Wild animals, and in particular birds, will try very hard not to show any signs of disease or of being unwell. This survival strategy makes it often difficult to actually notice that a bird is ill or injured. This common problem can lead to a delay in treatment, which sadly often means that with progressing time it becomes more difficult or even impossible to save the animal. To establish whether a bird is diseased or not, it is necessary to closely observe the animal in question, sometimes for a longer period of time. In any case, if the bird is not in immediate danger, then observing the bird from a safe distance is usually very informative. Whilst observing the bird, it might also be a good idea and the right time to get in touch with a local rehabber or wildlife rescue to obtain expert advice or assistance.
Fluffed up Plumage
When a bird is sitting stationary on the same spot for a longer period of time, then this is often an indication that a bird is not feeling well. This behaviour becomes even more suspicious, if the bird is sitting motionless with closed eyes on one spot during daytime, appears fluffed up and has put his or her head underneath its wing. Birds have a higher metabolic rate and body temperature than mammals, and can’t get a fever to fend off an infection. The result is that poorly birds frequently suffer of hypothermia. To counteract the temperature loss, birds will fluff up their plumage. This response improves insulation and allows birds to maintain a higher body temperature.
Healthy birds will commonly sleep standing on one leg. If a bird becomes unwell or weak, he or she will rather sleep on both legs. However, a bird might occasionally hold one leg up when the leg is injured, or when the bird is suffering of an internal infection. Injured or weak birds may show a slight tremor, have an unsteady gait, and stand or walk with legs being more apart than usual. One can also frequently see that poorly birds have an arched back, which looks like they have got a hump. This is particular evident in birds having suffered a spinal injury. Abnormally rotated legs and drooped wings are reliable indicators of traumatic injuries requiring human assistance.
Breathing is barely noticeable in healthy birds. When breathing becomes noticeable, and appears constantly laboured, then there is strong suspicion that the bird is suffering of a lung infection or trauma to the lungs. Breathing may become noisy or raspy, and the bird’s tail may start to whip slightly. The bird might also be forced to breath with an opened beak, when the respiratory distress is increasing. If the bird shows a swelling around the neck or chest, then this could be caused by an air sac injury. Air sacs are part of the respiratory system of birds and when injured, then these birds most likely need surgical intervention to drain excess air and to relief the increasing pressure, which makes breathing progressively difficult. Wet areas around nostrils, beak and upper neck, in particular when seen in pigeons, doves and finches, can indicate an intestinal infection, which is most commonly caused by canker or trichomoniasis. Coughing, shortness of breath, frequent gaping and excess saliva production are also signs of a gape or lung worm infestation, which in any case requires treatment.
Normal droppings in birds consist of three parts. The stool is coiled or partially coiled and varies in colour depending on the bird’s diet. The urates are a byproduct of the kidneys and are usually snow white when dry. They are chalky in texture and will vary in size. The urine is the liquid portion and is normally clear. The volume of urine and the colouration and consistency of normal droppings varies considerably and depends onto bird species and the kind of food eaten. In any case, bright green bile-like droppings are always a clear indication of starvation. Stress can temporarily lead to diarrhoea. If the white part of the droppings becomes more runny and transparent, then this could indicate that the bird suffers of renal problems.
As all animals do, birds too take great care of keeping themselves clean. Preening and bathing are very important and are an essential part of a bird’s daily routine. An intact and fully functional plumage can potentially mean the difference between life or death. Therefore, any aberration from this norm can be regarded as an indicator of an underlying problem. An inflamed or soiled vent or cloaca is always a sign of disease and can be caused by both, diseases of the urogenital and gastrointestinal tract. Both groups of diseases need immediate and appropriate treatment. If the remainder of the plumage looks dirty or shaggy, is incompletely developed, shows damaged and broken feathers, or growing feathers being still in their sheaths, then this can also indicate that the bird has got problems and is very likely in need of human help.
Poor plumage development in corvids, where birds are showing white and brittle feathers with multiple stress bars, can have multiple causes. Genetically caused plumage development problems are occasionally to consider, but are rather rare. A grounded premature rook or crow with white, brittle or partly broken wing and tail feathers needs expert and longterm care to allow the damaged feathers to be replaced during their annual moult. Birds affected should not be released before they have completed their annual moult, which is going to happen for fledglings born in spring in the summer of the following year. If these compromised birds are left in the wild, then it will be very unlikely that they are going to survive their first winter, as the deficient plumage will quickly deteriorate further. This usually means that these birds will eventually become grounded. They will get easily wet and subsequently hypothermic, are prone to predation and will soon be unable to sustain themselves.
There are specific situations, when observation is not required and might even become counterproductive, as rescue attempts get unnecessarily delayed. More detailed descriptions of common problems and scenarios can be found in the following blog post.
Also, cat caught birds do not need to be observed at all, as they require antibiotic treatment in any case, regardless whether injuries have been found or not. It is very easy to miss tiny puncture wounds, which may remain invisible as they may not bleed externally. It is also very likely that the plumage is contaminated with saliva, and the next time the bird preens, he or she is likely to ingest deadly bacteria. More than 90% of all cats carry pasteurella multocida bacteria in their saliva, so the chances of a fatal infection are very high. Birds caught by cats will usually succumb to the septicaemia within 48 to 72 hours, unless they are treated promptly with adequate antibiotics.
It is often difficult or sometimes even impossible to catch a poorly or injured bird in need of help. Trying to capture a wild bird is a delicate endeavour. One must be certain not to harm the bird or damage its feathers, as the plumage is the most valuable asset of a bird. Some useful tips about how to catch a poorly bird can be found in the following blog post.