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How to Recognize Sick Birds


A wild bird can’t tell you when it feels sick, but birders who know how to recognize sick birds can take steps to prevent spreading illnesses at their birdfeeders.

Birds can succumb to many different illnesses and injuries and many times sick birds will not come near backyard feeders. When a sick 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. 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 on 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. 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
  • 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

Not all birds that exhibit these types of symptoms are necessarily ill, but the behavior is unusual enough to warrant caution when dealing with the birds.

How to Help Birds Heal

It can be hard for backyard birders to witness sick birds at their feeders, but illness is a natural part of a bird’s life cycle. The strongest birds will recover, while weaker birds will succumb. To help birds have the strength to recover, birders can…

  • Keep feeders clean to minimize contagion to other birds
  • Supply fresh seed with a high oil content for extra energy
  • Keep the feeding area safe from predators that may capture unwary birds
  • Supply clean water in ground dishes for birds to drink
  • Dispose of dead birds properly to prevent spreading illnesses

By recognizing sick birds and reacting accordingly, birders can minimize illnesses among their backyard flocks and help unhealthy birds recover as best they can.

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How to Recognize a Sick Bird
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