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16 Causes of Sudden Death in Parrots

Last Updated on April 14, 2024 by Carrie Stephens

Coping with the sudden death of a pet parrot is difficult, especially if you’ve been close friends for many years. Parrots can die unexpectedly without warning, so you’ll want to know why.

The most common cause of sudden death in parrots is poisoning from dangerous foods and plants, heavy metal toxicity, and airborne fumes from non-stick cookware and household products.

If you can’t figure out why a parrot died suddenly, take the body to a vet for a necropsy. This post-mortem examination can determine the cause of death in pet birds.

How To Tell If A Parrot Is Dead

When a parrot is lying still and not moving, you may assume it’s dead. Parrots sometimes play dead in response to a threat and can also look dead while asleep.

To tell if a parrot is dead, check its breathing. You can also hold a finger against its chest to determine if there’s a heartbeat. No heartbeat, breathing, or a stiff, cold body means the parrot is deceased.

It’s impossible to bring a dead parrot back to life, so all we can do is determine why it died. That way, you can prevent the same thing from happening to other pet birds in your care.

How To Tell How A Parrot Died

Was the parrot old when it died? All species of parrots have different lifespans. While some species of cockatoos can live for 70+ years, budgerigars (budgies) seldom live for more than 10-15 years.

Parrots don’t always display obvious signs of aging, and most older birds look and behave the way they have throughout their lives. A parrot can suddenly die of old age if one of its organs fails.

If you’re sure the parrot wasn’t old, it may have had an undiagnosed illness or have been poisoned. When there’s no apparent cause of death, you can arrange a necropsy (post-mortem).

Why Parrots Die Suddenly

Parrots can experience illness symptoms such as lethargy, disheveled appearance, depression, appetite loss, decreased drinking, fluffed-up feathers, and weight loss.

Unfortunately, some health conditions can cause a parrot to die suddenly without warning.

Some avian illnesses have no symptoms (asymptomatic) or are hard to identify. Other diseases develop so quickly that you may miss the few warning signs that do arise.

Here are the common causes of sudden death in parrots:

Toxic Foods and Plants

Many plants and human foods are toxic to parrots. Owners may not realize and unwittingly feed birds poisonous foods. The most toxic foods for parrots include:

  • Chocolate.
  • Caffeine.
  • Artificial sweeteners, like Xylitol.
  • Avocados.
  • Alcohol.
  • Onions.
  • Garlic.
  • Stones/seeds from fruits, like cherries and apples.

A parrot may only need to ingest a small amount of these dangerous foods to be fatally poisoned. The symptoms include difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, and convulsions.

Many plants, like lily-of-the-valley, pothos, daffodils, and sweet peas, are poisonous. When a parrot is allowed outside its cage, it may nibble on a houseplant and unwittingly poison itself.

Heavy Metal Toxicosis

Ingesting heavy metals can lead to heavy metal toxicosis.

Heavy metals, such as mercury, cadmium, copper, and iron, are toxic to birds. However, the two most common heavy metals that cause poisoning in parrots are zinc and lead.

A parrot may consume heavy metals through contaminated drinking water or chewing on household objects. Some objects that may contain heavy metals include:

  • Wire.
  • Jewelry.
  • Toys and gadgets.
  • Staples.
  • Paint.
  • Keys.
  • Metal buttons and studs.
  • Metallic food and water bowls.
  • Coins.
  • Metal clips for plumbing or electrics.

A parrot with heavy metal toxicosis may display weakness, loss of appetite, diarrhea, polyuria (excessive urination), and polydipsia (excessive thirst).

A parrot’s urates (the white part of the droppings) may appear green, yellow, red, or pink. Neurological symptoms, like seizures and general weakness, can also occur.

The poisoning can be gradual (building up slowly over time) or acute. Unfortunately, a parrot may die suddenly and without warning if a large amount of heavy metal is ingested.

reasons why parrot died

Toxic Fumes

Parrots can die from inhaling toxic fumes from chemicals around the home.

Birds’ respiratory systems are far more sensitive than humans’, so inhaling fumes can result in sudden death in parrots. Common household poisons include:

  • Ammonia, bleach, disinfectants, and detergents (household cleaners).
  • Acetone (found in nail polish remover).
  • Perfumes, deodorants, body sprays, and fragranced lotions.
  • Wax and scented candles.
  • Pesticides, insecticides, and bug repellents.
  • Polish, paint, glue, wax, and paint thinners.
  • Fuels (e.g., gasoline, kerosene, lighter fluid).
  • Caustic fumes due to Teflon (non-stick cookware).

When a parrot inhales toxic fumes, it may die suddenly and without warning. Before it dies, you may notice the parrot struggling to breathe, coughing, or convulsing.

Night Fright

A sudden loud noise, bright light, or shadow can cause a parrot to become frantic. Dogs barking, babies crying, cats wailing, and sudden unexplained noises can cause night frights.

Night fright can affect all species, although it’s common in cockatiels and younger birds. Parrots have poor night vision, so their inability to see triggers this reaction.

If a parrot died with its eyes open, it doesn’t necessarily mean it died of shock or fright, even if it seems that way. After the bird has passed, the eyelid muscles relax, causing the eyes to fall open.

If a parrot panics, it may fall off its perch, causing severe injury. It may also thrash around on the cage floor or fly into the cage bars. An injury induced by night fright can be fatal if left untreated.

Egg Binding (Dystocia)

If a parrot doesn’t get enough calcium and vitamin D3 from the sun’s UV rays, its eggshells will be weak and misshapen. An egg may get stuck in the oviduct or cloaca, meaning the parrot can’t lay it.

Dystocia can affect females, even without reproducing with a male. Pet parrots often lay unfertilized eggs in the spring (rare in wild birds), triggered by exposure to natural light and warmer temperatures.

The signs of egg binding include:

  • Rapid or strenuous breathing.
  • Straining as if constipated.
  • Swelling of the abdomen.
  • Leg paralysis.
  • Sitting on the floor of the cage.
  • Vomiting.
  • More than 2 days elapse between eggs.

A vet must resolve egg binding because it has deadly consequences. Unfortunately, owners often ignore dystocia, mistaking the straining for constipation.

Psittacosis (Parrot Fever)

Psittacosis (parrot fever) is a bacterial disease that affects parrots and other animals. The disease originated in parrots and is caused by Chlamydia psittaci.

A parrot can get psittacosis from coming into contact with an infected parrot. It may also pick up the bacteria from shared toys, bowls, and airborne particles.

The warning signs of parrot fever include:

  • Acute respiratory distress.
  • Nasal or eye discharge.
  • Puffy or swollen eyes.
  • Lameness or lethargy.
  • Fever.
  • Diarrhea.

In some parrots, the disease lies dormant and asymptomatic. A bird with asymptomatic parrot fever may not be diagnosed until post-mortem tests are performed.

Parrot fever is fatal in 50% of untreated cases within 3 weeks.

Heat Stroke

Parrots are most comfortable at 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit, with an upper limit of around 104 degrees.

Beyond this point, they get too hot and are at high risk of heatstroke. Overweight birds are most in danger, as they have an extra layer of fat insulation.

Hot weather can present a problem for indoor parrots, especially if the cage is in direct sunlight or a sunroom (conservatory). Overcrowded, cramped cages also heat up quickly.

If a parrot becomes too hot, it’ll experience heat stress. Unlike humans, birds don’t sweat (perspire).

The parrot will attempt to cool itself with gular flapping by extending its wings and rapidly opening and closing its throat. Its breathing will also become quick and shallow (panting).

If a parrot can’t cool down, it’ll experience heatstroke, causing damage to its organs. Heatstroke in parrots can lead to death within as little as 60 minutes.

Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD)

Proventricular dilatation syndrome (PDD) is caused by the bornavirus.

According to Animal Health Research Reviews, PDD affects the parrot’s digestive system. The bird’s proventriculus (anterior stomach) becomes dilated and swollen, inhibiting the passage of food.

This means the parrot can no longer digest its meals, leading to starvation. PDD can also cause damage to the brain and nervous system. The signs of PDD in parrots include:

Most parrots with PDD will die within weeks of contracting the virus.

Aspergillosis

Aspergillosis is a fungal infection caused by the fungus Aspergillus. The fungal spores multiply inside the bird’s lungs and air sacs, causing severe respiratory disease.

According to Avian Pathology, Aspergillosis isn’t a contagious disease. Rather than being passed from one bird to another, parrots get fungal spores from their environment.

A lack of ventilation, excess humidity, and poor sanitation practices increase the likelihood of infection. The symptoms of Aspergillosis include:

  • Nasal discharge.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Swollen and cloudy eyes.
  • Yellow discharge from the eyes.
  • Gasping for breath or heavy breathing.
  • Tail-bobbing.
  • Vomiting.
  • Drooping wings.

An infected parrot may exhibit few symptoms until the disease has caused severe damage.

Egg Yolk Peritonitis

When a mature ova (yolk) is released from the ovary, it travels into the oviduct.

Egg yolk peritonitis occurs when the yolk becomes trapped in the abdominal cavity, causing inflammation and infection, which can lead to sepsis.

The condition is commonly observed in cockatiels, lovebirds, macaws, and parakeets.

A female bird can get egg yolk peritonitis, even if it hasn’t mated. As discussed above, females can lay unfertilized eggs. The signs of egg yolk peritonitis include the following:

  • Swelling in the abdomen and around the cloaca (vent).
  • Wide stance.
  • Weight loss.
  • Lethargy and weakness.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Yellow or orange droppings.

According to the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, egg yolk peritonitis can turn septic if bacteria, like E. coli, are present.

The egg yolk fluid will be removed via abdominocentesis. Also, antibiotics will be administered.

Sarcocystosis

A protozoan parasite causes Sarcosystosis. These tiny, single-celled organisms can infect the parrot’s organs, usually the respiratory tract (lungs and air sacs).

Parrots that live outdoors are at most risk of developing sarcocystosis.

This parasite originates in opossums, and birds pick up the parasite from drinking water contaminated with opossum feces or eating diseased insects.

Indoor parrots can develop sarcocystosis when living in an area with an outbreak. Parasites can enter the home through insects or pests, like cockroaches.

Parrots infected with sarcocystosis may show signs of illness, like depression, lethargy, and fluffed-up feathers. They may also bring up food and water, have difficulty breathing, or experience seizures.

Sarcocystosis progresses rapidly, so infected parrots can look healthy before suddenly dying.

Polyomavirus (French Molt)

Polyomaviruses are a group of viruses that affect many bird species, including parrots. According to the Journal of Virology, polyomaviruses cause various conditions, including benign skin tumors.

Parrots can get polyomavirus from infected birds’ contaminated feather dust and droppings.

A polyomavirus can cause Budgerigar Fledgling Disease or French Molt. Despite its name, the disease can affect all species of parrots, not just budgerigars (budgies).

French Molt is common in baby birds less than 15 days old. The chick may show these symptoms:

  • Enlargement of the abdomen.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Anorexia.
  • Weight loss.
  • Dehydration.
  • Tremors.
  • Difficulty breathing.

The symptoms can last 12-48 hours, followed by sudden death.

Adult parrots can also get polyomavirus. However, adult birds are usually asymptomatic and don’t become unwell, unwittingly passing the virus on to their chicks.

Thyroid Hyperplasia (Goiter)

Thyroid hyperplasia can affect many animals. In birds, it’s called avian goiter.

The thyroid gland (located in the throat) enlarges, putting pressure on the organs, including the esophagus, stomach, lungs/air sacs, and heart.

Fluid can build up inside the parrot’s body, leading to these problems:

  • Wheezing or squeaking when breathing.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Bringing up food.
  • Distended (swollen) crop.
  • Sudden weight loss.

An enlarged thyroid can strain the heart, resulting in heart failure. This condition can be triggered by an iodine deficiency or exposure to toxic foods and chemicals, causing sudden death.

how to tell how a parrot died

Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is caused by plaque in the arteries, which restricts blood flow around the body. If part of the plaque breaks away, it can lead to a fatal blood clot.

It’s unclear what causes atherosclerosis, but it may be diet-related. Parrots fed high-calorie or high-fat diets who don’t get much exercise are most at risk.

The parrot may experience shortness of breath, muscle weakness, or a stroke before dying. Most of the time, there are no warning signs. Atherosclerosis has been labeled “the silent killer.”

Organ Disease

A parrot’s organs can become diseased due to nutritional deficiencies, poor husbandry, toxins, and infections (bacterial, fungal, viral, and parasitic).

The symptoms aren’t obvious, leading you to believe that a parrot died for no reason. For example, parrots with fatty liver disease may have an overgrown beak or black spots on their claws.

Cancer

Tumors are masses of bodily tissue that have mutated and grown abnormally. Some tumors are benign, and while they can cause discomfort, they won’t be fatal.

Cancer symptoms in parrots vary depending on where the tumor is located. For example, if the tumor is in the lungs, you may notice it has trouble breathing.

Cancerous tumors spread to other parts of the parrot’s body with deadly consequences.

What To Do If Your Parrot Died

If a parrot dies suddenly, you’ll understandably feel devastated.

You may want to bury your beloved parrot as soon as possible. If you have other birds, learn if they died from a contagious disease. Other birds may be asymptomatic but have the same illness.

Alternatively, the parrot may have died due to a nutritional deficiency, environmental toxin, or poor husbandry. By finding out what killed the parrot, you can prevent future tragedies.

To preserve a parrot’s body for a necropsy, follow these steps:

  1. Spray the deceased parrot’s body with water and put it in a sealed plastic bag.
  2. Put the bag in the fridge to preserve the body and assist the vet with finding the cause of death.
  3. Call the vets to arrange a necropsy.
  4. To transport the parrot’s body to the vet, place it in a box with an ice pack. Ensure that the ice pack isn’t directly touching the bird.
  5. After the necropsy, you can retrieve the body for burial or cremation.

Never freeze a parrot’s body before a necropsy, as this causes the bodily tissue to degrade, making it harder to detect disease.