Old World Aviaries

Standard avian screening procedures for introduction into the aviary

by Darrel K. Styles, DVM

Someone once asked me what they could do to prevent entry of any avian disease into the collection when introducing new birds. I answered, “Short of encasing them in Lucite or keeping every bird separately caged 3 miles apart, there is no guarantee.” However, neither of these options are conducive to breeding or enjoyable aviculture.

The threat of an introduced disease into a stable collection is always present, especially because most of our collections continue to grow, and often we simply have to add that new specimen that has just become available. I think all aviculturists go through the “at least one of everything” phase until they settle into a small range of species they truly enjoy and excel with. Because even the best safe-guards can be breached, all we can do as responsible aviculturists is be vigilant and pursue good guidelines of prevention. Aviculturists can follow several steps to afford a “semi-clean” collection.

The first step of prevention is to buy birds that are disease free. Many people ask me where they can get this or that, and what is the best and safest bird to purchase. One of the best sources for “clean” birds is solitary house-hold pets who have outlived their novelty or have turned aggressive and can no longer be tolerated. (In my opinion this is true of all female lovebirds of breeding age.) These unwanted pets usually have been kept under optimal conditions and are just reaching breeding age when they begin to display the unwanted aggressive breeding behavior. This situation is ideal for aviculturists because we can then obtain a bird that is mature, probably sexually active, in reasonably good health, and that has been kept in “solitary confinement” away from other birds who could introduce diseases. This situation is much like buying a car from the little old lady who only took it to church on Sundays.

If you are one of those individuals who is lucky enough to have the breeding stock, this is the absolute best source for birds for your own collection. Assuming you have sufficient unrelated pairs of the same species you can easily expand your collection without worry. The only problem is the wait, especially with larger psittacines, for the onset of sexual maturity.

The next best alternative is buying birds from a reliable and responsible breeder who has a reputation to maintain. The Roman who coined the phrase “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) had obviously been shopping at a bird mart. All of us are tempted by that special low price, but be willing to pay the consequences later. Usually these purchases work out okay, but think to yourself, why is he selling these birds and at such a low price. Everyone buys and trades birds at bird fairs, but at least get to know the seller or his reputation. Most responsible aviculturists stand behind their products and want to maintain their good reputation within the bird community.

Some degree of debate exists about the purchase of imported versus domestic stock. I will not enter into this argument except to say that in certain instances, wild caught stock appears to make superior breeding candidates, but in other situations domestic stock is better. One common scenario is a domestic hen with a wild-caught male. (It seems that the boys take sexual advice better in the jungle than at home. Anyone who has kids can understand this concept.)

The second step to prevention is examine your purchase. I know that macaw looks intimidating, but come on folks, you're aviculturists. You need to be able to do a rudimentary physical examination, if for nothing more than just to check for a thin bird. Learn how to properly handle and examine your birds. You wouldn't buy a car unless you drove it around first. Why should you buy a “bird in a poke?” If you don't want to or can't handle the bird, then have a qualified vet or fellow aviculturist do it for you. Don't complain to me that Mr. so-and-so sold me this bird and it's thin as a rail. You shouldn't have bought it in the first place.

You can check for plenty of things, such as weight, overall condition, feather abnormalities (PBFD), small papillomas in the cloaca, and so on. You are qualified enough as aviculturist to start looking for these problems. Remember, a bird bite never killed anyone—if it did I would have died about 10,000 times—and with practice, proper handling can be a breeze.

The third step of prevention is QUARANTINE QUARANTINE QUARANTINE. I know you hate it, but it is a necessary evil. We often buy birds on impulse. For example, you've had that nape hen for 2 years, now she's in breeding condition, and you've only got a few weeks to buy a mate. You can just taste those nape babies so you quickly introduce the newly purchased male only to find that not only is the new bird dead 2 days later, but the hen you had saved for breeding material is sick and you've got a Pacheco's outbreak on your hands. Word gets out to the community that Mr./Ms. so-and-so is losing birds and there goes your reputation and sales receipts. And you thought the heartbreak of psoriasis was bad. DON'T RISK IT. Even after suitable quarantine periods some diseases can slip through.

During the quarantine period you can detect most abnormalities and avert disaster. You can test for several diseases during this period, and we shall discuss them a bit later.

The quarantine period is entirely subjective. I usually recommend at least 60 days in an isolated building or area of the property. During this time have the birds tested for diseases by a qualified vet, fully examined, and maybe even sexed. (Sexing adds to the stress level and may cause occult diseases to become symptomatic.) Once the birds have successfully passed quarantine, you can introduce them with a reasonable, but NOT absolute, degree of security.

I quote this saying often because it was taught to me by a wise and experienced aviculturist, “Mother nature is not kind and is often vengeful.” So even if the birds look good and appear disease free, something still may slip through the security net. Also, when you quarantine birds you should do it with an “all-in/all-out” system. In other words, bring in a batch for at least 60 days and do not introduce new birds or discharge old birds from the quarantine until the period is up. If you trickle new birds into the quarantine while the old ones are about to be discharged you are breaching the system and asking for trouble. Who is to say that the bird being discharged is not being infected on the way out the door by the newcomers.

The fourth step of prevention is veterinary examination and testing. Some diseases we can test for are PBFD (psittacine beak and feather disease), polyoma virus, and harmful bacteria such as Salmonella. Unfortunately, we cannot test for Pacheco's reliably, and often we use sentinel birds such as cockatiels from our own collections, to monitor for this disease. Also, chlamydia may be missed because even though the bird is infected, it may not be shedding the organism Chlamydia psittaci, which causes psittacosis. The test for this disease that most vets use detects the organisms only when shed in fairly high concentrations. But, it may be a worthwhile test because the birds may shed during the stressful quarantine period.

Have your vet examine the birds to detect subtle physical abnormalities that may have evaded you, such as old bone fractures which haven't quite healed. Some people also recommend blood profiles. I think that this is an economic decision on the part of the aviculturist and does give an added degree of insurance but may not be completely necessary.

Unfortunately, proventricular dilatation syndrome (macaw wasting disease) cannot be detected routinely because we don't have a test. It can be detected if the bird is symptomatic and proper diagnostic procedures including X-rays are done. Also, papillomatosis may be detected but is difficult to evaluate in the early stages of the disease. Again there is no test for a carrier state, because we again do no know what causes it, although presumably it is a virus. Some other avian diseases are undetectable but hopefully the quarantine time will allow their expression.

If a bird tests positive for a pathogen, then it is wisest to reject the entire quarantine load. There are exceptions. If you have a particularly rare and valuable specimen that is co-housed with the infected bird, you can restart the quarantine period after eliminating the diseased bird with the knowledge that this valuable bird has been exposed. Therefore, it is wisest to select small quarantine loads and choose quarantine mates wisely. There is little wisdom in housing a $9000 hyacinth macaw with a $50 mitred conure.

The fifth and final step of prevention is pre-entry treatment. This is a controversial area, and I must admit that I have mixed feelings about many of the therapies, although some are well founded. Many people will treat with tetracycline-treated feed during quarantine to prevent the entry of psittacosis. This has some merit, especially in large collections, but be prepared for a lot of effort to try to get this unpalatable drug down an unwilling bird. Also, there is post-treatment therapy for the inevitable yeast infection that follows the tetracycline therapy. Regardless of what you have been told or read, Baytril will NOT treat psittacosis.

I do recommend AGAINST broad spectrum antibiotic therapy. You are asking for resistant strains to occur in your flock if you choose to indiscriminately medicate with antibiotics. It is better to culture for the bacteria and then treat appropriately if necessary. Be forewarned that some bacteria, such as Salmonella, may not be eliminated, and organisms like avian tuberculosis are virtually impossible to get rid of and pose a health threat to immunocompromised individuals (human and bird).

We have relatively few vaccines for birds at this time. The canary pox vaccine is highly effective and probably should be given to passerine birds at risk in outdoor aviaries. The parrot pox vaccine is also effective, but it is uncommon to see this disease these days, because importation has been restricted. The occasional outbreaks are usually seen in outdoor aviaries where mosquitoes transmit the virus.

The administration of the Pacheco's vaccine is another controversial issue. I usually recommend vaccination in the face of an outbreak only, but other veterinarians have different opinions. My reasoning is that the vaccine itself may precipitate a carrier into shedding live and lethal virus.

And, the vaccine has produced some toxic reactions in some species including cockatoos. Finally, this vaccine is NOT completely protective against all strains of Pacheco's. Therefore, it can lull you into a false sense of security. Hopefully, someday we will have a variety of effective vaccines to choose from, but, in all honesty, I think that day is in the distant future. In the meantime, we need to practice good preventative medicine with our flocks.

Although the steps of disease prevention are part of the “less fun” aspect of aviculture (along with cage cleaning), they are a vital and necessary element in the prevention of a major disaster and the successful maintenance of a closed flock. These steps should be performed with the consultation of your avian vet to minimize infectious security risks.

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