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Wild Birds, Exotic Birds & Well-Meaning Bird Owners… A Potentially Dangerous Mix

 by Liz Wilson, CVT. CPBC

It was the usual wildly busy Saturday afternoon at the vet hospital, years ago. I entered an exam room to welcome a new avian-owning client….. and was startled to see the lady sitting there with an African grey and….. a sparrow.

“It’s inherently dangerous,” I said, “to mix wild birds with exotic birds.” She looked at me blankly. “That’s not a problem,” she said, after some thought. “African greys are wild birds in Africa just like sparrows are wild birds here.”

This nice lady was totally missing the point of my warning, since what concerned me was the disease exchange potential between these creatures from different worlds. So let’s talk about wild birds and exotic birds, and -- while I have your attention -- let’s also talk about those baby wild birds that lots of well-meaning folks totally mishandle every spring.

Possible Disease Exchange

Wild birds and pet birds are potentially a disease threat to each other, since they are both capable of carrying bacteria and/or vira against which the other might have no defense. This is because their immune systems would not have encountered these foreign germs, so they would have no immunity built up to protect them. This is what happened in the 1500s when Captain Cook first sailed to the South Seas. He and his crew unknowingly brought a plethora of alien microbes with them to which the Europeans were immune….. but the natives were not. Deadly epidemics resulted. The same problem arose when Europeans first interacted with native Americans – major disease outbreaks resulted, and large numbers of native Americans died.

This dangerous disease exchange potential is very real between exotic pet birds and the wild birds outside your window. Several years ago, I had conniptions when a popular bird magazine published a cute little story about a “wildlife rehabilitator” working with an owl in the same room with her blue and gold macaw. This really [understatement] upset me, since there was no editorial warning included. Because of this story, many people would assume there was no problem with mixing wild and exotic species… and there most definitely is a problem with that.

Laborious Decontamination Procedures

I also work in wildlife rehabilitation -- at the Aark Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Newtown, Pennsylvania. I also worked for two decades with vets – mainly avian and exotic animal vets -- and I am extremely cognizant [another understatement] of the potential dangers of disease transmission or exchange. Consequently, in my world the following protocols are law. The shoes I wear at the center don’t ever come in my house…. or any other house of any other parrot owners. In point of fact, they live in my car in a plastic bag, so they don’t contaminate my vehicle, either (though they do smell it up a bit). The clothes I wear at the Aark do come in my house (since I don’t chose to strip on the front step and get arrested for making everyone in the neighborhood nauseous) – and go directly into the washing machine to be washed in hot water with detergent and bleach. The shower is the next step, for a good scrub all over (including fingernails) plus hair washing. My Aark clothes are never worn anywhere other than the rehab center, despite their rigorous cleaning (and these clothes also wear out really fast). Only by doing all this, am I comfortable that I won’t bring a disease home to my old blue and gold friend Sam. Incidentally, the shoe trick is what I also did when I worked with avian vets. I didn’t want to bring those diseases home, either.

John Q Public & Wild Birds

There were a couple of reasons why I decided to start working with wildlife four years ago. First, I had an emotional need to use my rusting nursing skills. Second reason was to learn. After for working twenty years with companion birds in veterinary hospitals, I had much to learn about wild birds, and that thought pleased me tremendously. (I really enjoy learning.) However, I was amazed at the sheer volumes of things I didn’t know about these animals – even the ones right outside my back door.

But I have to say, I was staggered at how little people knew when they called on the phone – “I found a baby bird, what should I feed it?”

My response was invariably, “What kind of bird is it?”

Their response was invariably, “I don’t know.”

My response to their response: “Then I can’t tell you what to feed it.” At that point, I would ask a bunch of questions to try and guess what kind of bird it was, so I could give them more useful advice. But even then, descriptions can be deceptive. Last summer, I stayed late one shift waiting for an injured hawk a nice man was bringing in. From his description, it sounded like a large hawk like a Broad Wing or a Red Tail. Imagine my expression when he arrived with a box and I carefully opened it….. to find a pigeon inside!

A Bird is a Bird is a Bird is a Bird… Right?

Years ago, I supervised the Exotic Pet Department at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, and I used to hear the same question over and over from veterinary students.

“What’s a good antibiotic to use in a bird?” They would ask.

“Are we talking about an ostrich or an eagle or a hummingbird?” was my favorite answer. They would look at me like I was crazy…(which I am, but that doesn’t have anything to do with anything). “And while you’re thinking about that, what is a good antibiotic to use in a mammal?” I would add. Now they would be sure I was crazy. “I mean it,” I would say. “What is a good antibiotic to use in, say, a dog and an elephant and a human?”

Now the brighter ones would start to catch on. “I guess you’re saying birds aren’t all alike, huh?” (sigh)

The fact is, there are more different species of animals in the taxonomic category called Birds than in the category called Mammals and as we all know, we humans aren’t the same as other mammals, right? (We’re smarter, right? Right?)

The Instant Expert

So it is clear that mixing wild avian species with exotic avian species is potentially dangerous from the standpoint of disease. But there another danger here. I admit to a strong personal prejudice against what I call The Instant Expert. Personally, I find these people to be really scary, as well as potentially dangerous.

I wouldn’t ever want to do anything that might damage my reputation for being direct, so let me be really blunt, here. Parrot owners out there – Just because you have some information about one group of birds – psittacines -- that DOES NOT mean you know about ALL species of birds! In other words, when the neighbor kids find a baby bird they bring it to you, right? After all, you have a parrot so that makes you a bird expert, right? Wrong. Just because you’ve lived with a parrot for awhile, does not mean you know anything about a fledgling robin or sparrow. It frightens me to see how many well-meaning people get parrot hand feeding formula and try to syringe feed baby wild birds. This is scary for a couple of reasons.

First, pumping large volumes of liquefied food into the mouth of a baby parrot is what humans decided to do with baby parrots becauseit’s convenient for the humans, NOT because it is natural. Actually, it is about as UNnatural a feeding technique as has ever been devised. It is not only unnatural, it’s dangerous, as many articles in this publication have stated over and over. If it is dangerous for a parrot, it’s doubly dangerous for a wild bird. Different kinds of birds have different techniques for eating. For example, doves and pigeons (columbiforms), put their beaks into the mouth of their parents and actually suck a liquid food out of the parent’s crop. Doves and pigeons are the only birds that do this, since they’re the only ones who can suck. (That’s why other birds – like parrots – take a sip of water and tilt their heads back to swallow.) This is why baby columbiformes that are being hand raised will poke their beaks in between our fingers – they associate our hands with food, but still instinctively put their beaks into something to be fed. Other baby birds, like songbirds, will swallow reflexively if something is placed in the back of their mouths when they gape (open their mouths) for food. These kinds of responses are genetically built into a bird.

Secondly, not all wild birds eat the same diet as parrots do. Hawks and finches don’t eat the same thing, right? Cardinals are officially vegetarians, eating seed and plants. Crows and jays are considered omnivores, like we are. Raptors [birds of prey] are carnivores, eating only other animals.

Wildlife Myths and Misinformation

Let me run through a few Old Wives’ Tales about wildlife, and hopefully eradicate them.

  • If you touch a baby, the parents will abandon it.

False. In the words of the more than slightly cynical rehabilitator I work with, “Only humans desert their babies for no reason.” An animal – bird or mammal or whatever – went to a lot of trouble to make that baby, and it is illogical to think they would abandon it simply because it smells different. Besides, most avian species have almost no sense of smell at all – rather like a person with a head cold. So if you have already picked up a baby bird less than two hours ago, you should return it to its parents if at all possible. If it’s a nestling, return it to the nest from which it fell. If it’s a fledgling, put it back in the vicinity of where you found it.

It is better to handle any wild animal -- bird or mammal or whatever – with gloves, and this is for two reasons. First, one does not wish to get bitten. The fact that you are trying to help will not protect you – after all, the wild animal (bird or whatever) recognizes humans as predators and will assume you are planning to eat them. Believing the old saw that Animals can sense when you’re trying to help is a great way to get injured. Secondly, one does not want to put one’s own smell on that baby. Most baby animals have no scent of their own, and that is their greatest defense from predators. For instance, a predator like a fox or wolf can walk right past a nest of baby rabbits and not even realize the nest is there -- because the babies have no scent. This is true of many different babies -- birds, squirrels, deer, etc.. However, once handled by you, a baby now has a smell from your hands, and a predator can locate them.

1. All babies should be fed milk.

Let’s do a quick biology review, here. Mammals are animals that have mammary glands that produce a substance we call “milk” to feed their young. That is, after all, why they are called mammals. Birds are not mammals and they do not produce milk to feed their young. Consequently, baby birds shouldn’t be fed milk!

Furthermore, no baby mammals should be fed cow’s milk from the grocery store. Think about it – we humans either breast-feed our infants or we feed them formula, right? NOT cow’s milk from the grocery store. Not even cows raise newborn calves on stuff like the homogenized, pasteurized, other-ized stuff in the grocery store. According to my rehabber, feeding cow’s milk to baby mammals often kills them, and it definitely can kill baby birds.

2. All birds eat worms .

Wrong! Some species of wild birds eat primarily seed and some are insectivores, meaning they eat primarily insects. Robins are insectivores and they eat many other invertebrates, as well – and they are the only bird I can think of that eats worms. But even if someone recognizes a baby bird is a robin, that does not mean one should feed it worms. It is important to understand that there are many different species of worms found in the earth, and some are not good to eat. Since most of us can’t tell a toxic worm from a non-toxic worm (well, I certainly can’t!), it’s better to avoid them completely as a food stuff. 3. All birds eat bread.

Not true, either. They will eat it, but that doesn’t mean it is good for them. People often think that animals have an innate sense of what is good to eat and what isn’t, and that has not been my experience. People are animals, after all, and look at some of the junk we eat – does that mean it is good for us? Eating bread will satiate a bird and assuage its hunger, but it gives it little or no nutrition with which to survive.

4. Any baby bird on the ground has fallen out of the nest and needs rescuing.

True, if you find a featherless baby lying on the ground, then this baby is in big trouble and needs your assistance to survive. The most valuable assistance you can give is not to try to take care of it, but to return that baby to its nest. After all, mother birds know more than you and I do about raising a baby bird successfully, so return her baby to her.

However, what people most often find are newly feathered baby birds scampering around, and babies that are capable of running around and flying short distances are not babies that have just fallen from the nest. Instead, these are fledglings -- baby birds who are learning how to fly. They have left the nest like they are supposed to, not fallen from it, and they are building strength in their wings while they learn about the world from their parents. Most of the songbirds in your back yard go through this stage of development. For several days, the babies hop about on the ground, investigating things and making short practice flights while the parents hang around in nearby trees, or go off foraging for food. The parents locate their babies again when the babies get hungry and begin calling.

How to Differentiate Between Orphaned and Not Orphaned

Many people assume a young animal or bird is orphaned if they don’t see a parent nearby. Nevertheless, this is often not the case, since there are numerous reasons the parent is not obviously close by.

For example, parents may be ill-equipped to defend their babies, as is the case with deer and rabbits. These animals’ only defense is to run away, and their babies may be too young to follow. Since the parent animal has a scent, their presence can attract predators to their young, so the mothers only appears when the babies need feeding, then they vanish again. Fawns, for example, are generally stashed in the middle of a field, hidden in long grass where their spotted coats and immobility render them invisible. The doe is close by, usually hidden in nearby trees, but she only appears when the fawn gets hungry and restless. Once nursing is completed, she vanishes again. The same is true of wild rabbits, except the mother only comes back to her nest once or twice a day, and she is rarely seen by humans. A mother rabbit (also called a doe) has such rich milk that the babies don’t need feeding more frequently.

When it comes to food, baby birds of any species are bottomless pits with feathers. This means the parents are working constantly from dawn to dusk to provide the necessary food, so they are often absent. If you find a newly feathered baby bird on the ground, leave it alone and observe from a distance – from a window, if possible – and wait. If a parent does not come to feed a hungry baby within a few hours, then the baby really is abandoned and needs rescuing.

So It Really Is An Orphan, Now What?

If the parents don’t return within a few hours, or the baby is naked or obviously injured, it needs the assistance of a licensed rehabilitator. Most areas have rehab centers that you can locate various ways. If you contact the following, one should have the number of a local rehabilitation center: your avian veterinarian, Fish and Wildlife Departments, the animal control officer of your local police, non-emergency police numbers, animal shelters, or the local branch of the Audubon Society. However, be aware that it often takes time to get information in this manner. As an experiment, I called various numbers in my area on a Monday afternoon, and I reached only answering machines. Leaving messages about finding an injured wild bird and needing the number for local wildlife centers, I waited to see how quickly I got callbacks. I was dismayed that despite the time of my calls and the nature of my message, most of the callbacks I received were the following morning. Consequently, it would behoove an animal lover to track down the phone number of local wildlife groups before an emergency arises. Besides, I believe it is one of Murphy’s Laws, that preparing for an emergency often prevents it’s happening.

While you are searching for experienced assistance, keep the baby warm and quiet in a cardboard box or paper bag lined with paper towels. Don’t handle the bird other than to place it in a safe container. Keep children and pets away.

Diets To Feed In An Emergency

If you picked up a baby bird more than two hours ago, it is too late to try and return it to it’s parents. If it will be a while before you can get it to the local rehab center, then the baby needs to be fed. Orphaned baby birds need to be fed a wide variety of diets, depending on the species -- but most people are not experienced at identifying different species of wild baby birds. After all, even if they can identify various species of adult wild birds, baby birds often look very different from adults.

Until you can get the baby some professional help, you’re pretty safe feeding dry cat or dog food that has been softened in hot water. To get the food into the baby’s mouth, use either the wide end of a flat toothpick or a teeny cocktail fork to pick up small bites. If you touch the corners of the beak with your fingers, the baby will gape (open it’s mouth) to be fed. If it won’t gape at first, very gently open its mouth with your fingernail and pop in a little bit of food. Once the little guy catches on to what you’re doing, it should start cooperating. Don’t try to give water to the baby. It doesn’t need it because it is getting sufficient liquid in the moistened food; and furthermore, it is extremely easy for a baby bird to inhale liquids accidentally.

Because of their fast metabolism, baby birds need to be fed almost constantly from dawn until dusk. Feathered fledglings need food every hour, and naked babies need food every 10-30 minutes. (Hence, it is MUCH easier to get that baby to an experienced professional as soon as possible!) If the baby will eat for you, the chances of its survival greatly increase, but without knowing what species it is, you won’t know if your temporary cat or dog food diet is the best food for it. You still need to get the baby to a rehabilitator as soon as possible.

The World of Birds

We parrot people are extraordinarily blessed. Unlike more “normal” people around us, our lives are filled with wonder (as well as noise and mess). After all, we share our homes with living fragments of the tropical rain forests. But we can broaden our horizons even further by also learning to value and observe the wild birds around us. Doing something as simple as hanging a bird feeder or putting out a bird bath, we find one needn’t go as far as the tropics to find interesting and beautiful creatures.

The common blue jay is an excellent example. Maligned by many despite its beauty, the jay is a fascinating creature. Monomorphic like many parrot species, males and females are identical and like many parrot species, they form pair bonds that last for years – what we like to call “mating for life.” Like parrots, they are extremely intelligent. At the wildlife center a couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to witness this intelligence in the actions of a female jay.

During the day, we Aark volunteers house our older baby birds outside in what we call the fledgling cages, and we go out hourly to feed. As they get older and stronger, the babies fly out of the cages when we open the doors, and start hanging around in the surrounding trees. We continue to feed them hourly until they mature sufficiently to be independent and no longer depend on us for food. Feeding the fledglings is by far the most popular task for the volunteers, since it can be like living in a Walt Disney cartoon. The sight of a person coming down the path is cause for much excitement in the woods, and the hungry fledglings swoop down to land on our heads and shoulders, gaping and calling and flapping their wings to be fed. It’s like being Snow White!

This particular spring, we had noticed a female jay around the center, proudly herding around her two fledglings. However, these two were not apparently sufficient to fulfill her maternal instincts. One day, dive bombing the volunteer as the fledgling cages were opened, the determined mother claimed the two orphaned jays we were raising -- thereby doubling her brood. We were pleased with this -- after all, jays know more about raising jays than we do. But we were thoroughly tickled when she then started arriving like clock work when we came out to feed. Shepherding her brood around the trees, she would send all four babies down to us to be fed!

So, rather than focussing only on our beloved companion parrots, try broadening your world to include the endemic wild birds of your area. Take up bird watching, perhaps. Learn about the world of falconing. Join the Audubon Society. Support your local wildlife groups.

And open your eyes to the wonder around you.

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Copyright 2001 Susan Bulanda. All Rights Reserved.