Breeding birds can be a fun and rewarding hobby. Some people get into breeding through the back door, when they find that a pair of their pet birds decide to go to nest and lay a clutch of eggs. Other people purchase a pair of bird hoping to breed them. But no matter how you get started in breeding, the whole experience can become a giant nightmare as you begin to speak with aviculturists, pet owners and pet store personnel. There is so much conflicting information out there, and without a basis of personal knowledge, it is impossible to know what to believe.
I have personally been involved with aviculture for over 35 years, and I have hand-fed some of the most rare and endangered parrots in the world. I have fed Queen of Bavaria (Golden) conures from day one. I have hand-fed many St. Vincent Amazon parrots, and also Cuban Amazons, Isle of Pine Amazons, Grand Cayman Amazons, Cayman Brac Amazons, Yellow-shouldered Amazons, Red-browed Amazons, Diadema Amazons and Yellow-lored Amazons. My wife and I own a breeding facility consisting of approximately 50 pairs of parrots, some endangered. We artificially incubate some of our more rare parrot eggs, and we hand-feed all of our baby birds. My wife is a Board Certified Avian Specialist, and I work with her in our avian practice, which consists of primarily avicultural clients, pet birds and exotics. We have traveled the country, evaluating aviary facilities and nurseries, both large commercial businesses and small hobbyist homes. We have also had the good fortune to work in aviaries in the Republic of South Africa. We have also helped many ratite breeders who got into the business hoping to make quick and easy money raising ostriches, emus and rheas. Most of these folks knew even less about aviculture than pet parrot owners did! Because of our vast experience, we have seen the entire range of avicultural management and nursery procedures. With that, and our vast experience raising our own birds, I feel that I can help beginning aviculturists cut through the thicket of information out there, and provide you with sound information that should help you streamline raising birds.
I would also like to say that, while the internet can be a wonderful place to meet aviculturists, there is an awful lot of scary information out there. The internet is populated with experts that are self-proclaimed. I advise you to take what you read on the internet with a grain of salt. Some information is wonderful and valuable, but before putting any advice into practice, please discuss it with your avian veterinarian.
All aviculturists should get into the habit of performing a complete physical examination on each baby bird in the nursery daily. This sounds daunting, but actually, it is rather simple to do. The amount of information that you will gain by doing this is very valuable, and if you do discover any abnormalities, you and your avian vet will be able to act quickly to correct the problem. With baby birds, the faster an abnormality is discovered, the easier it is to correct. A physical exam can be performed in just a few minutes.
All aviculturists should keep accurate records on all babies in the nursery, and any abnormalities found on physical exam should be noted. Every baby should be weighed in grams every morning, prior to the first feeding of the day. With an empty crop, you will get a more accurate reading of the weight. Use a strong focal light source to illuminate the bird and use a method of magnification so that you can better see small details.
Physical examination of the neonate requires that the baby be kept warm during the checkup. Neonates with only down feathers cannot thermoregulate and will chill quickly. Consider keeping one exam room warmer or place a heating pad or Thermofloor TM on the exam table for additional warmth.
Systematic examination of the neonate can be performed in a similar fashion to that of an adult bird. Note the color of the skin, and the texture. Some babies, such as the Eclectus parrot, have pigmented skin. Pale skin may signify anemia, malnutrition, chilling, shock or polyoma virus.
Evaluate the size of the head and beak in relation to the body. Examine the musculoskeletal system for symmetry, straightness, deviations, annular toe deformities or healed fractures. Some of the internal organs are visible through the translucent skin, including the liver, supraduodenal loop of intestine, yolk sac and lungs. Examine the umbilicus and abdomen. The ventriculus will be seen as a bulge that is palpable and firm. Auscultate the heart and lungs.
Check the beak for symmetry, lateral deviations, mandibular prognathism, bite wounds, other abnormalities, and note the color. In most species of birds, the egg tooth is shed between days 26-44. Using a light source and magnification, check the oropharynx for lesions, foreign bodies, plaques and note the color. Blue and Gold macaws usually have a black pigmented oropharynx, but some will lack pigment in patches, which can resemble Candida plaques or other pathology.
Examine the eyes for discharge, swelling, symmetry, or scabbing. Abnormal placement of the eyes under the lids can indicate stunting. Eyes usually open between 10-28 days of age, depending on the species. Always evaluate the ears. Ears are open at hatch in Old World Species, and macaw ears open at approximately 23 days. Macaws and Eclectus have their external ear canals covered with a membrane at hatch. Infection of the ear canals is fairly common in stunted macaws
The nares should be closely examined for swelling, discharge, or erythema. The crop should be examined for tone, movement, foreign bodies, which may be palpated within the ingluvies, and the consistency and volume of contents should also be palpated.
Neonatal down is small and fluffy and may lack a rachis. Baby birds will then develop a secondary growth of juvenile down, called the second down. Check that the feathers are emerging properly. Note any stress bars, hemorrhage in the feather shafts, abnormal colors, or any feather deformities.
Next, check the baby for the feeding response. In a normal neonate, by gently touching the beak in certain specific locations, usually the rictal areas, the feeding response will be elicited. In sick, cold or weak babies, the feeding response will be weak or absent.
Evaluating the history is critical. Always bring in growth/weight records for review. A healthy neonate should gain weight daily, then level off, and ultimately lose approximately 10-15% of its body weight at weaning. The nursery environment and husbandry must be evaluated. It is important to know if a neonate is being kept at the correct temperature and humidity for its age and size. The container and substrate are important considerations, as they may contribute to management-related diseases and conditions. The hand-feeding formula, utensils, and their handling and storage need to be evaluated. Problems can arise from the hand-feeder mixing the formula incorrectly, or by the improper cleaning of utensils and hand-feeding equipment, or by improper storage of the hand-feeding equipment.
Any diagnostics that can be performed on adult birds may be performed on neonates. Gram's stains are valuable as a quick screening method for identifying potential problems, however, bacterial cultures should be performed in conjunction with a CBC to confirm suspected infections. Gram's stains should not be relied upon solely for diagnosis of disease in birds. Fungal cultures are often helpful in differentiating pathogenic Candida versus brewer's yeast in a formula. Blood chemistries and serology are also useful diagnostic tools. Radiographs are a helpful diagnostic tool. When radiographing young birds, make sure that the crop is empty, to prevent regurgitation and subsequent aspiration of hand-feeding formula. The proventriculus is proportionately larger in hand-feeding babies than it is in adult birds.
Blood may easily be drawn from the right jugular, vein, or from the medial metatarsal vein. It is not advisable to clip a toenail short on a baby bird to get a blood sample, as it is possible to permanently damage the tissue, resulting in a deformed toenail. Testing for PBFD, Polyoma, chlamydia and other diseases should be performed.
Developmental and husbandry problems may occur in baby birds. Stunting of baby birds is manifested by poor growth rate or failure to thrive. Stunted babies often are pale, are very underweight, with no SQ body fat, poor muscling and a head and beak that appear too large in proportion to the rest of the body. It may occur as a result of poor husbandry, the inexperience of the hand-feeder, inadequate husbandry, underlying disease or as a result of poor incubation techniques. It may be reversible. Often, the beak will begin to deviate to one side if the stunting is not corrected early on. Leg and toe deformities are frequently seen. Neck problems may be corrected by the use of a padded neck brace or by taping the neck to the side of a container.
Lateral deviation of the maxilla (scissors beak) occurs most frequently in macaws, but is occasionally observed in other species. Mandibular prognathism, also called maxillary brachygnathism or ďbulldog beak,Ē occurs most frequently in cockatoos, but may be seen in other species. Early diagnosis of beak deformities will facilitate correction. Physical therapy and corrective grinding may be corrective in cases that are discovered early, but orthodontic devices or prosthetics may be necessary to correct beaks that have already hardened.
Gastrointestinal problems are the most common disorders of neonates, and may be related to improper husbandry, disease or metabolic disorders. Most systemic diseases in neonates result in slowed gut transit time, reflected by a crop that empties slowly. Aviculturists may call this "sour crop,Ē which is a catch-all phrase, and not a diagnosis. It is important to uncover the underlying disease that resulted in the crop emptying more slowly. Respiratory problems occur most commonly as a result of aspiration of hand-feeding formula.
Bacterial infections are commonly seen. It must be remembered that little pharmacokinetic data has been published for drugs in hatchlings, nestlings and fledglings. Several factors affect pediatric therapeutics including liver dysfunction, renal disease or dehydration.
By far, the most common viral disease seen in the nursery is polyoma virus. Only babies hatched at a facility should be raised in the nursery. If aviculturists purchase or trade baby birds with other facilities, their nursery can never be managed by other than a crisis-to-crisis basis. A DNA PCR blood test and testing from a swab taken from the choana are available for this virus. In a dead bird, swabbing the liver, spleen, bursa and kidney will be the best way to diagnose polyoma. Histopathology may also show characteristic inclusion bodies. Serum titers are confusing and unreliable diagnostically. Proventricular Dilatation Disease, PDD, and avian viral serositis, AVS, also occur.
Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, PBFD, can occur in psittacine babies. A DNA PCR blood test is available, and requires a clean venipuncture stick, and not a toenail clip, for accurate testing. Positive and negative tests are interpreted differently, depending on the birdís age and clinical condition. A healthy looking bird should never be euthanized based on one positive test. This is considered malpractice. The virus can only develop into disease in a bird with an open Bursa of Fabricius, usually. Rarely, adult birds that have been exposed will develop disease, however, most exposed adults, while they may briefly test positive, due to virus particles circulating in the blood, will not develop disease. Follow-up testing will show that the bird has cleared the virus from the bloodstream and the bird is normal. An adult usually must have exposure from infected blood (transfusion, grinding tool) to develop disease. Most adults are very resistant to this virus, unless they are suffering from another immunosuppressive disease. Remember that cargo holds of airplanes, pet stores and vet clinics may be contaminated with the PBFD virus, and can act as a source of infection.
How To Interpret PBFD Testing:
|(all tests performed using aseptic technique for clean venipuncture)|
|Young Bird (less than two years of age):|
|Exam of Bird||PBFD test result||Interpretation||What to Do|
|1.||clinically normal||negative||bird is negative for PBFD||nothing|
|2.||clinically normal||positive||bird is viremic||retest 90 d|
|3.||+ bird from #2 90 day retest|
|bird remains normal||negative||bird has become immune||nothing|
|bird develops lesions||positive||bird developed PBFD||isolate/euth|
|bird remains normal||positive||bird may be latent carrier||retest 90 days|
|Adult Bird (Bursa of Fabricius has closed, 2-3 yrs of age)|
|4.||clinically normal||negative||bird is neg. for PBFD||nothing|
|5.||feather lesions||positive||bird has PBFD||isolate/euth.|
|6.||feather lesions||negative||may still have PBFD||retest, biopsy|
|7.||clinically normal||positive||latent carrier|
Traumatic problems may occur. Hepatic hepatomas may occur from blunt trauma. Wounds may occur from bites. Constricted toe syndrome occurs most commonly in Eclectus and macaws. Crop burns usually occur by food being fed too hot (over 110 degrees F.) Allow these to scab and fistulate prior to surgery, as surgery performed too soon will result in dehiscence. Try to postpone surgery for at least five days, give support care, parenteral fluids, antibiotics, antifungals. Esophageal punctures may occur from improper tube feeding. These will often result in cellulitis, toxemia and death without surgery. Fractures are uncommon in healthy young birds. Concussions may occur in birds that are fledging. Feather trauma may occur.
Wine-colored discoloration of urates may occur in juvenile Amazons, African Greys and pionus, and this is not associated with disease. ďLock-jawĒ may occur in juvenile cockatiels, as well as in other species, and is the result of infection and/or abscessation in the temporomandibular joints, most commonly caused by the bacterium Bordetella avium. Occasionally, other bacteria may be involved. Part the feathers over the TMJ area, moisten the skin with alcohol to better visualize the area, and it is possible to identify which joint or joints are involved. The joints may be tapped with a 25 or 27 gauge needle, and the aspirated material may be cultured or stained with Gramís stain.
Necropsies of dead baby birds are very important. Every aviculturist should have a gross necropsy performed on every bird or egg that dies. This need not be expensive. If your avian vet cannot confirm the cause of death from the necropsy, it might be worthwhile to have your vet send in the tissues for histopathology (microscopic examination of the tissues). Sometimes, although the cause of death may appear to be clear-cut, there may be an underlying problem not evident at necropsy.
When a bird dies, the aviculturist has no idea if this was an isolated incident or the beginning of a wild-fire. It is for this reason that necropsies are so important. If other birds subsequently die, valuable time will have been lost by not having the information from the first dead bird. Think of necropsies as sound insurance. It will be money well spent.
The same tissues harvested for adult bird necropsies should be taken, with the addition of the Bursa, which is located near the cloaca in the coelom. This organ is vital for the diagnosis of many avian diseases and should always be included for histopathology. It is most beneficial to find a lab that will allow you to send in all necessary tissues for one price, as opposed to paying a per tissue charge. Many mistakes in diagnosis on histopath occur from being limited to sending in just a few tissues.
Avian pediatric medicine and surgery is a fascinating and challenging aspect of avian medicine. The same principles that apply to adult birds may usually be applied to neonates, with the exception of surgery and anesthesia. The rate of oxygen consumption in neonates is 2-3 times greater than adults, and the respiratory rate is also 2-3 times that of adults. Cardiac output is rate dependent because sympathetic innervation of the heart is immature, and bradycardia can be a serious problem if not detected and reversed. This is more likely to occur after 10-15 minutes of anesthesia. Blood loss is of greater consequence in neonates, and they are less able to compensate for hemorrhage, and a small volume of blood loss can result in tachycardia and hypotension. Featherless neonates must be kept from developing hypothermia during surgery. With any surgical procedure: use isoflurane, use careful anesthetic monitoring, use rapid surgical technique, limit surgical time to 15 minutes or less, and maintain total hemostasis.
It must be noted that any baby bird that is receiving antibiotic therapy should also receive concurrent antifungal medication, to prevent overgrowth of Candida sp. This is very important and is a common mistake among inexperienced avian vets and aviculturists. Many pharmacokinetic studies have not been performed on baby birds, so most doses are extrapolated from those performed on adults.
If a bird has crop stasis, it is probably better to give parenteral medications, since absorption of oral medications is likely to be erratic.
Baby birds with GI stasis are frequently dehydrated, so SQ, IV or IO fluids may need to be given in conjunction with other therapeutics.
Raising baby birds for fun and profit can be enjoyable and rewarding. The whole process can be as difficult or easy as you make it. Donít make yourself crazy by listening to all the so-called experts out there. Trust your instincts and enjoy your baby birds. After all, isn't that why you decided to breed them in the first place?
Copyright © 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved
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