begins picking, the owner's natural response is to give the bird negative attention by saying and eventually yelling "no, stop that...", spraying with water and using other methods in an attempt to get the bird to desist. Unfortunately, in "bird language" all this negative attention is seen as positive, because at the very least it is attention, at the most, it is entertaining and fun!
Current wisdom suggests that this activity be totally ignored and that attention should be given when the bird is not picking.
What To Do
The diagnosis of the origins of this symptom begins with a discussion of the bird's life and environment, a physical examination, and a complete avian profile to eliminate the possibility of physical disease, (see our handout: "Complete Avian Profile"
If a disease process is discovered if must be treated medically.
Environmental and dietary changes must be made where applicable:
- Provide more exercise
- Add, remove or alternate toys
- Transfer to a well balanced or pellet diet
- Use a wide variety of food colours and sizes to stimulate
- Relocate the bird to a quieter or more active area depending on the case
- Assess possible sources of stress (new pet, new cage, a move)
If environmental, dietary and physical aspects are in line, the behaviour itself must be addressed. This experience, which can be as frustrating as it can be rewarding, often requires changes involving the bird as well as the owner:
- Create or change routines
- Establish nurturing dominance (see Dr. Lupu's DVD on behaviour)
- Reinforce positive behaviours
- Ignore negative behaviours
A knowledgeable avian veterinarian can refer you to an avian behaviour specialist if you need additional help. You can also order Dr Lupu's behaviour video
by calling our clinic at 514-486-5258.
The use of collars to stop feather picking is controversial.
It is definitively contraindicated in cases of physical disease. It should be used in birds with self-inflicted wounds. We prefer exploring alternative methods for curtailing feather picking: in our experience, once the collar is removed, many birds resume picking sooner or later if no other changes were made. We do however occasionally use a collar to "break the cycle" in conjunction with behaviour modification techniques.
Above all, if you have a feather picking bird, it helps if you try to ignore the aesthetics (or lack thereof) and focus on the needs of the bird. If you cannot solve this problem, focus on who the bird is, not what he looks like.
Over the past few years, new technologies including PCR (polymerase chain reaction) have permitted the development of screening tests for certain pathogens in birds. In addition to Chlamydophila, a bacterium which causes Psittacosis, viruses tested for include Polyoma virus, Pacheco Disease Virus (PDV) Beak and Feather Disease Virus (PBFD) and Avian Borna virus (ABV).
These tests are performed on samples obtained from the bird's blood, droppings, or his or her oral or cloacal mucosa. Sampling sites may differ according to the organism screened for and the bird species.
Concerning blood samples taken for this procedure: We consider that clipping toenails to obtain blood samples is not a humane practice and should not be attempted.
The biggest drawback to these tests has been in their interpretation. Are the results absolute? Are there false negatives? False positives? Do these tests detect only disease causing viruses or do they also detect non-virulent strains of the same virus? Important decisions concerning the bird's life will be made based not only on the test results but more importantly, on their interpretation. If you are doing this investigation on your own, make sure you are well informed. PCR testing is a valuable tool, which helps us maintain healthy populations of birds.
Pacheco Disease is caused by a member of the Herpes viruses. This family of viruses also includes, for example, the herpes simplex responsible for cold sores and herpes zoster associated with shingles in humans. Three principal strains of Herpes virus are found in birds: one affects hatchability of eggs in budgies; another produces upper respiratory disease in Amazon parrots; the third is responsible for Pacheco disease. However, within these strains are viruses that cause disease, viruses that lay dormant and viruses that are inert. Herpes viruses become activated under conditions of stress, fatigue and malnutrition. These conditions may surface for birds in situations of transport, malnutrition, crowding and breeding.
Full blown Pacheco disease can kill a bird in less than 24 hours from the initial onset of symptoms which include loose and watery droppings, yellow tinged urates and lethargy. In milder forms of the disease, the birds can appear tired, regurgitate, lose their appetite and develop loss of balance and co-ordination. There is no real cure for this disease and the only help is to support the bird while (and if) the disease passes.
As for testing, there is only one practical commercial test available. This detects pieces of viral particles in the bird's blood, stool or in swabs from the inside of the bird's mouth. This test is a PCR test. It has been commercially available since the late 1990's. It is extremely sensitive and will pick up tiny amounts of viral particles. What the test does not tell us is whether the virus the test uncovered is a disease causing strain of virus. Many seemingly healthy birds will test positive on this test leaving the owner of the bird in a quandary. If this is a single bird dwelling, then there is no problem and in fact the value of testing such a bird is questionable. If this positive bird comes from or is to be introduced into a multiple bird household, the only solution is to vaccinate all the birds.
This being said, it is important to note that the incidence of Pacheco disease in our area in the past decade has been nil and we do not recommend vaccination at this time.
Polyomavirus mainly affects young birds prior to weaning. Adults are rarely affected and can display non-specific transitory symptoms (sleepiness, lack of appetite, diarrhea).
In budgerigars the virus can cause different symptoms than in other psittacines. Young budgies display abnormal feather growth (formerly called French Moult). The disease is fatal to most young birds however those who survive may (or may not) display permanent damage to their plumage. These birds may become carriers of the virus that they shed through their droppings.
Young parrots that contract the virus become lethargic, have a hard time digesting their food and most often die. The progression of the disease can be as short as one to three days. A certain number of young birds may survive the disease. Others can acquire and process the virus without showing serious symptoms, and shed the virus, thus contaminating the environment and spreading infection. Except for budgies and cockatiels, who continue to shed the virus throughout their lives, other species are not considered persistent carriers. Shedding of the virus will occur during a period of six to eighteen months post-infection.
There is currently no cure once a bird has become infected with the virus, however a preventive vaccine exists. Since Polyomavirus does not affect adult birds kept by individuals in a private setting, vaccination is not required. On the other hand, this vaccine is highly recommended for birds in breeding facilities and for young unweaned babies exposed to other birds.
Avian Borna virus (ABV)
This disease was formerly known as Proventricular Dilatation Disease or PDD.
ABV is caused by a virus (Borna virus) that targets and paralyses the gastro-intestinal system. In healthy parrots, the digestive process is characterized by a back-and-forth movement of food between the proventriculus, the gizzard and the intestines. This virus interferes with this movement thus preventing digestion and absorption of food. Food stagnates in the proventriculus and may putrefy or quickly pass through the system without being digested. The parrot will eat voraciously, feeling hungry despite the amount of food he ingests, as he absorbs little nutrition. A young bird may constantly beg for food. Neurological signs may also be present, with or without digestive symptoms. These include shaking, aggression, loss of balance and coordination. Progressive weight loss and a slow decline of health ensue.
This disease can affect all psittacines, young or adult. Until now, only palliative treatments and supportive care have been available. Although active research is underway, as of yet no vaccine exists for this disease.
The disease can be controlled with sanitation and segregation of birds that test positive. But here again it is important to accurately interpret results of PCR testing for this virus as a positive result should not be interpreted as a death sentence for the bird. One test alone is inadequate for interpretation and a positive result could simply mean that there is immunity and no disease. So please get the proper advice from a knowledgeable source.
Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD)
Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) is caused by a virus (Circovirus) that attacks a bird's feathers and immune system. Although devastating in the past, it is no longer common to see beak lesions.
The affected feathers are damaged in the follicle during growth, to the point where they are no longer viable. The bird progressively loses feathers with each successive moult, beginning with the flight feathers, followed by the contour feathers on the body. Some birds may become fully naked.
This disease often affects young birds during feather development but also affect adult birds, who show progressive feather loss. When this virus infects very young birds (prior to weaning), it will attack their immune system before it has completely developed. This leaves the bird vulnerable to infection. These birds may only survive for a few months.
PBFD virus can be confirmed through viral DNA testing through fecal samples, feathers or blood from the affected bird. Unfortunately, no effective cure exists for the disease.
A positive test (indicating the presence of the virus) in a bird that has no symptoms, does not indicate that this bird will automatically develop the disease: his or her immune system can eliminate the virus. These birds must be re-tested on a monthly basis until the tests become negative. A positive test in a bird showing symptoms is not a death sentence. The progression of the disease can be slow, and many birds can maintain a good quality of life for several years.
PBFD virus is contagious and very resistant to disinfectants. Precautions must be taken to ensure that sick birds are kept apart from other birds. Since the virus spreads in powder down, the environment can be easily contaminated. Normally, a suspect environment should be tested (again by using a DNA swab) before introducing a new bird.