Sudden Finch Death ~ A Surprisingly Common Issue

A puffed/fluffed up juvenile Zebra Finch. This type of body language does not appear to indicate illness or injury. (Click for more info/credit)

We’ve all had that moment when we enter our bird rooms to find a sick Finch. Or even worse, that moment when you’ve been treating a sickie for days but when you go to check on them once more, they’ve taken a sudden turn for the worse or are on the bottom of the cage – already gone. Sudden death is so common that a large percentage of visitors arrive here looking for answers after such an event. This article will provide them with that information in the hopes of steering hobbyists in the right direction for the future.

While it’s a natural reaction for those of us hobbyists who haven’t experienced this (even after years of bird keeping) to be judgemental, the fact of the matter is that it is literally going to happen at least once in your flock if you keep more than just a few pairs. Issues are far less likely to arise if you have 3 pairs, but if you have 8-10 or more, the chances for variables like illness are much greater.

The fact of the matter is that all birds hide their symptoms. With Finches this is especially true. Usually the first time anyone notices their Finch is sick is when they’re fluffed and not moving on the bottom of their cage. This may not be because they are a “bad parent,” it may be because their Finch seemed completely fine until the very end.

It’s one of the most heartbreaking parts about owning a Finch, and yet if you do at some point you are unfortunately destined to experience it. One positive aspect is that it also teaches you what body language and symptoms to look out for. It also teaches you how to handle the illness and your Finches as they experience it. You learn various treatments, medications, etc. that help you for the next time.

An adult Zebra Finch who is obviously very sick or in pain & fluffed/puffed up. (Click for more info/credit)

An adult Zebra Finch who is obviously very sick or in pain & fluffed/puffed up. (Click for more info/credit)

The Finch equivalent to the Common Cold
The most common of these illnesses that result in sudden death is a respiratory infection. It’s the Finch equivalent to the common cold. They contract it usually during the change of seasons from a warm Summer to a chilly Fall. It is especially a risk in places that go almost straight to Winter weather from the Summer months – such as our new home of Washington state.

The symptoms of a respiratory infection can include all of the regular signs of infection – scruffy/unkempt appearance, sudden inactiveness or a lack of normal activity, sleeping more as if tired often, fluffing/puffing in pain, mostly yellow and white or clear droppings, and a wet vent area.

The tricky part about this illness is that while in most cases a Finch owner’s natural reaction would be to put the bird under a heat lamp – this can actually cause the infection to grow or worsen. This then causes what might be a bad situation to become worse overnight.

How to Treat ~ WITHOUT HEAT!
As most hobbyists will tell you, heat is usually the first thing we do with an illness or injury. The standard answer is to quarantine, put them in an ER cage, and give them heat/fluids. That is true with most other afflictions but in the case of infection, heat is an aggravator.

It is a widely known & accepted fact that if the patient is not on antibiotics, heat can make an infection severely worse. In the case of Finches our Avian Vet cautions that it could be fatal, and testimonies from other hobbyists prove that fact to be true. I’ve tried to find an article regarding this topic to back our Avian Vet’s suggestion but after hours of looking I can’t find a single one that specifically relates to heat + infection. The only way I even know this is a valid fact is because it came from one of our Avian Vets.

Cause = Changes of climate or season
While there are also other causes of respiratory infection such as bacteria or an unkempt environment, the main cause that hobbyists run into is a change in climate. While it is not sudden in most places, in others such as our great state of Washington the weather can change very suddenly, causing our indoor temperatures to also drop. If any member of your flock is exposed to any kind of temperature change, they run the risk of illness. This is not something that is easily avoided. Even after taking a few weeks to acclimate them, you may still run into issues with the weakest and smallest birds who are more susceptible. The only way to guarantee you won’t encounter any illnesses when the weather changes is to keep your bird room at a constant temperature all year (room temperature of 70 or warmer – I recommend 72-78). For those of us who breed seasonally this is a challenge because it is this change of climate that allows our birds to know they will be resting.

An Avian Vet recommended ER cage for emergency treatment of illnesses requiring heat (most do). (Click for more info/credit)

An Avian Vet recommended ER cage for emergency treatment of illnesses requiring heat (most do). (Click for more info/credit)

When heat IS the answer to fluffed/puffed Finches
One thing to remember however is that a puffed or fluffed up appearance is not only an indicator of pain but also of being cold. Often times if you see your Finch fluffing throughout the day, it is a normal behavior and not anything to worry about. However if your Finch stays fluffed up or is doing it more often than they normally do, this may be a sign that they are experiencing colder temperatures either because of a draft or change in their environment. If fluffing is the only symptom, then heat may be the only solution. To be certain, always consult with your Avian Vet first.

Other symptoms of a cold Finch: wings drooped, shivering, constant preening / fluffing, or other signs of discomfort.

Hand feeding a juvenile during the 2013 breeding season - this method of syringe feeding is also used in extreme cases to give nutrients to ill adults. (TWFA 2013)

Hand feeding a juvenile during the 2013 breeding season – this method of syringe feeding is also used in extreme cases to give nutrients to ill adults. (TWFA 2013)

Other causes of Sudden Death
One of the main ways visitors are coming to this website is in their search for answers to emergency Finch situations. The most common of these are either breaking a leg accidentally during capture or sudden death. For the rest of this article I will address the numerous other possible causes for sudden death.

As Dr. Cathy, our personal Avian Veterinarian and TWFA Contributing Author states, “Birds hide their symptoms so in actuality there may have been some underlying illness. Birds also have heart attacks and stroke – they have a lot of heart disease, and that may be what happened. Without a necropsy (autopsy) there is no way to know what caused the death.” –Cathy Johnson-Delaney, DVM, Dipl. ABVP-Avian Practice, Dipl. ABVP-Exotic Companion Mammals. 

In the case of a sudden death in your flock, I would immediately quarantine any birds who have come into contact with them and remove the one who has passed away for a later necropsy.

I know that all hobbyists who experience this want to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. There are many possibilities as Dr. Cathy has said above and the only way to be sure is to have the bird checked. This also ensures that you won’t lose any more members of your flock unexpectedly.

Here is an excerpt from an LGF article regarding sudden deaths in Finches:
“Any of the following could cause sudden death: night frights, poisoning, heatstroke, acute disease, coccidiosis, collision in flight with a larger bird, heart attack, stroke, lack of water or food due to introducing a new bird to unfamiliar surroundings late in the day.”

Other causes I have heard of or seen first-hand include lack of proper nutrients, extreme depression or stress leading to a lack of appetite/mobility. Reasons for this may include the loss of a mate or companion.

Another possible cause of sudden death in hatchlings, fledglings or juveniles is inbreeding. “Inbreeding typically reduces fitness. Related partners may fail to reproduce and any inbred offspring may die early or fail to reproduce themselves. Here we show that inbreeding causes early death in the zebra finch Taeniopygia guttata, and among inbred individuals of the same inbreeding coefficient (F), those that die early are more homozygous (estimated from single nucleotide polymorphisms) than those that survive to adulthood.” Read more about this here.

Inbreeding is a huge problem in the avian community as it is in every other breeding community across the world. With Finch breeders it is incredibly common for someone to set up a large aviary or flight cage and “let the birds do their thing.” In this setting if breeding is allowed then that person would need to keep a close eye on who is mating with whom to prevent inbreeding. As you can imagine however that is difficult and time consuming so many people will simply not do so.

You can always tell if a flock is too far inbred to be kept any more if someone is selling them all, or they’re selling them all for a very low price. This is an obvious indicator that they can no longer breed that flock because they have either lost track of their genetics or they are so diluted in lineage that they’re either infertile or unable to produce offspring due to a lack of an unrelated mate. The bottom line is to beware of any hobbyist who is “getting out of breeding” or “downsizing their flock.” This is also why it is imperative to inspect the breeder’s cages if possible through physically visiting them or by asking for date stamped photos that are recent.

Unfortunately with most pet stores, their stock is either inbred or comes from an inbred line. This makes them weaker, smaller, and more susceptible to illness. This is also why many people experience sudden deaths from their pet store Finches. Of course, these situations do not apply to all breeders and pet stores. To be certain you’re getting healthy birds, the importance of doing your research is insurmountable.

Sometimes going “by the book” still doesn’t work
In some cases Zebra Finches can die for an unforeseen reason. You could be treating what you think is only an infection when in reality they have internal injuries. They could have failing organs or cancer, they could be bred from weaker or inbred parents, or a number of other things. There are so many causes that come without warning or cure, but as long as you’re giving your flock everything they need for a basic diet and healthy living environment as well as access to an experienced veterinarian then you’re giving them the best possible life. In this case of unexplained death, try not to blame yourself for something that may be out of your control after your own investigations are completed and also try to remember the symptoms for the future / to relay to your vet.

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4 Comments

  1. Terrie corn says:

    My little finch died and I don’t know why. He was fine yesterday.. Played around.. But this morning woke to his little dead body.. What happened?

    • I’m so sorry to hear it Terrie! It’s possible he had an illness and simply hid the symptoms like a respiratory or protozoa infection. If you’re not certain he is a he and it might be a female you’re dealing with, egg binding is a huge possibility and is often missed until it’s too late. Also so you know this site is not updated or current, I have moved to thewhitefinchaviary.com

    • Leanna Eml says:

      I’m so sorry, My finch Fluffy past away today and I don’t know why. He was playing with my other finch skittles then when I came back he was lying on the bottom of the cage dead.

      • I’m sorry to hear that Leanna. Most often in my experience they have some kind of symptoms of illness before passing away suddenly which can be very hard to tell since all birds hide their symptoms until it becomes severe. If you didn’t notice any changes it’s possible that Skittles may have seriously injured your Fluffy while you were out of the room. That level of aggression would be a final step in a long pattern of behavior however and also noticeable. I hope this helps. Please let me know if you can think of anything changes you noticed beforehand that I could help interpret into some kind of cause of death. Big hugs.

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