About five years ago, the avian community was buzzing about two African greys that had died suddenly within twenty minutes of each other after eating grapes imported from Chile where there is little regulation and farming methods make it impossible to eliminate pesticides from food grown there.
Several months later, a flock of four green cheek conures succumbed to fumes when floors were being polyurethaned at the opposite end of the house. The owners of the birds didn’t get them far enough away.
These two tragic events are examples of acute toxicity. Thankfully, little by little, people are learning about the dangers that the human world poses to their birds.
However, I think most vets will agree that these incidents are quietly overshadowed by the problem of daily, low level exposure to toxins – something that goes undetected until it becomes an emergency.
As usual, this post was prompted by online conversations I stumble across out there in birdland. Someone was asking if apple seeds were really dangerous because her bird enjoys eating a whole apple. Someone who appeared to be a regular on the page called the warnings “hogwash” and went to explain that his bird eats apple seeds often and is still quite alive.
For anyone who doesn't know, apple seeds contain trace amounts of a substance that becomes cyanide when it is mixed with digestive enzymes. It is the apple’s way of discouraging animals and insects from devouring its seeds.
If your bird eats an apple seed, it will not die. In fact, several can be eaten by a healthy bird without incident and you don’t have to rush your bird to the vet if you miss a seed in his apple wedge.
It becomes a problem after months or years when the cyanide ingested accumulates to a dangerous level in the blood stream. How quickly this happens depends on how much exposure your bird has had to the toxin.
Another example of chronic low level exposure to toxins comes with the cleaning products we use in the house. It is very easy to forget that the products we use in the “human” areas of the house leave behind residue that your bird might walk through when they are visiting. Floor cleaners are a good example of easy exposure to trace amounts of chemicals that won’t kill your bird on contact, but will accumulate in their system over time.
My goffins cockatoo Theo made off with a penny the other day. She acted like she had just won the lottery. Did you know that the US penny is made mostly of zinc, a metal that is toxic for our birds? I took it away from her and didn’t worry about it because it was just the one time. If she played with pennies every day that would be different.
There are items all over your house that birds get into that are not safe. Because your bird didn’t die from exposure to something known to be toxic does not mean that the warnings are lies, or that your bird is immune. It takes time for the havoc it is wreaking in your bird’s body to become evident – at which point your bird will be in serious trouble.
Chronic, long-term exposure to toxins is scary because it typically goes unmonitored and undetected. By the time your vet gets involved, he will be searching for typical causes of illness and the source of the toxicity is rarely determined. That means that your bird will go home and right back into the clutches of whatever made him sick.
I am convinced that chronic exposure to low level toxins plays a major role in the “mystery illnesses” many captive birds face. The tip this week is for you to keep in mind that not all toxins will immediately take your bird’s life. Some hang around and do their slowly and insidiously without your awareness.
What is your bird playing with? Standing on? Eating?
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.