Meet Jackie. A young, very friendly female cockatiel that is different from most companion birds because Jackie has a job. Jackie lives in an aged care facility (nursing home) where she provides “animal therapy” to the human residents who require assisted living care. As you can probably imagine, this little bird has become very important to the residents, as they are unable to have their own pets. Many don’t have regular visitors, so the companionship of their feathered friend is invaluable.
A large number of nurses and residents will see and look after Jackie on a daily basis, but there is no one person who is wholly accountable for her welfare. Her cage is kept clean; she has toys, fresh water and food daily. She has a lot of out of cage time and will happily fly from person to person. She is well loved and seemed happy enough.
The nursing home is under new management, which is how I have come to meet Jackie. That new management is my mother. So it was actually my mother who realised things with Jackie weren’t quite right. (I knew I’d rub off on her eventually.) Mum telephoned me to ask me what to do about Jackie laying a “soft egg”? As most of you can probably imagine, my answer was: “She needs a vet.”
Egg laying is a perfectly natural thing for a female bird and in most cases you only need to know the basics of egg laying to keep your bird healthy. However, a soft egg is likely due to a calcium deficiency and can be a sign of a life threatening condition. Most bird owners would know that a soft egg is a bad sign. Patty recently did a post that explains this which you can reach if click here.
Needless to say, I took this further and went to see Jackie. I found a bird with a serious tail bob; she was shivering and had balance problems. It hadn’t been noticed because it had been going on so long that her carers had thought it was normal for her.
I discovered that this was at least the sixth soft egg that Jackie had laid in a row. She had laid another the week before. She’d laid at least 30 normal eggs prior to this in the space of only a few months. As news spread amongst staff that this was a problem, these numbers have kept going up as more and more staff admitted they had also disposed of eggs in the past (not realising that it might be a problem). Her record seemed to be 3 eggs in a day. So many staff have been involved it’s impossible to get an exact number as none of them had been aware they weren’t the only one finding them. If they had been comparing notes, Jackie’s situation may not have been as serious.
The avian vet who usually deals with my flock was unavailable and one look at Jackie told me that any delay in treatment could be fatal. Fortunately, I could name a specialist avian vet off the top of my head that I knew had an excellent reputation for dealing with hormonally challenged birds like Jackie. I’d been to seminars run by this vet surgery, so I took Jackie to the Burwood Bird & Animal Hospital to meet Dr Phil Sacks.
Jackie was anaesthetised and given a hormone implant to help prevent egg laying in the next six months. She was also given a calcium injection. Calcium and vitamin/mineral supplements were prescribed for ongoing treatment. I then happily raided the toys that were for sale at the surgery and bought some high quality pellets for her too. Then Jackie came home for a recovery holiday with me.
That night, Jackie was having convulsions. She couldn’t perch and was lying on the bottom of her cage making sounds as though she was trying to pass another egg. I found myself moving her into a warm steam-filled room until this passed. When she recovered, she was able to perch under a heat lamp in one of my smaller hospital cages. There is no doubt in my mind that if she hadn’t seen Dr. Sacks and had that calcium injection several hours before – she wouldn’t have made it through the night.
Jackie improved quite quickly in the days that followed. After four days I was able to remove the heat lamp. I converted her from a seed based diet onto a combination of pellets and the birdtricks natural feeding regime while simultaneously introducing her to foraging. She was introduced to the shower for the first time and taught to bathe. She learned that toys are something you can interact with and that foliage isn’t going to eat a cockatiel. She also learned that hoop earrings aren’t swings and dogs come running when you whistle them. Seven days at my place and she was a different bird.
The thing is, Jackie’s problems were caused by a really crap diet that was 95% poor quality seed and an inappropriate living environment that was triggering hormonal behaviour. Jackie’s carers weren’t equipped with the knowledge needed to detect a problem. Her carers don’t have time to cook up special food for a bird. Bathing is a problem because there is no possibility of her having a shower perch installed where she lives. Nor can Jackie be allowed to flick water over those who live there because wet slippery floors and the elderly don’t tend to mix well. They have no way of monitoring her weight. They have very limited funds allocated to her care.
I’ve seen “Save the bird” Internet campaigns launched with less ammunition than that. It’s safe to say that the result of that sort of campaign would result in the bird being re-homed. Actually presenting the vet bill alone would be enough to achieve that (mum paid it). Confiscating Jackie is not the outcome I want to see. Jackie has a job and it’s an important one. She is the only animal contact most of the residents have and the bond she has with them is something special. There is a little old lady who has been sobbing every day that Jackie has been away – her little feathered friend is her only friend. She has no other visitors.
I have sent Jackie home now that she is stable. I’m not one of those rescuers who needs to “own” every bird that they help. That said I haven’t sent her back doomed to a relapse. I’ve taken steps to make sure her life has changed.
I gave her cage a makeover. The dowel perches have been replaced with natural ones. The dodgy wheels the cage sat on are gone. I’ve raised the cage so it is taller. I’ve removed the upper tray so it isn’t as dark. She has new toys. The newspaper is now under the wire grill instead of on top of it (so she won’t be ink stained anymore and it will reduce the nesting material available). She now has her own medication chart just like the human residents. Nursing home staff now have to sign off on her current supplements and note any symptoms such as shivering and egg laying. I’ve supplied the better quality pellet diet and will continue to do so.
The staff at the nursing home can’t cook for a bird, but I can. It won’t kill me to provide an extra serve of whatever my birds are eating. I will be sending a bowl of food to work with my mother daily (so Jackie can continue on the birdtricks diet). Frozen portions can be defrosted and pellets can be used on the days mum isn’t there. Mum plans for Jackie to come home with her for regular overnight/weekend stays, which will allow me to monitor her weight and any arising illness symptoms. There is a shower perch here with her name on it. It won’t hurt Jackie to have the occasional downtime from her ‘job’ either.
Long term I know my level of crazy is contagious to some degree. Give a bird like Jackie the right diet, the right environment to control her hormones, the right veterinary support… the changes in her will be obvious enough to help change the attitude of her carers. She’s out there teaching a lot of people that birds don’t just eat seed and sit in a cage staring at a wall all day. It won’t take long for the changes to become ‘normal’ and that’s going to help Jackie and any future bird that comes into that nursing home.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.