Top Signs of Illness in Birds, Plus Emergency Bird Care.

Need for avian first-aid can spring up at the most unexpected moments.

My canary, Pip, kept lifting her left foot up today, the one with the yellow band. When I realised she’d been doing it all day, I told O. to get her (him being the designated catcher) so I could have a peek and do a quick toe trim if need be.

Step one: Catch and Assess. The safest way to catch a small bird, such as a finch, lovebird, or parrotlet, is to grasp it with the head placed gently but firmly between your index and middle fingers, the rest folded around the bird. It is CRITICAL not to put any pressure on the bird’s sternum, as this makes it so it cannot breathe. Putting them in this hold (the right way) does not hurt them, although it can be stressful for some birds.

Pip getting her toes done.
Pip getting her toes done.

For larger parrots, the same is true, but your hand should wrap around the neck, while the first joint of the thumb nestles below the bird’s beak. Your free hand should firmly grasp the feet of a larger parrot. (If it struggles, fold its wings against your body so that it cannot harm itself.)

You can also towel a bird (here’s a good how-to), but if there is not sufficient training already in place, this can cause trauma to the animal – and it also takes some practise. With any sick or injured pet, it is best to avoid any further panic.

It doesn’t always go smoothly, as you can see below. Our canary shot out from O.’s grasp and sailed around the room a few times before ending up in his sleeve!

She actually managed a crash-landing in O.’s sleeve…

At long last, she was too tired to flee, and O. gently deposited her at home. She spent a few minutes hyperventilating on the cage floor, so I put in the beloved treat cup plus some apple and Pip quickly went for it.

Treat cup = forgiveness.

Distraction = the best possible method for dealing with a bird.


A bird’s natural instinct is to conceal its illness or injury, and so it’s especially important to watch for signs of things out of the ordinary. If you notice your pet looking very obviously sick, it could possibly be too late, and you shouldn’t delay a vet trip.

Signs of a sick parrot or finch:

  • Any kind of blood, anywhere. Check for source!
  • Lethargy.
  • Depression.
  • Looking ‘out of sorts’ or just not acting normally.
  • Perching fluffed up.
  • Difficulty balancing or perching.
  • Abnormal sleeping habits.
  • Changes in eating or drinking – could be too little or too much.
  • Weight loss.
  • Breathing through an open beak.
  • Clicking or wheezing when breathing.
  • Tail pumping or bobbing.
  • Discharge around cere (nose), or eyes.
  • Dull eyes.
  • A soiled vent.
  • Rough-looking or missing plumage.
  • Bad posture when perching.
  • Unwillingness to fly or move.
  • A change in droppings. (Thin and watery, or thick and infrequent.)
  • Obvious lesions or cuts.
  • Reluctance to put weight on a foot or limb.
  • Holding wing or wings at an odd angle.
  • Sitting for long periods of time on the floor of its cage.

If your bird is on the floor and unwilling to perch – call the vet! This is often one of the final signs of an illness.

How to care for a sick or injured bird:

Quarantine! Keep your sick bird away from other pets. The quiet will help him recuperate, too.

Vet. A vet will be able to best help your bird. Seeing a good avian vet is a must if you notice anything wrong!

Heat. For any sick or injured bird, a heat source is critical. I use a Snuggle Safe, which can be heated in the microwave for a few minutes and then produces steady heat for a period of time. People have been known to use reptile lamps – or even ordinary lamps, although this should be done with caution, as they can cause either overheating or a fire. Hot water bottles or bar heaters have been used, too. Put a towel over one half the cage, and make sure your bird can escape the heat, too, if he feels it’s too much!

Provide easy-access food and water dishes. Make sure your sick pet has access to his or her favourite foods. If he’s on the floor, make him a paper towel nest and place small bowls within easy reach. Millet spray is a good thing to offer, at this point.

Reduce stress. Quiet, semi-dark room, away from other birds. If he is perching, keep perches low in case of a fall.

Don’t self-medicate. Human medications can be deadly to birds, as we can’t measure out exactly the 1/1,000 of a pill they could tolerate. Let your vet perscribe avian-safe meds, and always follow the directions on the label.

Encourage your bird to hydrate. Try offering water in a spoon, from your fingertip, or in a bowl nearby.

You can help prevent sickness from setting in by maintaining a clean environment for your pets, good nutrition (not just seed, ever!), and fresh water in a clean bowl, daily.


Care for your sick bird!

Emergency sick bird care.

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