Scaly Face in Budgerigars

When Gina kindly provided me with some excellent photos of birds affected by scaly face I was prompted to do a little more research into the condition. It is a problem that crops up in most aviaries at some time, so we have to be vigilant and catch it early.

I encountered it early in my budgie keeping days when I was given some unwanted birds by the man from whom I bought my (long gone) wooden framed aviary that succumbed to termites. Two had scaly face, one of then the worst case I have ever seen. She had it on her face, around her eyes and and her legs looked as if she was wearing ugg boots. It was before my involvement with clubs, so I relied on what I had read, and treated the bird with Dettol, as advised in one of the books I had borrowed from the library. Taking care around her eyes, I painted the Dettol on all affected areas with a fine artists' brush. The process took quite a long time but once she was cleaned up she was cleaned up she was a fine looking bird and had no recurrence.

This condition, although commonly called "scaly face", can affect the beak, cere, the area around the eyes, the legs and even the vent.

It is caused my a mite called Cnemidocoptes, Knemidocoptes or Knemidokoptes. (The initial "c" or "k" is silent and these are all valid spellings for the same little critter!)  In canaries the legs are the usual focus and the build up of scale causes a condition commonly known as tassel foot.

In budgies it is more likely to attack the face and will be seen at the corners of the mouth with whitish grey build up and as it progresses, the beak can take on a honeycombed appearance. As can be seen in the illustrations the beak can become malformed and and if it continues to grow may need to be trimmed. Toes can also become malformed if the condition is not treated, with swollen nail beds and misshapen nails. Such a bird may be left lame.

If the mites are not identified early, the damage can be irreversible, with the beak and cere disintegrating. A bird with a severely damaged beak may starve because it cannot feed itself. In severe cases a malformed beak may also make it difficult for the bird to breathe.           

Knemidocoptes is a burrowing mite that burrows into the top layer of the skin, feeding on keratin and forming little tunnels that can cause disfiguring changes of the beak, legs and feet of the birds. It has a three week life cycle and stays on the bird the whole time. As they burrow they leave characteristic honeycomb lesions. Transmission is from bird to bird by close contact.


<  Photos B. Rea  >

In some cases the parents transmit the mites to the young in the nest. These may or may not manifest themselves. Some birds seem to be genetically disposed to succumb while others, after an extended period with no symptoms, may show signs of infection at such time as the bird is exposed to stress, or its immune system is suppressed.


Identification can be confirmed by a skin scraping. Products available to treat it include Ivermectin and Cydectin (also known as Moxydectin). One drop on the back of the neck is sufficient to clean up the outbreak. These drugs can also be administered intramuscularly by a vet or orally, but care must be taken that the dosage has been calculated by a vet and that the medication used has been specifically prepared for avian use, (We have Cydectin available at R.B.C. thanks to Gary Armstrong.)

This medication is systemic and effective against parasites such as mites, lice and some (but not all) worms.

  A clinical study at the University of Istanbul treated infected budgerigars, all but one of whom had scaly face on the beak cere or eyes and some also had it on the feet and legs. All were given a single dose of Moxydectin (Cydectin) and then two thirds of the birds were given a second dose after ten days. All clinical signs had disappeared after 30 to 40 days, no side effects were seen and there was no difference in effectiveness in the birds that had a single dose and those that had a second treatment.

Knemidocoptes pilae is the mite seen in budgerigars and is smaller than the species Knemidocoptes mutans that commonly affects turkeys and fowl causing "scaly leg". Other species are seen in other types of birds. In some species of bird, itching and feather loss occurs, but it seems that usually budgerigars do not experience itching when infected. Mange in mammals, which is a comparable infection causes intense itching.


Knemidocoptes occurs mostly in older or sick animals that have a weaker immune system - it is "opportunistic" rather than "infectious". A bird may come into contact with the mite but not affected by it until many months later when its immune system is compromised in some way.

Both male and female budgerigars may be affected and the progress of the desease is often slow. The honeycomb lesions in the beak help to confirm the diagnosis. Early diagnosis and treatment will help to prevent spread and progression of the condition.

Many breeders have their own remedies, such as Vaseline, paraffin oil, Dettol or a Dettol/oil mix that they have used for years. These work by suffocating the mites. Care must be taken not to get the mix in the bird's eyes, or nostrils where it can be inhaled. Check leg rings if the bird has infected legs, as a build up of scale on the legs can cut off circulation to the foot. Treatments also need to be repeated regularly.

The advantage of Cydectin or Ivermectin treatments are that the bird has only to be caught and handled once, the drop is easily administered and the effect is long term. Some breeders like to treat their whole stud once or twice a year to make sure that the birds are parasite free. If birds are repeatedly infected it may be necessary to do a review of the birds' environment and diet to see why they are susceptible.

                                                                                                                                     Betty Rea 2010