The different parrot families are divided into two broad categories: Old World and New World species. New world parrots, of which there are 148 species, are all parrots that are indiginous to Central and South America and Mexico (The U.S. no longer has a native parrot species.) Some popular New World species are the macaws, the amazons and the conures.
The 181 species of Old World parrots are those that are native to Asia, Africa and Australia. Among Old World species are the senegal, the cockatiel and the indian ringneck.
Since vast oceans separate the Americas from the rest of the world’s continents, both New and Old World parrots evolved differently. Most New World species are acclimated to the damp, temperate regions of the rain forest while some Old World Species thrive in dry, arid conditions. The result is the occurrence of certain physical and biological differences between the two factions.
One of those differences is that some Old World species produce powder down feathers. The keratin sheaths that surround these emerging feathers break down into a fine, powdery substance that is more pervasive in the home and air space than the granular dander that is produced by New World species.
Three very popular parrot species that produce powder down are the african grey, the cockatoo and the cockatiel. Anyone who owns one or more of these birds will attest to the intensity of the mess they create. Of my 5 birds, 4 are of the dusty variety.
Over recent years, veterinarians started to discover that serious, life threatening diseases were developing in macaws who shared living quarters with a dusty, Old World bird. Macaws are very sensitive to airborn particulates and more easily develop respiratory issues and pulmonary disease with continued exposure to powder down dust. Of the macaws, the blue and gold macaw has shown itself to be most at risk.
An initial indication of an arising problem is wheezing, which is followed by coughing and difficulty breathing as disease progresses. At this point, however, your bird is very ill and may have developed other issues resulted from the low oxygenation of cells.
If you own a macaw AND a dusty old world bird, it is recommended that you keep them housed in separate rooms. However, powder down dust will insinute itself into every crack and crevice and will travel through your home’s air system with ease. To further protect your macaw, follow these precautions:
- Bathe your dusty birds frequently! Powder down dust that is not shed onto the ground and into the air is spread throughout the feathers during preening creating a water-resistancey. The more often you bathe your bird, the more dust that will rinse down the drain and the less that will enter the environment.
- Change the cage substrate more often. If you are using wood chips or other popular litter, frequent changing can become expensive. This is yet another good reason to use paper cage liners instead. Use a vacuum cleaner with a flitration system to clean the floor and surrounding areas. Brooms and the sweeping motion will send particulates up into the air.
- Use a spray bottle to mist the cage liner. Birds often flap their wings vigorously in the cages for exercise. The wind created will force the dander that has settled on the cage bottom into the air. Mist the cage bottom 2-3 times a day with water to help keep the dander in place in between liner changes.
- Buy a good quality HEPA filter. I use an Austin Allergy Jr. It has been running 24/7 now for several years and I have only great things to say this product. You can select to keep it in the room with your dusty bird to catch dander as it is shed, or you can keep it in the room with your macaw to catch the dander that escapes into that room. I choose to run mine in the same room as my cockatoos because it eliminates the mess in that room. It also works twice as hard and will need more frequent filter replacement.
- For those with space enough in their yard, an outdoor aviary is the ideal solution. Not only do your birds benefit from the health advantages of being outdoors, but this is the ultimate ventilation system.
Macaws are not alone in their need for a dander-free air space. By heeding the precautions listed above, you will protect yourself and your family from problems of a similar nature. These tips will also help those who are allergic to birds keep their symptoms under control.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.