Coping with the sudden death of a pet parrot can be hard, especially if it was young. Parrots can die unexpectedly with no obvious symptoms of illness. So, naturally, you want to know why it died.
The most common cause of sudden death in parrots is poisoning due to dangerous foods and plants, heavy metals, and toxic fumes from household products.
A parrot can also pass away suddenly from organ failure or disease, which a virus, bacteria, fungus, or parasite could cause. If you can’t figure out why your parrot died, take the body to a vet for a necropsy. This post-mortem examination can determine the cause of death in 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 have been known to play dead in response to a threat, and they can look dead while asleep.
To tell if a parrot is dead, check its breathing. You can also hold a finger against its chest to check for 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 you 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
The first thing to consider is whether the parrot was old. All species of parrots have different lifespans. While African greys can live for 80+ years or more, a budgerigar may die when it’s 7.
Parrots don’t always display obvious signs of aging, and most older parrots look and behave the same way their entire lives. A parrot can suddenly die of old age if one of its vital 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 obvious cause of death, you can arrange a necropsy (post-mortem).
Why Did My Parrot Die So Suddenly?
The most common symptoms of illness in parrots are lethargy, depression, fluffed-up feathers, and weight loss, which indicate something is wrong with your bird. However, many conditions can cause a parrot to die suddenly without warning.
Some avian illnesses have no symptoms (asymptomatic) or are hard to spot. Other diseases develop so rapidly that you may miss the signs completely.
Here are the most common causes of sudden death in parrots:
1/ Toxic Foods and Plants
Some plants and human foods can be toxic to parrots. Owners may not realize this and unwittingly feed parrots poisonous food. The most toxic foods for parrots include the following:
- Stones or seeds from fruits, such as cherries.
A parrot may only need to ingest a small amount of these foods to be fatally poisoned. The parrot may exhibit vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, and convulsions before dying.
Many household plants, such as lily-of-the-valley, pothos, and sweet pea, are also poisonous. When a parrot is allowed outside its cage, it may nibble on a houseplant and poison itself.
2/ Heavy Metal Toxicosis
Ingesting heavy metals lead 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.
The parrot may consume heavy metals through contaminated drinking water or chewing on household objects. Some objects that may contain heavy metals include:
- Walls painted with lead-based paint.
- Toys and gadgets.
- Metal buttons and studs.
- Metallic food and water bowls.
- Metal clips for plumbing or electrics.
A parrot with heavy metal toxicosis may exhibit various symptoms. Weakness, anorexia, diarrhea, polyuria (excessive urination), and polydipsia (excessive thirst) are common.
A parrot’s urates (the normally white part of the droppings) may appear green, yellow, red, or pink. Neurological symptoms can also occur, such as seizures and weakness.
The poisoning can be gradual (building up slowly over time) or acute. The parrot may die suddenly if a large amount of metal is ingested.
3/ Toxic Fumes
Parrots can also die from inhaling toxic fumes from chemicals around the home.
Parrots’ respiratory systems are more sensitive than humans, so inhaling these fumes can cause a parrot to become seriously ill and die. Common household poisons for parrots 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 repellent.
- Polish, paint, glue, wax, and paint thinner.
- 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. You may notice the parrot struggling to breathe, coughing, or convulsing before it dies.
4/ Night Fright
Any sudden loud noise or bright light can cause a parrot to panic, which is known as night fright.
Dogs barking, babies crying, cats wailing, and sudden noises can cause night fright. Sometimes, the specific cause of an episode isn’t clear. Night fright can affect all parrot species, although it’s most common in younger birds.
If a bird died with its eyes open, it doesn’t necessarily mean it died of shock or fright. After death, the eyelid muscles relax, and this causes the eyes to fall open.
However, if the bird panics, it may fall off its perch, causing injury. It may also thrash around the floor of its cage or fly into the cage wall. An injury induced by night fright may become fatal if left untreated.
5/ Egg Binding (Dystocia)
If a parrot doesn’t get enough calcium and vitamin D, its eggs can become soft and misshapen.
Egg binding is common in female cockatiels, lovebirds, parakeets, and larger parrot species. The egg becomes stuck in the reproductive tract, so the bird can’t lay it.
All females can develop dystocia, even if they haven’t mated. It’s normal for parrots to lay unfertilized eggs, and egg binding is most likely in older birds or during a young bird’s first mating season.
The signs of egg binding include the following:
- Rapid or strenuous breathing
- Constipation and straining
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Sitting on the floor of the cage for long periods
Egg binding is a life-threatening condition that’s fatal if left unresolved.
6/ Psittacosis (Parrot Fever)
Psittacosis, also known as parrot fever, is a bacterial disease that affects parrots and other animals. When it affects birds, it’s also known as avian chlamydiosis.
The disease originated in parrots and is caused by Chlamydia psittaci.
A parrot can get psittacosis from coming into contact with an affected parrot. It may also pick up the bacteria from shared toys, water bowls, or airborne particles. The signs of parrot fever include:
- Respiratory problems.
- Nasal or eye discharge.
- Puffy or swollen eyes.
- Lameness or lethargy.
- Weight loss.
In some birds, the disease lies dormant and asymptomatic. A bird with asymptomatic parrot fever may not be diagnosed until post-mortem tests are run.
Parrot fever is fatal in 50% of untreated cases within 3 weeks.
7/ Heat Stroke
Parrots are most comfortable at 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit, with an upper limit of around 90 degrees.
Beyond this point, they begin to get too hot and are at risk of heatstroke. Overweight birds are most in danger, as they have an extra layer of fat keeping them warm.
Hot weather can present a problem for parrots indoors, especially if the cage is in direct sunlight or a sunroom (conservatory). Overcrowded, cramped cages also pose a risk.
If a parrot becomes too hot, it’ll experience heat stress. The parrot will attempt to cool itself down using 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 and no longer be able to regulate its body temperature, causing damage to its vital organs. Heatstroke in parrots can lead to death within hours.
8/ Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD)
Proventricular dilatation syndrome, also known as PDD or wasting disease, is one of the most dangerous diseases that affect parrots. The bornavirus causes this contagious disease.
According to Animal Health Research Reviews, PDD affects the parrot’s digestive system. The bird’s proventriculus (anterior stomach) becomes dilated and swollen, blocking the passage of food.
This means the bird can no longer digest its meals, leading to eventual starvation. PDD can also cause damage to the parrot’s brain and nervous system. The signs of PDD include:
- Weight loss.
- Regurgitating food.
- Inability to digest food (whole seeds visible in the bird’s droppings).
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for PDD. Many parrots with PDD will die within days or weeks of contracting the virus.
Aspergillosis is a fungal infection caused by the fungus aspergillus. The fungal spores multiply inside the bird’s respiratory system. Eventually, this causes respiratory disease.
According to Avian Pathology, aspergillosis isn’t a contagious disease. Rather than being passed from one bird to another, parrots usually pick up the fungal spores from their environment.
A lack of ventilation, excess humidity and poor sanitation practices can increase the chance of infection. Aspergillosis can affect the upper and lower respiratory system. The symptoms include the following:
- Nasal discharge.
- Swollen, sticky, or cloudy eyes.
- Cheesy yellow discharge from the eyes.
- Open-mouth breathing.
- Gasping for breath or heavy breathing.
- Droopy wings.
An infected parrot may exhibit no obvious symptoms until the disease has caused severe damage. If the disease progresses without notice, it can lead to sudden and unexpected death.
10/ Egg Yolk Peritonitis
Egg yolk peritonitis affects the reproductive tract of female parrots.
Any female bird can be affected by egg yolk peritonitis, even if they haven’t mated. Egg yolk peritonitis is commonly seen in cockatiels, lovebirds, macaws, and parakeets.
When a mature ova (yolk) is released from a parrot’s ovary, it travels into the oviduct. Egg yolk peritonitis occurs when this yolk enters the abdominal cavity and is trapped there, causing inflammation and infection, leading to sepsis. 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.
- Anorexia (lack of appetite).
- Yellow or orange droppings.
According to the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, egg yolk peritonitis can turn septic if bacteria, such as E. coli, are present.
Sudden death can occur if the parrot isn’t treated immediately with antibiotics and fluid injections.
A protozoan parasite causes Sarcosystosis. These tiny, single-celled organisms can infect the parrot’s vital organs, most commonly the respiratory tract (lungs and air sacs).
Parrots that live outdoors are at particular 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.
However, indoor parrots can develop sarcocystosis if living in an area with an outbreak. Parasites can enter the home through insects, such as cockroaches.
Parrots infected with sarcocystosis may show signs of illness, such as depression, lethargy, and fluffed-up feathers. They may also regurgitate food and water, have difficulty breathing, or experience seizures.
Sarcocystosis progresses rapidly, so infected parrots can look healthy before suddenly dying.
12/ Polyomavirus (French Molt)
Polyomaviruses are a group of viruses that can affect many bird species, including parrots. According to the Journal of Virology, polyomaviruses can cause various conditions, including benign skin tumors.
Parrots may pick up polyomavirus from infected birds’ contaminated feathers, dust, and droppings.
One type of polyomavirus can cause Budgerigar Fledgling Disease or French Molt. Despite its name, this disease can affect any species of parrot or parakeet, not just budgerigars.
French Molt is common in baby birds less than 15 days old. The baby bird may show various symptoms:
- Enlargement of the abdomen.
- Weight loss.
- Difficulty breathing.
These symptoms may last 12-48 hours and are followed by sudden death. If a baby parrot died suddenly, polyomavirus might be the cause.
Adult parrots can also get polyomavirus. However, they’re usually asymptomatic and don’t become unwell, unwittingly passing the virus on to their chicks.
13/ Thyroid Hyperplasia (Goiter)
Thyroid hyperplasia can affect many animals. In birds, it’s called avian goiter.
If a parrot has a goiter, the thyroid gland (located in the bird’s throat) becomes enlarged. This can put undue pressure on the vital organs, including the digestive system (esophagus and stomach), lungs, air sacs, and heart. Fluid can build up inside the parrot’s body, leading to the following problems:
- Wheezing or squeaking when breathing.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Regurgitating food.
- Distended (swollen) crop.
- Weight loss.
The 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. Goiters cause sudden death.
Also known as coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis is a common disease in birds. Any parrot can develop it, but African greys, Amazons, cockatiels, and monk parakeets are most susceptible.
Atherosclerosis is caused by plaque (fats and cholesterol) in the arteries, which can restrict 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 a high-calorie or high-fat diet who don’t get much exercise are most at risk.
Often, parrots with coronary artery disease don’t display obvious symptoms. Sudden and unexpected death is the first and only indicator of anything wrong.
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.”
15/ Organ Disease
A parrot’s organs can become diseased for various reasons, including poor diet, bacteria, or viral infection. Organ disease can affect any of a parrot’s major organs.
Most types of organ disease have signs and symptoms. However, the symptoms of organ disease aren’t always obvious, which may lead you to believe that your parrot died for no reason.
For example, parrots with fatty liver disease may have an overgrown beak or black spots on their claws.
Tumors are masses of bodily tissue that have mutated and grown abnormally. Not all tumors in parrots are cancerous, as some are benign. While benign tumors may cause discomfort, they aren’t fatal.
The cancer symptoms in parrots can be difficult to spot and 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 grow and spread to other parts of the parrot’s body with deadly consequences.
My Parrot Died: What Should I Do?
If a parrot dies suddenly, you’ll feel devastated. You may wish to bury your beloved parrot as soon as possible. However, if other birds are in the house, you should learn if they died from a contagious disease. Other birds may be asymptomatic but have the same disease.
Alternatively, the parrot may have died of a deficiency, environmental toxin, or a husbandry problem. By discovering what killed the parrot, you may be able to prevent future tragedies. Here’s how:
- Spray your deceased parrot’s body with water and put it in a sealed plastic bag.
- Put the bag in the fridge to preserve the body and assist the vet with finding the cause of death.
- Call your veterinarian to arrange a necropsy.
- 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.
- After the necropsy, you can retrieve the parrot’s body for burial.
Never put a parrot’s body in the freezer before a necropsy because freezing the body causes the tissue to degrade, making it harder to detect disease.