Old World Aviaries

Bird marts—The single greatest threat to avian health in the new millennium

by Ernie Colaizzi
Phoenix Unlimited

Keeping birds happy and healthy is the number one concern of most bird owners. What toys will they like? What is his/her favorite foods and treats? Is the paint on its cage safe? What can we do to insure our birds live long, healthy lives? All these questions and more go through our minds on a daily basis. Birds cannot care for themselves, it is up to their human caretakers to do the best job possible. Cleaning cages daily, fresh foods and water, toys, play time and more all go into a 'normal day 'of caring for birds. The mistakes most well-intentioned birds owners make are most frequently from ignorance just not knowing - as opposed to stupidity.

Today a serious new health risk is threatening the lives of birds across the country. A very real health risk that has the potential for epidemic proportions. It goes by the simple name of 'Bird Marts'. Some people call them bird fairs, bird expos, bird shows and more. These innocuous appearing events are being put on by bird clubs, aviculturists and other people for profit and/or fund raising. What can possibly be so dangerous as a diverse groups of birds of varying ages brought together for one or two days? Everything! Anyone who believes these events are safe are not being truthful, or are simply ignorant of the facts.

People talk about quarantine - referring to the USDA Bird Quarantine Stations that operated between 1971 and 1993 - how dangerous and awful it was. Thirty (30) days confined to cramped quarters sharing food, water, air, perches and more. Several sick birds could infect many more during the quarantine period resulting in high mortality rates. Many stations were less than honest. (Does anyone remember an honest importer?) And what happened when a station was having a disease outbreak with high mortality? They would have a sale! Drop the price and move them out. Take their problem and spread it around. Yes, it was terrible, but without it we wouldn't have the breeding stock so necessary for our operations today.

No matter how dangerous quarantine stations were, they still cannot match the dangers of today's 'bird marts'! These events have risen to become the single greatest threat to bird health we have ever encountered! How can a simple bird event be so life threatening? Is it nothing more than breeders coming together to sell their birds to the public? An unsuspecting public! At least in the quarantine stations, birds were exposed to other birds from the same areas of the world. The diseases present were also from the same area (indigenous) and many would have some natural immunity to it. In a Bird event' setting, birds are exposed to many other birds from all over the world (even though they may be domestically bred). These birds, no matter how young, have the potential to bring their specific diseases and problems with them. In essence, any disease from anywhere in the world may conceivably be present and many are!

Years ago, concerned veterinarians and aviculturists began to notice a serious rise in sick and dead birds following many such events. Serious diseases such as Pacheco's, Polyoma, PBFD, Chlamydia (Psittacosis), Wasting syndromes and more would suddenly appear from nowhere. We frequently discussed these diseases, their possible sources and patterns of outbreaks to recently held 'bird events'! It was obvious where the diseases were originating from, but could we prove it?

After many lengthy conversations with Dr.'s Dahlhausen and Radabaugh from Research Associates in Milford, Ohio, we came up with a plan to determine the incidence of diseases present at various events. Our goal was to determine what diseases were present, which events or seasons were safe and possible ways to insure the safety of birds. To determine which diseases were present, we would employ the use of their advanced technologies. DNA, PCR technology was selected due to its extremely sensitive and accurate parameters. This method, when performed properly, does not have false positives. If the test was positive, the organism was there. The bad news is a negative does not mean the organism wasn't there, it simply means we did not detect it!

Testing began in 1998. Diseases we tested for were limited to the 'Big Three' (Polyoma, PbFd and Chlamydia), as these were the only DNA probes available for environmental testing. Sample collection was simple. Using a sterile culturette swab (looks like a Q-tip with a long handle), an individual would simply rub the tip across a table top or floor in the 'bird event' area. Considering how small the culturette tip is, if diseases are detected, it reflects just how much viral or bacterial contaminants must be present. In order to prevent bias of events or people skills for collection, the procedures were the same for all. Swabs would only be taken from tables or areas where live birds were not being displayed. In other words, only vendors selling supplies, magazine subscriptions, clubs, raffle areas, non-bird pets and even people.

Eight different events were tested from around the country. Our goal was to be able to demonstrate these problems exist universally throughout the U.S., not just in Texas or Connecticut or Florida, etc. Following are the results of these events.

Approximate date
May, 1998 Positive Positive Negative
May, 1999 Positive Positive Positive
October, 1999 Positive Positive Negative
October, 1999 Positive Negative Negative
December, 1999 Positive Positive Negative
March, 2000 Negative Positive Positive
March, 2000 Positive Positive Negative
March, 2000 Positive Positive Negative

As you can see from the above table, PBFD was detected at virtually every event but one. Polyoma was also detected at all events but one. Chlamydia, being a bacterium, may be harder to detect or as the chart shows, may be less of a problem than the viruses present. If we had been swabbing tables with birds, the likelihood of detecting the presence of Chlamydia may be much greater.

Typical results from individual swabs collected at various bird marts follow:

Swab collected from
Local bird club without birds Positive Positive Positive
Raffle table without birds Positive Positive Negative
Toy exhibitor Positive Positive Negative
Reptile exhibitor Positive Positive Negative
Interior arena walls Positive Positive Negative
Random person Positive Positive Negative

Although not accounted in either table, several bird sales areas were also swabbed at various events:

Event #1 Positive Positive Negative

Event #2 Positive Positive Negative

Additionally, a hand-feeding African Grey Parrot was presented for DNA, Blood Testing after purchase from a 'bird event' with the following results: African Grey Negative Positive Not tested for.

Suspect breeds.

Although all types of psittacines may contract or carry any of the "Big Three" diseases, certain species appear to be hosts for them. PBFD appears to have found a home within lovebirds. Lovebirds can develop all majors signs of the disease and survive. The relationship between Lovebirds and PBFD is still not fully understood. In colonies of lovebirds with PBFD, infection rates of up to 100% are common.

Budgies (parakeets) have found a way to co-exist with Polyoma Virus even though infection rates are very high. Nestling mortality, feather abnormalities - crawlers- and acute juvenile deaths are all typical of this virus. Polyoma Virus perpetuates itself with each successive generation and may be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate from breeding colonies.

Cockatiels appear to be the group of parrots most able to survive with endemic Chlamydial infections. Only recently has a reliable test for Chlamydia been available. We can now accurately screen these birds for infection as opposed to utilizing non-specific tests such as protein electrophoresis, B-ELISA or nebulous clinical signs which mimic many other diseases.

Not only do these three groups of birds comprise the greatest reservoir of the three major diseases, they also comprise the greatest number of birds present at typical bird events. It is hardly a surprise that the 'Big Three' diseases continue to remain so prevalent today!

So why all the concern over "bird events"? First and foremost, these deadly disease causing organisms are found throughout the entire "bird event" area. It is in the air, on hair, clothing and shoes, table tops, toys, supplies, cages, foods, virtually everything in the area! People and birds may not have entered with any of these diseases, but they definitely leave with them! As Dr. David Phalen of Texas A & M stated, "People come looking for bargains, real or perceived, but the bad news is the diseases are free." People take them wherever they go, to their favorite pet store, their friends homes and home to their own birds. Their role as courier has gone totally unnoticed!

Many people are unaware that several of these organisms, especially PBFD and Polyoma Virus, are extremely hardy. It is believed these viruses can remain stable for upwards of one year and still be infective. The items purchased from events bring these viruses into homes waiting for an opportunity to cause illness. Furthermore, these organisms can be transported from 'bird mart' to 'bird mart'. The diseases present could easily come from a previous show and can certainly be carried to future shows on displayed merchandise.

Reflecting back on quarantine, several hundred birds may be exposed to one disease and most often a disease from their region of the world. A disease they may have some natural immunity to. When we attend a 'bird mart', hundreds of birds are exposed to numerous diseases. Diseases many have never seen before, with no natural protection. To complicate matters, several diseases together may produce a fatal illness, when individually they may be harmless (e.g., PBFD and Polyoma exposure to mature eclectus parrots can result in death). Some exhibitors proudly display signs stating their birds are protected by a Polyoma vaccine. Most psittacines at these shows are far too young to be protected by a vaccine. Whether or not the vaccine offers any protection from Polyoma is still up for debate, but it is highly unlikely the vaccine would have any effect against PBFD, Chlamydia or any other viruses and bacteria present.

We must take this a step further. After attending a bird event, hundreds or thousands of people now leave to expose their bird(s) and homes or worse yet, their friends birds and birds in their favorite pet store. A single 'bird mart' can expose thousands of birds overnight! Remember we are talking about one 'bird mart'. Now add to those numbers the amount of 'bird marts' taking place across the country. Thru these 'bird marts', we perpetuate these and other deadly diseases. Bird events help insure the future ability of these organisms to survive and infect subsequent generations. This problem can only get worse!

The evidence is here in black and white. The potential for generating and spreading fatal avian diseases is unsurpassed anywhere in the world as it is at 'bird mart' type events. We have not found a single 'bird event' free of these diseases! With the methods employed for detection, there is no room for doubt of the extreme seriousness of these events. It is unconscionable to believe that:

It is time to wake up to the dangers of 'bird marts' and the damage they create. The facts are conclusive, many diseases are present. Once DNA probes have been perfected for diseases such as Herpes Virus, Wasting Syndrome, PMV, Avian TB and more, testing may reveal how many more of these organisms have been present and infecting birds. Help prevent present and future illnesses and deaths. DO NOT ATTEND THESE FUNCTIONS! Stop supporting all events of this nature until one can be safely organized. When people attend these events, they risk the lives of all birds - both present and future generations - theirs, yours and mine! In the end, the ultimate losers are always the birds. Why must they suffer with their lives?

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