Coping with the sudden death of a pet parrot can be hard, especially if it was young. Naturally, you want to know why it died. Parrots can die unexpectedly for many reasons, and with no prior symptoms of illness.
The most common cause of sudden death in parrots is poisoning. Parrots can be poisoned by dangerous foods and plants, heavy metals, or toxic fumes from household products. A parrot can also pass away suddenly from organ failure or disease. This could be caused by a virus, bacteria, fungus, or parasite.
If you can’t figure out why your parrot died, take its body to a veterinarian for a necropsy. This is a post-mortem examination that can help to determine the cause of death in birds.
How to Tell If a Parrot Is Dead
When your parrot is lying still and not moving, you may assume that it is dead. But parrots have been known to ‘play dead’, as a response to a threat. Parrots can also look dead when they are asleep.
To tell if your parrot is dead, check whether it’s breathing. You can also hold your finger against its chest to feel for a heartbeat. No heartbeat, no breathing, and a stiff, cold body mean that your parrot is deceased.
It’s not possible to bring a dead parrot back to life. If it dies, the only thing you can do is figure out why. That way, you can try to prevent the same thing from happening to any other birds that you may own.
How to Tell How a Parrot Died
It can be tricky to figure out why a parrot died. The first thing to consider is whether your parrot was old.
Different species of parrots have varying lifespans. While African greys can live for 60 years or more, a budgerigar may die of old age at 5 years.
Parrots don’t always display obvious signs of aging. Most older parrots look and behave the same for their entire life. A parrot can die of old age quite suddenly, if one of its vital organs fails.
If you’re sure that your parrot wasn’t old, it may have had an undiagnosed illness, or have been poisoned. When there’s no apparent cause for a parrot’s death, you can arrange a necropsy (post-mortem) with your vet.
Why Did My Parrot Die So Suddenly?
The most common symptoms of illness in parrots are lethargy, depression, fluffed-up feathers, and refusing food. These are all good indicators that something is wrong with your bird. But many conditions can cause a parrot to die suddenly, without any prior warning.
Some avian illnesses have no symptoms, or symptoms which aren’t easily spotted. Other diseases develop so rapidly that you may miss the signs completely. This is especially likely if you’re at work or school, or the illness comes on at night.
Here are the most common causes of sudden death in parrots. These could all be potential reasons why a parrot died without any prior warning.
Toxic Foods and Plants
Some plants and human foods can be highly toxic to parrots. New owners may not realize this, and unknowingly give their bird poisonous food. The most toxic foods for parrots are:
- High salt foods, and foods with added or refined sugar
- Stones or seeds inside apples, cherries, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, and nectarines
Your parrot may only need to ingest a small amount of these foods to be fatally poisoned. Your parrot may exhibit symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, and convulsions before dying.
Other dangerous foods include (but are not limited to) mushrooms, rhubarb, dairy products, seafood, and tomatoes. Ingesting a small amount may not be fatal, but a large amount can be.
Many household plants, such as lily-of-the-valley, pothos, and sweet pea, are also poisonous. When your parrot is allowed outside the cage, it may nibble on a houseplant and unwittingly poison itself.
Heavy Metal Toxicosis
Heavy metals, such as mercury, cadmium, copper, and iron, are toxic to birds. But the two most common heavy metals to cause poisoning in parrots are zinc and lead.
Ingesting a heavy metal will bring on an often fatal condition called heavy metal toxicosis. The parrot may consume heavy metals through contaminated drinking water, or chewing on household objects. Some objects which may contain heavy metals include:
- Walls painted with lead-based paint
- Leaded windows
- Toys and gadgets
- Metal buttons and studs
- Metallic food and water bowls
- Metal clips used for plumbing or electrics
If a parrot has heavy metal toxicosis, it may exhibit a wide range of symptoms. Weakness, anorexia, diarrhea, polyuria (excessive urination), and polydipsia (excessive thirst) are common.
Your parrot’s urates (the normally white part of a bird’s 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. If a large amount of metal is ingested, the parrot may die suddenly.
Ingestion isn’t the only way that toxins can work their way into your parrot’s body. Parrots can also die from inhaling (breathing in) toxic fumes, from chemicals around the home.
If you use any household cleaners or products near your parrot, the fumes that they emit may be poisonous. Inhaling these fumes can cause your parrot to become seriously ill and die. Examples of 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
- Pesticides, insecticides, and bug repellent
- Polish, paint, glue, wax, and paint thinner
- Fuels (e.g. gasoline, kerosene, lighter fluid)
Parrots are also highly sensitive to the caustic fumes given off by Teflon, found in non-stick cookware. These fumes are given off when non-stick pans are heated to above 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
When a parrot has inhaled toxic fumes, it may die suddenly and without warning. You may notice your parrot struggling to breathe, coughing, or convulsing before it dies.
During the night, any sudden loud noise or bright light can cause a parrot to become frightened and panic. This is known as night fright. It can be triggered by something as simple as a car’s headlights going past the window.
Dogs barking, babies crying, cats wailing or even insects flying past the cage can all cause night fright. Sometimes, the specific cause of an episode isn’t clear. Night fright can affect any species of parrot, though it’s most common in younger birds.
Parrots can’t die of fright alone. If your parrot died with eyes open, this doesn’t necessarily mean that 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 try to fly into the cage wall.
An injury induced by night fright may become fatal if it isn’t treated. For example, the parrot could break a blood feather, and bleed to death.
It is also possible, though rare, that a particularly bad night fright could cause a fatal heart attack. If your parrot fell off perch and died, this could be why.
Egg binding is a common problem that’s prevalent in female cockatiels, lovebirds, parakeets, and larger parrot species. As its name suggests, it’s a condition in which an egg becomes stuck in the reproductive tract. The bird can’t lay the egg without medical intervention.
All female parrots can develop this condition, even if they haven’t mated with a male. It’s normal for parrots to lay unfertilized eggs from time to time. Egg binding is most likely to occur in older birds, or during a young bird’s first mating season. Signs of egg binding include:
- Rapid or strenuous breathing
- Constipation and straining
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Sitting on the floor of the cage for long periods of time
Egg binding is a life-threatening condition that’s often fatal if left untreated. If the signs are missed, the affected parrot may die suddenly in a matter of hours.
Psittacosis (Parrot Fever)
Psittacosis, or parrot fever, is a bacterial zoonotic disease that can affect parrots and other animals, including humans. When it affects birds, it’s also known as avian chlamydiosis. The disease originated in parrots, and is caused by a bacterium called Chlamydia psittaci.
A parrot may catch psittacosis from coming into contact with an affected parrot. It may also pick up the bacteria from shared toys, water bowls, or even airborne particles.
Every case of parrot fever is different, and not all birds will show the same symptoms. Signs of parrot fever include:
- Respiratory problems (coughing, rapid or strained breathing)
- Nasal or eye discharge
- Puffy or swollen eyes
- Lameness or lethargy
- Weight loss
But in some birds, the disease lies dormant and asymptomatic. A bird with asymptomatic parrot fever may never be diagnosed until post-mortem tests are run. Parrot fever is fatal in 50% of untreated cases within 3 weeks.
Parrots are most comfortable at temperatures of 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit, with an upper limit of around 90. Past this point, they begin to get too hot, and are at risk of heatstroke. Overweight birds are particularly in danger, as they have an extra layer of fat keeping them warm.
Hot weather can present a real problem for parrots kept in cages indoors. This is especially true if the parrot’s cage is kept in direct sunlight, or in a sunroom (conservatory). Overcrowded, cramped cages also pose a risk.
If a parrot becomes too hot, it will begin to experience heat stress. The bird will attempt to cool itself down using a technique called gular flapping. It will extend its wings and rapidly open and close its throat. Its breathing will also become quick and shallow (panting).
In the wild, an overheated parrot would fly away to find a cool and shady area. But this isn’t possible in captivity. If the parrot can’t cool down, it will go into heatstroke. It will no longer be able to regulate its body temperature, causing damage to the vital organs. Heatstroke in parrots can lead to death in a matter of hours.
Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD)
Proventricular dilatation syndrome, also known as PDD or wasting disease, is one of the most dangerous diseases affecting parrots. It’s a contagious disease caused by a type of virus known as a bornavirus. This virus is easily spread from one parrot to another.
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 that the bid can no longer digest its meals, leading to eventual starvation. PDD can also cause damage to the parrot’s brain and nervous system. Signs of PDD in parrots may include:
- Weight loss
- Regurgitating food
- Inability to digest food (whole seeds visible in the bird’s droppings)
Unfortunately, there is no cure for PDD. Many parrots with PDD will die within days or weeks of contracting the virus. Others may live for months or years, but only with veterinary care (management of symptoms).
Aspergillosis is a fungal infection caused by the fungus aspergillus. The fungal spores multiply inside the bird’s respiratory system (trachea and lungs). Eventually, this causes serious respiratory disease.
According to Avian Pathology, aspergillosis is not a contagious disease. Rather than being passed from one bird to another, parrots usually pick up the fungal spores from their environment. Lack of ventilation, excess humidity, and poor sanitation practices can increase the chance of infection.
Aspergillosis can affect both the upper and lower parts of the parrot’s respiratory system. Symptoms can include:
- Nasal discharge
- Swollen, sticky, or cloudy eyes
- Cheesy yellow discharge from the eyes
- Open-mouth breathing
- Gasping for breath or heavy breathing
- Droopy wings
Often, an infected parrot will show no obvious symptoms at all until the disease has caused severe damage. If the disease progresses without notice, it can eventually cause death. The death may appear sudden and unexpected, with the disease only being revealed by the post-mortem examination.
Egg Yolk Peritonitis
As with egg binding, egg yolk peritonitis is a condition which only affects female birds. This is because it’s a disease that affects the female reproductive tract. Any female bird can be affected by egg yolk peritonitis, whether or not they have mated. In the parrot family, it’s most 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 instead. The yolk is trapped there, causing inflammation and infection which eventually leads to sepsis. The signs of egg yolk peritonitis include:
- 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. If the parrot isn’t treated with antibiotics and fluid injections immediately, sudden death can occur.
Sarcosystosis is a dangerous disease in parrots that is caused by a protozoan parasite. These tiny, single-celled organisms can infect the bird’s vital organs and systems. It most commonly affects the respiratory tract (lungs and airways).
Parrots that live outdoors are at particular risk for developing sarcocystosis. This is because the parasite originates in opossums. Birds pick up the parasite from drinking water contaminated with opossum feces. They can also catch the disease by eating diseased insects.
However, indoor parrots can also develop sarcocystosis if living in an area where there is an outbreak. The parasites can enter the home through insects, such as cockroaches.
Parrots infected with sarcocystosis may show the typical signs of illness, such as depression, lethargy, and fluffed-up feathers. They may also regurgitate their food and water, have difficulties breathing, or have seizures.
Sarcocystosis is a rapidly-progressing disease. This means that infected parrots can seem perfectly healthy just hours before dying suddenly. This may occur so quickly that you may not have time to notice any symptoms.
Polyomavirus (French Molt)
Polyomaviruses are a group of dangerous viruses that can affect many bird species, including parrots. According to the Journal of Virology, polyomaviruses can cause many different medical conditions, including benign skin tumors (warts).
Parrots may pick up a polyomavirus from contaminated feathers, dust, and droppings from infected birds. One type of polyomavirus can cause a disease called 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 a wide range of symptoms, such as:
- Enlargement of the abdomen, caused by fluid buildup underneath the skin
- Anorexia (refusal to feed)
- Weight loss
- Difficulty breathing
These symptoms may last anywhere between 12 and 48 hours, and are followed by sudden death. If your baby parrot died suddenly, polyomavirus might be the cause.
Adult parrots can also catch polyomavirus. However, they are typically asymptomatic and do not become unwell. They can then pass the virus on to their chicks.
Thyroid Hyperplasia (Goiter)
Thyroid hyperplasia is a disease that can affect many different types of animals. In birds, it’s called avian goiter, or just goiter. Any parrot can develop a goiter, including both wild and pet parrots.
If a parrot has a goiter, the thyroid gland (located in the bird’s throat) becomes enlarged. This can put an undue amount of pressure on the parrot’s vital organs. This includes its digestive system (esophagus and stomach), lungs, air sacs, and heart.
Fluid can build up inside your bird’s body, causing symptoms such as:
- Wheezing or squeaking when breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Regurgitating food
- Distended (swollen) crop
- Weight loss
Goiters in parrots can also cause sudden death. This is because the enlarged thyroid can put a strain on the heart, resulting in rapid heart failure. This condition can be triggered by an iodine deficiency, or exposure to toxic foods and chemicals.
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 particularly susceptible.
Atherosclerosis is caused by a buildup of plaque (fats and cholesterol) in the arteries. This can restrict the flow of blood around the body. If part of the plaque bursts and breaks away, it can create a fatal blood clot.
It’s not clear what causes atherosclerosis, but it may be diet and exercise-related. Parrots that eat a high-calorie or high-fat diet, and get little exercise, may be more at risk.
Often, parrots with this disease don’t display obvious symptoms. A sudden and unexpected death is the first and only indicator that anything was wrong.
In some cases, the parrot may experience shortness of breath, muscle weakness, and/or stroke before passing away. But most of the time, there are no warning signs at all. Atherosclerosis has consequently been labeled “the silent killer.”
A bird’s organs can become diseased for a number of reasons, including poor diet, bacteria, or viral infection. Organ disease can affect any of a parrot’s major organs, such as:
One example of organ disease which can prove fatal in parrots is fatty liver disease. It’s most common in parakeets and cockatiels, but can affect any type of parrot. The most common cause of fatty liver disease is obesity, triggered by a high-fat diet.
Most types of organ disease come with signs and symptoms. But the symptoms of organ disease aren’t always obvious. This may lead you to think that your parrot died for no reason.
For example, birds with fatty liver disease may have an overgrown beak, or black spots on the toenails. The bird could die if these symptoms are missed. Almost all kinds of organ diseases are fatal if they aren’t treated.
Tumors are masses of bodily tissue that have mutated and grown abnormally. Not all tumors in parrots are cancerous. Some tumors are benign – they may cause discomfort, but aren’t fatal.
Cancerous tumors, however, are dangerous. They can grow and spread to other parts of the bird’s body. When the parrot’s vital organs or bodily functions are affected, cancer can become fatal.
If your parrot has cancer, you may notice a lump somewhere and be able to get it treated. But if the tumor is internal (inside the body), you may not notice it until it’s too late.
The symptoms of cancer in birds can be difficult to spot, and vary hugely depending upon where the tumor is located. For example, if the tumor is in your bird’s lungs, you may notice your bird having trouble breathing.
But some types of cancer in birds have no symptoms, and can cause the parrot to die suddenly. The older a parrot is, the higher its risk of developing cancer.
My Parrot Died: What Should I Do?
If your parrot died suddenly, it’s natural to feel devastated. You may wish to bury your beloved parrot as soon as possible. But if you have other birds in the house, you should aim to find out how and why it died.
This is because your parrot may have died from a contagious illness. Though your other birds may not be displaying symptoms, they might be carrying the same disease.
Alternatively, your parrot may have died of a deficiency, environmental toxin, or other husbandry problem. If so, your other birds are at risk. By discovering what killed your parrot, you may be able to prevent future tragedies. Here’s how:
- Spray your deceased parrot’s body with water, and then place it in a sealed plastic bag.
- Put this bag in the refrigerator straight away. This will help to preserve the body, and aid the veterinarian in discovering the cause of death.
- Call your veterinarian to arrange a necropsy.
- To transport your 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 may be able to retrieve your parrot’s body for burial. If not, your vet can arrange for the parrot to be cremated.
Never put your parrot’s body in the freezer before a necropsy. Freezing the body causes tissues to degrade, making it harder to detect damage or disease.