Healthy Watering for Birds


Every day I receive messages about birds being sick. Everyone of these persons is asked about water quality. By water quality I am not asking if the water is clear. I am asking about the process through which it passes before it is given to the birds. In most cities, the municipal water system insures that the bacterial count in the water is kept at the lowest possible level to insure that humans do not sicken. Ozone, chlorination, chloramines or other means are used to treat the water. But what if the water quality in the country is poor, or if the birds are housed in an area where the water comes from a different source, such as a deep well? I have brought back water samples from many parts of the world and many would be shocked at what a laboratory has been able to culture—and in every case I brought the sample from a hotel, where ostensibly the water should be secure, even if the country´s water could be deemed suspect.

The water we give our birds must be clean, but the solution to reducing illness does not end here. The way the food and water dishes are disinfected and treated are also important. I have visited collections where the water dishes are washed in soapy water containing a disinfectant. The breeder felt that he was doing the proper thing—but was he? When I insisted that the water be tested at the end of the wash cycle, it was found that the dishes were being washed in bacterial soup. This is because organic matter can and will destroy the disinfecting properties of most chemicals. As more and more bowls were washed, the bacterial content grew and the disinfectant properties in the water reduced to zero.

To properly clean food and water dishes, these should be soaked in water containing soap, washed well, rinsed and then placed in a disinfectant before being rinsed. This is the only assured way that the dishes will be disinfected. In my collection, we take it one step further and place the dishes on racks in sunlight to dry. Sunlight is incredible at killing pathogenic agents. We can do this because in southern Florida sunshine is available for much of the year.

Another problem I have seen is how the bowls are treated before they are placed in the cage. I visited one collection where Klebsiella was claiming several birds monthly. After only visiting the facility for 15 minutes I realized the problem. The washing and disinfection process was optimum, but then the bowls were thrown on the ground in front of the aviaries for replacement during feeding and watering. The bowls were being contaminated and as a result so were the birds. Keep the clean bowls on a cart and avoid letting them come in contact with soil, plants, dirty bowls, reptiles, mammals and other means of contamination.

The water quality used for washing fruits, vegetables and greens is also important.  Unless this water is clean, then one could literally contaminate the birds continuously. Drying the uncut fruits and vegetables can deter pathogens being passed along, but it does not offer absolute guarantee and can be difficult with certain foods, such as with greens; once cut, the moisture in fruits and vegetables can spread the contamination present in the water if the vegetables or fruits are not fully dry. This is an area that the hobbyist needs to conscientiously examine. I always recommend that the same water used for the birds be employed in food preparation.

In my facility, we rely on a deep well for our water.  When we first move to this location from the city, where we had access to municipal water that was treated with both chlorine and chloramine, we had birds sicken without cause. The subject was immediately the focus of my obsession. As a result, we repeatedly tested the water. The result was that the water was found to contain low levels of bacteria, especially after heavy rains, and that these pathogens were the cause of the morbidity.

Because of this risk, an elaborate system was installed in a room that is kept locked. There the water passes through a microfiltration membrane that excludes pathogens down to 0.1 microns in size. The pathogens excluded by the membrane include Campylobacter, Salmonella and Escherichia coli, as well as protozoans like Cryptosporidium and Giardia. Once the water has left the microfiltration process, it undergoes RO (reverse osmosis) filtration, which is capable of removing particles down to 0.0001 microns in size and finally ultraviolet (UV) radiation before entering a storage tank, where it is chlorinated. The storage tank is opaque plastic but is kept in a dark room to deter algae growth.

The water specialist that I first hired to examine the best means of disinfecting the water said that an RO system would be ample. It was not. Water can squeeze through the slightest gaps and then contaminated the storage tank. RO was thus not fully safe—an important point to cerebrate because so many people tell me when I question their water that they have an “RO” system. The UV system is efficient but the key is a slow transit time. When we flush the automatic water system, the UV system operates at full speed and then its efficacy is inferior. This is why chlorination was employed. The chlorine is tested daily. Testing the water at the drinking source arrived at the exact chlorine level required, as the longer the transit time the greater the dilution. It is presently kept at 4.5 PPM (parts per million) as this was found to be optimum and provides the 2.5-3 PPM what we desire at the drinking nipples.

In the previous paragraph, I alluded to drinking nipples. All of our birds are on an automatic watering system. This allows precious time to be saved in manually giving water to every cage and then changing it after the birds have fouled it by dunking pellets or other food, or depending on where the water bowl is placed by direct defecation from the aviary occupants or even from wild birds.  Water bottles can prevent contamination but require very thorough cleaning to insure that they do not grow a bacterial film inside. They create as much work as the water dishes.

The automatic watering system is flushed continuously and pipes are often unscrewed so that we can look inside. I do this to prevent the risk of a biofilm from appearing.

Biofilm is a mucous produced by bacteria to shield themselves from cleaners. (This is the same stuff that can plug your central air conditioning water drain.) Cleaners do not readily penetrate the biofilm. The bacteria proliferate and become crowded, so they release themselves into the water to find a firm foothold. I have had one breeder who was unaware of this risk culture a plethora of pathogens that ranged from Bortedella to Escherichia coli, which were slowly decimating his flock of lovebirds. The piping must be flushed, disinfected and the nipples must be cleaned to deter this biofilm from growing.

In the case of the lovebird breeder, there was a heavy bacterial growth that the laboratory calculated at greater than 8 million colony-forming bacteria units per milliliter of water.  Chlorination and allowing the chlorine to sit in the pipes reduced this level to less than 10 colony forming bacteria units but only after 4 hours. He had an RO system that had been quite costly but yet the problem continued. He learned that periodic flushing was part of the monthly protocol.

If you add vitamins to the drinking water, then the problem exacerbates, as the vitamins (with or without electrolytes) provides a rich broth for pathogens. Another commercial breeder who insisted on providing vitamins to his water, the culture revealed over 35 million colony forming units per milliliter! This is why vitamins should never be added to the water; they will merely enrich a bacterial broth. Vitamins are not necessary if the birds are on a good balanced diet or on pellets but if employed they should be sprinkled over softfood, which will be consumed rather quickly.

Another breeder, who needed to cool his birds off during the intense summer heat, employed fog misters, which would turned on during the hottest part of each day. He installed these after a visit, where I noticed that the birds were highly stressed; they hovered on the floor of their walk in aviaries panting to try and reduce their core temperature. The misters allowed the birds to bathe and cool off. Sadly my insistence created another problem. The water used for the birds passed through the necessary process to insure it was clean but the water in the misters was not. The birds would drink from the misters or would preen their wet feathers. They were becoming sick. When I paid a return visit, I saw the misters were connected to a garden hose and spigot. Like a brick hitting my face I saw the problem. When disinfected water was employed, the problem of illness was immediately eradicated.

Paying attention to water and how it is used is key to maintaining flock health. Without this, the breeder will continuously have to address illness in the flock.