A wild bird can’t tell you when it feels sick. Birders who know how to recognize sick birds, however, can take steps to prevent spreading illnesses at their birdfeeders as well as render aid to sick birds to help speed their recoveries. But how can you tell exactly when a bird is sick?

Birds can succumb to many different illnesses and injuries, and many times a sick bird will not come near backyard feeders.

When an unwell bird does appear, however, there are two ways to recognize it: by appearance and by behavior.

Recognizing Sick Birds by Appearance

Not every sick bird will show symptoms of an illness, but those that do can be easily recognized. A healthy bird looks clean and whole, often looking just like it would in a field guide or nature photograph. Its feathers will be in place, its posture alert and its eyes clear and intelligent. Sick birds, however, may show several symptoms such as:

  • Dull eyes
  • Fluffed feathers when it is not cold
  • Swollen eyes or membranes
  • Wet or crusty eye, mouth or nose discharge
  • Dirty, matted feathers
  • Missing feathers
  • Visible injuries, lesions or wounds

While physical appearance can be a clear indication of illness, it can be difficult to see symptoms in small birds, and some birds may not exhibit physical symptoms at all. In these cases, the bird’s behavior is a better way to gauge its health.

Recognizing Sick Birds by Behavior

A healthy bird is perky and alert, always active feeding, preening or otherwise doing what birds do. Even if a bird may not be very mobile, it will be looking around and generally clued into its surroundings if it is healthy. A sick bird, on the other hand, may show unusual behavior, such as:

  • Trouble breathing or rapid, puffing breaths
  • Reluctance or inability to fly properly
  • Excessive drinking
  • Sitting too still, even when approached
  • Drooping wings or slouched posture
  • Roosting in open areas, even on porches or patios
  • Limping
  • Head listing to one side
  • Squinting or seeming to fall asleep
  • Getting snapped at by other, obviously healthy birds

 General Information

Anorexia (a loss of appetite), and lethargy (a feeling of listlessness and general inactivity) are commonly seen in sick pet birds. While not diagnostic for any specific disease, they do indicate a severely ill bird that requires immediate medical attention. Simply put, just about every serious illness will produce signs of anorexia and lethargy.

What are the causes of anorexia and lethargy in birds?

anorexia_and_lethary-1There are many causes of anorexia and lethargy in pet birds.

 “Anorexia and lethargy are not diseases themselves.”

These include cancer, viral or bacterial infections, fungal or yeast infections, parasites, endocrine or hormonal diseases, and organ-specific problems such as liver, heart or kidney failure. Some diseases such as proventricular dilatation do not have a known cause but can produce the signs of anorexia and lethargy. Anorexia and lethargy are not diseases themselves but indicate a serious underlying medical problem requiring diagnostic evaluation and appropriate therapy.



Other Symptoms

 Information on bird nutrition

Aspergillosis – Respiratory symptoms will be the first to occur but will depend on the location of the greatest areas of colonization. Difficulty breathing, rapid breathing and/or exercise intolerance are common. If the syrinx (= sound-producing vocal organ) is involved, a change in voice, reluctance to talk, or a “click” may occur. Nares may become plugged or you may see a discharge. Eventually, severe respiratory compromise may kill the bird.

Avian Goiter (Thyroid Hyperplasia or Dysplasia) – Has been observed in many species of birds, including pigeons, canaries, budgerigars, and wild birds. It is the most common disease of the thyroid gland in the budgerigar.

Canary Pox (Canaries / Finches only): Symptoms: Chronic Eye Problems / Proliferative Conjunctivitis / Keratis / Chronic Corneal Ulcers, Lid Depigmentation, Cataracts, Eyelid Distortion, Scar Tissue with Feather Loss on Head / Lethargy / Weightloss / Death. Topical application of astringent solutions such as mercurochrome or alcohol may be useful. Adenine arabinoside ointment a has also been recommended. Mild baby shampoo may be gently applied to any lesions around the eyes to remove scabs. Immune stimulants such as PEPE b and Echinacea may be of possible value.

Canker, Pigeon Canker, Trichomoniasis, Roup or Frounce: Affects pigeons, doves and hawks

ChlamydiosisCommon acute symptoms: Respiratory problems; such as sinus infection, labored breathing, shortness of breath, noisy breathing or “runny nose.” General well-being: Eye discharge or swelling. Lethargy, ruffled / fluffed-up feathers, loss of appetite, weightloss, weakness. Dehydration, polyuria (excess urine); diarrhea or yellowish, grayish, or lime green urates

Conure Bleeding Syndrome (CBS) appears in Index of Conure Species with rapid onset of weakness and somnolence.

Egg Yolk Peritonitis: Sudden death, loss of appetite/anorexia, weakness, depression, respiratory distress, lethargy, fluffed feathers, lack of vocalizations, yolk-colored droppings, swollen vent and/or abdomen (the swelling feels spongy to the touch), and ascites. Some of these symptoms also mimic egg binding. Ascites is most commonly seen in cockatiels and waterfowl.

Gallid herpesvirus – Occurs in pheasants / poultry.A previously unexposed flock will develop cases for two to eight weeks following introduction. The incubation period is two to eight days. Symptoms include coughing, sneezing, head shaking, lethargy, discharge from the eyes and nostrils (sometimes bloody), and difficulty breathing. It is widely viewed as one of the most contagious viruses that affect the poultry industry. A confirmed case will usually result in the establishment of a quarantine zone around the farm. Inside this quarantine zone, poultry workers will avoid poultry farms to prevent the spread of the virus.

GiardiaPossible symptoms: feather plucking; acute, chronic or recurrent diarrhea (a bad odor and lots of mucus may occur with the diarrhea); depression, lethargy, anorexia and weight loss, and even death, if untreated.

Heavy Metal Poisoning – common in pet birds that chew on inappropriate items: – Symptoms: feather picking, depression, gastrointestinal stasis, intermittent lethargy, seizures, dysphagia, ataxia, increased thirst and urination, loss of balance, dehydration, weightloss, green or bloody diarrhea and death.

Salmonellosis / Salmonella: Sick birds may appear thin, fluffed up, and may have swollen eyelids. They are often lethargic and easy to approach.

Poisoning / Toxicities

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Information contained on this website is provided as general reference only. For application to specific circumstances, professional advice should be sought.