Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

Determine age by feathers, scales

I got my greenwing macaw from a friend about a year and a half ago. Is there a test to tell how old he is?

Birds don't give us many useful clues for determining age. They're not trees, with rings we can count. They do have a pipping tooth, which they use to crack the egg, but that drops off a few days after hatching and is a far cry from the two sets of teeth, with fixed eruptions, that mammals have. One has to rely on other methods to guess the age of a bird. One is the first molt, which occurs at around nine months. In some species juvenile feathers are replaced by a different adult pattern. Male gray cockatiels, for instance, lose the yellow barring on the underside of the tail and wings and develop a yellow mask on the face. Parakeets lose barring on the sides of the head and the flecking on the throat becomes darker. Macaws, unfortunately, including your greenwing, look the same, so you can't go by feathers. Beyond nine months, you can estimate age by the color and texture of the skin and scales on the legs and feet, but this, too, is not precise. Younger birds tend to have soft soles and lighter-colored legs. As they age, scales become coarser and the skin darkens. However, even these characteristics will vary from bird to bird due to differences in genetics and diet. Wouldn't it be convenient if all parrots were taught to recite their hatching date? Kidding aside, there is one excellent method of determining a bird's age, but it seems to have fallen out of favor with breeders. The closed leg band, placed on chicks when they are a few weeks old, includes the hatching year along with breeder identification.

Dr. James Harris James Harris, DVM is owner and medical director of the Mayfair Veterinary Clinic in Sandy Bay, Tasmania, Australia. He founded Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, Calif., and has served as medical director and chairman of the board for the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Berkeley. Dr. Harris' numerous professional honors include California and National Bustad Companion Animal DVM Awards. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

Return to current Ask a Vet column


  Bird clubs.
  Bird rescue groups.
  Find an avian vet.
  Parrot FAQ

California Bird Nerds Lafeber California Bird Nerds