Friday, November 19, 2010

Birds and Their Feathers: Selecting a Healthy Bird

Healthy Splendid Parakeets, Rainbow & Jewel.
When selecting a bird to add to your flock or as a pet…There is much to be learned by examining a bird’s feathers since feathers are a good indication of a bird’s health and well-being. Molting is a normal process where feathers are periodically lost and replaced with new plumage. I’ll attempt to identify the difference between a molt and when something might be wrong with the bird, such as disease or malnutrition.

One-week Rosie Bourke babies, pink tipped feathers
just starting to show.
Budgerigar parakeets (budgies) appear bald when they hatch. Bourkes and Splendids both have “natal down” covering them. Like any chick, it’s wet at first hatch, but quickly dries to become fluffy. These are actually downy feathers, those that provide added warmth by underlying the larger outside feathers in mature birds. A baby bird’s feathers begin to form in the follicles as the bird grows. These appear as darkened areas under the skin that are easier to see in larger birds than in small parakeets such as Budgies, Bourkes, Splendids and other small members of the avian family.

Feathers gradually protrude through the skin, encased in a sheath. The fuzzy tips of feathers soon begin to show through the end of the sheath. If you are raising Bourkes and have a mixed pair (one Rosie and one Normal), you can begin to recognize their future color at this stage. Rosies will show their pink at the ends of feather sheaths on their backs one to two weeks after hatching. You’ll also know their sex since color is sex-linked in Bourkes. Hens from mixed parents will be the color of their father. Males will be the color of their mother.

Rosie Bourke babies with some down still present.
No stress bars on them. Lines are color and fade as they mature.
Until their first molt, most young birds have the same color plumage as the hens of their species. This is especially true of Splendids. Males develop their scarlet chest after their first molt. However, even the rose color in Bourke males’ deepens and seems to become richer as they mature.

Sexing Baby Splendids: Although young Splendid parakeets look like mom at first, you can lift their wings and look for white bars on the bottom of their wings to help determine males from females. The undersides of the wings of adult Splendid males are all black. Youngsters with white bars (or stripes) under their wings are female. However, some have broken white bars and that makes identification trickier since they could be either sex. In my clutches, however, the hens have had solid white bars and the broken white-barred babies grew up to be males that later filled in with black after their first molt.

Close up of healthy feathers on a Rosie Bourke.
Healthy feather development requires adequate nutrition. If there is a disruption in the absorption of nutrients when the feathers are developing, stress bars may appear on the feathers. In this case, feathers may be a normal length, but with a line across them where areas on each of the shafts are empty of the colorful pieces that poke out and lock together. This can be caused by digestive disturbances, pro-longed periods of chilling, or the bird not being fed enough as the feathers were developing. They can appear as dark lines or white lines, depending on the color of the feathers.

If only one or two feathers have these bare areas, they are probably not stress bars. This can happen when a feather sheath isn’t preened off soon enough. What you need to watch for are continuous lines of stress bars.

Yet, a bird with stress bars may since have recovered and be healthy. If it's healthy, replacement feathers won't have the stress bars. If it is a bird you’re considering purchasing, you might want to wait and watch, skip that bird and look for another, or have the bird evaluated by an avian veterinarian before purchasing it.

Molting is caused when feathers are pushed out by new feathers coming in below them. A bird should never have bald spots because of a molt, and most birds molt the same feathers on both sides. The easiest way to recognize a molting bird is the feather sheaths you will see at the wings, tail or head. Lone birds will have more trouble preening these off than if you have a friendly pair. They will help preen areas for each other that they cannot reach, for instance, the top of their heads.

Damaged feathers also occur if birds fly into things, or from over handling. See my articles on safety.

As always, looks at the bird's eyes. They should be shiny and alert. Not half closed or watery. Also, inspect the bird’s vent. If feces have gathered there, the feathers around the vent are wet and/or soiled, that’s a bird to avoid as it may be ill. You don’t want to introduce that bird to your other birds. New birds, even apparently very healthy birds, should be quarantined for ten or more days before introduction to your others. If at any time, one of your birds appears ill, address the problem promptly and keep it separated from your others to avoid spreading the problem.

1 comment:

neversink7 said...

I wish I knew about the stress bars before :D I had a gouldian baby that was abandoned that I had to hand feed, and when his feathers pushed through, he had these lines that I thought was very neat and pretty. Sadly, after some research, I realized it was stress bars due to being left cold and starving by the parents. He is alive and doing well though currently but is having a very slow molt into adult feathers.

One can also check the bird's weight or plumpness to get a sense of health. Feeling around the breast muscles is helpful since a healthy bird should have a nice rounded plump full breasts (preferably not too fat with yellow fatty deposits on the belly) where as a bird with very sharp protruding breast bone is too thin and may have health issues even if the feathers look ok.