Written by Nicole, Oh Mowsie
The words "blood feather" strikes fear and uncertainty into the heart of many new bird owners. What exactly ARE blood feathers and why do so many warnings exist about them? Can a bird really bleed to death if one breaks? Are blood feathers like arteries? What is fact and what is overblown? What should I do if my bird breaks a blood feather? Does MY bird have blood feathers? How do I recognize them? These are many questions new bird owners ask and hopefully this article will answer them in what I've decided to call Blood Feather 101.
Blood Feathers, very simply, are brand new feathers coming in during a process called "molting". Another term you may have heard of. All birds molt, so therefore, all birds get blood feathers, from the smallest finch to the largest Macaw. The size of the feather coming in determines just how large blood feather will be and how noticeable it is. In other words, you may not notice a small cheek feather coming in, but you may notice a primary flight feather. Why?
In order for a new feather to grow, it needs to have a blood supply. The blood supply is found in the shaft of the feather (the thick middle part). In a small feather, it may not be noticeable, but in a large feather, it is easily seen. Feathers in the wings and in the tail are the largest on a bird and therefore have the largest blood supply going to them. These shafts grow from a follicle in the skin, much like human hair. Because they are supplied with blood while they are growing, they are like pipelines to a bird's blood supply. In a sense, they are like veins themselves.
Once the feather is fully grown, the follicle closes and the blood supply dries up inside the feather shaft, leaving it opaque. There is no longer any danger of blood loss if this feather were to break. The time it takes for a new feather to grow is actually quite fast, but there is certain vulnerability while the bird is in its molting stage and has blood feathers.
Can my bird bleed to death if he breaks a blood feather? Technically, yes. I have heard of it happening though not from sources close to me. Usually, when a bird is molting, he or she is growing more than one blood feather at a time so there is a risk that if there is a night fright or accident, he could break more than one and suffer severe blood loss.
Blood feathers are easy to find, once you know where to look. If your bird is not molting, chances are, he or she has no blood feathers. But if you have a bird with clipped wings, you may notice that his primary feathers (wing feathers) have started getting long again. Or for those who do or do not clip wings, you may notice lots of fluffy bits of feathers in the cage (like a pillow exploded), or even larger feathers, like wing or tail feathers, chances are - your bird is molting or at least, beginning to. If this is the case, your bird most likely has a blood feather or two. Blood feathers unto themselves are generally not painful. Often times they get a bad rap and are confused with pinfeathers (those prickly little feathers that stick up and make your bird look like a porcupine. These new feathers, covered in keratin are also associated with molting and if your bird has these pinfeathers, he or she is molting and probably has blood feathers as well). Pin feathers often times make a bird uncomfortable if rubbed the wrong way. Blood feathers often times go completely un-noticed by bird owners because they are not in easily seen locations. If you were to part the feathers at the base of your bird's tail where the feather shaft is the thickest, you might notice that the shafts of his tail feathers are dark and filled with blood! Or, if you flip your bird over onto his back (some birds don't allow for this) and spread his wings out fully, part the covert feathers and look at the base of his primaries, the shafts might be dark and filled with blood. How shocking if you aren't expecting it! Below are two pictures to demonstrate - my five month old cockatiel Antigone (who is going through her first molt) shows off her first blood feathers.
This view is from the underside of her wing. You can clearly see the blood in the shaft of her primary. Next to it is an older feather without blood, for comparison.
If your bird DOES break a blood feather, don't panic! It does not mean your bird is going to bleed to death! It means, as a bird owner, you should be prepared for an emergency BEFORE it happens.
A few things to always have on hand:
- A pair of hemostats (you can buy these from your veterinarian). If not, a pair of needle nose pliers (tweezers are not strong enough).
- Corn starch (preferably) or flour in a pinch. Some say Qwikstop but this is a chemical and it also burns so I don't advise it. Cornstarch is best. Use this to stop the bleeding.
- 2 Q-Tips (preferably vet swabs with the long wooden end): I use Q-tips and swear by them. I give one to my tiels to chew on (great distraction).
- Clean water: to dampen the feathers.
- Your avian vet's phone number.
First thing to do is to assess the situation. If you have a bird prone to night frights (like a cockatiel), chances are, the blood feather is going to break in the middle of the night and your avian vet is not going to be open. So you're going to have to be prepared to deal with the problem yourself. You'll have to stop the bleeding first thing. Secure the bird. See the photo above of Antigone for the proper hold. Notice that her wing is stretched out but I'm not compressing her chest. My fingers are splayed in a "V". This is the proper hold. It is recommended to have two people to work on a bird. Sometimes, a blood feather just "cracks". They are kind of "rubbery" and the new feather is inside that shaft, so they don't always break clean off. Sometimes, you can just get by until morning with putting direct pressure on the feather if it's not bleeding badly. This is best if you're not comfortable pulling the feather yourself. Also, if the break is just too close to the follicle and you cannot get to what's left of the feather shaft, its best to stop the bleeding and let your avian vet remove the remainder of the shaft. However, if the break is bad enough and you need too, removing a broken blood feather is relatively simple and the best thing to do.
Dampen the Q-tip in the water to get the feathers wet. (I usually give the other Q-tip to my bird at this time to play with so he or she is distracted and doesn't try to eat my fingers while I'm performing this delicate procedure, haha!) It's easier to wet the feathers and move them aside so you can locate the break. Once you locate the break, get your hemostats (preferably) and lock down on the broken shaft as close to the skin as possible, above the break. If you don't have hemostats, use needle nosed pliers. Make sure the wing you are working on is secured against the surface with one hand, and with a firm yank, quickly pull the broken feather out in the direction it grows in (like you would if you were pulling out a tooth). If you've done it properly, there should be a small bulbous end with a wet substance on the base of the shaft once it's out. You'll notice that your bird might start bleeding from the follicle so you need to put some cornstarch on the area where the feather once was and apply some pressure. **Please refer to the photo diagram below of a broken blood feather. Note the "bulbous end" at the base of the shaft. Seeing this will ensure that the entire shaft has been removed properly. That's it. You're done. Make sure to give your birdy lots of love and attention too.
NOTE: Some birds may have injured themselves severely in a night fright or other accident and may need medical attention despite broken blood feathers. If you suspect your bird has other injuries, please don't attempt to pull feathers as it could make the injury worse. Please see an emergency veterinarian if it's after hours or your regular avian veterinarian if it's during regular office hours.
I've mentioned a few other things in my article such as night frights and molting. If you're interested in learning more about night frights, see this article, and if you'd like to read more about molting, see this one.
Basically, now that you've acquired a pet bird, you've acquired pet blood feathers! They don't have to be a scary thing now that you know what they are and are prepared to deal with them.