Signs of Illness

Dealing with Illness


Our Tragic Experience

How to Do a Fecal Smear




Our Tragic Experience

Nice Zebra - the first bird to catch the illness. He died suddenly; I never knew he was ill.

Our Owl Finch, Nice Zebra's companion started showing signs of illness a few weeks later.

Peeper, most likely an owl-society hybrid, sitting beside his friend, the owl. He would be the next victim.

My male strawberry (right) became ill next. Thankfully, we were able to save him and stop the spread once and for all.

One November, I came home to find one of my zebras dead in his nestbox. I was shocked and devastated. He was my favorite zebra, sweeter and gentler than his more aggressive zebra peers. In fact, he preferred the company of a gentle owl finch to the company of any of the other zebras, and even shared a nestbox with this owl (since I do not breed, this interspecies relationship did not bother me).

I had not seen any sign of illness in this bird. I do not know if I was not paying enough attention or if he did not show signs, but I had no clue this was coming. Since I did not know his age and hadn't seen any signs, I dismissed his death to natural causes - some type of organ failure, perhaps. But I kept an eye on his owl friend, just in case.

At first, the owl seemed fine. He paired up with Peeper, who I believe was an owl-society hybrid (though I don't know anything about his origin and I can't say for sure). Peeper used to hang out with the societies, but when this lonely owl started to show signs of affection, he abandoned the societies for the constant companionship of the owl.

I hate to say it, but in a few weeks I started to see signs of the illness in my owl finch. He became more lethargic. He frequently slept while the other birds were active. But I didn't trust my instincts. I thought I was being paranoid. I guess I didn't want to believe it and so was in denial. About a month after my zebra had died, I lost my sweet, gentle owl finch to the same illness.

Now I was just sick. Two of my favorite birds lost, and one I should have at least tried to save. There was no question I was responsible. And I was not going to let myself go into denial again. This time, my devoted attention was focused on Peeper. He had been nesting with the owl for about three weeks. If the disease would spread, he would be the likely target.

Sure enough, in a couple of weeks he started showing the same signs of lethargy. He stopped singing. He was just very slightly not quite the same bird. I made an appointment with the vet. But alas, when the appointment came, we were hit by a terrible snow storm. I was in the last trimester of my pregnancy and the vet was far away - I was too afraid to make the trip. I rescheduled, but I had to make the next appointment on a Saturday because I had no more sick time due to all my prenatal doctor visits. Saturday's are always booked up quickly, so the next available appointment wasn't for a few weeks.

But Peeper was starting to look better to me. Either that, or I had become accustomed to his "sick" behavior. I was no longer sure there was anything really wrong - I might just be looking for problems that were not there.

By the time his appointment rolled around, I was pretty sure he really was sick. He had gotten worse. He was fluffed up a lot of the time. He would spend much of his time on the ground, rummaging through spilt seed, or up in a perch, sleeping. When healthy, he was a very social bird. Now he rejected the company of others.

When I brought him in to the vet, she could tell right away that he was ill. He did not even make an attempt to cover up his "fluffiness." His fecal sample indicated he was suffering from an enteritis infection. He was very thin and breathing hard. I had to leave him at the bird medical center for hospitalization while they tried to treat the infection and build his weight back up.

In the care of the veterinarians, he managed to recover from the enteritis infection. After about a week, there was no sign of enteritis in his stool sample. But he still was not recovering like he should have been. They suspected perhaps Aspergillosis was at the bottom of this because I used corncob bedding on the aviary floor at that time. He would need an X-ray to try to diagnose the problem.

In the meantime, I got rid of all of the corncob bedding and have not used it again to this day. I tried many different alternatives, but finally settled on newspaper as the safest material. After some time, I switched to Kraft paper because it came on rolls and could be cut to size and because it had a nicer appearance.

The day of the X-ray, Peeper seemed to be doing better. But when they went to get him for the procedure, they found him dead suddenly in the hospital cage.

I can't tell you how crushing this news was to me. I had been intent on saving this bird and on putting a stop to this infection. I failed. Once again, I had acted too late.

I agreed to pay for a necropsy in order to obtain some clue as to what was happening to my birds. The necropsy showed no signs of Aspergillosis as had been suspected, but many of the organs were abnormally enlarged. This could have been caused by many different things. Two of the possible culprits were Polymyxavirus and Atoxoplasmosis, both of which are very difficult to impossible to treat, and even disinfectants such as bleach would have little to no effect in containing the spread.

I agreed to have samples sent to California to try to confirm or negate any of these hypotheses. Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive. They couldn't rule it out but they couldn't confirm it either. All I could do is wait and see.

Lo and behold, a fourth bird got sick. My male strawberry. Same symptoms but to a lesser degree: he had stopped singing, was occasionally puffed up, was less active, and avoided contact with the other birds, spending a lot of time at the bottom of the aviary sifting through the spilt seed. I acted immediately: I took a vacation day that I had been reserving for my maternity leave and brought him in to the vet.

He had the same enteritis as Peeper, but he was in much better physical shape because I had caught it early enough. The strawberry was able to come back home with me, but we had to administer an antibiotic twice a day orally for a couple of weeks. The antibiotic cleared up the enteritis and when I brought him in for his follow-up visit, he was in much better shape. It was unknown whether he also had whatever had killed Peeper - we could only wait and see. No other symptoms surfaced, and he was allowed to return to the aviary after an observation period. He has been just fine ever since (more than a year as of this writing). We never found out what it was that killed Peeper.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the male strawberry in this story passed away shortly before the new aviary was finished. His death was unrelated to this illness.

This is a terrible story to tell. Although through this experience I've learned to recognize signs of illness in my birds even before the obvious symptoms have surfaced, the birds that I lost paid the price of my education. I am very sorry for this, and I only hope that from sharing this story, others like me won't have to live it to learn from it. There is no way to emphasize enough how important it is to recognize illness, isolate the sick bird, and seek appropriate treatment.

Just remember this: trust your instincts. If you think something may be wrong, even if it is just a little nagging suspicion that you can't quite put your finger on, get the bird checked out. Your instincts are probably right.

A Note On Nestboxes

One thing that became apparent to me from this experience was that the illness was most likely to spread from one bird to another that shared the same nestbox (the exception being the male strawberry). For this reason, if you are not currently breeding your birds, I highly recommend removing the nestboxes. Since removing the nestboxes, I have not had any contagious illnesses spread in my aviary. The nestboxes are impossible to clean thoroughly without destroying the nests the birds build in them and the birds will spend a lot of time sitting amidst their droppings.

Many people are very reluctant to remove the nestboxes even if they never intend to breed. I understand this very well, as I felt the same way. It is very entertaining to watch the birds build their nest and they look so content in the box. However, they will do just fine without the nestbox and will adapt after just a few days of going without. The birds in the wild only use their nests when breeding - at other times they sleep on perches in the trees and brush.

So, for anyone deliberating about whether or not to remove the nests, please give it a try. It is a very effective method of birdie birth control and has health benefits to boot.

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