The Frustrations of Losing Birds

I was fortunate to study zoology at grammar school which interested me, unlike most other subjects about which I could not see their use and consequently I failed most of them. Algebra is still a complete mystery!

Zoology was however to prove a very useful source of knowledge in understanding the basics of animal and human anatomy. I could see that having started breeding budgerigars at the age of 12, that this subject could prove useful but I did not realise, and still do not, how difficult the external diagnosis of disease in our birds was going to be.

Avian Veterinary Surgeons

Avian veterinary surgeonAs I grew older, I naturally lost birds from time to time and I quickly found out that the veterinary profession was sadly lacking in advice and help when I needed it. Subsequently, I was advised that the veterinary colleges only spend about a week on all birds in a five to six year course. Perhaps I am being cynical, but I think many students must have taken leave during that week because so many vets that I have tried over the years, struggle to help you. One actually said, “You obviously know more than I do so what drugs do you want?” Hardly comforting, so I quickly dropped him.

Today, I know that there are specialist avian vets upon whom to get some help but usually they are at a distance and getting a bird to them is near impossible to be of use. Unfortunately such credible vets are rare and you need a vet who has the vital laboratory equipment backing him / her. I worked in laboratories for BP for many years so I fully understand what is required and there is a great deal of expense involved in acquiring essential back up equipment. This will reflect in charges that are levied in addition to the avian expert’s knowledge. When I left BP to start BW Magazine in 1982, my charge out rate for work carried out for other companies was, even then, £170 per hour. What it is today I can only guess at, but the moral is that you only get what you pay for.

All of us need to understand that following the death of a bird(s), a carcase starts to degrade and deteriorate rapidly. I will give you an example later. So sending a bird via the postal services however speedy is useless and I quote David Jones (former Chief Veterinary Officer at London Zoo and later Director of London and Whipsnade Zoos):

“It is far better to get two ailing birds that can be euthanized and the body tissues examined immediately if you want accuracy and correct diagnosis to be the order of the day”.

Many UK and European fanciers will remember the late Mick Mapston who was not only one of our finest judges, but who also possessed a great sense of humour. Years ago the UK Budgerigar Society used a veterinary service for its members (no longer) and pretty well every diagnostic report that the member would receive about his dead bird contained the assertion that “Cranial Haemorrhage” was a cause.

Mick said:

“I know the answer to that. When you take the bird to the post office addressed to your vet, it’s the woman behind the counter who bangs the package with the post office stamp!”

Mick’s humour is sadly missed.

Primary Cause Of Death

I referred earlier to the immediate changes that start to occur in a carcase after death. The proof of this, to give one example, was that in 1970 I was approached by a lady fancier of note to help her solve a major problem with her stock. Unfortunately these sick birds exhibited the same symptoms as 15 other diseases we know about. Fortunately they also were noticed to be creating “dust” in their seed bowls and were constantly eating by grinding up the grain into tiny particles to get a few grains down into their crops. Fungal treatment was not effective, so what was the primary cause?

Various vets had been tried before I was approached, but all failed without an accurate diagnosis. I decided to write a full report to my vet which ran into six pages. That was sent up to London Zoo Veterinary Dept. and then I was asked to obtain several live birds that were suffering and take them up to David Jones himself. He passed these birds to a young and very able qualified vet called Gordon Henderson. Henderson euthanized the birds and quickly established that the problem was caused by two different protozoa called giardia and trichomonas.

Where the former vets had gone wrong was not realising that these protozoa either disappeared or died within 10 minutes of the death of the birds. Also the gut contained fungi which lined the oesophagus and was destroying the linings of the gizzards which were confirmed as ulcerated.

In due course Henderson found that the real primary cause was ingested trichomonads probably from wild birds and especially pigeons via open flights. Note: Avian Flu could be contracted easily without covered flights. These “bugs” then swim in the gut and change the PH (acid/alkali levels) with the result that the fungi were getting a firm hold and reducing the diameter of the oesophagus and other internal damage. Now you know why posted carcases can be a wasted exercise.

Place New Birds in Quarantine

Some time ago, a very nice and dedicated fancier (Mr A), who had developed a high quality stud of light greens and grey greens, started to lose all his hens and eventually all died and he was devastated. The damage was done before I heard about it.

His cocks still looked fit so these were passed to a friend (Mr B). Later Mr B called me saying he was very worried as his birds were now suffering and informed me that Mr A had bought in a bird(s) from a fancier in Yorkshire but had not quarantined them after purchase as they “looked” perfectly fit. The trouble started soon after.

I advised Mr B to now do the sensible thing and take two birds to a known avian specialist vet. However he was not keen to do so saying, “But he will charge £300 to check everything.” I felt that was folly and I have heard nothing since.

The fact is that we all have to understand that any new purchase from an aviary that exhibits poor management with uncovered outside flights, can be supplying birds that are, even unknowingly, “carriers” of disease.

It has to be in all our interests to confine new introductions well away from the main bird room under quarantine conditions for 30 days and run them through a course of antibiotic, an antiprotozoal drug and a de-wormer, in that period. Immediately following, put them through a course of a multi-vitamin solution (such as abidec) to restore their metabolism back to normal.

None of this is difficult to do but how many of us actually do it? Not many is the answer, but the penalties are a disaster if you do not.

Real Solutions

I have to confess that even with the quality aviary and facilities that I have here, I still find there is great difficulty in wondering why I lose the odd hen when she is breeding for no apparent reason and why with clean surroundings you get the odd sick bird appearing – often just ill but without any external symptoms so that you don’t know exactly which drug could be the answer.

So often in such circumstances the bird is lost even with great attention to its welfare with being kept warm with a heat source and treatment. Taking such a bird away from the heat source to a vet can accelerate matters as well, as so often a vet will not offer a drug without seeing the bird. That is understandable, but with vets being inexperienced with birds you are mostly on your own with the odd infected bird.

Only when there is a major infection across the stud are you forced, if you are sensible, to pay out for a real avian expert. Frustrating? You bet it is, because none of us likes to lose birds unnecessarily and of course “It’s always a good one that is the cause for worry”.

Have I any real solutions? Frankly, no. As one famous fancier said to me some years ago, “After 65 years in this hobby I feel I know nothing about budgerigars.” I couldn’t agree more!


Filed Under: BreedingHealth



About the Author: Gerald Binks began breeding budgerigars when he was 12 years old and is now arguably the most knowledgeable budgerigar fancier in the world. He has bred his fair share of Best in Show birds, judged in no less than 20 countries, founded the World Budgerigar Association, and has published two of the three classic books on the hobby. His stud in the UK attracts fanciers from near and far and is always high on the list for those wishing to purchase BA23 quality budgerigars.

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