Yet Another Cautionary Tale

Lories are brilliantly colored, playful, high-energy birds: easy to love, but difficult to clean up after. I’ve fostered lories in the past, but never adopted one. Their nectar-heavy diet results in frequent, sticky droppings. Too much work for me.

But, on the rare occasion that we have one relinquished to us, I am always curious about the bird, and wish I had enough time to care for one properly. The bird recently relinquished to Phoenix Landing sounded wonderful: friendly, and he’d even had an exam with an avian vet a few weeks before. He was being given up to Phoenix Landing for the same reason that 80 percent of the birds that come to us share: The caretaker no longer had the time to care for him. Remembering that Debbie, our MD adoption coordinator, had mentioned a family looking for a lory, I sent the information on, and very soon afterward, we had found a foster family.

We arranged for the lory to be dropped off at a recent event held on a Saturday, and I met the relinquisher outside. She was obviously distressed, sad to be giving up her companion of almost 10 years, but she knew it was for the best. She brought out bags of supplies for him, including lots of toys. He also had a powdered lory nectar diet, and she emphasized that he only consumed in the liquid form, it couldn’t be served in powder. She also said that he had increased his regurgitation lately, and that it was sexual behavior, and that the problem had gotten worse the less time she was able to spend with him.

I looked at the incredible, gorgeous creature in the sunlight. He looked to be the picture of health. I envied Jane and Pete, his new foster family, getting to share their life with something so splendid.

He regurgitated when I looked at him. He pretty much regurgitated any time someone came up to the cage. I guess he just likes everyone, I thought.

Jane took the bird home, and I thought we’d had yet another happy landing. I was certain they would adopt the lory, and I hoped she’d send out pictures soon. I really wanted to get a chance to paint a picture of that bird.

The next morning, Debbie called with some bad news: The lory was being rushed to Pender Exotics in Fairfax. He hadn’t eaten or passed food since Jane had picked him up, and he was constantly vomiting. I was confused: the relinquisher had told me the behavior was sexual, so that’s how I’d seen it. The foster family had not had the bird for even a day. But could we all be overreacting? Was this bird just stressed? He had looked so healthy.

The more Debbie and I talked about the bird’s behavior, the more alarming it sounded.

Once the bird made it to Pender, I started communicating with the vet on-call, Dr. McDonald. She suggested we start with an X-ray, to see if anything was obviously blocking his digestive tract and preventing food from getting through. The results of the X-ray were inconclusive: It appeared as though there was some strange gas patterns visible in his digestive tract, but that was all.

The next test to run was a barium series.

A barium series is a set of X-rays taken of a bird’s digestive system as a dye passes through it. Using this test, vets can see how much and how quickly food passes through the bird, and if there are any obstructions. The test takes hours to run, but it was crucial to find an obstruction (if one existed) before proceeding with medication to help food pass more quickly through the bird.

Late Sunday afternoon, Dr. McDonald called with the results: the lory was passing some, but not all, of the barium. She suspected a probable hernia and possible ulcerations in the stomach, as the syringe used to give the lory the barium had some blood on it after she administered the medicine. However, they wanted to keep the lory overnight and have Dr. Davis pick up care in the morning.

The next day, Dr. Davis called, and, after reviewing the results of the barium test and the X-ray, and considering the fact that the bird was still vomiting, she recommended exploratory surgery.

This was a really hard call to make. The surgery would be over $1, 000, and both Debbie and I agreed that we needed more information and another opinion before we could pursue this option. Jane kindly offered to help do whatever it took to get the little bird well, as she’d already come to care for him, and though the financial investment was a concern, it wasn’t my biggest one.

Surgery was risky, introducing additional stress on an already compromised animal, raising the chance of infection, and then there was that word “exploratory.” The surgery was no guarantee the vets would be able to help the bird get better. Frankly, it didn’t sound to me like he would make it through the procedure.

We decided to move him to a vet closer to Jane, and, in the process, get a second opinion. We needed a few days to arrange a space at the next vet hospital. Dr. Davis said that they could keep him stable for a day or two.

We made arrangements to get him moved, and hoped for the best.

Phone calls in the middle of the night are never good, and, sadly, Pender Exotics called to tell me the lory died in his sleep at 3:30 on Tuesday morning. Phoenix Landing had not had this bird in legal custody for three full days yet.

I talked to Dr. Davis early Tuesday, and she said he was an incredibly sweet and well socialized bird who they were very sorry to lose.

But now, we had to make a choice, should we do a necropsy? We had already spent $900 on care for this bird. But we had to know why the lory died, to make sure it was nothing contagious, even though Jane had practiced good quarantine in her home. It was vital for us to learn what had claimed this beautiful bird’s life.

Dr. Davis performed the procedure Tuesday afternoon, and then she called me with the results.

A parrot’s digestive tract starts with the mouth, goes into the crop, then into the stomach, which has two parts, the glandular proventriculus, and the muscular ventriculus (also called the gizzard). A massive wad of thread or material filled the bird’s proventriculus entirely, and partially filled the ventriculus as well, causing a hernia as the GI tract was squeezed and forced into an unnatural position. His kidneys, brown in a healthy bird, where white and had an excess of uric acid crystals. Dr. Davis said there was nothing that could have been done to save this bird.

Dr. Davis said she has seen this happen to other birds too, those that like to pick on thread or fabric. If the bird ingests tiny pieces, a mass can form that plugs the bird’s stomach. Unfortunately, he would not have survived any surgery, and the condition had been around for a while.

This experience has been heartbreaking, but it’s taught me many important lessons.

Don’t be so quick to accept that a description of a condition is the only possible explanation. What had been identified as sexual regurgitation was clearly not that to Jane. She saw a bird who is vomiting, and she reacted exactly the right way.

It has also taught me to be more vigilant about fabric, thread and material in general. Jane looked through the bird’s toys, and did see an obvious culprit, a small dishtowel hanging in the cage like a toy.

Know your bird. Watch what he plays with, and how he plays. If toys are missing pieces, find the pieces. If you don’t find the pieces, throw the toy away, no matter how much it cost you, or how much he likes it. My guess is that the washcloth was the bird’s favorite toy.

Know the difference between regurgitation related to sexual behavior and vomiting. Foster parent Pete who helped transport the lory to the vet, reported that the bird was trying desperately to eat, but vomited everything. If the bird isn’t ingesting any food and isn’t producing any droppings, the problem is serious. We have no way of knowing how long this bird had been swallowing the bits of fabric that filled his stomach and eventually killed him, but it was probably months.

Finally, I am always amazed when I think of all of the “behind the scenes” work at Phoenix Landing. It takes dedicated volunteers, lots of time, and lots of money to help parrots.

Basia’s Story

Imagine what five months, or longer, in a small ferret cage constructed of chicken wire can do to a blue and gold macaw? In the case of Basia (pronounced Basha), the blue and gold macaw that Phoenix Landing recently took in, it’s a lot more, and a lot less, than you’d think. This inappropriate cage was the key to figuring out his persistent vomiting, but his isolation and mistreatment didn’t break his spirit.

Sarah, our West Virginia coordinator, was contacted by a family who owned a bird who was much loved by one of the family members, but, unfortunately, this person had died a number of months ago. The rest of the family wanted nothing to do with Basia the blue and gold macaw, and kept him alone in a room in a small cage for months. When Sarah understood how desperate the situation was for this bird, she immediately began looking for a solution. Without any open foster homes in West Virginia, she contacted Debbie and me, looking for homes in Virginia and Maryland. Fortunately, we had a home in Virginia that was eager to give Basia a new place to land.

Basia was transported by Maryland volunteer David, who fostered him for a few days, and picked up a large donated cage for him. He said he was immediately struck with how social Basia was. Left in a room by himself for months at a time, Basia wanted nothing more then to interact with people.

Laura and Jeff, a Phoenix Landing foster family, picked Basia up from David, and also remarked on how much he wanted to interact, especially with Laura. Very soon after coming home, Basia was spending time with the whole family and fitting right in. However, there was something wrong with him. He was vomiting.

Basia was taken in for a well bird exam and a Complete Blood Count (CBC). Phoenix Landing pays for most birds to have this important medical baseline. Basia’s white blood cell count was elevated at 40,000, which is twice the upper limit of what’s considered healthy for a macaw (20,000 may be acceptable to indicate stress during a vet visit). Basia went on a 10-day course of antibiotics, and though he bit some syringes in half, he took his meds pretty well.

Unfortunately, the vomiting and weight loss continued.

Laura and Jeff, like all of our wonderful foster families, are patient and compassionate. They took Basia back to the vet after the first round of antibiotics was almost complete. Because the symptoms persisted, Dr. Richards at Pender Exotics did a crop wash to test for the presence of fungus or bacteria. Both were found, though, there was a bit of good news: Basia’s white blood cell count on the second blood draw had dropped to 20,000.

Dr. Richards suggested an Aspergillosis test, because Basia had a slight cough, and because he had come from a filthy environment. Dr. Richards also suggested different antibiotics to treat the bacterial and fungal infections, as well as adding apple cider vinegar to Basia’s water.

Laura and I were talking about Basia’s treatment s few days before the results of the Aspergillosis test came back. Basia was still vomiting, and we were stumped. We talked through everything that he had been tested for, and everything he’d been treated for.

All of a sudden it popped into my head: What about heavy metal toxicity?

I had recently had one of my birds tested for this, and I knew that vomiting could be related. The more we talked about where Basia came from, and especially his cage, the more it made sense. Basia could have ingested a piece of the galvanized chicken wire on the cage he was in for months. Laura brought up this possibility with Dr. Richards, who suggested an X-ray, combined with a blood draw to test for elevated zinc and lead levels. Fortunately, Pender Exotics does not anesthetize a bird to do an X-ray, which is something I always worry about in treatment.

A few days later, after Basia’s appointment I talked to Dr. Richards. The Aspergillosis test had come back negative, and the X-ray hadn’t revealed anything either. She saw no foreign bodies, and no apparent pieces of metal in Basia, but we’d have to wait for the test results to come back to confirm that heavy metal toxicity was not the problem. I worried that we might never find the reason for Basia’s persistent vomiting, and he would continue to suffer. Though thankfully, on last weigh-in, Basia had actually gained a little.

A few days later, we had our answer.

Basia’s zine levels were more than twice the normal limit for a bird. What a relief that we’d finally found the cause for his symptoms, and that it was something that could be treated. The treatment is chelation therapy, continued monitoring and retesting to confirm that the zinc is finally removed from his body. While Basia isn’t healed, we now know why he’s sick, and what to do about it.

I wanted to share Basia’s story for a number of reasons. His story is by no means typical, but it isn’t unique either. Most birds do not come to Phoenix Landing with extensive medical problems, but some do. It took the hard work and dedication of many folks (Sarah, David, Jeff, Laura, Debbie, myself, Dr. Richards and the staff of Pender) to get this bird on the right track and to save his life. It also took a lot of money! Phoenix Landing has paid over $500 in vet bills so far for Basia’s treatment. This amount will certainly double, if not triple, by the time we’re done.

We’re happy to help Basia to get well, but helping parrots takes time and money. If you can donate to us to help with vet costs, wonderful. If you’re a federal employee, don’t forget about us when you complete your CFC contribution (our number is 31469). And, above all, keep learning about good parrot care, and how to keep your bird healthy. If Basia had been housed in a safe cage, it is likely none of this would have happened.

Basia, a blue and gold macaw