Weigh Your Bird Regularly!

by

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