Bird Care

How Do I Know if My Parrot is Sick? By Dr. Brenna Fitzgerald, DVM

In general, healthy parrots are alert, bright-eyed, active and interested in what’s going on around them. Of course, individual birds differ in their activity level and behavior, and all parrots spend some portion of the day resting and napping. A normal, healthy bird can be expected to spend portions of the day eating, playing, vocalizing, and interacting with other members of the household.

Bird owners often notice that their birds are most active and noisy in the mornings and evenings, when household activity is at its highest, and are more restful during the intervening periods. When assessing your bird’s health, consistency is very important: Provided that a stable home environment and routine are in place, a healthy bird should be fairly consistent in his or her behavior, activity level, and appetite. For this reason, you should be alert for changes, even if they may seem insignificant.

It is a good idea to regularly monitor your bird’s body weight. You can do so at home using a small scale that weighs in grams. Although you can purchase a scale marketed specifically for birds, you can also obtain an inexpensive postal scale from an office supply store that works just as well. Checking your bird’s weight once a week or so can help you recognize significant changes; both large losses and gains can be important and should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian. You can also feel your bird’s breast musculature to assess his or her pectoral muscle condition. The pectoral muscles of most birds are well developed to support flight, and lay on either side of the “keel,” a pronounced bony ridge that is part of the sternum. Begin by gently feeling your bird’s breast to identify the keel, and then slide your finger to either side to feel the softer muscle tissue. Pectoral muscle is more developed in some individuals than others, and may be somewhat reduced in birds that do not fly frequently. What’s important is familiarizing yourself with your bird’s normal muscle condition, so that you can better recognize changes that can accompany illness.

In addition to familiarizing yourself with your bird’s normal behavior and monitoring his or her pectoral muscle condition and body weight, you should also pay attention to changes in your bird’s energy or activity level, appetite, droppings, or behavior. Birds are notorious for exhibiting very subtle early disease symptoms, with signs of illness not becoming apparent until the illness is very advanced. Some have theorized that this represents an evolutionary adaptation: birds that can disguise illness are more likely to avoid being picked off by predators in the wild. Regardless of the reason, early symptoms are often overlooked or discounted by bird owners, such that veterinary care is not sought until the bird is very ill. Clearly, early awareness is very important, as it may make the difference between life and death. Birds that are not feeling well may become quieter and less active, and may show reduced interest in socialization or play. You may notice that he or she spends a greater proportion of the day sleeping or resting, keeps his or her feathers fluffed, or is less energetic when going about normal activities. Furthermore, a sick bird may choose to stay on a lower perch or on the cage bottom, often because it takes less energy to do so. Changes in a bird’s typical behavior, including the way he or she interacts with others, can also be important. You should also observe your bird for changes in appetite. This not only includes a loss of appetite (termed anorexia), but also a relative increase or decrease, or a change in preferred foods. Birds can sometimes become more “finicky” when ill, showing interest only in highly palatable foods and abandoning their primary diet.

In addition, the character of your bird’s droppings can provide a wealth of information. The dropping contains three components, the feces produced by the gastrointestinal tract, and the urates and urine produced by the kidneys. Fecal color, volume, and consistency can vary tremendously and are affected by numerous factors, including dietary intake. Birds on a seed-based diet typically have primarily green feces, while those on formulated diets (pellets) have more voluminous feces that take on the color of the pellets consumed. Looser feces may be produced when birds consume a greater portion of fresh fruits and vegetables. Urates, a waste product eliminated by the kidneys, are typically white in appearance, but can also be cream-colored or light yellow in color. Urine, accounting for the liquid portion of the dropping, is most often clear, light green, or may take on the color of colored pellet varieties offered in the diet.

Be alert for changes in your bird’s droppings, or in your bird’s ability to pass droppings, as these can be indicative of disease. Notable abnormalities include passage of black feces (called melena), which can occur with upper gastrointestinal bleeding, blood in the feces, loose feces (diarrhea), passage of undigested food, or malodorous feces. Abnormal urates may appear bright yellow, green or pink, and abnormal urine may be dark green, brown, or contain blood. Changes in urine volume can also be important; if you notice a consistent increase in urine volume, especially if this is accompanied by increased thirst, you should consult your avian veterinarian.

The best rule of thumb is: If in doubt, GO. When it comes to birds, it is always preferable to err on the side of caution. If you are unsure, call your veterinarian’s office to discuss the situation. It is also important to locate a veterinary emergency center that is equipped to handle bird emergency care after-hours. It may be unrealistic and unfair to expect emergency veterinarians to be well versed in all aspects of avian medicine, but it is fair and appropriate to utilize their services to stabilize your bird prior to transfer to your regular veterinarian. This may include control of bleeding, fracture stabilization, pain control, and fluid therapy.

No one knows your bird better than you. For this reason, you should always trust your intuition if you think that your bird may be ill. Even if the signs are subtle, they should not be discounted because they may truly be significant.

Published in Bird Basics, Bird Care

Is Cardboard Safe for my bird?

Is Cardboard Safe for my Bird?

Over the years, I've incorporated the use of a variety of boxes into my toy designs because my birds have always enjoyed destroying empty food boxes, corrugated boxes and paper towel tubes. All of these items make for great bird toy components and they can also quickly serve as inexpensive and impromptu foraging devices.

One of the topics that I often see being discussed on the internet is the question of whether it is safe to use cardboard in homemade bird toys. For example, numerous times I've read that the glue used in paper towel tubes is toxic because it contains zinc. As is the nature of the internet, once a tidbit of information is posted it often gets, please forgive the phrase, parroted over and over again on multiple websites and forums until it becomes "conventional wisdom".

My nature at times is to challenge conventional thought and to not always accept things at face value. However, I also want to make sure that I am making reasonable decisions when it comes to the safety of my flock (not to mention everyone else's birds). So, in order to address the all important safety question, I did some homework and would like to relay what I found.

First, let's take a brief look at the cardboard manufacturing process…

Cardboard is primarily composed of wood pulp from pine trees. The pulp has the consistency of runny oatmeal, which is then heated and pressed into sheets of paper.

Single ply cardboard, such as the type used in food packaging, does not contain any glue. However, glue may be used in the assembly of the boxes used for food packaging. The FDA regulates the type of glues that can be used for this purpose and they must be "food safe".

For cardboard food containers that will receive an ink image, paraffin or vegetable oil wax is sprayed onto the surface. This wax protects the cardboard from wicking liquids and allows ink to attach to a smooth surface. Again, the waxes used on any food container must be of a safe, food-grade quality.

Corrugated cardboard, the type used for shipping boxes, consists of multiple layers of paper. Glue is used in the manufacturing process for corrugated cardboard to bind the layers. The glue is sprayed onto the surface of the cardboard to facilitate the attachment of the fluted interior section to the two outer flat layers of paper. Glue used in corrugated boxes does not have to be "food safe".

So, what's in the GLUE?

The glue used in the manufacture of corrugated cardboard boxes is commonly prepared from corn starch, wheat starch, potato starch or tapioca starch. In fact, the biggest industrial non-food use of starch is as adhesive in the papermaking process. Making adhesives from food starches is much less expensive than using other chemicals so it is doubtful that this practice will ever change.

Although starch glues are mostly based on unmodified native starches, they also sometimes include an additive such as borax in small quantities (<1 %). Borax is a term used for a variety of closely related minerals all containing the element boron (an essential mineral). Although borax is banned in the U.S. for all food-related uses, some Asian cuisines traditionally use it as a food additive, preservative and meat tenderizer. The reason for this ban appears to be related to adverse fertility and reproductive issues observed in mice fed extremely high levels of borax.

In researching the potential toxicity of borax, I noted that borax has a health hazard rating less than that assigned to common table salt and baking soda. Certainly these are not items we would want our birds to consume in great quantities but they also aren't something that would hurt them on a minimal exposure basis. Based on this, combined with the fact that it is extremely rare for our birds to actually eat foreign non-food objects, I don't think that the use of corrugated cardboard in bird toys presents a hazard to our birds.

Oh, and as far as the presence of zinc in the paper towel rolls, this appears to just be a rumor that won't go away. Steve Hartman from The Parrot University contacted both Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly Clark, the primary manufacturers of this product in the US, who both responded that there is no zinc used in the manufacture of their paper rolls.

So, is Cardboard Safe?

We all have our own tolerance level when it comes to issues of this nature and, as such, you will have to make up your own mind. But, after reviewing this issue I know that I will continue to allow my birds to have fun shredding the occasional cardboard goodie. Of course, we all should monitor our bird's play style and habits to make sure they don't exhibit the very unusual propensity for eating foreign, non-food items.

The really good news is that the paper bagels and tubes found on the website are all from a known and trusted manufacturing source and they are bird-safe!

Published in Bird Care, Bird Dangers

Protecting Cage (Exotic) and Aviary Birds Against Exotic Newcastle Disease


F. Dustan Clark
Extension Poultry Health Veterinarian
Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service
University of Arkansas
O205 POSC Fayetteville, AR 72701
On October 1, 2002 Exotic Newcastle disease (END) was confirmed in backyard poultry
and gamefowl in southern California. Since that time, numerous backyard premises have been
quarantined for END. The disease has also spread into flocks of commercial layer chickens in
the same area of California. The California Department of Agriculture and USDA/APHIS are
presently working to eradicate the disease. Several counties or portions thereof are under a state
and federal quarantine to restrict bird movement. The disease has also been confirmed in the Las
Vegas, Nevada area in backyard chickens. To date there has not been a problem diagnosed in
exotic cage and aviary birds in these areas. However, these types of birds are susceptible to the
disease and as such are at risk. An outbreak in exotic cage and aviary birds can be extremely
costly. An outbreak in 1980 in Florida cost USDA/APHIS over 1 million dollars to eradicate and
resulted in the death of approximately 8,000 birds and additional depopulation of over 30,000
birds in 23 states.
The causative agent of END is a virus in the family Paramyxoviridae. Infected birds
can shed the virus in the feces and other body secretions and some birds may not be showing
clinical signs. The virus can persist in feces and moist soil for long periods of time. Birds can
also contract the disease by direct contact with infected birds, feces or other body secretions,
exposure over short distances to aerosols from coughing and sneezing, or contaminated
equipment, clothing, etc. This virus has a variable incubation period (17 days or less)
depending on the specie of bird infected, strain of virus, other infections in the bird, various
management factors, stressors, etc. Some exotic cage birds are highly susceptible (Amazon and
Eclectus parrots, Cockatoos, Macaws) whereas others act as carriers and may not develop
clinical signs (finches, Lories, Mynah birds, Budgerigars). The clinical signs of the disease are
also variable and may resemble other diseases. Some birds contract the disease and die without
showing signs whereas others develop disease and recover. Nervous system signs such as
tremors, shaking of the head, twisting of the head, and paralysis may be present. Other signs that
can be observed are depression, lack of appetite, weight loss, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, eye
and nasal discharges, coughing, etc. Birds may or may not develop lesions associated with the
disease. Lesions observed can be small hemorrhages on fatty tissues or in the digestive tract and
respiratory tract. The spleen and liver may also be enlarged in some birds. However, since the
symptoms and lesions are not exclusive for END the disease must be differentiated from similar
diseases. The disease can be diagnosed in live birds by virus isolations from fecal, choanal,
cloacal, and tracheal swabs. In birds that have died the virus can be isolated from various tissues
such as lung, brain, intestines, etc. Serological testing can also be used as a screening test. There
is no effective cure for the disease and the disease is eradicated by strict quarantine, surveillance,
and depopulation. The best way to reduce the risk of introducing the disease into your birds is by
following Biosecurity practices (Additional information on Biosecurity is available at . Some examples of such practices are :
1. Do not purchase birds that appear sick or that may have been illegally brought into the
2. Avoid sick birds if at all possible.
3. Practice good hygiene principles.
4. Clean and disinfect thoroughly.
5. Do not visit aviaries that have sick birds.
6. Prevent rodents and wild birds from entering the facilities where birds are kept.
7. If you visit a facility with birds that may be suspected of being infected it is important to
change clothes, shower, wash your hands and thoroughly disinfect all items taken on the premise
before contact with your birds.
8. Report signs of disease immediately and get a veterinary diagnosis immediately.
For additional information or to report disease contact any of the following:
County Agent, Local veterinarian
State Veterinarian State Veterinary Diagnostic laboratory
Extension Veterinarian

Published in Bird Care, Bird Dangers



Bird ownership is both a joy and a responsibility. Learning about the feathered friends we share our lives with is an ongoing process. For those of you who are considering buying your first bird or for those of us who have kept various types of birds for years, there is always something new to learn! The more homework you do, the better prepared you will be to take care of these magnificent creatures. The happier the parrot; the happier the owner. The happier the owner; the happier the parrot.

Nutrition is extremely important to a bird’s physical and psychological well-being. David J. Henzier’s book, Healthy Diet, Healthy Bird: A Complete Guide to Avian Nutrition, contains a wealth of valuable information. Generally, birds need a ratio of 8% fat to 12-14% protein with the remainder being carbohydrates. This ratio will vary in certain species and a breeder bird’s diet will require more protein than a regular maintenance diet.

Vitamin A is extremely important to the health of bird’s skin, respiratory, other epithelial tissues and feather condition. Insufficient vitamin A is the most common vitamin deficiency seen in pet birds. However, too much vitamin A can be just as harmful, so don’t overdo the supplements. Good vitamin A food sources are yellow and orange-colored & dark-green leafy vegetables. Squash, sweet potatoes and yams, carrots, egg yokes, alfalfa sprouts and kale are just a few good choices.

Never feed your birds chocolate, alcohol, avocado, rhubarb or products containing caffeine. The seeds or pits of apricot, peach, cherry, plum, nectarines and apples contain sugars which convert and release cyanide when ingested. Seeds from melons are OK. Foods high in fat, salt and sugar are no-no’s.

Sunflower seeds are not nutritious, are vitamin-deficient and high in fat. Dried fruits are O.K. as long as they are not “crystallized.” Breakfast cereals such as Shredded Wheat and Cheerios are good for birds. These can be served dry or soaked in natural fruit juice and even topped with grated almonds - a good calcium source. Parrots should never be given milk because it contains lactose, a sugar which parrots cannot digest. Cereals with extra vitamins and iron can be harmful since iron is stored and can reach dangerous levels in birds. Check the labels.

Though milk is not recommended, yogurt is an excellent additive especially if it contains natural, live cultures. The acidophilus bacteria is beneficial and helps fight off invasion by harmful bacteria in the digestive system. Hard cheese, such as cheddar, can be a treat rich in calcium and protein. However, because it is high in fat, it should not be offered as a daily food. When considering whether to give your birds table foods or snacks, ask yourself, “Is this food healthy and nutritious for me?”

For more information about nutrition and other aspects of bird care, read "The Orginal Flying Machine", "The Companion Parrot Quarterly" and Bird Talk magazine.

Weigh Your Bird Regularly!


by Jan Hickey

For birds in the wild, masking illness is a means of self preservation. A sick or injured bird is more vulnerable to predators and other birds in the flock. Hiding illness has become an important means of survival and an instinctive behavior in wild birds. Our captive birds retain this instinctive behavior. Unlike other animals that loudly proclaim their discomforts, a pet bird who is sick will do his best to hide his situation. Weight change is one of the few early warning signs of illness we can see.

You cannot rely on how your bird looks to detect weight changes. You will never ‘see’ a 5% weight change in your bird; but such a change is very significant and could even be life threatening. Use a good scale, preferably one designed for birds. The scale must weigh in grams. Ounces, even the more common fractions of an ounce, are too large a measurement. By the time a sun or cherryhead conure has lost enough weight to effect a change on a scale that measures in 1/4 ounce increments, the bird has lost almost 5% of its body weight!

Record the amount each time you weigh the bird. Do NOT rely on your memory. You can use a small spiral-bound notebook or a computer spreadsheet (like Excel or Lotus) to record the bird’s weight. Excel spreadsheets work well for this purpose. Graphing the weights is especially useful with very young birds or those with recurrent health problems.

Young parrots should be weighed daily until they are 1 year old. Ask the breeder for your baby’s weight record too. This will make your record more complete and could help the vet in case of illness. After the bird reaches one year old, weigh every other day until the bird reaches sexual maturity. Adult birds added to your flock should also be weighed daily for one year. This daily weight record serves to establish a baseline of what is “normal” for your bird.

Once you have a baseline, weigh the bird 3 times per week. This should continue for the remainder of the bird’s life. In times of higher stress or illness, go back to weighing daily. Weight changes are often the first--and sometimes the ONLY--sign that your bird is ill. Always weigh your bird at the same time of the day. Before feeding in the morning is usually the best time. This will give you the most consistent weight. Be sure to weigh after the morning poop-bomb. It can make as much as a 10 gram difference!

You don’t always weigh exactly the same amount: your bird’s weight will also fluctuate. In general, 1% to 1.5% up or down from the baseline weight is in the ‘normal’ range. For example, a 400 gram (baseline) bird could weigh as much as 406 or as little as 394 and still be considered to be in the ‘normal’ range. Individual birds can display a greater daily fluctuation than the 1.5% indicated. The percentages listed are a basic guideline. As with most characteristics related to birds, individuals can vary from the norm and still be perfectly healthy. This is one reason for tracking your bird’s weight for an entire year to create the baseline.

Be aware that the previous day’s food intake will also be reflected in the bird’s weight. Many parrots will eat less when the weather is changing rapidly or is particularly bad. This will show up as an unusual, but explainable, weigh loss the next day. If the bird got a special treat just before bedtime, that may show up as an unusual weight gain. If you weigh earlier or later than normal, that may also affect the results.

You will never notice a 3-4 gram loss - that’s easily within the normal range for most medium to large parrots. But if it happens again the next time, it becomes significant! If two consecutive weighings show an unexplained weight loss, go back to weighing daily. If the 3rd day shows another loss, CALL THE VET!! Don’t hesitate! Call the vet! Describe the pattern of the weight losses; be sure to include any environmental factors that you think may be affecting the bird. If the vet thinks the weight changes are significant, s/he will tell you to bring the bird in. S/he may also ask that you monitor the weight for another day or two, then call back.

Any bird that sustains an unexplained weight loss of more than 2% in a single weighing should go IMMEDIATELY to the vet. A bird with a loss 3-4% of its weight over several days should also go to the vet as soon as possible. A bird with a weight loss over 5% is in a VERY serious, perhaps even life-threatening, condition. Weight losses over 10% often result in death if not treated immediately. Weight gains usually cause less problems than losses; however, any significant change should be discussed with your avian vet. Also, be aware that some parrots may show seasonal weight changes. This is another reason that you take an entire year to establish the baseline for your parrot. Don’t forget to make notes on your weight chart about environmental and behavioral changes.

One note about weighing mature hens: It has been my experience that mature parrot hens exhibit a weight change pattern when they are going “in season”. The pattern takes place over approximately 10 to 14 days. Over 4 to 6 days, the hen will gain about 3-4% of her baseline weight. This higher weight will then be sustained for 2 or 3 days. Gradually, over the next 4 to 6 days. this extra weight will be lost, returning the hen to her baseline weight. This can also be another hint in determining the sex of non-dimorphic adult parrots.

Cocks do not generally experience this weight change pattern. Invest in a good gram scale, preferably one with a perch. A good scale, like a good cage, can be expensive; but it is an investment in your bird’s health and well-being. The current prices are in the $70 to $120 range. While either electronic or triple-beam scales are okay, for most people, the electronic types are much easier to use accurately.

Your scale should have a “load cell” weighing mechanism or a good strain gauge transducer. This feature ensures that the scale will record the same weight whether your bird is in the center of the scale or on an edge. If you are not sure if a scale has a load cell feature, you can test it by placing a weight in the center of the scale. Move the weight to the far right side of the platform, then to the far left side. If the scale does not have a good stain gauge transducer or load cell mechanism you may see a weight shift of 5% or more from the center to either edge (or from front to back). One side will record a higher weight than the center, the other side a lower weight. Now, imagine your bird moving around on the scale. If he moves to the right of center, he weighs 5% more; if he moves to the left, he weighs 5% less!

Winged Wisdom Note: Jan Hickev is a hobby breeder of African Greys and Cherryhead conures and an accountant. She lives with her husband, Dave, and a house full of birds in southeastern Wisconsin. All rights reserved. 1997

Published in Bird Basics, Bird Care