There’s a common misconception that working in wildlife rescue means working with lots of amazingly cute and cuddly animals. Unfortunately, the real situation is quite different. A LOT of wild rescue work results in the animal being euthanised because they’re usually extremely ill before they come to someone’s notice for rescue.
Not many photos of dead animals make it to the media and no decent rescuer is going to be stressing out a seriously ill animal by sticking a camera in its face. Wildlife Rescuers tend to get very excited when we actually get to save one of the more beautiful animals. It is usually only an animal that is well on the way to recovery that the public get to see photos of, because it’s really the only time that an animal is well enough to face a camera. So naturally, ‘the cute and cuddly’ side of things gets emphasised.
Conversation between rescuers and vets however, tends to be somewhat macabre. I know of one vet who actively requests Wildlife Rescuers bring road kill to her for autopsy/necropsy. The dead are just as important to her as the living. It’s ironic but I’d rather bring any of my pets to see a vet who has shown an interest in the dead than one who simply disposes of them. You can learn something from every death and I would prefer to use a vet that gathers every little bit of information that they can. It’s why I always recommend a necropsy for any deaths in pet birds. You just never know what you’re going to learn from a death.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this to hear that when I noticed a dead Spotted Dove on my veranda on the weekend – I moved very quickly to investigate. Wild birds can be a very real threat to pet birds, so even if it isn’t a native bird, I won’t hesitate to check it out.
As I examined the bird, I was guessing that a cat had killed it. There are more than enough cats in my neighbourhood to make that the most likely possibility. It was young and had probably come from a nest in the hedge in my yard, as it was barely fledged. It didn’t have adult colours yet, so its parents were no doubt still keeping an eye on it. It would make sense for a cat to be the cause of death as the bird was still learning to fly and would have been easy prey.
On closer examination though, there was no visible sign of injury. There were no loose feathers in the area either. A Spotted Dove will release a ‘shock moult’ of feathers as a defense mechanism when grabbed by a predator. The average cat will cough in shock when it gets a mouthful of loose feathers – giving the bird a chance to escape. There should have been feathers scattered around, but there wasn’t even one.
The bird was still warm, so it had only just died. It was underweight, but its eyes were clear and its overall feather condition seemed good. Without an obvious sign of illness or injury, I found myself hopefully concluding ‘cat’. The bird had probably had a heart attack or something of the sort. Better that than some unidentifiable disease that could wipe out other birds!
That was when I saw it. It looked like a spider on the wing, but it had wings. It seemed to see me too and came straight at my face, hitting my cheek before landing in my hair, swinging to the left of my face. It was desperately trying to bury itself into my hair as I batted it to the ground and pinned it under the plastic bag I’d been about to put the bird in. To the amusement of my visitors (who no doubt were wondering why I’d run out of the house to play with a dead bird), I demanded someone bring me a glass, so I could catch it and make 100% sure of what it was and that it was safely dead.
Honestly though? I was already sure of what it was. I suddenly understood the reason for the entomology assignment at vet school. If you’ve spent hours sticking pins through insects and getting them to dry with wings set at specific angles and feet out, all to obey what seems like pointless presentation rules – you’re going to recognise those insects if you ever see them again. I had thought the assignment a bit gruesome and was irritated by the hours it took to complete, but now I understood some of the reasoning behind it. It was as useful as gaining information from any other dead animal.
I was looking at a Hippoboscidae fly. The same evil parasite that I’d pulled off my elderly galah in February. I was suddenly very glad that I’d examined the dead bird. The information it was giving me was priceless as far as I was concerned. It had told me that I was looking at a very real threat to my own flock.
The studies that I have read say that the fly is only supposed to be a problem in warmer months – the adults die off before the cold weather hits. Considering that we’ve had record-breaking rain and the grass has been cracking under my feet in the morning because it has frozen overnight – I realised this was NOT true. It won’t be an accident that an adult fly is alive and well at the moment.
I am now sure that I am dealing with a different subspecies from what I’d read about. If the adult fly exists in the cold weather then I’m dealing with one of the varieties known to give birth to live, fully formed flies, one at a time. This would mean the adult fly would exist all year around. If so, in theory several generations could be living on the one host at a time and would make the death of a young bird more likely. The fact that it was on a dove (they’re more commonly found on raptors or pigeons) and that I had one on my galah, tells me that they don’t require a specific species as a host. If so, there’s nothing stopping them finding any of my birds at any time of the year.
The dead juvenile dove told me that the fly’s presence was life threatening to its host and furthermore due to the bird’s age, I could be reasonably sure that the nests in my hedge in my backyard are infested. I can also be reasonably sure that judging from its desperate flight into my hair, they’re quite happy to jump on to any living thing with hair in order to find a new host. Considering that my dogs love hiding under that hedge, they could easily bring them up to the house and may go a long way to explaining how Cocky Boy had one in February.
I’m spraying out my aviaries with permethrin (which is the treatment for this parasite). I have wondered about spraying the hedge, but there are no young in the nests at the moment and it’s doubtful I’d get the adult birds with the spray. I’m not sure that would permanently solve my problem. The flies are likely to be living on the adult birds and they’ll probably just re-infest the nests. For my birds’ sakes, I don’t really want the doves nesting here again. So this morning I’m sipping my coffee and thoughtfully eyeing a chainsaw and a box of matches. I’m thinking the hedge’s days are numbered…
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.