As someone who genuinely loves birds, I’d have to say one of the best parts of living in Australia is being able to see the wild birds on a daily basis. I’m very lucky because there are a lot of different types of wild parrots that live in the area surrounding my house. That said though, as someone who has domestic parrots – wild birds are a serious problem for me.
Working in wildlife rescue, I attend a lot of training seminars that cover what is going on in our wild animal populations. It makes me extremely aware of the different diseases that are out there. The diseases that are common here are not unique to Australia, they are also present overseas. Considering how serious these diseases can be, the last thing I want to do is expose my pet birds to diseased wild ones.
One disease in particular has been in the media lately. Last August, there was an outbreak of paramyxovirus in Victoria, Australia. At the time, it was hoped that it could be contained to pigeons in the racing and fancier community. Pigeon racing, expos and sales were all cancelled and movement of birds between states was restricted. Unfortunately, the disease still made it into the feral pigeon population and has consequently spread across the state. If you live in Melbourne, chances are you’re less than 5km away from a known outbreak; there are genuine fears that feral pigeons will spread it interstate. Meanwhile, the race is still on to get a vaccine approved – but even that is proving difficult. To make matters worse, as confirmed by ANPA (Australian National Pigeon Association) the virus has jumped species. It hasn’t been detected in poultry but it has been found in a native raptor (wild hawke) and also in spotted doves.
I have heard at least one avian vet advising clients that as it hasn’t affected chickens yet – it means it can’t. The fact that it has already jumped species, shows how dangerous that advice is. It makes sense to listen to the specialist avian vets who have warned that it is likely to jump to poultry and people need to watch their chickens for signs of illness. Personally, I’d extend that vigilance to all pet birds. This view matches the information available from similar past outbreaks and Australian Quarantine’s information.
Paramyxovirus is a group of viruses that cause several human and animal diseases, one of which is Newcastle Disease. PMV-1 (the current strain of paramyxovirus in Victoria) is closely related, and could become when PMV-1 spreads from pigeons to other species. According to Australian Quarantine and Inspection Services, domestic fowl, turkeys, pigeons and parrots are the most susceptible to this disease. So the situation is potentially devastating to native and domestic birds alike. While there have been no human cases reported in Australia before, it is also possible for humans to contract the disease. In 1999, approximately 2000 domestic birds were slaughtered to contain an outbreak in NSW, but that’s just the domestic figure (think pet birds); just under 1.5 million birds were slaughtered in total. Despite PMV-1 still being present, the Department of Primary Industries has just lifted the ban on pigeon movements in Victoria, saying that fanciers can vaccinate their birds for Newcastle Disease. In short, it’s something all bird owners need to be aware of and it is definitely a good reason to keep your pet parrot away from wild birds.
Paramyxovirus is not the only disease out there though. In terms of parrots, one of the most concerning diseases is circovirus. Circovirus is more commonly known as ‘beak and feather’ or ‘PBFD’. There currently is no cure and not a lot of treatment available for this disease. It is possible for a bird to recover, but more common for a bird to die from secondary infections, if not from the disease itself. One of the avian vets I use, told me of recent studies of wild bird populations in which 90% of birds tested, came back with results that showed they had been exposed to the disease. Plenty of research is being done and a vaccine is being developed, but it isn’t available in Australia yet. I can’t stress enough that this disease is common and highly contagious. It is spread via contact with an infected bird’s feather dust or faeces; often to chicks in the nest. It is definitely a disease that you really don’t want your birds exposed to and should be something you get any new bird joining your flock screened for.
The other disease that is surprisingly common in wild parrots is psittacosis. This disease is treatable, but it can also easily be fatal. In birds, the main symptom to watch out for is sneezing, or nasal discharge. In humans it presents like the flu but can quickly deteriorate to pneumonia. Working with wild birds, I’ve found this disease to be particularly common in wild lorikeets. It isn’t uncommon to hear them sneezing in a tree above.
You can imagine how worried I was when a wild lorikeet broke in to my bird room at the start of the breeding season, in an attempt to join up with my female lorikeets. About 10 days later ALL of my flock were sneezing their heads off. It was a trip en masse to the vet where treatment was begun immediately while we waited for test results. Similarly my blue and gold macaw, Fid, is currently being treated for this illness (he’s had a faint positive test result and has had some symptoms). The tests for my others came back clear, but they were still sneezing – so treatment was continued. $1200 later and I took the most ‘sneezy’ birds to a different vet for a second opinion. In hindsight, that group consisted of my best talkers. The vet listened to Lori’s sneezing fit in amusement and said it was one of the best imitation sneezes that he’d ever heard.
So my little monsters had been faking illness. I was torn between wanting to scream in frustration and being relieved. Relief won, but the experience taught me something. I began to look more seriously in to how to protect my guys from wild birds. It isn’t an easy undertaking but there are a couple of things that you can do.
The most obvious thing is to quarantine any new birds, or birds that are exposed to wild birds. There are also screening tests that your avian vet can do to check for these and other diseases. Realistically, any new birds should see a vet fairly quickly to get an initial understanding of any health needs.
In terms of looking after existing birds, have a look at the base of your aviary. As most diseases are spread through faeces, it is helpful to have a grille at the bottom of your cage. It means that if a wild bird lands on your aviary, any poo falls through the grille. This prevents your bird from coming in to direct contact with it.
The way that you clean your aviary can also make a difference. Spraying down any paper or cage liner before moving it prevents any diseased dust from being able to rise. This is an important precaution because this dust is just as dangerous to people as it is to birds. Using a decent avian safe disinfectant regularly is also important. I personally use F10, which I buy from my avian vet. It is worth checking with your own vet, to see what they recommend.
Sick wild birds are going to be struggling to forage for food, any food source that is ‘easy’ will be extremely attractive to them. Make sure that the area surrounding your aviaries is clear of any food that your birds may have thrown there. Dispose of any used food – don’t throw it out in the yard for wild birds to eat. Similarly, having a wild bird feeder stand in your yard is an incredibly bad idea. Bird feeders encourage sick birds to spend considerable amounts of time in your yard rather than a natural pattern of coming and going. I do have a birdbath in my yard, to help the wildlife out on those really hot days. That said water isn’t going to keep them in the yard like a bird feeder will.
In terms of bird deterrents, I’ve had some difficulty finding something that will deter just the wild birds and not my guys. I tried a plastic replica owl – but it completely freaked my flock out. Now I hang a range of streamers and kite tails near my cages – which helps, but only for as long as it takes the wild birds to work out they’re not really a threat.
I have clear blinds that I use to seal off my bird room, but the wild birds have learned to unzip the sides. I always thought spotted doves were fairly stupid (ever since I saw one land on my cat), but they literally grab the zip tag and pull. I had to watch my security video footage to work out how they were getting in. Since then, I’ve found dropping bricks on the flap so they can’t get to the zip pulley works well.
A pet cat, is supposed to be a good bird deterrent. The sight or smell of one is supposed to make a difference. That said, my cat is clearly defective in this area. Ever since Morgy grabbed his tail as he walked past her cage, he has been somewhat terrified of birds. (She put a permanent kink in it.) Somehow the wild birds seem to know he’s not scary. My dogs tend to be more effective.
The best deterrent that I’ve found, is actually my birds themselves. I’ve taught them to scream an alarm call when they see a wild bird. Mind you, I’m not convinced that my neighbours appreciate the cacophony of car alarms, smoke detectors, ringtones and the word “CAT” being screeched at full volume. Fortunately, neither do the wild birds – they usually fly away in fear. Bright side if they ever do break in to my bird room – I’ll know.
I know I have focused largely on Australia in this post, but I should also point out that these and other diseases exist all over the world. If all of this isn’t enough to make you want to keep wild birds away – it’s not just diseases that you have to worry about. Wild birds can carry mites, worms… you get the idea. Don’t get me wrong – I love wild birds. It’s just too big a risk having them around my flock.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.