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Injuries, damage to plumage and diseases

Broken bones and torn ligaments

a) Wings
If your foundling has a broken or dislocated wing, the outlook is usually not good for him. Swifts are high performance fliers, for whom an intact flying system is essential for life. Over their lifetime, which can be more than 20 years, they can fly about 200,000 km annually. Always remember that there is a compromise for the swift: he must fly perfectly - or he will fall terribly to ground. Nevertheless one should not despair when a wing is injured: there are also favourable cases, which can be cured. An ornithologically specialised vet can take an x-ray and judge the case.


Wing tip ripped off by cat.© C. Haupt
Cruel and inappropriate “fixation” of an open middle wing fracture.© C. Haupt
Beneath the“fixation”: a highly infected, several days old splinter fracture.© C. Haupt

b) Shoulder girdle

The most important bones of a bird's shoulder are the forked "filigree" Furcula and the strong Coracoid (Os coracoideum) bone which permits flight. If a swift crashes into an obstacle at high speed, these bones can be broken and torn ligaments can occur - and there is then no hope. Externally there is not much that can be seen, except that the swift cannot fly, or can only fly quite short distances. And that, when he is laid on his back (the so-called "turn test"), he cannot turn himself over - which with an uninjured shoulder he would immediately do! Exactly because this kind of injury is not very obvious, unlike a broken wing, is it hard to believe that there is no remedy. A vet can ascertain if it is a shoulder injury with an x-ray.

Fracture or dislocation of the shoulder girdle: asymmetric wing posture.© I. Polaschek

c) Leg

Broken legs are rare for young birds falling from their nests, unless it is because the bird has become tangled in a thread and tries to free itself in vain. Unfortunately it keeps happening that such a bird then hangs helplessly on the roof under its nesting hole, and without vigilant neighbours and a committed fire brigade, is condemned to an incredibly cruel death over several days. If by good luck it is rescued, it often involves an extremely swollen and twisted, or even dead, foot and veterinary help is necessary. A broken leg knits together and heals if it is bound to the body with a small bandage, usually without complications, and a slightly crooked leg does not limit the bird. For complex fractures to a leg, a foot, which only hang by sinews and skin, or if the limb has died off, the vet should perform an amputation under full anaesthesia. It has been proven that swifts with only one leg can live on, and indeed breed.


Double sided leg fracture with supporting bandage.© P. Hartmann

d) Beak

A broken beak seldom occurs from an accident, but instead is nearly always due to careless or clumsy feeding: frequently the fingernail touches the point of the beak and the lower beak is violently bent down, which nearly always breaks the fine bone. This fracture is unnecessary and avoidable and can lead to serious deformities! Sometimes, due to the continuous movement of feeding, the fracture does not heal, and the ends of the bone dry out, infection spreads under the damaged horny sheath of the beak to the bones – and the swift is finished. But even when the break somehow knits together, the upper and lower beak no longer close together exactly one on top of the other, and uncontrolled growth of the horny layer can be the result. In the worst case, loss of parts of the horny sheath may occur, or even the end of the beak may break off – a death sentence! Treating a swift with a broken beak requires expert knowledge and extreme care and attention while feeding. Treatment by a vet as soon as possible is recommended.


Open beak fracture © P. Hartmann



Swifts often suffer from bruises, especially of the shoulder, and appear clinically as similar to a broken bone or torn ligament in the shoulder. If the “turn over test” is done, the affected swift cannot turn himself over from being on his back. Nevertheless the shoulder looks symmetric. If the swift does not stretch its wing, does not use it or holds it pressed against the body, an x-ray is definitely necessary. A bruise, although very painful, can be cured! Usually after a few days, the swift begins to move its wing carefully. Then a continuous improvement is observed, and after about 10 to 14 days one should begin with physiotherapy (training on the ground or in the garden). Experience indicates that after three to six weeks the bird’s flying capacity is completely restored.

Wounds, bites

Take an injured swift immediately to an avian vet. He can decide if the animal has to be put down of if it can be treated, he will clean the wound, and if necessary feed it and provide an necessary antibiotics. Often an injection of strengthening medication is necessary, especially when the swift has lost a lot of blood.

Greasy ointments, adhesive bandages and similar are to be avoided absolutely because the plumage must not be damaged!

If the bird’s wound is due to a cat, the bird must be treated with an antibiotic as quickly as possible. Every hour counts! The claws cause very fine injuries, highly susceptible to infections, while untreated cat bites can be deadly in a very short time. The saliva of cats contains Pasteurella, bacterial pathogens, which are transferred to the bloodstream of the bird and lead after a day or two to death by septicemia (blood poisoning), because birds are very sensitive to these germs.

Surface graze wound due to a cat. © C. Haupt

Eye injuries

Eye injuries generally have a pessimistic prognosis for swifts. Do not wait, go straight to the vet! Unfortunately under pronounced swelling, bloody scabs, etc there is usually a destroyed eye, e.g. a damaged lens or similar. A swift cannot live with only one eye, because he lacks spatial vision and can no longer catch food. In addition, eye injuries are extremely painful! The advice of a vet on whether to free the animal from its torment must then be provided and followed!


Swift with lens luxation © C. Haupt


Bleeds from the nose or beak often occur after crash landings. Remove clotted blood carefully from the throat with a cotton swab, otherwise the bird can suffocate!   Further veterinary emergency care is needed. Bleeds from the ear are indicative of a skull fracture, leaving euthanasia as the only alternative.
Profuse bleeding, which can reach frightening proportions, may occur for example due to a broken or torn out claw, or if a young swift loses a blood feather (blood quill), that is, one still attached to the blood vessel. To stop a claw bleeding, one can press it into a piece of soap, but for a blood feather, there is no household cure. It is possible to try to hold a sterile compress on the injury with delicate pressure, until it finally stops bleeding. After this the stump of the quill must dry out thoroughly, which generally takes 8-10 days, and then is cautiously removed, to permit the growth of another feather. Swifts whose feathers are still growing must be handled with extreme care in order not to damage their blood quills!

Primary plumage damage

Damage to plumage due to incorrect feeding has been discussed thoroughly in the section "Malnutrition". Here we consider swifts with plumage damage due to other reasons: bent, broken or (for unknown reasons) missing primary feathers.
This type of damage is usually asymmetric and confined to one wing (as opposed to genetic defects, or problems due to incorrect feeding, which are usually symmetric).


Young swift with plumage damage due to incorrect feeding © C. Haupt
Adult swift with mechanically caused damage to the primary feathers: grounds for feather transplant / imping © C. Haupt

If you have a swift with primary plumage damage, you should contact the DGfM and bring the swift to the clinic in Frankfurt / Main, because this is the best chance to restore the power of flight to the bird.

If this is not possible, then the grave decision of what to do with the unfortunate bird must be reached by a vet. Certainly the damaged primary feathers can be removed under general anaesthetic. In any case, since the quills of the feathers are particularly strongly anchored – down to the bone! – then the danger is still great, even for specialist removal of the roots, that serious injury can be done. Often no new feathers grow, or only a deformed one, because the feather organs are injured or destroyed. Even in the best cases, it takes seven to eight weeks before the new primary feathers are grown.

Re-growth of feathers is usually accompanied by many complications. “Feather growers” are often agitated and continually ruin the newly growing feathers. Also the long imprisonment, which is necessary to grow the feathers, is a considerable psychological and physical burden for a swift. Its flying muscles weaken, its immune system weakens and it becomes susceptible to infection. And even with appropriate feeding and mineral supplements, problems with growth of the new feathers can occur. Therefore experience teaches that it is not advisable to remove damaged secondary and tail feathers!


Imping: before and after © C. Haupt

The falconry method of Imping, i.e. implanting an undamaged feather in the shaft of a damaged one, can be a remedy in such cases, but it is by no means a routine operation. The advantages are clear: a few days after the operation, the swift with its implant can be freed. This is of enormous value especially for a breeding adult which has young in the nest, because most probably not only he but also his brood would be lost.
Imping for a swift requires much experience and appropriate feather materials. At the Swift Clinic, the lives of dozens of swifts are saved every year by this operation.



Nothing is known about infectious diseases of wild swifts. Diseases observed so far of swifts in captivity are almost exclusively due to inadequate hygiene, poor living conditions or inappropriate feeding on the part of the finder/carer of the affected bird, and are manifested as inflammation of the throat, upsets of the stomach and intestine with serious digestive problems, and respiratory path infections as well as liver, kidney, skeletal and secondary plumage damage. Contact with domestic or wild birds of other species has led in a few cases to transmission of infectious diseases to swifts (e.g. ornithosis). Use of inappropriate medicines (e.g. anti parasitic sprays) has led in several cases to severe intoxications,not infrequently with fatal results.


If the foundling shows unspecific symptoms, e.g. apathy, breathing difficulty, lameness, ruffled feathers, hunched back, obviously white, yellowish or bluish mucous membranes, smelly or sweetish smelling coating of the throat, swollen eyelids, dirty or smudged feathers under the tail, smelly faeces, then go to an avian specialised vet. A bacteriological and mycological examination can put things on the right road.

A series of often very stubborn bacterial and fungal infections can be caused by a lack of hygiene during feeding or preparation of food. A series of often very stubborn bacterial and fungal infections can be caused by a lack of hygiene during feeding or preparation of food. The outbreak of such an infection is facilitated by incorrect feeding, inadequate accommodation and a weakened immune system. In most cases the throat and breathing passages are affected. Clearly visible changes occur in the throat (whitish or brownish spots, deposits and crusts, slimy threads, sweetish or nauseous smell, etc.), to slurping noise while breathing, or even breathing difficulties. The throat of swifts which have not been in captivity is generally sterile. “Handled” swifts usually show a broad spectrum of germs, various bacteria and funghi (Candida). While the last is relatively easy to deal with, bacterial causes of illness require a more difficult treatment and in a few cases have been found to be drug resistant, leading to the death of the sick swift! A bacteriological and mycological examination of the saliva and any spots in the throat, as well as an Antibiogramm are necessary for successful treatment of a throat infection, because even in wild bird, increasing resistance to antibiotics has been observed.


Swifts are particularly susceptible to mould fungi (Aspergillus). The spores are present everywhere and are found in the cleanest carpet or curtain. They are not transmitted from bird to bird, but the spores are inhaled from the environment and germinate in the warm, damp respiratory system of the bird. In particular swifts with a weakened immune system, or those that have been treated with antibiotics are easy victims of Aspergillosis. When the fungus spreads in the air passages of the bird, it can kill it in a few hours: it suffocates cruelly while fully conscious. For this reason, for particularly weak swifts a prophylactic treatment with an antifungal medicine is recommended. And an antibiotic should never be given without an antifungal!

The first warning signs of Aspergillosis: breathing through the beak, weariness, noise while breathing. At this stage, immediate treatment can still be successful. If the disease worsens to squeaky noises, which can appear without any warning signs, and the swift struggles to breathe, it should be put down immediately, to avoid a cruel and painful death.


Fungal infections cannot be treated lightly. Their most spectacular public appearance was in the 20th century in the form of the “Curse of the Pharaohs”, as a 3000 year old and particularly aggressive Aspergillus niger led to the death of many famous Egyptologists!

Also incorrect feeding can make a swift sick – gravely ill! More of this under "Malnutrition".


Infestations of parasites should not be considered diseases, but under certain circumstances they can contribute to making a swift sick. Basically, it is not in the interest of a parasite to damage or even kill its host, as its death means the parasite’s own death. However for a very weak, undernourished swift with a reduced immune system, parasitic infestation can become a problem.

Like most animals, swifts have ecto- and endo-parasites. Harmless Mallophaga lice, belong to the ectoparasites, and they live mostly from worn feather material. They are easy to see (and collect!) when they drink the tear liquid from the swift’s eyes.
More unpleasant is the blood-sucking Swift lousefly (Crataerina pallida), which looks similar in size and appearance to a housefly, but with less developed wings and with many barbs on the feet. It cannot fly, but it can move forwards unbelievably fast, easily jumps onto humans, and because of its hard shell it practically cannot be squashed with fingers. Panicky insect haters should start with a hammer! (Obviously not while the insect is still on the swift...)

Swift louse fly (Quelle: Lack, 1956)
Swift with mallophagus louse in its eye © P. Hartmann

For humans, ectoparasites are not harmful, at most annoying, and often they escape as soon as they are discovered. The best thing is to collect the flies and lice of your patient with the fingers, and destroy them. Whoever is disgusted by this can put a small pinch of suitable insect powder on the bird’s neck (e.g. "Bolfo"-powder). No sprays! The stuff must not get in the eyes or beak of the swift.

Occasionally one finds on swifts red bird mites, however not as real swift parasites, but as undesired “gate crashers” from old sparrow nests, in which it sometimes raises its young. Tiny little red dots that move about on your patient should alarm you. The red bird mite is an opportunistic blood sucker, which attacks its victim above all at night, and if it finds no birds, then it tries humans. It is best to squash these swarming pests and get the vet to put a drop of the anti-parasitic “Ivomec-S” on the neck of the bird. That is enough.

Another mite, newly found on swifts and possibly also a “gate crasher” from old birds’ nests, is a sucking mite of about 1 mm, which parasitizes the swift in the nasal cavities, and can occur in amazing quantities. The sign of this is a watery cold, which is not cured by any treatment with nose drops. If one looks carefully, it is sometimes possible to recognise the nose mite as small red-brown spots in the nostrils of the swift. They have already been found on alpine swifts, the larger relative of the swift! A vet can carefully remove the more accessible mites from the nose of the bird. Further aid is provided by a drop of “Ivomec-S” on the skin of the neck.

It is probable that most swifts are also affected by endo-parasites. In the past, tapeworms, roundworm (ascarids) and threadworms, have been found as parasites in the intestines of swifts, and under certain conditions can lead to the death of the bird (e.g. when a clump of worms block the intestine.) In the case of heavy infections, sometimes it is possible to recognize such worms in the feces of the bird. Swifts which do not eat well, do not put on weight and look bad are could possibly be affected by endoparasites and should be treated.

Naturally a vet can analyse the faeces for worms, such as tapeworms, roundworm (ascarids) and threadworms. Two different analyses are necessary, one by sedimentation and one by floatation. It is debatable if it is worth the trouble. Firstly, worm eggs are only produced sporadically so that it is possible to perform several exams without finding anything. Secondly, a recent study by the Domestic and Wild Birds Clinic of the Veterinary University of Hannover has shown that for dead swifts of a wide range of ages, only tape worms of a previously unknown type were present.


Thus a general, prophylactic de-worming of swift patents a sensible thing to do. It is essential to use the appropriate avian medicine, because most common anti-parasitic products used for small animal treatment are

not suitable for birds!!!


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We accept only swifts! Questions regarding other bird species will not be answered!
Information regarding other bird species: http://www.wildvogelhilfe.org/
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