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Educational Series: Is My Bird Sick? Part 4 Feathers

Oh the all-important feather issue we all worry about so much of the time!

Honestly though feathers really can tell us a lot about the overall health of our bird.

Listen to Part 4 - Feathers on our "Into the Rainforest™" Podcasts©:

Click to listen: Recording

Obviously if our bird’s feathers appear bright and tightly “zipped”, meaning they are not ragged and frazzled, then there is no indication of any internal illness or shortage of nutrients happening in our bird. If our bird’s feathers are ragged and frazzled it may simply be due to a cage that is too small and our bird is constantly bumping into the bars and its toys, or that our bird roughhouses a lot with its toys! However, far, far too often the cause of ragged and frazzled feathers lies deep within the internal health of our birds.

Some feathers may even appear healthy in all manners; they may be completely “zipped” and not appear ragged or frazzled in any way, but they may appear dull without having that “neon” bright color they are supposed to have. Or they may have stress bars or black spots on them, or rusty streaks may appear. These are all signs that something is terribly amiss in our bird’s internal system.


The very first and easiest thing we need to look at regarding our bird’s feathers is the size of the cage we house our bird in. Is it too small? Our bird should be able to spread its wings fully and then some without bumping into the sides of its cage. I know some avian behaviorists will say that our birds need lots and lots of toys in their cage to keep them occupied, but if our birds don’t have some amount of room to spread their wings, or they can’t move about easily this may cause their wings damage. This is just my own personal opinion and not a hard and fast rule. Think about the actual inside of a tree, you know where birds hang out in the wild. Most of the leaves, the stuff that dangles and helps hides birds from predators, are actually on the outer perimeter of the trees, not on the inside of the trees where birds perch. On the inside of trees are branches and limbs. We need to think about this when placing toys in our birds’ cages. The bulk of their toys need to be placed on the outer perimeter of their cages, not hanging directly on in the middle of their cages. Yet, they need enough room left over they can adequately spread their wings without bumping into their environment causing damage to their feathers. This is why it is so important to purchase cages that are two to three times larger than you think your bird really needs. Of course it is also important to allow plenty of time outside of the cage, but for those of us who must leave our birds in cages during the day while we are at work, a very large cage is absolutely essential!

What about feathers that are ragged and frazzled due to internal health disorders? This is quite another question. If your bird’s feathers grow in unzipped, or ultimately become “unzipped” it could be due to a lack of dietary nutrients. Often I find if a bird is not receiving or absorbing enough dietary protein it will be lacking in the amino acids such as cysteine, proline and glycine that support feather health. In addition if a bird is not absorbing nutrients then most likely it is not absorbing other important nutrients that are vital for feather regeneration like biotin, a B vitamin that aids in the metabolism of thiamine another B vitamin, as well as methionine and threonine, fellow amino acids. All of these nutrients are vital to overall feather health and regeneration, but probably the most important are cysteine, proline and glycine. These nutrients are the base nutrients supporting collagen regeneration and health. Without collagen regeneration our bird’s bodies would literally fall apart; it is no different for their feathers. Feathers cannot zip or remain zipped without collagen peptides. Collagen is everywhere in our birds’ bodies; it is the main “glue”, or “structural protein” in all connective tissue that holds a body together.

If we are not feeding species appropriate foods that contain cysteine, proline and glycine collagen will not properly form. In addition if our bird’s digestive tract has been compromised by previous improper feeding habits or illness, absorption of the vital amino acids that are responsible for the regeneration of collagen will not take place.

My foods of choice for exotic birds that contain high amounts of cysteine, proline and glycine are mollusks. Many exotic birds have access to mollusks in the wild and delight in these as delicacies. Mollusks not only provide these essential nutrients for the formation of collagen, but also provide the essential B vitamins including B12 as well as Vitamin A, Omega 3s and selenium. In feeding any type of mollusks such as mussels, clams, oysters or snails please be sure to rinse them well and then steam them. Our companion birds don’t have the gut flora wild birds have to fight off bacteria raw mussels may contain.

Furthermore, if a bird’s digestive tract has been damaged from years of consuming foods a parrot’s digestive tract was never intended to consume it may have become scarred from the delicate mucus lining being scraped away as the result of certain kinds of fiber passing though on a continuous basis. Fibers like cellulose from botanically classified vegetables exotic birds would not consume in the wild, or a high starch diet consisting of dead, dried out starches birds in the wild would not consume in high volumes can literally destroy the delicate mucus lining in our birds’ digestive tracts. I have discussed both of these fibers over and over again in many of my articles as well as in my book “You Can’t Take the Rainforest Out of the Bird.”

Parrots are not mammals, they are aves and a very special class of aves at that. Psittacine aves do not have organs known as “ceca” in which to pulverize and liquefy “cellulose” contained in botanically classified vegetables. Once cellulose is liquefied in a mammal’s cecum it is reabsorbed into the metabolic system and used as a nutrient, primarily glucose. Because parrots do not have a ceca they cannot utilize cellulose in this manner; cellulose does nothing but act as a laxative stripping nutrients from their short and narrow digestive tract ripping away their delicate mucus lining with it as it passes through leaving the walls of their digestive tract vulnerable and exposed. Neither do the systems of parrots produce “cellulase” the digestive enzyme necessary to hydrolyze (break down) cellulose. Mammals have ceca to partially break down cellulose, even though we do not produce cellulase. The cellulose that does not get broken down and used as glucose is used as a laxative to clean our broad and long digestive tracts.

Regarding starches, parrots moderately consume “living” starches in the wild. The seed, nuts and small amount of legumes some species consume in the wild are alive and teeming with the active digestive enzyme known as “amylase.” Most of the starches we feed in our homes are dead, dried out starches fed as seed, nuts and/or cooked grains and legumes. Understanding starch molecules are made of insoluble hard, waxy and sticky molecules that do not easily break down in the digestive tract, amylase is required to help break down these molecules. If amylase is not present in the upper stomach (proventriculus) then starch does not adequately begin breaking down until the lower stomach (ventriculus) down around the pancreas (endocrine system). This places a strain on the overall endocrine system when we feed dead, dried out starches over and over again due to the fact that birds do not produce amylase in their mouth’s (beaks) like humans do. This can potentially lead to pancreatitis or avian diabetes and even liver disease. Although insoluble starch can be made soluble by cooking (heat application), by doing so the amylopectin starch molecules that make up about 70-80% of all starch in any given food turn into spiny molecules that are even more easily transferred into sugar within the body. Only 20-30% of the starch are amylose starch molecules in any food and can actually be used to any advantage. This is the “resistant” part of the starch that aids in the fermentation of butyric acid, but keep in mind after cooking most of the other nutrients such as the fatty acids and vitamins have been destroyed.

Often the black spots or streaking we see on our birds’ feathers is the telling sign that our birds have liver disease. Therefore it is vital that we feed seed, legumes and grain in their sprouted form to activate the amylase in those items so that our birds have this digestive enzyme available to their digestive tract for the full length of the digestive process of these starchy foods.

Stress bars are some of the most common feather maladies we see in parrots. These are simply signs that our birds have been under some kind of periodic stress, be it some kind of environmental stress, emotional stress or a temporary lack of nutrients, or a period of illness. It can be as simple as a time of molting. If we keep up to date records of our bird we may be able to find a pattern if our bird shows recurrent stress bars.

 Let’s continue our discussion regarding seeing black spots on our bird’s feathers and the subject of liver disease.

First of all, and the easiest to resolve is too much handling of our birds. If we handle our birds too often we can create black spots on their feathers due to the rubbing off of feather pigments and the transfer of our oils onto their feathers.

Black spots can also be caused by liver disease. Often liver disease is brought on by diets high in Omega 6s and starches that turn to sugar in the system, as previously discussed. We have unfortunately been told that fatty liver disease is due to too much fat in the diet. I find this categorically untrue. In fact, in my opinion, most of the commercial bird foods on the market lack in dietary fat or lack of the right kind of dietary fat.

Let’s first discuss the subject of our birds’ diets containing too many Omega 6s. Medical science now reports on a regular basis that diets too high in Omega 6s to Omega 3s is pro-inflammatory and probably leads to cardiovascular disease as well as diabetes and liver disease. In fact diabetes can lead to liver disease as well as liver disease can lead to diabetes! Astonishing that we are only now learning this vital information when so many of us have already developed these health problems thinking we needed to lower our fat intake! Not so!

For proper functioning, brains require healthy dietary fat. Healthy dietary fat also keeps our joints and soft tissues soft and supple. Dietary fat even helps chelate (remove) plaque buildup from arteries and blood vessels when consumed along with other co-nutrients like magnesium. Cholesterol, another dietary fat (known as a “lipid”) is actually a steroidal hormone necessary for the production of Vitamin D! Wow, have we ever been led down a dark path! Cholesterol is not the “enemy” per se, instead medical science now understands the real enemy are the Omega 6s combining with sugar molecules along with unutilized minerals, specifically calcium that doesn’t get absorbed into the bloodstream causing sticky plaque buildup. Dietary fat does not necessarily equal obesity when consumed in moderation. What causes, or add to obesity is the consumption of a high Omega 6 diet along with refined sugars, high fructose foods and starches that turn into sugar endogenously (within the body).

Rusty streaks on a bird’s feathers may be an indication of too much iron in the system. This is rare for most Psittacine species, but can easily happen for the true frugivorous species. If rusty streaks are seen on your bird’s feathers I suggest you immediately have a CBC performed and check for iron levels. It could be that your bird is receiving too much “organic” iron in its diet, but most likely your bird is getting “inorganic” iron somewhere in its diet or from somewhere in its environment. “Organic” iron as I am discussing in this article is defined by naturally occurring “heme” iron from animal sources of iron your bird consumes, not plant sources or synthetic forms of iron from supplements. Usually a bird can digest, absorb and metabolize organic iron with no problem at all, unless it is a true frugivore. “Inorganic” iron as I am discussing in this article is defined by either “non-heme” iron which is derived from naturally occurring plant sources, or synthetic laboratory-produced forms of iron supplements OR man-made iron found in steel cage bars and hardware used in the making of bird toys. If your bird’s commercial food states that it contains added iron please beware, most likely it is a form of iron that cannot be properly absorbed and metabolized efficiently.

The subject of iron is a very complex subject. For that reason I am limiting my explanation to a very short and simple one. As for dietary iron there is “heme” and “non-heme” iron. Heme iron is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron. Heme iron comes from animal sources whereas non-heme is derived from plant sources, laboratory-produced supplements and man-made iron-steel cages, toys and hardware. Non-heme plant sources and supplements require the correct level of zinc to be properly absorbed. In addition if there are tannins or oxalates, even phytates in the diet non-heme iron is not well-absorbed, in fact it is almost totally blocked, as is Vitamin B12 by the same constituents. High fiber foods, such as food containing cellulose also block the absorption of iron and B12.

However, please understand that although commercial manufacturing has come a long way since the inception of manufacturing pet foods began decades ago, many manufacturers still use equipment that is laden with heavy metals. After years and years of use the steel in the equipment exposes the under-layers of iron-steel allowing for the iron to rub off into the food during the production process. This causes the “inorganic” iron levels to rise in the manufactured food. Inorganic iron is not utilized in a living body. Instead it goes to the liver where it is recirculated in the body over and over again settling in many organs causing ISD (iron storage disease). This is where most liver disease comes from where iron is concerned; ISD is not caused by “organic” iron from foods. And this is the reason so many commercial bird food manufacturers tell us not to feed high Vitamin C foods; Vitamin C aids in the uptake of any form of iron causing it to circulate and recirculate at even a higher volume potentially causing or adding to liver disease. However, the body can assimilate bioavailable “organic” iron, even with Vitamin C in the diet in most birds, with the exception of true frugivores; “inorganic” iron from man-made steel is not absorbed. If a manufacturer is not using ALL-stainless steel equipment in every step of the production process of their foods your bird’s food may be exposed to this heavy metal. Unfortunately there is really no way of knowing for sure. Even fresh produce can be exposed to heavy metals, but probably a lot less than highly processed foods. This is one reason why we produce our BirD-elicious! Origins Wild Diet foods by our very own hands. It’s a slow process, but we believe it is a safer process.

Rusty streaks in feathers could also mean a bird is receiving too much copper in its diet or that it is not absorbing copper. The appearance of these streaks could also mean that there is not enough zinc in the diet and therefore any copper in the diet is imbalanced in the zinc to copper ratio. Again, you would need a CBC performed by your veterinarian focusing on minerals. Or a feather analysis performed if you are that meticulous. Or you could simply make sure to add more zinc-containing foods to increase dietary zinc thus reducing free-circulating copper in your bird’s system. (Dietary zinc should not be confused with heavy metal zinc found in cages and bird toy hardware; these are two completely different types of zinc.)

Are your bird’s feathers dull and lackluster?

Many think that just because their bird’s feathers are completely zipped and are not ragged and frazzled, or have black spots or rusty streaks that their bird’s feathers are healthy in appearance. I am here to say that if they are not bright like neon colors your bird is lacking in nutrients.


I see this over and over again in my avian nutritional consultation services. While it is completely normal for feathers to look tired and worn out right before a good molt, dull plumage is not normal for healthy birds who are not going through a molt. In fact if a bird were to display feathers lacking in vibrancy in the wild it would be one of the first birds to be attacked by predators or banned from the flock. Birds displaying lackluster feathers in a flock would attract predators to the flock because they show a sign of internal weakness and lack of overall vitality. In addition that bird would be the last bird any bird in the flock would desire as a mate.

Lackluster feathers are usually a sign of ill-health and/or normally due to a lack of nutrients in the diet, specifically dietary fats, minerals and specific vitamins. This can be due to the fact that the bird’s diet doesn’t contain certain nutrients or the bird is not absorbing those nutrients. Or, because other foods the bird is consuming is robbing those nutrients before they can be adequately absorbed.

However, dull feathers could be as simple as a non-functioning preening gland (uropygial gland). Let’s first of all make sure our bird’s preening gland is properly functioning. If it is clogged then our bird will not be able to properly distribute the oils (or preening dust if it is dust-producing gland) in order to preen its feathers. If you don’t where your bird’s preening gland is the photo below shows where to look. In order to know if it is clogged, if you are not educated in this area you need to contact your veterinarian or a trusted fellow bird friend.


Yet again I must bring up the subject of cellulose in the diet. If a bird is fed a diet high in botanically classified vegetables it is highly possible that the cellulose, acting like a laxative in those vegetables is stripping away vital nutrients from the digestive tract before the walls of the digestive tract can absorb those nutrients.

In addition, if the bird is not receiving enough healthy dietary fat in the form of Omega 3s then there will not be enough fat in the system to nourish the skin and therefore the feathers.

Vitamin A is very important for feather health. If a bird is not receiving foods it can adequately derive enough beta-carotene from in order to synthesize Vitamin A the feathers will be dull. Foods like mango, papaya (both of which contain their very own Omega 3s), and bananas as well as tender greens containing the fiber “hemicellulose” are all important for Vitamin A synthesis in our parrots’ bodies. Sweet potatoes and carrots (both lacking in Omega 3s) contain cellulose that get in the way of the synthesizing Vitamin A due to the fact that parrots cannot break down the cellulose within those foods. Therefore it is nearly impossible to extract enough beta-carotene to fulfill their Vitamin A synthesis requirements especially when the cellulose those foods contain strips away the very nutrients they contain. However, because mango, papaya and bananas contain a fiber Nature intended for parrots, “pectin” fiber, the digestive tract of parrots work synergistically with pectin extracting all of the beta-carotene present in those foods enabling Vitamin A to be synthesized.

Also as mentioned mango and papaya are high in Omega 3s, exactly the kind of fats they require in their diet to help in the glossiness of their feathers! Relatively speaking sweet potatoes and carrots are not as high in Omega 3s.

A lack of dietary zinc could be a contributing factor in dull feathers. A lack of zinc can show up as white spots on the talons, the beak, and also as tiny white spots on the quill of feathers, but also as dull feathers. As mentioned above if there is a lack of zinc copper will not be properly absorbed; a lack of zinc combined with free-circulating copper can cause dull feathers and/or feathers with rusty streaks. You may also have a bird who seems “high-strung” with copper overload due to a lack of zinc or inability to absorb zinc.

Feathers should be very, very bright almost like a neon sign. Feathers like this show good internal health and vitality!

I reserve discussing feather destruction and engagement in this article due to the fact that is an entire subject on its own. Feather destruction and engagement requires an entire book which I am in the process of writing.

In conclusion the health of our bird’s feathers, or lack of is one indicator of the overall health of our bird. Usually by the time our bird’s feathers begin to show problems our bird’s internal systems are well on their way to dire need of help. Hopefully this article has given some thoughts and ideas how to tell if your bird may be internally out of sorts. If your bird shows any of these signs I urge you to take your bird to your veterinarian for a complete CBC for vitamin and mineral levels. Although the results are only guidelines, they will still give you a starting point. Ultimately the visual and clinical appearance of your bird should be your guide overall.

©11.6.2015 Machelle Pacion Passion Tree House LLC All Rights Reserved

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