Since birds love to chew and generally have very busy beaks, problems relating to the ingestion of metal particles are often encountered in both pet and aviary birds.
Commonly implicated heavy metals and their sources include:
Lead: environmental contamination in soil, stained glass, older houses with lead paint, metal toys/figurines, curtain weights, fishing weights and lures, shotgun pellets, champagne foil
Zinc: New wire (including galvanised aviary wire and some powder coated cages), screws, nuts and bolts, costume jewellery, metal buttons and belts, some coins
Copper: Electrical and computer wiring, some coins, costume jewellery
Mercury: Solder, used on the back of some mirrors and bird toys (sadly)
Signs associated with heavy metal toxicity
Generalised depression, fluffed feathers, lack of activity, poor appetite
Vomiting or regurgitation (sometimes seen as sticky feathers on the head)
Drinking more and passing a higher amount of liquid in the droppings than normal
Droppings may be pink tinged or contain blood (especially in Amazon parrots)
Some birds may show tremors, paralysis or seizure-like activity
How can heavy metal toxicity be diagnosed?
X-rays showing metal particles in the gastrointestinal tract (or elsewhere in the body) and blood tests are often used to confirm exposure to heavy metal toxins.
What is the treatment for heavy metal poisoning in birds?
Most birds are weak and very sick following exposure to toxic heavy metals and are likely to need hospitalisation for supportive care including fluids, good quality nutrition via crop feeding, and a quiet incubator for recovery.
Metal particles are removed from the body by specific medications that can be given as injections or by mouth. Sometimes metal particles may need to be removed by surgery or endoscopy.
Birds showing neurological signs will need medications to help control these.
Will my bird recover from heavy metal poisoning?
With prompt medical attention and appropriate treatment, many birds will recover from heavy metal poisoning. However, birds showing neurological signs, or those with prolonged exposure periods have a lower chance of recovery. In some birds, heavy metal poisoning is sadly fatal.
If you are concerned your bird may be affected by heavy metal poisoning, it is essential that you seek veterinary attention as soon as possible, as treatment delays can be deadly.