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 due to dangerous foods and plants, heavy metals, or toxic fumes from household products. A parrot can also pass away suddenly from organ failure or disease, which 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 post-mortem examination can 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 it’s dead. Parrots have been known to play dead as a response to a threat, and they can also look dead when they’re asleep.
To tell if your parrot is dead, check whether it’s breathing. You can also hold your finger against its chest to check 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, so the only thing you can do is figure out why. That way, you can prevent the same thing from happening to any other pet 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. All species of parrots have different lifespans. While African greys can live for 80+ years or more, a budgerigar may die when it’s 5.
Parrots don’t always display obvious signs of aging, and most older parrots look and behave the same their entire lives. 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 obvious cause of 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 weight loss, which are all indications 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 that are hard to spot. Other diseases develop so rapidly that you may miss the signs completely. This could be the case if you’re at work, school, or the illness comes on at night. 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 their parrots poisonous food. The most toxic foods for parrots are:
- Stones or seeds from fruits, such as cherries
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.
Many household plants, such as lily-of-the-valley, pothos, and sweet pea, are also poisonous. When your parrot is allowed outside its cage, it may nibble on a houseplant and poison itself.
2/ Heavy Metal Toxicosis
Ingesting a heavy metal leads to a potentially fatal condition called heavy metal toxicosis.
Heavy metals, such as mercury, cadmium, copper, and iron, are toxic to birds. However, the two most common heavy metals to 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 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.
3/ Toxic Fumes
Parrots can also die from inhaling toxic fumes from chemicals around the home. Parrots’ respiratory systems are more sensitive than those of humans, so inhaling these fumes can cause your 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
- Pesticides, insecticides, and bug repellent
- Polish, paint, glue, wax, and paint thinner
- Fuels (e.g. gasoline, kerosene, lighter fluid)
- Caustic fumes given off by Teflon, found in non-stick cookware.
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.
4/ Night Fright
Any sudden loud noise or bright light can cause a parrot to become frightened and panic. This is known as night fright.
Dogs barking, babies crying, cats wailing, and sudden noises can all cause night fright. Sometimes, the specific cause of an episode isn’t clear. Nightmares can affect any parrot species, although 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.
5/ Egg Binding
Egg binding is most prevalent in female cockatiels, lovebirds, parakeets, and larger parrot species. It happens when the egg becomes stuck in the reproductive tract, so 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, and egg binding is most likely 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 unresolved.
6/ Psittacosis (Parrot Fever)
Psittacosis, or parrot fever, is a bacterial disease that can affect 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 may catch psittacosis from coming into contact with an affected parrot. It may also pick up the bacteria from shared toys, water bowls, or airborne particles. 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 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, especially if the cage is kept in direct sunlight or a sunroom (conservatory). Overcrowded, cramped cages also pose a risk.
If a parrot becomes too hot, it will 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 the parrot can’t cool down, it will experience heatstroke, and it’ll 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 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 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.
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 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.
A lack of ventilation, excess humidity, and poor sanitation practices can increase the chance of infection. Aspergillosis can affect 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
An infected parrot will often show 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 is a condition that only affects female birds because it affects the female reproductive tract. Any female bird can be affected by egg yolk peritonitis, regardless of whether they’ve mated. Egg yolk peritonitis is 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 and is trapped there, causing inflammation and infection, leading 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. Sudden death can occur if the parrot isn’t treated with antibiotics and fluid injections immediately.
A protozoan parasite causes Sarcosystosis. These tiny, single-celled organisms can infect the parrot’s vital organs, most commonly the respiratory tract (lungs and airways).
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 where there is an outbreak. 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 experience seizures.
Sarcocystosis progresses rapidly, so infected parrots can seem healthy just hours before dying suddenly.
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 medical conditions, including benign skin tumors.
Parrots may pick up a polyomavirus from contaminated feathers, dust, and droppings from infected birds. 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 your baby parrot died suddenly, polyomavirus might be the cause.
Adult parrots can also catch polyomavirus. However, they’re typically asymptomatic and don’t become unwell. They can pass the virus on to their chicks.
13/ Thyroid Hyperplasia (Goiter)
Thyroid hyperplasia can affect many animals. In birds, it’s called avian goiter or just goiter.
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 vital organs. This includes its digestive system (esophagus and stomach), lungs, air sacs, and heart. Fluid can build up inside the parrot’s body, causing:
- Wheezing or squeaking when breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Regurgitating food
- Distended (swollen) crop
- Weight loss
Goiters cause sudden death. The enlarged thyroid can strain 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 most susceptible.
Atherosclerosis is caused by plaque (fats and cholesterol) in the arteries. This can restrict the flow of blood around the body. If part of the plaque breaks away, it can lead to a fatal blood clot.
It’s not clear what causes atherosclerosis, but it may be diet-related. Parrots on 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 that anything was wrong.
In some cases, the parrot may experience shortness of breath, muscle weakness, or have 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, and this may lead you to think that your parrot died for no reason.
For example, parrots with fatty liver disease may have an overgrown beak or black spots on the toenails. The parrot could eventually die if these symptoms are missed.
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 they aren’t fatal.
The symptoms of cancer in parrots can be difficult to spot and vary depending upon where the tumor is located. For example, if the tumor is in your parrot’s lungs, you may notice it having trouble breathing.
Cancerous tumors grow and spread to other parts of the parrot’s body. Cancer can become fatal when the parrot’s vital organs or bodily functions are adversely affected.
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. However, if you have other birds in the house, you should learn how and why they died.
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, other parrots 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 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.
Never put your parrot’s body in the freezer before a necropsy. Freezing the body causes the tissue to degrade, making it harder to detect disease.