Is This Bird Sick or Dying?

Learn the Signs of a Sick or Dying Bird

European Goldfinch - Sick or Stunned
Mark Tighe / Flickr / CC by 2.0

A wild bird can’t tell you when it feels sick. Birders who know how to recognize sick birds, however, can take steps to prevent spreading illnesses at their bird feeders as well as aid sick birds to help speed their recoveries. But how can you tell exactly when a bird is sick?

Birds can succumb to many different illnesses and injuries, and many times a sick bird will not come near backyard bird feeders. When an unwell bird does appear, however, there are two ways to recognize it: by appearance and by behavior.

recognize sick birds

Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018 

Recognizing Sick Birds by Appearance

Not every sick bird will show symptoms of an illness, but those that do can be easily recognized. A healthy bird looks clean and whole, often looking just like it would in a field guide or nature photograph. Its feathers will be in place, its posture alert, and its eyes clear and intelligent. Sick birds, however, may show several symptoms such as:

  • Dull, unfocused eyes
  • Fluffed or rumpled feathers when it is not cold
  • Swollen eyes or membranes, such as the cere
  • Wet or crusty eye, mouth, or nose discharge
  • Dirty, matted feathers
  • Missing feathers
  • Visible injuries, lesions, or wounds

While physical appearance can be a clear indication of illness, it can be difficult to see symptoms in small birds, and some birds may not exhibit physical symptoms at all. In these cases, the bird’s behavior is a better way to gauge its health.

Recognizing Sick Birds by Behavior

A healthy bird is perky and alert, always active feeding, preening, or otherwise doing what birds do. Even if a bird may not be very mobile, it will be looking around and generally clued into its surroundings if it is healthy, and it will react if it feels threatened. A sick bird, on the other hand, may show unusual behavior, such as:

  • Trouble breathing or puffing or panting breaths
  • Reluctance or inability to fly properly
  • Excessive drinking
  • Sitting too still, even when approached
  • Drooping wings or slouched, unsteady posture
  • Roosting in open areas, even on porches or patios
  • Limping
  • Head listing to one side
  • Squinting or seeming to fall asleep
  • Getting snapped at by other, obviously healthy birds

Not all birds that exhibit these types of symptoms are necessarily ill, but the behavior is unusual enough to warrant caution in case the birds are sick.

Birds That Aren't Sick

There are times when birds may show some signs of illness, either through their appearance or their behavior, but they aren't actually sick at all. In these cases, it is important to leave the birds alone, as they do not require assistance and any intervention, no matter how well-intended, could be more distressing than helpful.

  • Baby Birds
    Baby birds
    may look sick with their fluffy feathers, patches of bald skin, and oversized eyes or bills. They may even act sick as they flutter about, are too weak to fly far, or cry for attention. This is all natural for young chicks, however, and unless a baby bird is obviously in grave distress, it should be left alone for its parents to care for appropriately.
  • Deformed Birds
    Some birds have natural deformities such as overgrown bills, crooked talons, or miscolored feathers. Other birds may be missing feet or legs due to old injuries. While these unexpected features may be startling, if the bird is active, feeding, and otherwise alert without a fresh wound or bleeding injury, it is not sick and needs no assistance.
  • Molting Birds
    Birds can look like a mess when they're molting, with bare patches of skin and scruffy feathers. Depending on the species, birds may even be unable to fly during part of their molting process, but this is normal. Molting may take several weeks, but it is part of birds renewing their plumage, and they need no special help during this time.
  • Bald Birds
    Some birds, such as vultures and condors, are naturally bald, while others, such as many jays, cardinals, and grackles, can be temporarily bald. It can be a drastic look, but it does not indicate severe illness. Similarly, there are many birds that have normal bald patches, often on the face and neck, and these are also normal and not signs of illness.
Bald Northern Cardinal
John Brighenti / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Because there are so many times when perfectly normal birds may show some indications of illness, it is important to observe birds closely when determining if they are sick or not. Only if a bird shows very severe appearance or behavioral clues to illness, or shows several distinct signs at once, is it likely sick.

How to Help Birds Heal

It can be hard for birders to witness sick birds at their feeders, but illness is a natural part of a bird’s life cycle. The strongest birds will recover, while weaker birds will succumb. To help birds have the strength to recover, birders can:

  • Keep feeders clean to minimize contagion to other birds
  • Supply fresh seed with a high oil content for extra energy
  • Offer a variety of other healthy foods, such as nuts and fruits
  • Keep the feeding area safe from predators that may capture unwary birds
  • Supply clean water in ground dishes and bird baths for birds to drink
  • Dispose of dead birds properly to prevent spreading illnesses

By recognizing sick birds and reacting accordingly, birders can minimize illnesses among their backyard flocks and help unhealthy birds recover as best they can.