For birds in the wild, masking illness is a means of self preservation. A sick or injured bird is more vulnerable to predators and other birds in the flock. Hiding illness has become an important means of survival and an instinctive behavior in wild birds. Our captive birds retain this instinctive behavior. Unlike other animals that loudly proclaim their discomforts, a pet bird who is sick will do his best to hide his situation. Weight change is one of the few early warning signs of illness we can see. For this reason, regular weighing is an essential part of taking proper care of your bird.
You can not rely on how your bird looks to detect weight changes. You will never ‘see’ a 5% weight change in your bird; but such a change is very significant and could even be life threatening. Use a good scale, preferably one designed for birds. The scale must weigh in grams. Ounces, even the more common fractions of an ounce, are too large a measurement. By the time a sun or cherryhead conure has lost enough weight to effect a change on a scale that measures in 1/4 ounce increments, the bird has lost almost 5% of its body weight!
Record the amount each time you weigh the bird. Do NOT rely on your memory. You will not see the patterns in your memory. They become very visible when written out. You can use a small spiral-bound notebook or a computer spreadsheet (like Excel or Lotus) to record the bird’s weight. I use Excel spreadsheets for this purpose. Sometimes I also graph the weights. This is especially useful with very young birds or those with recurrent health problems.
Young parrots should be weighed daily until they are 1 year old. Ask the breeder for your baby’s weight record too. This will make your record more complete and could help the vet in case of illness. After the bird reaches one year old, weigh every other day until the bird reaches sexual maturity. Adult birds added to your flock should also be weighed daily for one year. This daily weight record serves to establish a baseline of what is “normal” for your bird.
Once you have a baseline, weigh the bird 3 times per week. This should continue for the remainder of the bird’s life. In times of higher stress or illness, go back to weighing daily. Weight changes are often the first–and sometimes the ONLY–sign that your bird is ill.
Always weigh your bird at the same time of the day. Before feeding in the morning is usually the best time. This will give you the most consistent weight. Be sure to weigh after the morning poop-bomb. It can make as much as a 10 gram difference!
You don’t always weigh exactly the same amount; your bird’s weight will also fluctuate. In general, 1% to 1.5% up or down from the baseline weight is in the ‘normal’ range. For example, a 400 gram (baseline) bird could weigh as much as 406 or as little as 394 and still be considered to be in the ‘normal’ range. Individual birds can display a greater daily fluctuation than the 1.5% indicated. The percentages listed are a basic guideline. As with most characteristics related to birds, individuals can vary from the norm and still be perfectly healthy. This is one reason for tracking your bird’s weight for an entire year to create the baseline.
Be aware that the previous day’s food intake will also be reflected in the bird’s weight. Many parrots will eat less when the weather is changing rapidly or is particularly bad. This will show up as an unusual, but explainable, weigh loss the next day. If the bird got a special treat just before bedtime, that may show up as an unusual weight gain. If you weigh earlier or later than normal, that may also affect the results.
Watch for patterns in the recorded weights and try to match them to events in your bird’s life. Write yourself notes on your weight chart about what is happening to your bird and his environment. Just as you know that when your bird eats blueberries, the next several poops will be reddish-purple, you should learn your bird’s weight fluctuations given specific circumstances. In my flock, day visitors have little or no effect on weight. Overnight visitors, on the other hand, often cause the birds to be ‘off’ their food, thus causing an explainable weight loss in excess of the normal range.
So, if your bird’s weight is going to fluctuate, when should you be concerned? The key here is PATTERNS. This is why you must write down the weight each time. You will never notice a 3-4 gram loss — that’s easily within the normal range for most medium to large parrots. But if it happens again the next time, it becomes significant! If two consecutive weighings show an unexplained weight loss, go back to weighing daily. If the 3rd day shows another loss, CALL THE VET!! Don’t hesitate! Call the vet! Describe the pattern of the weight losses; be sure to include any environmental factors that you think may be affecting the bird. If the vet thinks the weight changes are significant, s/he will tell you to bring the bird in. S/he may also ask that you monitor the weight for another day or two, then call back.
Any bird that sustains an unexplained weight loss of more than 2% in a single weighing should go IMMEDIATELY to the vet. A bird with a loss 3-4% of its weight over several days should also go to the vet as soon as possible. A bird with a weight loss over 5% is in a VERY serious, perhaps even life-threatening, condition. Weight losses over 10% often result in death if not treated immediately.
Weight gains usually cause less problems than losses; however, any significant change should be discussed with your avian vet. Also, be aware that some parrots may show seasonal weight changes. This is another reason that you take an entire year to establish the baseline for your parrot. Don’t forget to make notes on your weight chart about environmental and behavioral changes.
One note about weighing mature hens: It has been my experience that mature parrot hens exhibit a weight change pattern when they are going “in season”. The pattern takes place over approximately 10 to 14 days. Over 4 to 6 days, the hen will gain about 3-4% of her baseline weight. This higher weight will then be sustained for 2 or 3 days. Gradually, over the next 4 to 6 days, this extra weight will be lost, returning the hen to her baseline weight. This can also be another hint in determining the sex of non-dimorphic adult parrots. Cocks do not generally experience this weight change pattern.
Invest in a good gram scale, preferably one with a perch. A good scale, like a good cage, can be expensive; but it is an investment in your bird’s health and well-being. The current prices are in the $70 to $120 range. While either electronic or triple-beam scales are okay, for most people, the electronic types are much easier to use accurately. Your scale should have a “load cell” weighing mechanism or a good strain gauge transducer. This feature ensures that the scale will record the same weight whether your bird is in the center of the scale or on an edge. If you are not sure if a scale has a load cell feature, you can test it by placing a weight in the center of the scale. Move the weight to the far right side of the platform, then to the far left side. If the scale does not have a good stain gauge transducer or load cell mechanism you may see a weight shift of 5% or more from the center to either edge (or from front to back). One side will record a higher weight than the center, the other side a lower weight. Now, imagine your bird moving around on the scale. If he moves to the right of center, he weighs 5% more; if he moves to the left, he weighs 5% less!
Rick Voss, of Rick’s Bird Supplies, says that the question he is most often asked is “Which scale am I supposed to buy?” The correct answer to this question varies with the variety of birds you will be weighing. If you have only one tame adult bird, then choose a scale with a perch diameter and capacity geared to that one bird. On the other hand, if you have several birds, you will probably need help in selecting the scale that will provide the best combination of features to accommodate all your birds. Rick says he often helps customers select the scale that best meets their needs.
There are several variables to take into account when choosing a scale. First is whether your bird(s) will sit on a perch quietly while the scale settles. If your bird will perch comfortably and stay on the scale until you remove him, then a fixed perch scale such as the Rick’s Bird Supply Scale is a good choice. If your bird will not perch, then you need to consider a scale with a flat platform or a removable perch such as the Acculab GS2001 or the Ohaus LS2000. If you are weighing unweaned babies, you need to be able to accommodate a bowl of sufficient size to hold one baby comfortably. A scale with a TARE function is useful if you need to use bowls or other containers to hold birds for weighing. The TARE function allows you to adjust the scale back to zero with the empty container on the scale – so you weigh only the bird – not the bird and the container.
The capacity and level of accuracy required in a scale is largely dependent on the size bird(s) you are weighing. While a scale that measures in 2 gram increments is a good choice for most parrots, cockatoos and macaws, it would be almost useless for small birds like finches or parrotlets; you will need one that weighs in 1 gram or even 0.1 gram increments for birds of this size. Breeders who weigh incubating eggs need a scale that weighs in 0.01 gram increments. If your bird is a large macaw, using a scale with a capacity of 1000 grams will not work. The bird’s weight is higher than the capacity of the scale. On the other hand, if your only bird is a small conure, there is no need to spend the extra money to get a scale with a 3000 gram capacity.
The next issue is the diameter of the perch. Just as with cage perches, a too-small perch can cause balance problems for your bird that will result in inaccurate weights. If you buy your scale from a company that caters to birds, they can advise you on the proper perch diameter for each species and can discuss other options with you.
Teach your bird to STEP DOWN from your hand onto the scale perch and to stay there until you remove him with a STEP UP command. (By the way, your vet will really appreciate this!). If you can’t get your bird to use the perch or to stay still, there are some alternatives. You may find it easier to catch the bird and place him in a paper bag, a clear Tupperware-type container with air holes punched through the lid or a small wire animal cage. Use a flat platform scale to weigh the bird and the container. Remember to subtract the weight of the container from the total weight if your scale does not have a TARE function.
Weighing your bird should become a part of your regular bird maintenance program — just like feeding your bird and cleaning it’s cage. Careful tracking of your bird’s weight will result in a healthier, happier parrot. Remember that your bird will make every effort to hide all signs of illness. Weight changes are often the only indicator of illness you will be able to see. Regular use of a good scale CAN make the difference between life and death for your bird!