Well it hasn’t been quiet at my house lately because we’ve had some visitors staying with us while their human left the country. Three extra birds don’t sound like much in theory but noise wise – it adds up.
The birds’ owner was quite keen to see how her birds reacted around other birds. In particular her 54-year-old galah, Charlie was be a bit of a loner. She was looking forward to seeing how he coped in a house with four other galahs? All three of her birds had been screened for diseases in the past and had been vet-checked fairly recently. So I found myself welcoming Charlie the galah, Peanut the cockatiel and Ashling the Rainbow Lorikeet into my house for a fortnight.
I wouldn’t take on a request to look after someone else’s birds lightly. They could be the most gorgeous animals on the planet but birdsitting isn’t my idea of fun. To me, it is a risk to my existing flock. You never know what illness another person’s bird is carrying. The stress of being in a new environment or being away from their usual care giver can bring that bird’s hidden illness to the surface. Even a vet check isn’t a guarantee that all is ok. Quarantine is a must.
That said, I get how worrying leaving a bird while you travel can be. If I couldn’t travel with my birds, I know I’d want someone with experience looking after mine. I’d feel particularly concerned about leaving my elderly 64 year old galah in someone else’s care due to his special needs and regular medications. I had more that a little sympathy for a friend trying to ensure her elderly 54 year old galah would be ok. So I found myself saying yes.
I had a list of questions that I wrote down the answers to before the birds’ usual owner left the country. These included:
- What is the bird’s name?
- What is the bird’s sex?
- What is the bird’s age?
- Who is the bird’s regular vet?
- Do I have permission to take the bird to that vet if something goes wrong? (It is a good idea to get a signed letter authorising you to approve veterinary treatment, or have a prior arrangement with the vet in place. Also have $ worked out, how does the person want to pay the vet – does the vet have a credit card number on file?)
- When did the bird last see that vet? (and why?)
- What diseases has the bird been screened for?
- What illnesses has the bird had in the past?
- Are there any particular symptoms to watch for from this particular bird when it is sick?
- What is the bird’s average weight?
- What is the bird’s usual diet? (How much of what and how often?)
- What does the bird’s usual droppings look like?
- What is the bird’s favourite treat?
- What time does the bird usually wake up?
- What time does the bird usually go to sleep? (does it like to be covered at night?)
- What are the bird’s bathing habits? (Do I need to provide a shower perch, a misting spray or a dish?)
- Who is the emergency contact if something goes wrong?
- Is there anything else I should know?
In terms of actually caring for the birds, I set them up in my study, which shares a glass wall with my flock’s bird room. Her birds were able to see and hear my birds but they would have no contact whatsoever with them. My bird room has its own air system – so they wouldn’t even be breathing the same air. As my study is carpeted I laid some MDF sheeting on the floor below their cages before they arrived. It prevented any possibility of them accidentally pooing on the floor.
I implemented basic quarantine standards. I fed, and interacted with her birds after I had finished with mine. Any rubbish or food scraps left the room in a sealed bag. All food bowls were cleaned separately in a bucket with a vet grade disinfectant. In fact everything from toys, cages, bench tops, my own clothing, anything that came into contact with her birds was being cleaned with a vet-grade disinfectant which was mixed up to the strongest recommended bird safe concentration. The disinfectant I use is called F10. On top of my normal cleaning and disinfecting regime, I was washing my hands after every time I interacted with any animal in the house with F10 hand gel and using F10 wipes to clean up any incidental mess.
It sounds like overkill, doesn’t it? It was definitely hard work and explains why I don’t find birdsitting much fun. Not that there weren’t fun aspects to it. The birds were really cute the way they sang and danced through the window at each other. I could completely understand the temptation to put them together. I’d never put any of my flock at risk like that though.
As it turns out, the risk was bigger than I knew. I was concerned from the first day that all three of the visiting birds’ droppings didn’t fit my idea of normal. I knew the cockatiel was supposed to have organ damage from a past illness, so I knew to expect polyuria there. (Think too much water in the droppings.) The others also seemed to have slight polyuria. I put them all on Olive Leaf Extract and saw an almost immediate improvement – including a weight increase. Which was good but rang alarm bells. If they improved, it’s because there was something there in the first place that they needed to improve from.
The cockatiel worsened again though and I found a dark blood red patch on the cockatiel’s tongue. I hadn’t noticed it before and I found myself making a vet appointment, as I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something very wrong with the cockatiel.
It turned out that the cockatiel had giardia. Giardia is contagious, so it was likely enough that the other two had it as well. So suddenly on top of all of the work related to quarantine, I had three sick birds that needed syringed meds twice a day. To make matters worse, the galah turned out to be over-sensitive to the medications and couldn’t tolerate them. The fragile bond of trust that I’d formed with these birds was shattered when I had to become the evil syringe-wielding troll.
Meanwhile, giardia isn’t just a threat to birds – depending on the strain it could be contagious for mammals too. If I hadn’t followed strict quarantine with these birds, my cats and dogs would also have been at risk, as were any humans that came into contact with them. So even though they’d been through disease screening and had been recently vet-checked, these birds were still carrying something. Suddenly all of the quarantine stuff doesn’t sound like overkill, does it?
This story has a happy ending. Giardia is treatable; it’s just that it can be damn hard to get rid of. The cockatiel’s blood tests came back normal, which means that the bird’s organs are working fine and that damage wasn’t the cause of the polyuria. The polyuria was being caused by a long-running case of giardia, which should hopefully be fixable. The discolouration of the tongue was likely to be a secondary symptom and clearred up while the bird was still here. The birds have gone home now, where they will finish treatment. They were more than happy to leave the syringe-wielding troll behind and as wonderful as those birds were I’m glad the extra work is over.
Thanks to quarantine my guys weren’t impacted by the visit. As for my study? The MDF I laid on the floor has already gone to landfill and I’ve pretty much taken a flame-thrower to the room. You’d never know those birds were here.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.