Birds are masters of disguise. They can hide so quietly in a tree that even a keen observer can look past them. They can remain so quiet in a nest that their presence goes unnoticed. And they can mask illness so well that their owner fails to realize that something is wrong until it is too late. By then the body has begun to show signs of deterioration: dehydration, weight loss, and ruffled feathers, the latter intended to conserve heat. The process from illness to death is quick because of the rapid metabolism that birds possess. Only a keen owner, who has established a deep understanding of his or her charges, will know at the onset of illness that something is wrong. This will allow him or her to act quickly to prevent mortality.
In late 1989 Dr. Peter McKinney was the veterinarian at Loro Parque. I was the curator at the time. One day we happened to be walking in front of a flight cage containing a pair of Patagonian Conures Cyanoliseus patagonus. I stopped a few feet past their cage and asked Peter to take the birds to the clinic for an exam. He questioned that decision because I had not even looked at the birds. Peter did not realize that in the few months I had been in the park I had already established a rapport with the birds. I had come to know most very intimately.
I had been walking past that cage for months. Each time I walked by the birds would call. They had a dislike for me because I examined their nest regularly. That day they did not call. They were quiet. That was a sign that something was wrong and this was confirmed later that day in a clinical examination. The birds had a bacterial infection. They were duly treated and recovered.
The bird owner´s responsibility is to examine his or her birds daily, preferably twice daily. Their task is to understand the birds’ behavior, to log into the memory bank of their call, and to look at their appearance. An adult bird perching with both feet and the head tucked between the wings will need a closer inspection. Normally they rest on one foot, but the illness can cause them to lose condition and require them to perch with both feet.
In my collection, I walk around early in the morning. I usually have some treats with me. I expected the macaws to open their wings in a threat display, for the African Greys Psittacus erithacus to slightly ruffle the mantle and wing feathers and bow, for the conures to call loudly, for the Eclectus to fly from the rear perch to the front, stand and call loudly, and for the amazons, gluttons for food, to fly to the front of the cage and perch in such a manner that they can see into the bowl that I have. Any bird whose behavior is not as expected is given a treat. I quickly know if there is a problem developing.
If I come home from work early I walk around again. This time I glance at the birds and food bowls. We feed our birds a measured amount. By looking at the bowls I know if the birds have fed. If not, that is cause for concern. (With this comment I know I will get dozens of messages asking for the “measured” amount. This quantity of food depends on many factors, including age, condition, and weather. It can vary from collection to collection and even from pair to pair. It is something that must be developed by every aviculturist for his or her birds.)
Parrots are most active early morning and in the afternoon. This coincides with foraging times in the wild. In the heat of the day, they tend to rest. Morning and afternoon are thus the best times for a saunter.
The first sign that something is wrong is a change in behavior. The bird may be distant or may turn around to give you its back. This behavior evolved to hide that something is wrong from flock members, as a sick bird is a signal for a predator to look at the flock in detail. The risk of predation in the wild is greatest when a bird is injured or unwell.
The likelihood of that particular individual falling prey is great—but the attention to the flock may also result in a distracted flock member being taken for food.
An ill bird will lose its condition very quickly. It will tend not to feed and thus weight loss can be dramatic in a period of a few days. I believe that a sick bird detected early has a 90% chance of recovery, but by day three or four that chance is down to about 40%. Detecting an ill bird and giving it medical attention very early is thus key to it not dying. Remember also that medication will not work instantly. In my experience, it is three days after treatment commences that one will see a change. This means that an emaciated bird will be unable to survive this phase of treatment.
Sick birds often vomit. This may be evident on the floor of the cage or as signs of sticky strings on the head; as the bird finishes vomiting it shakes its head, causing vomitus to fly in every direction and for some to land on the cheeks and head. A vomiting bird will dehydrate much faster than a bird that is not.
The mouth of a parrot is dry, but if it appears wet yeast or a bacterial infection should be suspected.
Ill birds can also feed ravenously but still lose condition. The crop may appear impacted and it may display signs of a juvenile begging behavior. This is not uncommon behavior in proventricular dilation disease/bornavirus. The food passes through the gut undigested or accumulates in the crop. The bird is starving because its body is not deriving nutrition and thus eats incessantly. In almost all cases the droppings will change color and consistency. Dark brown, red, or soupy green droppings are a cause for concern. The same applies to droppings that are excessively wet or which splatter. Offensive odors can also be a signal of something wrong. (Breeding hens can produce large odoriferous droppings but both of these characteristics are different from an ill bird.)
Some 40 years ago I saw some droppings on the floor of a cage that appeared to be soupy green. I was inexperienced and waited, believing that the droppings were from the birds have been given too much soft food. The next morning there were two dead birds, followed by another later that day. Dr. Nicole van der Hayden and her assistant Kitty Remington (now a veterinarian herself) were called and detected an outbreak of Chlamydia.
The outbreak was caused by a bird that in my zeal to pair it up had not gone through a proper quarantine at home—all new birds should be isolated for 45 days and during this time tested for diseases. The pairing had resulted in some bickering, which had cause stress, and as a result, the bird to shed Chlamydia. In an enclosed room this spread. The outbreak was controlled but not before five birds had died.
This is why in my collection we have a quarantine room and a sick room. Should a bird in quarantine look unwell it is moved into the clinic, where we can provide preliminary attention while a veterinary visit is arranged.
Aberrant dropping colors can be due to diet but they can also be due to disease. Never ignore a change in the droppings. As I walk around I look also at the floor; my cages are suspended. This allows me to see if something is wrong. This is also why when I see filthy cages with an accumulation of seed hulls, dried food, and droppings I become very angry. Not only is the lack of hygiene courting problems but the fact that fresh droppings will go unnoticeable in the accumulation of debris tells me that a disease can become entrenched without the aviculturist realizing so.
Birds that are unwell may hide in the nest. I look at every bird inside the nest during my examination walk. My birds are accustomed to this routine. I knock on their nest and then open it. I want to eye the bird in the nest. Some inexperienced breeders will argue that examining the nest is disruptive. I would agree—but only if you never examined the nest. Like all routines, if looking inside the nest is part of the daily chore the birds will accept this just like they accept receiving food and water from their owner or caretaker.
Having a bird hide inside the nest outside the breeding season, especially if the bird is not the type that will hide when someone is around, is cause for concern. It may be hiding because it is unwell or because its mate is harassing it.
The same applies to a bird that is arboreal, which spends all of the time perching high, sitting on the cage floor.
Terrestrial feeding is not uncommon in Australian parrots and cockatoos but it is not normal behavior midday when the bird should be resting. Any aberrant behavior needs a closer look.
Disease prevention is easier than disease control. Rusty wire cages, rusty rebar used as perches (something that I detest to the core—if you cannot provide proper perches for your birds do not keep them!), filthy enclosures, the presence of rodent feces, urine marks and smell, dark and humid conditions, stressors, not quarantining new arrivals, feeding a poor diet (often just sunflower seeds and maybe some apple) and giving water of suspect quality (RO or reverse osmosis water is NO guarantee that it will be clean) are all courting illness. It is not if an outbreak will occur but when.
When the aviculturist provides proper conditions and is attentive to his birds, illness, and mortality is very minimal and often far less than it would be in nature. However, when care is deficient, losses can be significant and can give perpetual headaches.
Being an aviculturist requires that you examine the birds daily and that you become intimately knowledgeable about their voice and behavior. Only then can you truly be a successful keeper.
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