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Bird Health: Enriched Environments Speed Healing and Affect Behavior

A study published this month (May, 2009) by the Massachusetts General Burn Hospital establishes for the first time that a stimulating captive environment can reverse the negative health effects of injury and isolation.  Although rats were the study subjects, the results are believed applicable to a wide range of animals, including birds.

Stress and Captivity

Stress has previously been shown to significantly delay wound healing in humans and many animals.  Students of ethology (animal behavior) have long advised that providing captive animals with opportunities to play, explore, build nests and otherwise remain stimulated improves overall health.  In fact, the American Zoo Association now requires member organizations to incorporate “behavioral enrichment” into the husbandry protocols of most species.

Environment and Health

In the current study, 92% of young rats raised in group situations exhibited normal to rapid healing abilities.  Only 12% of those raised in isolation (a stressful situation for young rats) healed well.  However, when rats raised in isolation were provided with stimulating environments (in this case, the opportunity to build new nests twice weekly), 64% healed normally.

Environmental stimulation was also shown to reduce hyperactive behavior and even to positively affect gene expression in the brain’s hypothalamus, which is important in regulating stress response.

Parrots and other Birds

The implications for parrot owners are clear – provide these intelligent, social birds with companionship (human or otherwise) and as stimulating an environment as is possible.  But don’t forget finches, doves and others not deemed as “intellectually gifted” as our Psittacine friends – my experience has shown that a host of animals, including frogs, lizards and fishes, utilize and benefit from behavioral stimulation.

Enriching Your Pet’s Life

For ideas on improving your bird environment and, it follows, health, please check out our extensive line of bird toys, playpens and cages.

Further Reading

For more on this important topic, please see my article Behavioral Enrichment for Parrots and Finches Use Parrot Toys Too!


Images referenced from Morguefile.

Iron Storage Disease and Citrus Fruit…is there a Connection?

Toco ToucanHemochromatosis, or iron storage disease, is a condition wherein iron absorption is not properly regulated; over time, too much of the mineral is stored in the liver and other organs. Most commonly seen in captive mynas, it also crops up in other fruit-eaters, including toucans, lorikeets and other parrots. During my tenure at the Bronx Zoo, several birds-of-paradise came down with the disease.Oranges and other citrus fruits are often identified as contributing to the disease’s onset. Prompted by a recent blog comment, I’d like to address the matter in this article.

The Citrus Connection
Citrus fruit is a potential concern because ascorbic acid renders the iron in plant foods more biologically available, and hence easier to store. In general, the iron in plants is not readily available to birds, but that in bananas, raisins and grapes is an exception to this rule…these too should be avoided where appropriate.

Research and Theories
Research on the issue has led to somewhat conflicting results. Birds maintained on low iron diets have come down with the disease, while over-supplementation of iron has led to liver lesions indicative of hemochromatosis in some but not all experiments.

One interesting school of thought proposes that populations of birds living on iron poor diets in the wild may develop unusually effective iron storage abilities, leaving them prone to the disease when fed typical captive diets. This might explain why mynas and others vary in their iron tolerances.

In humans, folic acid and choline deficiencies seem to pre-dispose one to iron storage disease…further research is needed here as well.

What to Do
Many generations of mynas, birds of paradise and other species have been bred without incident on diets containing moderate amounts of citrus fruits, so at this point the matter begs more research. Perhaps the iron levels in commercial softbill pellets should be investigated more closely.

Those who are unsure should consult their veterinarians…radiographs and blood tests can disclose liver problems, which may be indicative (but not diagnostic) of hemochromatosis, and can help to point one towards a healthful diet.

Dietary Variety for Frugivores
QuetzalFrugivorous birds do best when provided with a wide variety of tropical fruits and some vegetables – not an easy task in certain seasons and locations. Please check out our extensive line of freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, including mango, raspberries, papaya, sweet potatoes, peas and others, for some ideas.

Further Reading
For information on growing your own fruits, flowers and other bird foods, please see my article Gardening for Birds.


Pet Bird Health Notes: Regurgitation

A fair percentage of the avian health-related calls and emails I receive involve reports of regurgitating or vomiting in budgies, cockatoos and other parrots.  Today we’ll take a look at some common causes of these problems.

Regurgitation or Vomiting?

An important first step is differentiating between regurgitation and vomiting.  Vomiting, which is rather uncommon in birds, involves the expulsion of food from the upper digestive tract.  The material expelled is often partially digested.

In regurgitation, the bird brings up the contents of its crop, the storage sac positioned between the esophagus and stomach.  Regurgitation is a fairly common phenomenon, and may or may not be indicative of a health problem.  Regurgitated food will appear whole and undigested.

The Least Worrisome Scenarios

Male birds of many species regurgitate food to their mates during courtship…pet male budgerigars, especially those housed alone, are particularly prone to this behavior.  The object of their affections may be a toy or even a favored person.

Another fairly benign form of regurgitation is that which occurs in response to excitement, as when a bird overreacts to a new pet or to being left alone, or to fear.  If the stress is short term, the problem will resolve itself…long term stresses are, of course, a serious matter.

Blockages and Crop Stasis

Crop stasis, in which mobility declines and food remains too long in the crop, is the most frequently encountered cause of regurgitation.  It is very common in hand-fed baby parrots, and usually arises when they are given inappropriate diets.  Foreign bodies or grit lodged in the crop may also be involved.

In a condition known as pendulous crop, muscle tone is lost and crop stasis becomes a more or less constant condition.

Goiter and Iodine Deficiency

An iodine deficiency will cause the thyroid to enlarge (goiter).  This puts pressure on the esophagus and crop, and results in frequent regurgitation.  Birds so afflicted usually have difficulty breathing and may wheeze continually.

Be sure to choose an appropriate diet for your pet, and use an iodine supplement  if such is recommended by your veterinarian.

Other Health Concerns

Regurgitation may also be indicative of a wide range of other health problems, including Candidiasis, lead or zinc intoxication, antibiotic reaction or ailments of the pancreas, liver or kidneys.

Unfortunately, there is no simple way to diagnose these from the mere presence of regurgitation – a veterinary evaluation, which may include blood and fecal tests and radiographs, will be necessary.

Further Reading

Proper care is the best preventative medicine available…please check out our extensive collection of bird care books.

Please see my other health care articles posted on this blog, including The Diagnosis and Treatment of Ailments Afflicting Cage Birds.


Avian Health Concerns: Recognizing and Eliminating External Parasites, Ants and Moths; Part 2

Please see Part I of this article for information concerning lice and mites.


Although usually associated with mammals, fleas do afflict birds, and, in fact, they are quite common on poultry farms.  Thankfully, however, fleas are rarely encountered in private bird collections.

A close inspection of an afflicted bird will reveal fleas as tiny, dark, shiny dots.  Unfortunately, they are not choosy as their hosts, and so readily move onto people and other pets.  Ivermectin (dispensed by a veterinarian) is the most effective treatment.

Wash well with warm water and anti-bacterial soap after handling a bird upon which you have discovered fleas, and launder your clothes in hot water… a professional exterminator and your doctor can provide advice concerning fleas which may have become established on your person or in your home.


Although they are not parasitic, a number of moth species are attracted to stored bird foods, or may arrive as caterpillars or eggs within the food.  Once well established, they can be difficult to eradicate, and may also set up home in cereals, cookies, dry dog food, bread crumbs and similar foods.

The Springstar Flour Moth Trap is designed to eliminate the most commonly encountered species, collectively referred to as “flour moths” (Indian meal moths, Mediterranean flour moths, almond moths and raison moths), without the use of pesticides.  Female moth pheromones (chemical secretions used to attract males) lure male moths into the trap, where they are held for easy disposal.


Ants are often drawn to bird cages by the presence of fruit and droppings.  While most are merely pests, in the southern half of the USA the introduced fire ant may attack and kill caged pets, especially chicks and debilitated birds.  Please see my article, Bird Safe Ant Control  for further information.

Further Reading

A University of New Hampshire article on the life cycle and control of avian external parasites is posted at http://extension.unh.edu/Agric/Docs/exparasites.pdf


Avian Health Concerns: Recognizing and Eliminating External Parasites, Ants and Moths; Part I


The possibility of a flea or mite infestation in one’s home is a very troubling concern…pet-owners’ fears about this have been the source of many distressed calls for assistance that I have received over the years. The good news for bird keepers is that external parasites are not all that common among our feathered friends, and most are very specific in their host preferences. The few that do crop up from time to time are of concern, but all can be eliminated fairly easily, especially if detected early.

The Daily Health Check
A careful daily check of your bird is the key to early detection of a parasite problem. This is particularly important if you keep several birds, have recently added a new individual to your collection, or have brought your bird to a pet store for wing or nail clipping.

Bear in mind that not all feather and skin abnormalities are caused by parasites – feather chewing, poor nutrition and viral, bacterial or fungal disease are all possibilities (and, indeed, more likely than parasitic infestation).

First Steps
If you do discover mites or lice, a good first line treatment is Scalex Mite and Lice Spray . While this pyrethrin-based medication is often successful in eliminating the invaders, a visit to your veterinarian for a positive ID of the species involved is important (also, secondary problems, such as bacterial infections, are often associated with parasites). As most parasite eggs are unaffected by medications, you’ll need to space out the application of the spray as directed in the instructions in order to eliminate the pests as they hatch.

Red Mites
Small Arachnids (spider and tick relatives) known as red mites, Dermanyssus gallinae and related species, are the most troublesome pests in terms of transmission to other pets and people. These mites are not choosy as to their host and, unlike most avian parasites, leave the bird at night to deposit eggs in perches, nests, furniture and rugs. They can be observed crawling about the afflicted bird at night, or attached to a white sheet that has been draped over the cage.

You veterinarian will likely use Ivermectin as a treatment; red mites feed upon blood, so tests for anemia and bacterial infection are also recommended.

You should consult with your doctor and a professional exterminator concerning how best to eliminate lice that might possibly have taken refuge in your home or if you observe any upon your skin.

Scaly Face Mite
The mite most commonly found on pet birds is scaly face mite, Knemidokptes pilae. It is almost entirely limited to budgerigars, only rarely afflicting other parrots or, less commonly, finches, and does not establish itself on other pets or people.

Scaly face mites are usually found around the cere (the area just above the beak), vent and legs. They burrow into theses areas, leaving tiny holes in the skin and a powdery plaque in their wake. As you can imagine, the unfortunate bird becomes extremely uncomfortable and scratches at the affected areas. In severe infestations, the bill itself may be damaged. The mites themselves are not visible to the naked eye.

In finches, a related mite tends to focus on the feet – birds so afflicted are said to have “tasselfoot”.

Mineral oil spread about the skin to suffocate the mites is often effective, but treatment with Ivermectin is preferable.

Air Sac Mites
Air sac mites remain within the respiratory tract and are most frequently seen in canaries and other finches. Birds parasitized by these mites usually breathe heavily, with their beaks wide open. Related species, termed tracheal mites, cause “gape mouth”, a condition seen in turacos and other species commonly kept in zoo collections.

Ivermectin is the drug of choice, but it must be administered carefully – a die-off of large numbers of mites at once can cause the host bird to suffocate.

Lice are parasitic insects. Less commonly seen in pet birds than mites, various types feed upon blood, feathers or skin. Some types concentrate at the bases of the feathers, while others attach to the feathers’ lower surfaces or the skin itself.

Nearly all lice are very specific as concerns host selection, feeding upon only one particular bird species. Bird lice will not attack people or other pets, and are sensitive to Scalex (pyrethrin spray) and Ivermectin. Because lice damage the skin, a veterinarian should be consulted to rule out the possibility of a secondary bacterial infection.

Always wash well with warm water and anti-bacterial soap after handling a bird that is parasitized by mites or lice, and launder your clothes in hot water. Consult your doctor and a professional exterminator if you observe these invertebrates on your person or in your home.

Further Reading
A number of feather and skin conditions mimic the symptoms of a mite or lice infestation. You can learn how to recognize many of these at http://www.birdsnways.com/wisdom/ww48eiv.htm.

Click here to read the 2nd half of this article.


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