Common Problems in Baby Parrots

Infectious Diseases in Baby Parrots

Infectious diseases are quite common in young chicks. Their poorly developed immune system, especially when combined with often substandard rearing practices, leaves them highly of immunocompetence means that the progression of an infectious disease in young birds is often rapid and can quickly be fatal unless prompt and appropriate therapy is provided by a veterinarian.

These infections can be caused by a range of pathogens—bacteria (including psittacosis), fungi (especially Candida and Aspergillus) and viral (especially polyomavirus, adenovirus and PBFD).

Occasionally I will see heavy parasite burdens in parent-reared birds. These are less common in handreared birds, as they are often transmitted by the parents.

Affected chicks may show a range of clinical signs associated with sepsis, including:

• Lethargy, loss of feeding response

• Pale or reddened skin

• Dehydration—wrinkled skin, thick saliva, sunken eyes

• Crop stasis

• Vomiting/regurgitation

• Weight loss or failure to thrive

• Bruising under the skin

• Feathering abnormalities and/or

• Sudden death.

Treatment requires the identification of the pathogen and appropriate treatment.

Many viral infections are often fatal, but the other infectious diseases can often be treated successfully by early veterinary intervention. Unfortunately I, and many other avian vets, too often see chicks that are nearly dead because the owner missed early signs of disease, or waited ‘to see if the bird would get better’, or went online in search of advice and a ‘cheap fix’ from well-meaning but ill-informed parrot forums. The message here is don’t delay!

The sooner veterinary treatment is sought, the better the chick’s chances are—and the lower the vet bill will be!

Non-Infectious Diseases in Baby Parrots

These are problems which are not initially caused by infection, but it should be noted that some diseases begin as a noninfectious problem but secondary infection can easily complicate the picture.


Stunting (poor or reduced growth rates) is seen in the first 30 days of life, usually associated with improper feeding (homemade or poor quality commercial recipes, over-dilution of formula, infrequent feedings, etc), poor environmental conditions (incorrect brooder temperature and humidity, poor hygiene, etc) and lowgrade chronic infectious disease.

Affected chicks exhibit:

• Subnormal weight gains

• Reduced muscle mass—seen as skinny toes, wings, and backs

• Abnormal feathering, such as head feathers developing in a circular pattern on the crown

• An over-sized head relative to the size of the body

• Eyelids fail to open normally or when expected

• Delayed ear opening or narrowing of the ear canal

• Chronic, recurrent infections and/or • Constantly calling and begging for food.

As the chick gets older, it often develops a globe-shaped head with a long, slender beak. The eyes may bulge out because of the misshapen skull.

Treatment is usually successful, provided the problem and the cause are identified and treated, and any nutritional inadequacies are corrected. If the problem is diagnosed early and treated aggressively, the prognosis is good.

Crop Stasis (Sour Crop)

Crop stasis, also known as sour crop, is a common condition in young chicks. The crop stops emptying, fills with fluid and ingesta which starts to ferment, and the chick rapidly dehydrates. Although often thought of as a yeast (Candida) infection, it can be multifactorial. The causes are many and can include chilling, dehydration, generalised or crop infection, ingestion of foreign bodies, crop burns, cold food, or food that is spoilt. It is not uncommon for two or three of these problems to occur at the same time.

The crop of affected chicks fails to empty in more than six hours, and the chick may refuse feeds and/or begin regurgitating. Dehydration develops rapidly, worsening the problem. Crop contents may begin to ferment, giving rise to the term ‘sour crop’.

This is a serious problem that is likely to be fatal if not treated urgently. Veterinary assistance should be sought. The chick will need injections of fluids to rehydrate it. The cause will need to be identified and treated, and medications provided to stimulate the movement of the crop. It is my experience that this condition is only occasionally caused by a yeast infection. The time wasted waiting for a response to Nilstat® or other antifungal drugs is often fatal.

The prognosis for these cases is good, provided prompt and appropriate therapy is provided.

Crop Burns

Although less common than 10 years ago, I still see the occasional crop burn. The most common cause of this is handrearing formula overheated in a microwave oven and then fed before it has cooled sufficiently. ‘Hot spots’—small areas of super-heated food—may be present in a mix and be overlooked when the food temperature is checked. Some cases may be due to chicks coming into contact with incandescent light bulbs or heating pads, particularly while the crop is distended after a recent feed.

In the early stages (1–2 days) affected chicks may be lethargic and refuse feeding.

Examination may reveal mild to moderate crop stasis and reddening of the most prominent part of the crop. After this initial stage of redness, the affected tissue starts to go pale. A crust then forms over the area. When it lifts off, a hole into the crop is usually revealed, often with food leaking from it.

Surgical resection of the burn and repair of the crop and skin is necessary.

However, surgery must be delayed until all devitalised tissue has become obvious (usually 4–7 days after the incident). The crop has an incredible ability to stretch, and even large crop resections seem to be well tolerated by most young birds. Subsequent feedings will obviously need to be reduced depending on the post-operative size of the crop.

While waiting for the burn to become clearly obvious, the chick must be given supportive care, including painkillers and antibiotics, and small feeds may need to be given frequently to avoid distending the crop. Placement of a feeding tube may be necessary in some cases.

Crop Perforations

This usually occurs when using a metal feeding tube. The tube perforates the crop either because the chick has an unrestrained feeding response and thrusts up against the tube, or the person feeding the chick does so roughly or impatiently.

The result is food deposited outside the crop and under the skin, in some cases without being noticed.

Early cases may be presented because of blood on the feeding tube when withdrawn.

These birds are usually asymptomatic.

Further feedings may be followed by almost immediate regurgitation. More advanced cases may be presented because of apparent crop stasis, often with severe systemic illness. Distension is palpable in the crop region, but food cannot be aspirated with a feeding tube.

Surgical removal of the food deposited under the skin, followed by debridement and flushing of the subcutaneous tissues and repair of the crop injury are all essential for recovery. The prognosis is determined by the time lapse since the initial injury and the degree of sepsis present in the patient.

Orthopaedic Problems

Birds that are handreared in a brightly lit, roomy container are often encouraged to move around more than they would in a dark and relatively cramped nest box.

This can lead to excessive weight-bearing on the legs, with subsequent bowing and malformations. Calcium deficiencies, in either the parents’ or the chicks’ diet, can worsen the situation or create different problems.

The types of limb problems commonly seen include:

• Splayed leg or hip dislocation. This can be the result of a smooth substrate in the nest box. This allows the legs to splay out away from the body, dislocating the hip joint and leading to other problems in the leg. Early recognition and correction is important.
Once the skeleton calcifies, conservative techniques such as splinting or hobbling are unlikely to be effective. Very young birds can have their legs hobbled into a normal position to guide the leg into that position during growth. Various techniques have been used to achieve this goal, including tying the feet together with bandages or placing the chick’s legs into a foam block. However, if the chick is not presented until after ossification is complete, surgery may be required.

• Angular limb deformities (ALDs). These arise when leg growth occurs unevenly at the ends of the bones. Common causes include incubation problems, nutritional imbalances and trauma. The result is a bowing or rotation of the affected bone. This has a cascading effect on the muscles, tendons and joints of the affected leg. Corrective surgery is the treatment of choice, but it must be done sooner rather than later. Timing is essential when addressing affected joints. Waiting till the bird has finished growing may result in irreversible tendon and joint contracture.

• Toe malposition—positioning of the back toes in a forward direction. This is a developmental issue in young parrots, more often encountered where there has been subclinical stunting or substrate mismanagement. Once the bones calcify, the toe becomes fused and less flexible. If the dislocation has not been corrected (by splinting) by this time, it may be permanent.

• Toe constriction occurs when a fibrous ring develops around the toe, effectively acting as a tourniquet. The toe below the constriction initially becomes swollen and then dies and drops off. It can be treated surgically but only while the toe still has circulation.

Beak Malformations

Beak malformations can be either congenital or acquired, and include wry/ scissor beak, and overgrowth of the lower beak such that the upper beak appears to be short. These problems are most common in macaws and cockatoos but will occasionally be seen in other birds.

Conservative treatment may be effective in very young chicks. Applying gentle digital pressure for 10 minutes 2–3 times daily may straighten or lengthen an abnormal beak. Cases that do not respond to this treatment, or older birds with calcified beaks, will need more aggressive therapy, including trimming, acrylic ramps or prostheses, or trans-sinus pinning (‘birdie braces’).

Many birds with untreated malformations will adapt to the deformity and learn to eat well. However, they will usually do better if the malformation can be corrected. With appropriate techniques, follow-up and care, the prognosis for most beak malformations is good.

Behavioural Problems

Parrots are altricial, that is the young are hatched near-naked, blind and perhaps deaf. In the wild or in the aviary, they live for the first weeks of their life in a quiet, dark hollow, completely dependent on their parents. Social interactions at this stage are limited, confined to their siblings and parents. After fledging, many parrots learn to socialise by contact with their parents, siblings, and other birds (often their own age) in a flock. This socialisation teaches the juvenile birds food recognition (and how to locate it), predator recognition, sentinel duties, grooming behaviour, survival skills and other early social behaviours.

Some of these behaviours are believed to be instinctive; others are learnt. All are reinforced by the reaction the bird receives.

Handreared pets may not have the opportunity to learn these behaviours.

Their instinctive behaviours though— particularly as they reach maturity— may bring them into conflict with their human flock.

Young parent-reared birds need continued mentoring and behavioural moulding, and require guidance for the establishment of a normal birdhuman flock relationship. This includes a range of normal social behaviours of flock interaction, with appropriate rules of conflict resolution and appropriate maintenance and social behaviours.

Failure to be taught or to learn these behaviours means that many young birds are not prepared for life as a pet, and may develop behavioural problems. In the absence of imposed rules, the bird will make its own, based on immediate gratification and perceived value, however these rules may not be socially acceptable.

They eventually develop into behavioural problems and the bird becomes unable to socially interact with people without fear or a social framework—a series of displacement or defensive behaviours develops—aggression, biting, etc. As these behaviours develop, the bird may become even more isolated from its owners and more vocal in trying to re-establish contact with its ‘flock’, adding to its isolation as owners place it further away so they don’t have to listen.
Handrearing practices, therefore, need to take into account not only the bird’s physical needs but also its psychological and emotional development.


Handrearing baby parrots is a complex issue, with strong ethical arguments against it. Nevertheless, it is—and probably always will be—part of bird keeping, and it is the responsibility of everyone to recognise the problems that can result.

As with most issues associated with a bird’s health, your avian veterinarian is the person most qualified to provide the timely assistance necessary to obtain a good outcome with minimal stress, pain and discomfort to your bird.

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