I recently requested questions from readers, so that I could respond to these in an open forum. From these questions two that would be of greatest interest to the readership were selected. The questions and answers are below:
QUESTION: What is best for my birds. Fruits or vegetables? This is a question that I receive at least four times each week. The answer requires examining wild parrots for it to be understood.
Over the last four decades, I have studied parrots in their habitat across the globe. Some of these birds have been seen in the backyard and others in fairly remote areas. To see the unique Kakapo Strigops habroptilus I had to catch a helicopter to Little Barrier Island, where I would remain for many days, to walk with researchers to see the large flightless birds. The effort cost me several thousand dollars and several days of my life living in rather poor conditions. In the case of the Severe Macaw Ara severus the effort requires that I walk onto a balcony in an apartment that I own in North Miami Beach at a certain time of the year. The birds will then be seen feeding in a large tree only meters from the balcony. I can also see Brotogeris in summer when they come to feed on guava fruit in the farm where I keep my birds. These observations and many thousands of hours spend watching parrots feeding has taught me that in virtually all cases parrots in the wild eat fruit that is not ripe; they cannot wait for the fruit to ripen as they must then compete for the same resource with primates, other mammals, frugiverous birds and bats. The parrots have strong bills that can crack the hard casing that protects fruits, nuts, seeds and more in a green stage. Once ripe many of these items split open or the protective covering is easily breached and this is why a frugivore that has a small pointed beak waits for this stage in order to feed.
To prevent unripe fruits, seeds, pods and more from being predated, the plants produce toxic alkaloids to deter predation. The parrots nullify these substances by eating bark or clay or even bits of coal from burned ground. Taste any fruit that wild parrots are eating and your tongue and mouth will quickly pucker. Try this with the seeds of Chinaberry Melia azedarach, which is widely grown the world over, and you will quickly understand what I am saying.
The parrots that eat ripe fruit tend to visit backyards where they have no competition. Virtually all of these flocks are introduced. They are waiting for the fruit to ripen because they can.
Fruit sold for consumption by humans tends to be sweet. A juicy peach that has a high sugar content is far more appealing than one that is green, firmer and less sweet. The same can be written for grapes, apple, pear, bananas, nectarines, plums and more. The list here is endless. The appealing quality is the sweetness in the fruit, which have been bred to meet this demand. Taste a wild apple or a green banana or mango and see how unappealing they are.
So the fruit available in the modern grocery store is very different from its original ancestors or from what the parrots naturally feed on in the wild. Because of this, I feed very little fruit and when I do I provide the birds with tropical forms, which are far more nutritious. Papaya, guava, mango and many others that the parrots eat in the wild, including the fruits of Melicoccus bijugatus and Spondias mombim, are given to my birds.
I do not feed temperate fruit like apple or grapes when I have much better fruit available. I understand that some hobbyists have no other option. When feeding these, try to always provide heirloom varieties that are more tart.
My reason for not wanting to give very sweet fruit is that they are unnatural and that they can contribute to health issues. The emphasis should be on vegetables, which are far more nutritious. Peppers, sweet potato, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, carrot, corn, peas, pumpkin, gourds and a very long list of other vegetables should replace the main of the diet, with fruit being used as a supplement or treat. Greens can also be given.
When preparing the menu, examine the items being used to provide them in the best form possible or to exclude them because they are nutritionally poor. Hobbyists that contact me often tell me that they give their birds cucumber or celery. When I question them, all display a level of surprise. None had ever looked at the nutritional value of these. Giving a bowl of water provides the same level of nutrition as cucumber and celery. Select foods rich in vitamin A, calcium, etc. and then prepare them so that they are at their nutritional peak. Carrot, sweet potatoes and pumpkin should be steamed to break down the fibers that allow the beta-carotene to be accessible to the birds. Spinach can be great but should be given in moderation, as the oxalic acid can inhibit calcium adsorption. Weeds like dandelion and plantain are super valuable in terms of nutrition and can be fed whole. Some simple research can help you boost the nutritional diet of your birds very easily.
Vegetables, greens and fruits in that order should comprise about 20-30% of the diet for most parrots irrespective if they are fed seeds or pellets. Other foods, including cooked grains and pulses, can comprise another 10-20% of the diet. The key is variety and to be redundant to focus on vegetables. Enrichment which is edible can replace a significant percentage of the fruits or vegetables,
A balanced and nutritious diet is important for wellbeing. Please do not expect your birds to breed on paddy rice, yellow millet, some sunflower, apple and cucumber. Give them the variety that they need, be judicious in your selection and then witness the result.
QUESTION: My bird is ill, so I am giving it a tonic. Will it improve?
ANSWER: Many of you know that while I believe in homeopathic medicine, I also believe in the miracle or antibiotics. I also view with suspect many of the tonics available. I have had enough hobbyists contact me very depressed because their bird diet after being given a tonic for several days. When I have asked for the list of ingredients, many could simply not tell me. They were giving their bird something that they really had no clue what it was. In the few cases where they knew, the ingredients in one case included iron, in another lead and in a third case arsenic. Imagine giving a lorikeet, which is highly susceptible to hemochromatosis or iron storage disease, a tonic containing iron? Or a sick African Grey parrot arsenic in large amounts? Or a cockatoo a product containing lead? The owners were silently speeding the inevitable: death. I always recommend staying away from these products as they have in the great majority of cases never been tested in birds.
Sick birds need heat, fluids and in most cases antibiotics, which are selected based on sensitivity cultures or specific clinical signs. There is a long track record of their use in birds and there are specific dosages established through clinical trials. When a bird is ill always consult a veterinarian that understands cage birds. If none is available, then an experienced hobbyist may be able to help, but please understand that in virtually all cases the hobbyist does not have the medical training to make a proper diagnosis and prognosis.
QUESTION: What medication can I use to get my birds to breed?
ANSWERS: Aviary management should include proper hygiene, a varied and nutritious diet, a basic understanding of the specific requirements of the species being kept (ie, nest size and shape, aviary requirements and more) and patience. These can never be replaced with antibiotics. Indeed, if one has to manage a crisis continuously with antibiotics, then there are serious management flaws that are being overlooked. Provide the birds with the best conditions possible and they will breed without ever having to resort to antibiotics. If you do have to use these, then they should be selected based on a specific problem and after the drug of choice is identified through cultures or consultation with a veterinarian.
QUESTION: Where can I buy fertile parrot eggs?
ANSWERS: It is incredible that there would be a consumer naïve enough to consider buying parrot eggs in this modern day. Firstly, if the species is on CITES, then CITES documents are required to ship the eggs to another country. Secondly, why would anyone sell an egg for $50.00 when hatching it and raising the chick for six or eight weeks could generate ten, twenty or even a hundred times that amount? In other words, if a Hyacinth Macaw is worth between $10-20,000.00 depending on what part of the world you live in, why would someone sell a fertile egg for $50.00? Thirdly, eggs do not ship well and mortality is great. Fourthly, if you do not have experience incubating eggs and hand-rearing the young, then you are destined to fail. Parrot eggs just cannot be placed in an incubator and forgotten. Their incubation requires equipment (incubators, scales, etc) and at least a basic understanding of the incubation process. Fifthly, it is invariably a con artists that advertises that he or she is selling fertile parrot eggs, invariably using photos belonging to others as part of the process and interested only in taking your money. Their lack of understanding of aviculture leads these unscrupulous merchants to offer, for example, seasonal nesters like Asiatic parakeets and Amazons every month of the year. If you are going to consider sending someone money for eggs, do yourself a favor: donate the money to charity. You will do some good and will not feel cheated in the end. I state this because recently an aviculturist in Asia did not listen and was conned 1 Lakh for Hyacinth Macaw eggs that were never going to arrive. I warned him but he did not listen and then had the audacity to ask for help when he got no eggs, no refund and only a loud laugh from the authorities in the country where he wired his hard earned money to when he contacted them. The moral of the story is simple: if the deal sounds too good to be true, it is not true.
In a few months, I will select a few more questions and answer these.
QUESTION: What aviary structure and components are best?
ANSWER: The aviary design depends on the species being maintained and local conditions.
Parrots can be maintained in many parts of the world outdoors, where they benefit from the elements. With proper protection and a shelter they can be maintained outdoors even in many northern climates (such as parts of Europe) or in desert areas. The key for parrots to survive in low temperature is to provide access to a heated shelter, natural wooden perches that are large enough so that the birds can cover their toes with their breast feathers and prevent frostbite, insure the water does not freeze and provide continuous access to food, especially seeds and nuts whose fat content helps with thermic control.
In very warm weather, fine misters that cause a cooling effect and allow bathing and shade are important. In south Florida, where the climate is subtropical, we cover half the cage and have many trees all around to augment the shade. We also employ a misting system during very warm days.
Indoor bird rooms can work very well if hygiene is incorporated into the design and if broad-spectrum lighting that emulates the sun is employed. The lighting will have a short lifespan and will need frequent replacement. They are necessary for proper health and breeding. Adequate level of lighting is also important. A forest bird requires less intense lighting than a desert inhabitant but it will nonetheless need proper lighting. Ventilation is also important. Many parrots produce dander. When they molt, all species shed feathers, down and the waxi-like sheath that protects the incoming feathers. A filter should collect these. For many years I maintain my birds in an indoor bird room. My focus was then on adequate ventilation, proper filtration, sufficient lighting and hygiene t because a disease in an indoor environment can spread quickly.
When I had an indoor aviary, I used suspended cages. The droppings and waste would fall to the floor, which was finished concrete. This allowed quick cleaning. Smaller cages had trays that were lined with newspaper. Both allowed me to maintain the level of hygiene that I deemed was important.
Some parrots do best in suspended aviaries and others in the traditional walk in aviaries. In general terms, forest birds do exceptionally well in suspended cages, which allow feces and uneaten food to pass through, and terrestrial feeding parrots (mainly Australian parrots, parakeets and cockatoos) do very well in walk in aviaries. With the latter, hygiene is very important as the birds will wander the floor looking for food and then come in contact with feces and old, often spoiled food. Generally speaking birds housed in walk in aviaries will need to be prophylactically treated for internal parasites yearly.
Irrespective of how the birds are housed, I prefer a feeding hatch, which allows food and water (if the breeder does not have an automatic watering system) to be provided quickly. Entering the aviary can stress the birds, increases the risk of escape unless there is a double door or a passageway attached to the enclosure, and can result in a nasty bite from a hormonally active bird. I have seen more than one facial scar that resulted from an Amazon or macaw that was nesting and whose aviary was entered for servicing. Under such circumstances, always employ an open umbrella, which can be used to thwart an attack.
QUESTION: How can I detect a sick bird and what steps should I take before getting it to a veterinarian?
ANSWER: Birds are masters of disguise. An ill bird will mask its illness until its condition has deteriorated enough where it can no longer pretend to be healthy. At that point the signs become apparent. Why do birds do this? In the wild snakes, mammals and other birds often predate upon them. If they reveal that they are ill, they can become easy prey, or they can jeopardize the flock, or the flock may eschew them as they can attract the attention of a predator.
Ill birds invariably become inactive; they may be quiet and may suddenly change their behavior. An overly active bird will stay in a secure part of the aviary, usually the rear and perch quietly. As its condition worsens, it will rest on both feet; healthy birds often rest on one foot and hold the other foot clenched near the body. The feathers may become fluffed. Most ill birds stop feeding. They hold their breast feathers flared to disguise the weight loss. The droppings will also change during illness. They can become black, soup green, yellow or tar-like, or they can contain undigested seeds. To note the changes it is important to become familiar with a normal bird dropping, which consists of three parts: a fecal part (solids), urates (white) and urine (liquid). The color, amount of each and consistency can vary depending on the condition of the bird, diet and its breeding condition. A bird that has fed on beets will produce a normal textured but reddish colored dropping, and an incubating hen will produce a more copious and liquid dropping, as she spends time in the nest and cannot evacuate her bowels as frequently as when in the aviary. On an ill macaw, the facial skin will appear emaciated. On almost all birds the feet will appear dried out. If you pinch the skin where the toes join on an ill bird the skin will pyramid. This is indicative of dehydration. In a healthy bird the skin will immediately return to its normal position.
On first detecting an ill bird, it should be removed from its cage if it lives with a mate or flock and brought into a quiet and warm area. Single pets can be left in their cage, which should be partly covered to provide tranquility. Try to keep the ill bird feeding. Any food that the bird will eat should be offered, even if it is not the healthiest. I would not feed French fries to a healthy bird but would be willing to try these if the bird was ill. Warm oatmeal or whole grain rice or pasta, whole wheat bread with peanut butter, peas and anything else that will stimulate feeding can be tried. Replace the drinking water with an electrolyte based drink. This will help reduce dehydration.
The time from the detection of outward illness to death can be very short because of the fast metabolism that birds have; it can be a couple of days on a small bird to a week in a macaw. The probability of recovery depends on how quickly the bird is examined by a veterinarian. In other words, with each passing day, the probably of saving the bird decreases exponentially.
The veterinarian will examine the bird, in all probably will run a series of tests and perform cultures and sensitivities. These will indicate what drug is most effective against fighting the cause of illness. Some veterinarians based on experience and the appearance of clinical signs will prescribe medications pending test results.
Insuring that the bird receives nutrition and fluids is important. Understanding how to tube feed and what preparation to use is very important, as ill birds will need supportive therapy. In many cases this includes giving the severely dehydrated bird fluids under the skin. This is a procedure that must be explained by a veterinarian if deemed necessary.
Keeping the bird warm is also important before, during and after the veterinary visit. This will deter its condition from deteriorating rapidly. I would strive to keep the bird at around 33 deg C (91 deg F) while it is ill.
I understand that in many parts of the world there are no veterinarians that can see a bird. These aviculturists are often forced to experiment with locally available drugs. The problem with this is that the drug chosen may not be effective in killing the pathogen.
When there is clearly no avian veterinarian available, try to find a general veterinarian or laboratory that can perform cultures and sensitivities. This will increase the chances of success.
Caveats when treating at home are several, as follows:
- When treating with antibiotics, remember that orally is best. Placing an antibiotic in the water is never as effective as it relies on the bird drinking enough for it to be effective. Most antibiotics are bitter and deter drinking, which aggravates the level of dehydration. Also some antibiotics cannot be given orally and can only be injected. Irrespective of the means of administration, treatment should be for a minimum of 7 days, possibly longer, to insure that the pathogen is eliminated.
- Holistic medicine may work, but in a truly ill bird only antibiotics will be truly effective. As an example, earlier this year we treated a mild bacterial case with an antibiotic identified through culturing and sensitivities on one of my birds. I decided to add curcumin to the formula that the bird was tube fed because a friend had recommended it as a natural bactericidal. In fact, the curcumin introduced another pathogen, which proved difficult to destroy and required even longer antibiotic therapy. (That the curcumin was contaminated with salmonella was detected through culturing of the dried powder.)
- Tonics and many supplements that are used in some parts of the world have not been tested on birds. I have seen more damage from their use than most would suspect. These elements can contain high levels of arsenic, lead and iron, which can prove harmful to birds. Tradition may recommend their use, but be cognizant that they can aggravate the condition. As an example, last year an aviculturist in India contacted me about a bacterial problem in his lories. There was no veterinarian experienced with birds in his city, so I decided to help. He then started asking on the internet for advice and against all better judgment used a liver tonic. That tonic contained iron, which causes iron storage disease in lories. By not following the advice recommended and listening to all of the advice on the internet (much of its from people with good intentions but no experience) he ended up killing 13 birds from hemochromatosis. Then when the birds were dying he was frantically pleading for help again. It is difficult to provide help anew when the original assistance, based on experience and sound science, was ignored.
- Viruses cannot be treated. Some can be vaccinated against but antibiotics will not cure them, nor will tonics.
- Apple cider vinegar does not cure a disease. It works on some low grade fungal infections. An anti fungal is usually required when treating with antibiotics.
- Understand disinfection and how to best disinfect the cage that the ill bird was housed in or alternately the sick cage. The best means is always to remove organic matter with soap and water and then to apply the disinfectant, as many lose their strength in the presence of fomites.
Finally I must stress that prevention is always easier than treating an illness. A stress free environment, balanced diet and hygiene can never replace a therapeutic course in a flock.