Wisdom from Avian Veterinarians

By Ann Brooks

Attending the annual Association of Avian Veterinarians conference is one of my greatest joys. While much of what is said involves a language beyond my knowledge base, I always learn something new. Here is a summary of my biggest takeaways from this year’s conference.

Thanks to the Grey Parrot Project initiated by Dr. Scott Echols, there is a growing body of evidence that a lack of exercise, sunlight and appropriate diet are highly detrimental to the long-term health of birds in captivity. These may seem like obvious statements, however proving their relationship to disease is easier said than done.

According to Dr. Echols, “a new technique involving radiographs (X-rays) is allowing researchers a means to clearly visualize bone density in birds. Preliminary evidence shows that birds flying outdoors in natural sunlight have better bone density than those housed indoors in small cages. In the attached pictures, cockatiel 1 has better bone density than cockatiel 2. Using the new imaging technique, one can readily see that cockatiel 1 has more red (indicating higher bone density) in the wing and leg bones.”

Since most birds don’t have the opportunity to fly or vigorously move, their bones start to disintegrate. In order to stay strong, bones need to have some stress. It is terrible to think that our birds are suffering in this regard, so we must find a way to get them moving. (For starters, provide more activities outside the cage, increase foraging opportunities, provide a wide variety of perches to encourage movement, and even offer flight when it can be accomplished safely).

The loss of bone structure is especially problematic for female birds in the “lay” mode. Unfortunately, many people touch their birds in sexually stimulating ways, which may encourage these hormonal responses. The healthiest relationship we can have with our companion birds is one that does not involve an excess of “petting” and mate-like behaviors.

Another common problem is nutrition. So many birds live on a diet of packaged seeds. Not only are these high in Omega 6’s (safflower, peanut, sunflower, corn), but most seed brands have very little nutritional value. Our parrots need more Omega 3’s, which can be found in fish oil, flax, pumpkin seeds, hemp, chia and walnuts. If you use flax oil, make sure to buy a very reputable brand, keep it in the refrigerator, and do not shake. And don’t forget to provide a wide variety of dark orange and green fruits and veggies. Here’s an interesting tidbit, if you have chickens, you can dramatically reduce reproductive cancer by including flaxseed as 10% of their diet.

From Drs Dahlhausen and Orosz, we learned that a very large number of birds are Avian Bornavirus positive (ABV), as many as 45% or more in some studies. If your bird is ABV positive, do not panic! Most of these birds remain healthy for their whole lives. Sometimes birds with ABV also develop PDD, but some birds that develop PDD are not positive for ABV.  So as you can see, it is a complicated issue that requires more research.

Possible PDD symptoms might include difficulty in digestion or problems with the nervous system (e.g. seizures). They usually experience some kind of of stressor that suppresses the immune system or alters its normal function as well. Some of these potential stressors include: concurrent infection with Campylobacter, extreme stress, avian gastric yeast, old age and/or reproductivity.  This is yet another reason why we should not sexually stimulate our birds by excessive petting, especially below the neck.  Just remember if your bird does develop PDD, there are ways to help. And if your bird is ABV positive this does not mean it will develop PDD!!

Drs Orosz Dahlhausen Costanzo2

Drs Susan Orosz, Robert Dahlhausen and Greg Costanzo

Another major health concern for birds in captivity is atherosclerosis. Countless birds die at a young age from this heart problem. Why?  Again — they don’t get enough exercise and they don’t have good diets. If we are going to have birds in our homes, we must learn to do better by them by providing healthy food and lots of mental & physical activities.

Lastly, there was another foraging study from UC Davis. Orange wing Amazons were fed an oversized pellet, similar to the size of the nut they eat in the wild. This pellet was made specifically for the study to see if the larger size caused eating activity time and manipulation to increase. In the wild, most parrots spend up to 60% of their day foraging. This means they have to find the food, pick the food, and then manipulate the food. In captivity, parrots usually spend 4 to 10% of their day eating.  So if we can make eating more complicated and physically challenging this will give birds more to do with their time and increase physical activity. The UC Davis researcher, Dr. Polley DVM, calls this “podomandibulation” because the Amazons use both their feet and beaks. This increase in activity helped to reduce stress and improve the welfare of the Amazons.

So, we know without a doubt that our companion parrots need and deserve better diets, more complex enrichment and absolutely more exercise!  What have you done for your parrot?

Goodie Bag Races, Anyone?

Like most people I know, I have been a little more stressed and busy lately than I would prefer to be.  Things are finally getting back to normal for me, but I’ve realized that the relatively high level of enrichment my parrots usually enjoy has probably decreased a bit as a consequence.  I had the great pleasure of attending parrot enrichment guru Kris Porter’s class for Phoenix Landing in Northern Virginia last weekend, and let me tell you…I was INSPIRED!  If you’re not already a fan and user of her website and enrichment booklets, I certainly encourage you to check it out online at http://www.parrotenrichment.com .  Kris has the gift of seemingly endless creativity, and anyone (I mean anyone) who keeps parrots can get some ideas from her.

Personally, my biggest take-away from the class was that I want to begin making some toys that include food items.  I had seen various forms of this idea on Kris’s website and books before, but it never fully dawned on me how useful it could be until I heard Kris describe it and saw her related slides.   I don’t think I’ll be using pretzels, etc, because my silly carb-loving African greys, I’m sure, would never want to eat another vegetable!  (I have to be particularly careful with what food items I allow them to have because-smarties that they are-they’ll constantly hold out for something ‘better’.)  But, I love the idea of baking birdie bread in mini muffin cups with a hole pushed in with a wooden spoon prior to baking.  (Refer to Phoenix Landing’s Nourish to Flourish cookbook for a detailed description of the process.)  The mini muffins can then be strung along with shreddable non-food items to make an interesting and irresistible toy.  The idea being that once the delectable food is gone, the parrot will remain interested in the toy and proceed to work on all the non-food items.  I’m excited to try this concept with my Franco in particular because sometimes I have difficulty convincing him to chew up his toys.

Well, I haven’t had time to bake a new batch of stringable pumpkin bread just yet, but I did come up with a simple idea that my guys are crazy about.   Maybe your parrots will enjoy a goodie bag race as much as Pepper and Franco do!  I start with a small paper bag for each bird.  (I use the brown paper ‘lunch’ bags available in almost any grocery store.) Then I place chunks of birdie bread or other treats in small paper cups and fold the tops of the cups over.  (I use 2 – 3 cups per goodie bag.) Waxless bathroom cups like Dixie cups are perfect.  I put the loaded cups into the bags and fold the top of the bag over once for added strength.  I poke a hole in each bag and attach the bags to the birds’ foraging tree with plastic links used to attach babies’ toys to their carseats, etc.  Or, a big quick link would work just as well.  Add parrots, and the race is on!  Many of my Pepper’s friends know her to be a very accomplished forager.  However, sweet Franco’s technique for this particular job is impeccable.  He can beat Pepper every time.  If you watch the video, note the frustration Pepper (on the right) shows when she realizes Franco is into his bag already.  Of course this activity would be almost as much fun if it weren’t a race, but my greys seem to relish some good old-fashioned sibling rivalry now and then.  (Hmm…I wonder if that’s why the Model/Rival teaching technique works so wonderfully for African greys?)  If you give this a try, please let me know what your parrots think.

Ice Cream Cones & Rice Cakes as Parrot Toys

by Kris Porter
This post is reprinted from the Phoenix Landing Fall Newsletter.

I try to incorporate food items into toys to make them more interesting and it seems to me that I get more sustained activity if there is a bit of food hidden amongst the items strung on a toy. I have found that a rice cake will have great shredding appeal when added to toys. My favorite application is to top an empty clear plastic applesauce cup that has nuts, small pieces of vegetable and fruit inside with a rice cake. My parrots will eagerly shred through the rice cake to get at what is inside the applesauce cup.

I find my birds are more interested in shredding away the rice cake to get at what is under it than they are in eating the rice cake. But it is good to know that there are whole grain rice cakes available that are made with brown rice and no added salts or sugars.

Recently, in a quest to give my parrots something new and exciting to do; I found that ice cream cones make great additions to toys. They have the same appeal as the rice cakes and they add variety. I will make a small hole in the end of the ice cream cone or cup and string it on the toy (upside down).

Inside the ice cream cone I will put nuts and other treats and then cover the cone with an empty applesauce cup. Above and below those items are other toys like a crunch ball, whiffle ball, corn husks, plastic toy parts, etc.

I hope you have found these ideas helpful and that this article gives you inspiration to tweak your imagination and think of other ways to incorporate the rice cakes and ice cream cones into toys you make for your own birds.

Kris Porter is the author of the Parrot Enrichment Activity books and Parrot Enrichment.com.