I know many of you are wondering what happened to Bandit, my male galah who was 11 years old, whom died while we were just a few days into a road trip that would lead to a Freeflight trip at a location he’d never been flying at, that I was so excited to take him.
Day 1: I picked him up from my outdoor aviaries at my parents house in the afternoon and loaded him up with my macaws, doves and project birds into our “bird trailer” (a small trailer we have equipped specifically for the birds with traveling cages, food and water, AC/heat and all the things they need while we are on the road. We traveled 1.5 hours to perform a show that night around 7pm. Bandit wasn’t used in the show, just my macaw Tusa, but everyone seemed great.
We left the show that evening and drove about 2 hours before stopping for 5 hours to sleep. Then we continued on driving for 16 hours.
I didn’t want to bother with fresh food feeding since I knew our trip was going to be a ton of driving and the trailer was jam-packed with things we needed for 3 different variations of trips (two different shows, one flight trip, and one trip Dave would leave to go to solo) so I only brought pellets and treats to feed.
The first sign that escaped me was Bandit’s lack of appetite. Because we were driving 16 hours out of the day the birds were not getting as much sleep as they should, and the driving makes it hard to eat, too. So the fact that he wasn’t eating super awesome wasn’t a red flag to me because:
- I was over-feeding to ensure if they dropped pellets while we were driving, they weren’t going hungry (makes it hard to tell if they’re eating a lot or a little, though)
- There’s usually a lack of appetite when first starting to travel or while traveling, especially when changing temperatures which we were going into very HOT temps where this is even more likely for my birds.
- I still saw proof he was eating and knew it wasn’t as much as normal, but because of the above things it didn’t set off any alarms for me.
The night before I noticed something was wrong Dave took care of the birds and specifically said Bandit seemed his “normal” self, saying “night night!” when the lights were turned off for them to sleep. In the morning, I was admittedly in a rush to spend the day with my daughter as I’d promised her and so although I noticed his continued lack of appetite, I gave him fresh food and water, corralled Touche the Indian ringneck who had escaped a food dish and wandered over Bandit’s cage (which he did not appreciate) and left for the day to spend with my daughter.
When I came back that evening is when I noticed something was wrong.
Red flag #1: Bandit didn’t care what I was doing.
Normally, he’s all up in my business when I come in to care for the birds. He talks, tries to get my attention and earn a treat, and follows what I am doing. This time though, he was staring blankly at nothing and was completely uninterested. When I spoke to him, he didn’t respond.
Red flag #2: He hadn’t TOUCHED his food for the entire day.
I slid out his pellet bowl to find the pellets exactly as I had put them that morning… untouched.
Red flag #3: His poop looked abnormal
I immediately slid out his cage tray to confirm he had not eaten anything and examined his poop and DID NOT like what I saw.
I immediately called Dave to come to me. While Dave was on his way, I tried EVERYTHING to get Bandit’s attention and he would not turn to me. I opened the cage and tapped him and he acted like I came out of nowhere - like he could not see or hear me. I full out panicked and starting yelling at Bandit to try to get him to hear me or acknowledge me being there. When Dave showed up, he pretty much found me in hysterics. He grabbed Bandit and put him on the scale in the trailer. Normally Bandit weighs 315 grams, and he was at 250 grams. That’s when I immediately called an exotic avian hospital and rushed him there - it was 20 excruciating minutes away.
We both believed if he was able to just make it through the night, he might survive this.
The vet that met with us was not an avian vet, nor was she the one that was recommended to us by a few locals that I called upon for help… but she consulted with the head avian vet there on Bandit’s case. However, she did try to send us home 4 times with a “critical care feeding pack”. I pushed to have her keep him, incubate him and medicate him ASAP or he wouldn’t make it through the night. I told her my presence was only startling him, not comforting him and I couldn’t take him home knowing that. He surely wouldn’t make it in my care, he needed emergency help now… birds die quickly when you notice the signs like these too late. I refused to take him home.
I got a call in the morning from an avian certified vet who was now on Bandit’s case and informed me he made it through the night. They planned to change from oral medication to injected medication to get it directly into his bloodstream. They also planned to crop feed him which means putting a tube/syringe directly down to his crop to put food there so he does not have to swallow it. I was heading to a local pharmacy for the other meds they needed for him when they called me to tell me he died.
He died 12 hours after I noticed all the signs.
Sadly, without asking me, they canceled many of the tests I’d originally requested when he passed away. They didn’t realize I would still want those answers and information to determine what happened (the vet did say the necropsy would show the results of most of those tests anyway). I immediately ordered a necropsy which the vet performed that afternoon… and told me she could not visually tell that there was any damage with her naked eye, that she would have to send tissues and organs to a pathologist for answers.
I know I got one of two of the best pathologists in the USA working on his case. And still, the cause of death could not be determined. “A possible toxin of some kind” was a thought. The vet told me I could spend thousands of dollars testing against individual toxins and still never know, there were too many out there and no clue as to where to start.
Because we had other birds with us we wanted to be sure it was nothing contagious so those tests were run first to ensure the safety of the rest of our flock. When we got home from our trip, we immediately took all the other birds in for bloodwork and exams and had the results looked over by 3-4 different avian vets for assurance that the current flock is healthy and okay.
Although I don’t have any sort of confirmation on what it was, because of the lack of damage to his organs and no “wounds” that anything could have gotten in through and infected him by, I have picked apart the way I do things in the search of something to change for the better.
I questioned the sand, and I brought it up to numerous vets including the one that performed the necropsy on him. Everyone has said sand in an aviary is not a problem, not even if the birds ingest some, but that it isn’t the most ideal bottom and that cement is better because you can clean it easier and they can’t chew it or ingest it (sand remains in the crop for months as its not easily digested). I was told sand wouldn’t hurt them if ingested, even though parrots should never be provided with grit in their diet, but IF something like heavy metals was found in the sand that that could cause damage over the long-term.
To add more confusion, we use a couple different variations of sand. One of which was high in iron, and one of which was not. Something I never knew how to test until this situation caused me to look closer. Even going back to the people who sell the sand, they swear up and down there’s no heavy metals in the sand… and even though there’s very SMALL amounts, there IS. I let them know this when I discovered it for myself. Even in the white super fine sand that they say is clean because it’s used for sand-blasting… it still reacts to an Earth magnet which means there is some amount of iron in that sand. I could not find a sand free of iron when I looked locally.
I had very good avian vets arguing over iron, but the deal is, I have a toucan who is very sensitive to iron so I don’t want it in any of my aviaries for his health alone.
My galahs are natural ground-foragers and to keep my birds off the sand I always used portion control as much as possible so that they weren’t going down there for leftovers that would have sand possibly stuck to them (not to say it never happened) also Bandit was notorious for going to Rocko’s aviary to scavenge any dropped toucan pellets he could find.
From this point onward though, I will advise against using sand. Although it made clean up quick and seamless, it also created more dust than likely necessary and popped up a ton of questions that no one could agree on answers to and that scares me. Although I don’t have confirmation the sand killed Bandit, it’s something that I feel I could do better and use something that would not come into question in the future.
My immediate solution was to get rid of the sand and replace it with newspaper and unwaxed butcher paper, but this entire situation made me get creative with how to BETTER my system overall.
I told Dave it would be amazing if we could build a metal frame work that held the aviaries just high enough to let toy chunks and paper pass through, but also was on wheels so I could push them around and get underneath them to clean, as well as push them onto our driveway for pressure washing. It would make the entire space much more clean and would mean I could take better care of the enclosures too.
Steam cleaning is amazing but so time consuming and brutal in the summer heat. If I could steam clean in the winter, but pressure wash in the summer, I’d have a much easier time keeping the place looking nice. He agreed and got to work on specs someone could weld together so it’s now in the works.
Here are instructions for sending substances to get heavy metal or pesticide testing:
Fill out this form: https://www.lsu.edu/vetmed/laddl/forms/specimen_submissions.pdf
Send in your sample and payment with your filled out paperwork, I got results in 3 days on lead, zinc and iron for $111.