What To Expect From Your Senior Bird


When discussing birds with non-bird people, two errors often arise: 1) All parrots live as long as humans, and 2) birds are frail animals that do not live very long. Neither statement is entirely correct.

The idea of elderly, like people, is subjective. Because of differences in diet and activity levels, some individuals seem extremely old in their 60s, while others stay active into their 80s. According to research, this disparity is more related to lifestyle than heredity.

There is a huge discrepancy in the projected life lengths of bird species. Large psittacines, on the other hand, have the potential for a human life span. Hummingbirds, on the other hand, may only live for two to three years.

Although companion parrots may live to be very elderly, this occurs less often than we would want. “Poor diets and inadequate care restrict the life expectancy potential of many birds,” write Gina Spadafori and Brian L. Speer, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, ECAMS in Birds for Dummies. According to the authors, “the majority of the pet population is gone far before the age of 50, with geriatric disorders showing up in [Amazons] as young as 20 years old.”

Avian Medicine: Principles And Applications (Ritchie, Harrison, and Harrison, Winger’s Publishing, 1994) states that the domestic pigeon has a 15-year life span, whereas canaries can live up to 20 years. I know a sparrow that lived into its twenties and another who has been with its owners for almost 20 years.

Physical Changes

An aging bird is not as visible as an aged person, but physical changes do occur, particularly in the eyes and the rest of the face. Facial skin may weaken, and various lumps, warts, and colorful moles, which are uncommon in young birds, may develop. The iris often lightens and becomes uneven in form.

The feet of an aged bird seem gnarly, with greater scaling and thickening skin on top, while the scales on the soles of the feet are generally worn smooth. You may also notice changes in your posture. Teresa Lightfoot, DVM, Dip. ABVP — Avian said in Clinical Avian Medicine (Vol. I, Harrison, Lightfoot; Spix Pub., Palm Beach, FL; 2006:83) that elderly birds typically sit with a lower stance owing to arthritis of the hock joints. Lightfoot also observed changes in eye color, stating that “the yellow iris narrowed so that the black retina could shine through, leaving a dark ring inside the iris.”

Cesar, a blue-and-gold macaw found in the wild and believed to be 60 to 80 years old, demonstrates several of these alterations. His feet, for example, are misshapen and feeble. “Cesar is most content sitting on top of his enormous cage,” said Bonnie Wallace, the Long Island Parrot Society’s current caregiver. “He hunches over and, at times, seems to be asleep.”

Many birds’ feathers alter as they mature. According to Liza Clark, VMD in Pennsylvania, they may also develop feather loss comparable to male-pattern baldness in humans. This is what she found in Sam, my 50-year-old blue-and-gold macaw. Sam has progressively stopped replacing molted contour feathers over the last 20 years and is now fully bald in certain regions. I spotted a same feather-loss pattern on a 35-plus-year-old blue-and-gold hen that resided at the Gabriel Foundation in Colorado a few years ago.

Shari Beaudoin of Parrot Island in Minnesota has three double yellow-headed Amazons ranging in age and with variable amounts of yellow on their heads. “I think it’s amazing to watch the hue change with age,” she remarked. Rascal, her eldest child, is now a wise 30-year-old with a full head of yellow hair who commands respect from his neighbors, 10-year-old Lt. Columbo and 13-year-old Samantha.

Unfortunately, in chronically malnourished birds, some of these physical changes occur sooner, leading young birds to suffer from age-related illnesses.

Medical Issues

During the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of thousands of wild-caught parrots were imported into the United States. The unfortunate fact is that just a handful of these birds survived. As a consequence, avian medicine has less expertise with geriatric treatment than canine and feline medicine. However, according to some of the vets I met, things are looking up.

The list of documented medical concerns in senior birds is similar to that of older dogs, cats, and humans. Kidney and liver disease (hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease), cataracts, and heart disease are all common. As birds mature, they develop articular and visceral gout, as well as various malignancies. According to Susan Orosz, DVM, Dipl. ABVP — Avian, ECAMS, prolonged malnutrition may result in immuno suppressive disorders like as aspergillosis and persistent sinus infections. She suggested a diet rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids to boost the immune system and minimize inflammation.

Most veterinarians believe that elderly birds need at least one yearly visit to the vet and may require more frequent blood tests and radiographs (X-rays) to monitor for these issues. When anomalies arise, such as a heart murmur or borderline abnormal blood chemistry results, frequent vet visits become even more crucial, since these problems must be continuously watched in case emergency intervention is required. Many elderly birds, like people, suffer from arthritis. Analgesics (pain relievers) may be beneficial in the treatment of arthritis, but Lightfoot cautioned that their usage needs blood testing to properly monitor organ function.

Diet & Environment Changes

Although owners of elderly dogs and cats may pick from a variety of senior commercial foods, this innovation has yet to reach the avian world. All three vets I talked with underlined that geriatric birds would most likely need specially prepared diets. Birds with renal and/or liver problems, for example, need high-quality, readily digestible protein sources.

Obesity, like diabetes, worsens with age and necessitates dietary changes. According to Lightfoot, there is a frequent assumption that if a diet is well-balanced, obesity will not arise. “This is true for some people,” she remarked. “However, even when provided a healthy, tailored diet, many Amazons will overeat.” Obese birds need a diet low in fat and high in caloric.”

Environmental modifications help certain elderly birds. Pliable perches seem to be preferred by older birds, particularly those suffering from arthritis. My macaw likes soft rope perches to firmer wood perches. Some birds may also demand a greater indoor temperature. As usual, after making moderate changes, owners should monitor their birds’ body language to discover what seems to make the birds more comfortable.

Behavioral Changes

According to Clark, “the majority of the behavioral changes we detect in elderly birds connect with medical issues.” Arthritic birds, like old persons with chronic pain, are more unpredictable and hesitant in their movements. Pain may make animals grumpier and less tolerant with fumbling human treatment.

Birds under distress may vocalize less, and their activity and contact levels may also decrease. Analgesics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories used sparingly may make a significant difference in an elderly bird’s comfort. Avian veterinarians are increasingly helpful in this regard.

Because they are startled by something they can’t see readily, elderly birds startle more often. As a consequence, aggressive behavior may ensue.

People who do not identify a bird’s infirmities may perceive such actions as the birds being cruel, although this is not the case. My experience with senior birds, on the other hand, shows that when they are treated with compassion and respect, they have a higher capacity for attachment. They seem to be able to see straight through the layers of superficiality and to the heart of the matter, like some old people do. When you look deep into their eyes, you realize you’re dealing with an Old Soul.

Muffet, a 28-year-old cockatiel, is “the kindest little spirit you can imagine,” according to Debbie Speer, who got him for Christmas in 1978. Because he wasn’t always on the healthiest diet, she attributed his lifespan to love.

“It must be love,” she said, “since Muffy has always been regarded as a vital part of the family.” “Throughout his 28-plus years, he has been spoken to, whistled at, and engaged in interaction.”

Muffet had begun to slow down. “He doesn’t move as quickly, bob his tiny head up and down as much, or sing as much as he used to, but he’s still extremely attentive, friendly, and has a very decent appetite,” she said. “He still breaks into his little characteristic song and bangs his mirror about every now and then.”

Life With Older Birds

I’ve been married to Sam for 32 years. Sam is probably much older than 50, based on what little I know about her life before I entered it. Her activity has steadily lessened during the years we’ve shared (more than half of my life!). She isn’t as loud as she used to be, and she seems to need more sleep, going to bed much earlier than usual. She now seldom stays up late enough to join me for my customary late supper.

Sam has been flying for almost 30 years and now prefers to walk instead than fly. I used to throw her up in the air and send her flying back to her tree in the living room, but we stopped doing that a long time ago. Flying and landing must be painful for her with arthritis in her legs and feet, so I take her to her perch instead. When she sits beside me, her arthritis makes her more prone to lose her equilibrium. I try to avoid making sudden moves that could cause her to slide.

Play is still vital to her, but her lifestyle, like mine, has grown more sedentary. Instead of flapping and shouting, she chooses to destroy a book silently. However, you should not imagine Sam as an elderly lady sitting in a rocker, since this is not the case. She still gets up and boogies to loud rock ‘n’ roll and cheerfully screams at the youngsters on the street she sees through the window. She enjoys the hot summer days, when there are more youngsters to shout at.

Despite Cesar’s “cranky old man” disposition, Wallace notes that he, too, is a usually happy parrot. “Many people have urged that we euthanize him,” she added, “but looking beyond his less-than-perfect physical state, he is happy, reasonably healthy, and should be allowed to live out his senior years with dignity.”

Too Old to Learn? — Never

I have never seen a parrot that was too old to learn in all the years I have lived and worked with them. Indeed, the elderly birds I’ve met appeared to like change as a means to spice up their lives. The addition of a college student to the life of a 45-year-old Timneh called Peter, who boarded with me, completely revitalized her. Peter almost quadrupled her vocabulary and taught her many songs in an astonishingly short amount of time.

My aging macaw seems to be similar, and she still enjoys learning tricks – as well as novel ways to manipulate the people around her. I believe that older parrots get tired with their routines and are thrilled to have the chance to break free. This is commonly mentioned by those who assist in the re-homing of parrots. Rather of lamenting the loss of a home, many elderly parrots seem to glance about their new surroundings and exclaim, “Hey, something new. Cool!”

Achieving Old Age

The secrets to companion bird lifespan are the same as they are for humans. Encourage your avians to exercise on a regular basis, either by flying or flapping cheerfully if their flight feathers are not clipped. Maintain vigilance over their food intake, ensuring that they consume a healthy, balanced diet. Don’t let kids get malnourished as a result of poor eating habits. Because humans have complete control over a companion bird’s diet, serve only limited quantities of high-fat, low-nutrient goodies.

Annual checks with your avian veterinarian aid in the early detection of issues. Trying to save money on preventive treatment will almost certainly cost you and your bird a lot of money in the long run.

The good news for bird owners is that their pets are living longer lives. According to the avian veterinarians I interviewed, the proportion of old avian patients is growing significantly as a result of considerable advances in avian diet and therapy over the previous two decades. Twenty years ago, avian veterinarians believed that just 1% of their client base was elderly, but that percentage has grown dramatically. Some avian doctors now estimate that elderly birds account for 25 to 33 percent of their practice.

Orosz stressed the need of senior bird owners collaborating closely with qualified avian vets. “We want them to grow old gracefully,” she remarked with a grin. Fortunately for those of us who are privileged with the companionship of adored senior birds, avian medicine is continually expanding its understanding of the medical issues and physical changes that accompany aging birds.

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