Bird Purchase Tips

Pet Store or Breeder?

Two of the most important decisions you can make when it comes to purchasing healthy birds is where to purchase a bird, and the quality of the bird you select!  While not foolproof, chances are if you follow these bird purchase tips, you'll purchase healthy birds that will provide you many years of pleasure!


First, a Look at Pet Stores - 

If you're looking to breed and/or show your birds, you're probably not going to find quality breeding stock at a pet store. As a breeder who sells my birds to pet stores, I rarely sell show quality birds to stores, and rarely see show quality birds from other breeders at those stores. I'm being honest with you so you know what you'll be buying from a pet store - a lovely pet quality bird with minor conformation flaws. Those who show their birds tend to keep the best birds to perfect their breeding stock. They sell off birds who have conformation flaws so those flaws aren't perpetuated in their breeding programs.  They are always beautiful and healthy, but rarely what I'd consider to be show quality. If you are looking to breed or show your birds, purchasing direct from an actual breeder who has a few show wins under their belt is probably the better choice. 

I realize there are many reputable pet stores that actually give their birds excellent care - All of my birds are bred & fed for show whether they are show quality or not. They are my babies. I won't sell to a store I know won't take outstanding care of their sale birds - but I cringe every time I hear one of my clients say they saw a pretty bird at a store and would like to purchase it, or worse, saw a sickly bird and want to rescue it!  Please, unless the store is spotlessly clean, and the birds are just glorious, don't do it!

Read some online reviews.  Once you're satisfied that the store reviews are good, take a close look around when you arrive. Be certain the birds are healthy, their cages are clean, and there are no sick looking birds in the cages. It only takes one sick bird to make an entire cage of birds sick, and dirty cages combined with the stress of being cooped up with a bunch of other stressed birds are some of the biggest culprits. Pet stores tend to purchase in bulk from breeders and often mix birds from different aviaries into one cage - and those cages aren't always large enough to house the number of birds they've crammed into them. If they haven't quarantined those birds, chances are they will be spreading disease from potentially sick birds to healthy ones. It may not be immediately obvious, but if there is one sick bird in the cage, chances are the others will come down with the bug.

If the cages look good and you see no sick birds, you're probably okay to purchase there. Just be careful and ask about the stores refund policy if the bird you choose dies. Since you're probably paying easily twice as much as you would from a breeder, consider a refund policy an insurance policy on your new investment!

Next, a Look at Breeders & Hobbiest sellers -

Here you have the choice between a hobbiest breeder - one who merely keeps a few birds and breeds them for the pleasure of seeing young chicks in the nest - and a true breeder. 

A true breeder is someone who produces a relatively large number of offspring each year.  They typically keep many breeding pairs and sell the offspring to pet stores, at fairs, and at shows. Many (not all) show their birds and spend their birding careers improving on the genetic health, conformation and/or color of their birds. And in most cases, because they breed larger numbers, are more likely to be intensely care savvy. They'll know the ins and outs of the care required for the species they breed and are often far more knowledgeable than pet store staff or the hobbiest breeding for the fun of it.

IF a breeder will allow you into their aviary or bird room, you want to do the same thing you'd do at the pet store. Look for clean cages, healthy birds, and someone willing to give advice when needed. Keep in mind, however, that many breeders no longer allow folks into their bird rooms. The first and most important reason for this is avian biosecurity. Unless you take your shoes off and basically get naked, there's a chance you could bring something in that could make the breeder's flock sick, especially if you already own birds. Another reason they may not allow it, is because breeding birds are often skittish. Some species will come off the nest and abandon their eggs or chicks if someone new enters the aviary. 

If the breeder won't allow you into their breeding room or aviary, you'll have to gauge the overall health and quality of the birds the same way you would if you were purchasing from a pet store; by observing the birds, checking to see if any are sleeping or look sick, and looking at the cleanliness of the cage they're selling them from - whether that be at a fair, a show, their home, etc. 

Breeders who show regularly typically have higher quality birds for sale. Keeping birds in show worthy condition not only requires careful nutrition, but good husbandry practices. It takes a good eye and careful breeding to produce show birds that meet the standard for the species. In many cases, show birds are far less skittish than the average aviary bird because they are literally trained to handle the stresses of large crowds, many birds, and tight spaces. They tend to get stressed far less often, and therefore are rarely prone to stress related illness.

The hobbiest is more than likely to have a single pair, or just a few pairs. They breed their birds for the joy of seeing babies hatch and their birds are usually well loved (spoiled? Yes!). They often know a lot more about the species they keep than a pet store does, but not quite as much as a breeder. And while their birds are usually well cared for, the one thing I've found to be fairly consistent is that most aren't quite as savvy about nutrition. Hobbiests are readers. They read everything - and combine what they've read to create their nutritional program. In a lot of cases, their birds are either lacking from poor nutrition, or obese from receiving too rich a diet year round. Of course fat birds come from every type of breeder, so you'll have to watch carefully when choosing a bird, regardless of where you purchase it from.

Obesity is often the cause of many other health issues beginning with fatty liver disease. Fatty liver disease can affect everything from overall health to breeding results. The lifespan of an obese birds will be far shorter than the lifespan of one fed proper nutrition. We've shared information regarding signs of obesity in our Nutrition articles.

Don‘t be sucked in thinking you can save a bird. Even with all my skills, I can‘t save some birds!

Let's Get Down To Business

 It's time to talk about what makes a sick bird vs a healthy one. We've added as many photos as possible to give you some help making a good choice. If for some reason you still aren't sure, shoot us an email with a photo of the bird in question. We'll take a look and give you our opinion. But remember, the photo must be clear and well-lit. Preferably with no cage bars in the way, though we do understand that may be difficult. If you need to see examples of how to photograph your bird, click this link to see more, then come back here to find out how to choose the perfect bird.


The bird pictured above is very nice. He has a lovely head and beautiful tight beak. His color is intense and enchanting for a dilute. His breast is full, but he isn't fat. If he had all his toes, he looks like he'd make a great breeder or even a decent show bird. While he was never actually tossed, his parents nibbled off his toes when he was still a young chick in the nest. He is truly lovely but  would probably never be more than a beautiful pet. 

If you think you may want to breed your birds, you don't want one with missing toes. It's very likely that a bird missing toes will never produce any chicks. Birds need their claws to hold onto their mate during copulation. If the grip is not good, copulation is often unsuccessful.

The Nitty Gritty

Take the bird in hand

If the seller will allow it and you are comfortable doing so, take the bird in hand. If they won't allow it, ask them hold the bird up to your ear. Listen carefully. You should hear only the quick beat of its heart.  If you hear a clicking noise or gurgling sound, the bird may be suffering from some type of respiratory problem including but not limited to air sac mites.  

In addition, while the bird is in hand, you should take a close look at it from head to tail. Begin by giving the bird a little squeeze.  By this I mean use your fingers to feel the breast area. You should feel only a firm, well rounded breast meat on either side of the keel. While some birds are genetically thin and/or narrow, the breast bone should never been razor sharp.  If you can feel the keel (breast bone) prominently with not much meat on either side of it, the bird is underweight or possibly ill. 

We'd recommend you not buy a bird with a prominent keel.

If the bird looks like this, don't do it!

No, you just shouldn't. A bird that looks like this has nutritional issues as well other potential health issues. It's just not worth the heartache, gang. Don't do it to yourself. Leave this guy at the store or breeder!

In this case, the bird was picked up from another breeder. Full disclosure about the lack of husbandry & proper nutrition was volunteered before the bird was purchased. Because the other birds know he's not quite right, the other birds pick on him regularly - not just "pecking order" picking, but downright life threatening picking! It's just as well. He needs a specially tweaked diet and constant monitoring.

This is what Air Sac Mites looks like INSIDE the bird

This is the trachea of a Lady Gouldian finch during necropsy. Each black spot is an Air Sac Mite, while the dark patch at the bottom of the photo is a large cluster of mites. Even after treatment, those same mites killed this bird. 

If you hear any gurgling or clicking, it's probably best not to purchase the bird. Gouldians, Canaries and some other species are highly susceptible to Air Sac Mites. Stress allows the mites to come out. Chances are if the bird is making those noises, it either has ASM or some type of upper respiratory issue.

A Bit About Beak, Body & Legs

Check the nostrils for discharge

Photo showing clean nostrils & beak on a gouldian finch

These nostrils are clean. 

There should be no clumped feathers around this area and no discharge; it should be clean and dry. There should be no blockages or sores in the nostrils. Blockages and sores can indicate a chronic respiratory infection (or other problems) and occasionally scaly face mites.  DON'T DO IT!

Check the nostrils for damage

Photo showing mild beak damage on a gouldian finch

If the bird has a clogged or damaged nostril, it could be a sign of deeper damage. This boy had been in a fight with other cocks in the cage. His damage will heal. But not all damage will heal - choose carefully if you are considering a bird with damaged nostrils.

Check the beak for deformities

Photo showing severe beak damage on a gouldian cock

It will be a rare occasion you see a bird for sale with damage this severe, but some people really do try to sell birds in this condition. While his ability to breed probably wouldn't be affected, his ability to feed chicks would be. Unless you have assurances from the seller that the bird can eat & drink on its own, you may want to think twice. If you have no desire to produce parent-rasied chicks, there's no reason you couldn't take this little guy home. Just think twice. He may be more trouble than he looks!

Blow the feathers away from the bird's chest and abdomen

This is a perfect breast & belly.

You should see only deep pinkish to burgundy colored healthy skin.  If the skin is dry and cracked or yellow, the bird may be suffering from poor nutrition or a bacterial infection. These indicators may also point to a liver or kidney problem.  You should see no black or discolored areas in the abdomen below the rib cage. 

Obviously, the easiest way to view a bird’s abdomen is to get them wet then move the feathers aside, but that may not be convenient while you are looking at birds to purchase. Also, wetting the bird can cause "wrinkly" looking skin which is normal when the bird is wet, as shown in the photo above.

Whether you blow the feathers aside or get the bird wet to see the abdomen, if you see any of the above mentioned issues, do not purchase the bird.

You should see no black in the abdomen, or cracked skin

Photo showing gouldian hen with streptococcus and severe liver damage.

This particular hen had a severe case of streptococcus as well as severe liver damage when she arrived. She was purchased will full disclosure that she had not been properly cared for.

The cracked and wrinkled skin is a sign of poor nutrition and husbandry practices, which was also fully disclosed when we purchased her.

Being an older hen at purchase, we knew she was going to be a big risk, but we were able to subdue the strep and get her nutrition tweaked out to prolong her life. Our SIRIUS Liver Recovery supplement and constant monitoring helped her tremendously.

We do NOT recommend purchasing a bird in this condition. You will more than likely end up wasting your money.

Read more about bacterial issues like Streptococcus in our Bacterial Issues article.

Check the vent and surrounding feathers. Make sure it's clean

This is a perfectly clean vent.

First of all, there SHOULD be feathers! I've seen birds with absolutely NO feathers around their vent area. This can mean the bird is over-preening, or for example, can indicate mites or a chronic enteritis condition.  Some canary breeders will "trim" the feathers around the vent on the hen canaries during breeding season, but this should not be the case with Gouldians or any other finch.

If you see any droppings stuck to the feathers, or if the feathers surrounding the vent are discolored, it means the bird is having enteric issues and should not be purchased.

Yes, stuck droppings can also mean the birds is less than stellar at their personal preening - which in and of itself is an issue - but stuck droppings always mean trouble. Don't buy a bird  with a messy vent!

Check the nails, count the toes

The nails, foot & leg scales in this photo are clean and smooth. The toes and nails are all accounted for, and the nails are a neat and tidy length. This is what you are looking for.

First off, all birds have 4 toes - usually 3 forward, 1 back. Some have 2 forward and 2 back, but most finches have 3 forward facing toes and 1 rear facing toe. 

The nails should not be overly long or curly (unless a trait of the specific species such as some frilled canaries).  If the nails are overly long or curling, the seller is not providing the correct perches for his/her birds or is neglecting their duty to proper care of the birds - which means trimming the nails as necessary. Long and curling nails can also indicate poor nutrition. If the nails merely need to be trimmed, ask the seller to trim them for you, or you can do it yourself once the bird is home and has acclimated itself to its new surroundings. If you prefer to trim them yourself, wait at least two weeks after you bring the bird home to do so. This will allow the bird to acclimate to its new surrounding and not cause it more stress than the move may have already caused.

Make sure the bird has all of its toes and is not missing toes or toe nails.  Missing toes and/or nails can indicate a previous health issue or neglect on the part of the seller. They also cause problems when the birds breed as they are unable to grasp a perch or get a good foothold, called treading, during copulation. If you intend to breed the bird, it will need ALL of its toes. 

Look for raised scales, swollen joints, or discolorations that are obviously not part of the birds skin. Raised scales can mean scaly leg mites OR an old bird with calcium build up under the scales. If the seller is trying to sell you a bird with raised leg scales as a young bird, think twice about purchasing. Young birds rarely show signs of raised scales - even when they have scaly leg mites. Swollen joints can mean Gout or any number of health related issues (usually cardiovascular), and discoloration can be a fungal infection which can result in the loss of the affected toe, or can be cardiovascular related. 

A Few Words About Scaly Face & Leg Mites, Gout

Scaly Leg Mites - Mild to Midling

mild case of scaly leg mites in gouldian finch

Scaly leg mites usually present as a greying of the foot scales, and occasionally the scales of the leg. They almost appear as if the bird is wearing armor on their feet. 

Scaly Leg Mites - Severe

A bird whose had a case of Scaly Leg Mites for a long while will have very raised, crusty and rather ugly looking feet & legs. In some cases, the toenails may be misshapen and twisted. If a bird has Scaly Mites this bad, it means the seller was remiss in their duty to their birds. Chances are all of the birds in the aviary will have the mites to some degree. Don't buy birds from this seller!


gout in an owl finch

Birds fed proper nutrition will very rarely ever get Gout. It takes some pretty bad foods to cause the oxalate crystals to build up in the bird's wee joints. But there are some genetic anomalies that allow Gout entry even when the diet is perfect. 

Birds with Gout require very specialized care. Unless you have the time and patience to care for a bird with Gout OR if you intend to breed your birds, do not purchase a bird with Gout. Read more about Gout in birds in our Beak, Foot & Claw Issues article.

Scaly Face Mites - Mild Infection

Mild case of scaly face mites in gouldian finch

This photo shows a rather mild case of Scaly Face Mites with just a bit of flaking and tunneling in a Gouldian finch. These mites usually start in the beak, then once out of control begin to spread to the feathered area around the beak, causing the feathers to fall out.

Scaly Face Mites - Medium infection

This photo shows a slightly heavier infestation. It is causing the upper layers of the beak to flake off, and small sores are beginning to appear. Because the molt lowers the immune system, and Scaly Mites are opportunistic, if you see Scaly Mites where you never saw them before during the molt, chances are they were dormant in your bird's system and came out once the immune system was suppressed.

Scaly Face Mites - Severe Infection

Severe case of Scaly Face Mites in a Society (Bengalese) Finch.

This photo show a severe case of Scaly Face Mites. The mites attacked the base of the beak where it attaches to the head first, then spread to the face. Sores appeared where the mites have burrowed into the skin. The bird exacerbated the problem by rubbing its face on the perches - which can also spread the mites to other birds in the cage. Read more about Scale Face Mites in our External Parasites article.


Request records, or at very least: birth date, parental genetic information, and last medications

Request records for the bird you wish to purchase.  A good breeder will keep detailed records about the birds in their flock and should be willing to provide you with this information upon request – even if THEY purchased the bird elsewhere! If the bird is of breeding age, request a copy of the breeding records.


Ask if the bird has received any medication recently so that if for some reason you need to treat them, you don't treat with something they've had recently that shouldn't be repeated soon. 

You will want to quarantine your new bird and possibly run it through a process of medications to eliminate the potential for parasites. You need to know what the bird has been given so you'll know if it is too soon for another round. Internal or external parasite medications, for example, can cause liver and kidney damage if given too soon after a dose.

Remember, just because the bird received medication does not mean they were sick.  Many good breeders run their birds through a bi-yearly quarantine procedure (or quarterly like in my aviary) as a preventive measure against parasites and disease! This is actually a good thing, but you need to know what the bird has received and when.

If you can follow these basic tips, you should be able to purchase a healthy bird. Of course there are always exceptions, but if you use these tips, you'll be headed in the right direction! 

Read through the rest of the site for more information about how to keep your new bird happy and healthy!



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