After many years of trial and error in managing a large flock of parrots, finches, canaries, quail, chickens, and doves, I feel that I have arrived at a robust system for maintaining long-term flock health that relies entirely on natural management techniques. Along the way, I don't think there is a mistake I haven't made, and there are few health problems that I have yet to face; so it is my hope that all my efforts might offer some benefit to others who are interested in preventing and minimizing contagious disease and chick mortality in large flock situations.
In case anyone might think that their situation is worse than mine has been, let me describe some of the healthcare problems I have encountered since the early 1990's when I was first starting out with birds. I fell hard for birds, so it was only a matter of a few months before I went from zero to hundreds: this was my first mistake. I knew nothing about plant medicine and relied entirely on conventional avian medicine. Within a few weeks of purchasing my first bird, I began so see all kinds of mortality in my finch flock. I had numerous birds tested while alive and/or necropsied after death, and test results indicated the usual gamut of flock issues: yeast infections, bacterial infections, air sac mite and polyoma viral infections. These types of infections are all contagious, so of course I was constantly scrambling to test, isolate, medicate and prevent future outbreaks. Problems were overwhelming: just as I thought one set of birds was under control, another would present symptoms and begin to die. At the same time that I was attempting to manage all these health problems, I was breeding about three or four hundred pairs of birds (I told you, mistakes) and my chick mortality was high. I was losing about a third or more of my babies either in the nest or at some point during weaning, fledging or molting into adult plumage. Somehow, in spite of everything, I truly believed that this volume of disease and death was normal: the vets made it sound normal, and all the other birdkeepers I talked to were experiencing similar disease rates, so I persevered as though this were, in fact, normal.
With all this illness as a backdrop, I finally ended up with the worst virus a finchkeeper can get: finch-specific herpes (called pacheco's disease in parrots). By the time the herpes struck, I had over 900 birds. I lost every single one of my gouldian finches except one (close to 200 birds); and I lost about a quarter of everything else. Death took a couple of weeks while the birds slowly asphyxiated, and the outbreak lasted six months. As if this weren't bad enough, herpes is contagious for life, so I could no longer sell, trade or buy any more finches. I contacted vets in Belgium and all over the United States: none of them had any help to offer me. I was told that for the rest of my birds' lives, outbreaks would continue to occur at random intervals, and any incoming birds would most likely initiate a new outbreak.
Well, it doesn't get worse than this. I decided to move, in large part due to this birdkeeping disaster, and I sought out an older home with a separate building for my viral birds. I decided that from now on, these birds would have to live in a separate building, and that if I brought in any new birds, I would have to disinfect myself after each exposure to the viral flock. It has been thirteen years since the original outbreak, and I still have a small remnant of that viral flock living in a separate building on yet another new property. I carry them around with me like a knapsack, always providing them with their own housing wherever I go. As I began to learn about herbs, I found that I could minimize the deaths from any ongoing viral outbreaks in the herpes flock by using antivirals and immune stimulants in their food and water. But I have never felt brave enough to bring them back into my home with my newer, post-viral flock.
Needless to say, I learned my lesson; but I also learned how determined I was to find a way to live with a large flock of birds without the constant onslaught of infectious disease and the frustration of my inability to stop it. Turning entirely to herbal medicine, I built up a new flock very cautiously, learning everything fresh as I went along, and making sure that I never got in over my head. Despite what I feel has been tremendous success with natural methods, I have still run into additional challenges: giardia and cryptosporidium in four parrots; numerous bacterial infections; polyoma virus in a flock of baby hanging parrots; and an outbreak of PDD (proventricular dilitation disease), a fatal virus which killed eight of my parrots. Apparently, one of the parrots had been harboring PDD for at least nine years without my realizing it. I have come to accept the fact that no matter how careful I am, there will always be health problems with any flock of birds. However, with sensible management practices, and with a strong basic knowledge of herbal medicine, I have been successful in turning what began as a tragedy into a nourishing source of daily joy.
DAILY DISEASE PREVENTION
As I began to explore ways to prevent and control the possibility of infectious disease in my post-herpes-disaster, slow-growing flock of finches, canaries and parrots, I contemplated the benefit of offering them daily herbal anti-microbials much in the same way that poultry farmers use antibiotics in daily feed. Of course the temptation to do this is understandable, but in the long run, it is prohibitively problematic. Long term use of any anti-microbials, conventional or herbal, leads to weakness in the immune system and ultimately causes more disease than it prevents. Bird breeders that I know who have tried to use antibiotics in the water long term have caused their birds to develop drug resistant strains of microbes that kill quickly and with widespread reach. Herbal antibiotics are not likely to cause resistance, but they are likely to weaken immunity with long term use: as the bird's immune system becomes accustomed to the presence of the herbal antimicrobial, it begins to slack off. Studies have shown that herbs grown in the wild tend to have more medicinal properties than those grown in cultivation; this is because plants produce more medicinal properties to protect themselves when they are living under the stress of a harsh environment with constant exposure to predators, droughts, floods, etc. The same is true for birds. They need a minimum level of stress (exposure to pathogenic substances) to keep their immune systems activated and strong. If we offer anti-microbials daily, then when something comes along which does not respond to those anti-microbials, such as a virus or a dangerous fungus, the birds may not have enough internal immune support to ward off disease.
In order to fight infectious disease naturally, we need to accomplish two things: low numbers of pathogens and strong immunity in the flock. Infection is really a numbers game. Our birds can fight off most pathogens with their immune systems, but when the numbers become overwhelming, they succumb. Low pathogen counts in our aviaries can be achieved through strict quarantine protocols (see below), good hygiene practices, and the use of foods and food supplements that reduce microbe numbers without being overtly medicinal in their effects.
For cleaning, I use a natural liquid soap containing about 6 drops Nutribiotic grapefruit seed extract per ounce of soapy water. This gently disinfects perches and wire without the fumes or residual toxicity of products like bleach. I clean every day, which means that cleaning is quick and easy, and none of my enclosures ever get a chance to develop areas where pathogens can gain a stronghold. In particular, I keep water and food free of droppings; this just makes common sense. Anytime that I feel overwhelmed by my cleaning chores, I take this as a signal to cut back on my numbers. While we can't cut corners on food and water, it becomes easy to cut corners on cleaning when our flocks become too large, so this is an area where I simply don't negotiate with myself. Reasonable flock counts is another necessary way to minimize pathogens. I have an eighteen by five by eight foot flight for my gouldian finches off of my kitchen, and even though gouldians are only five inches long, and they like to live in large flocks, I never put more than thirty-five birds in that space. I could easily fit sixty or seventy, but the cleaning density above thirty-five tells me that this is the safe limit.
NUTRITIONAL ANTIMICROBIALS/IMMUNE BUILDERS
I have found that with a strong natural diet as a foundation, the addition of two nutritive supplements has made all the difference in the incidence of infections among my birds. I would say that my rate of infections has been reduced by about 85% since I discovered these supplements. More significantly, the chick mortality in my finch flock dropped from about fifteen percent to about one or two percent! The first product is Garden of Life Primal Defense, a soil based probiotic supplement. I have often asked myself how wild parrots can eat cow droppings, rotten carcasses, and long-dead bugs without developing fatal infections. We know they eat this stuff, and we know they don't get sick from it, whereas in captivity this type of pathogen exposure would most likely kill them. The best theories on how they protect themselves seem to point to the parrots' daily ingestion of dirt and clay. We know that clay contains detoxifying properties, but it is also important to remember that soil contains all kinds of beneficial microbes that further counteract pathogenic infection. Primal Defense contains a number of soil-based micro-organisms that offer potent protection against microbial disease. I use Primal Defense for all my birds sprinkled onto softfoods once or twice per day.
The second supplement that has contributed to my reduction in infections is Frontier brand organic garlic powder. I add the garlic to my green powder (see diet article) for daily use on soft foods. Garlic powder works nicely as a daily preventive for infectious disease, while simultaneously boosting organ function.
One husbandry tip I have learned the hard way is that it pays to run my flock through a preventive antibacterial/antifungal treatment for a week or two after any exposure to significant contamination of food or water. It happens about once every few months that I forget to change the water in one of my aviaries overnight, and by morning I find that food/droppings in the water have caused an odor. Sometimes I forget to remove a bowl of sprouted seeds or eggfood. After this type of mistake, I will always treat the aviary for about ten days by placing glycerin-based echinacea/goldenseal tincture into the drinking water (about twenty drops per 8 ounces) and use this as the sole water source (see goldenseal article). NOTE: It is dangerous to use herbal teas as sole water sources unless you determine that each bird is drinking the tea. I have never had a problem with dehydration, but there is always the possibility that herbal tea might inhibit drinking in some birds.
In my experience, the echinacea/goldenseal seems to prevent infection quite effectively. Similarly, if I discover something more dangerous, such as rotten food, a dead baby wedged in a nest, or something obviously pathogenic in a flight, I will treat the flight for ten days to two weeks with neem leaf tea (see neem leaf article). In the case of my parrots, if I see one of them consume a dropping, or nibble on a sponge, or get into the compost bucket, I will additionally treat them for two weeks with liquid Kyolic either on food or via syringe (see Kyolic article).
Somehow, no matter how well we clean, nourish and boost immunity, birds find a way to get sick from time to time. When the sickness is contagious, this clearly requires intelligent action in order to minimize fallout to the rest of the flock. If one of my birds gets sick, and I think it is contagious, I immediately isolate the bird in its own room or on its own floor of my house, depending on how worried I am. Next, I take the bird to an avian vet to find out how contagious the problem is. With a flock it is important to test whenever there is doubt. I will then treat the sick bird with immune stimulants and herbal antimicrobials, and depending on the level of contamination/exposure, I will treat the whole flock as well.
For bacteria or fungus (any types) in the digestive tract, I usually rely on one or more of the following for two weeks on, three days off, two weeks on: liquid Kyolic (antibiotic), extra Primal Defense (probiotic), neem leaf tea (antibiotic), internal oil of oregano (see article), or I will diffuse antimicrobial, medical grade essential oils. For my finches, I usually need to use the neem tea and the diffused EOs because finches do not seem to respond to liquid Kyolic; for the larger birds I will usually just use liquid Kyolic. For bacterial or fungal sinus infections, see my respiratory infection article. You have to use a diffuser or nebulizer containing some type of antimicrobial, but herb teas don't work well in nebulizers, and it is risky to diffuse EOs with sinus conditions because EOs can cause the irritated lung tissue to fill with fluid and drown the bird. Respiratory infections are the hardest avian infections to treat, in my experience.
Anytime I have a contagious bacterial or fungal infection in a single bird or in a small number of birds, I am likely to treat the whole flock for two weeks as a preventive measure. For this I will use extra Primal Defense, echinacea/goldenseal glycerite in the water to boost immunity, or for stronger treatment I may use neem leaf tea, and if it's really a disaster, I will diffuse or kleenex-diffuse EOs throughout the flock. I have said this in other articles, but I will repeat it now: the reason I use these herbal remedies is not just because I feel that they are safer than conventional medicines; it is because I feel that they work better than conventional medicines, allowing birds to make swift and complete recoveries with minimal risk of side effects or negative post-treatment consequences.
In the case of viral infection, I turn to herbal medicine because conventional medicine has almost no safe or effective viral treatments for birds whereas plant medicine, in the hands of a thoughtful practitioner, has a fairly good track record with viruses. I will outline the treatment I used for my parrot flock after PDD virus was diagnosed on a necropsy: this treatment is a good example of an aggressive viral program that could be used with most viruses in addition to PDD. Since you cannot test for PDD in a living bird, I decided to treat all my parrots for PDD for eighteen months. Viruses are different from pathogenic bacteria; they can survive in the body for extremely long periods without causing symptoms. Maybe eighteen months was overkill, but I had no way to determine the necessary minimum treatment period, so I thought I should be on the safe side with a lenghty time frame. After I began treatment I did not see any more PDD illness or death. This could be a coincidence, but I don't think so because I had been losing one parrot after another for several years prior to treatment. It is easy to miss PDD even on a necropsy because the birds usually die from something secondary, and the secondary illness is often listed as the cause of death. It pays to ask the lab to check for viruses no matter what the cause of death.
In order to stop the rash of deaths in my aviary, I felt that I needed to use a wide range of products, and to treat every parrot in the house simultaneously. I chose medical grade essential oils as the foundation of the treatment because they are the strongest antivirals of which I am currently aware. Additionally, diffused essential oils enter a bird's blood stream rapidly as they are absorbed into the air sacs and from there easily find the blood. I used only Young Living or Original Swiss Aromatic essential oils, and I rotated the different oil blends every five to six days in case there might be long term negative effects from any one of the oils (I never noticed any negative effects). I used about five to seven oils at a time: YL Thieves blend or YL Purification blend were always my base, to which I would add ravensara, palmarosa, bay laurel, thyme, or oregano (never more than a percent or two of oregano in any given blend). I administered the EOs via a diffuser, running the diffuser in all my parrot cages/birdrooms/aviaries for at least three hours a day, five to six days a week for about six months. Then I tapered back to two hours per day for another six months, and finally went to once per day for a final six months. Each diffuser treatment would last one hour, with long breaks between sessions.
In addition to the diffusing, I used several herbs to build viral immunity and as safe long-term antivirals. Vitamin C plays a large role in viral immunity, but I have not been impressed with results from using vitamin C in supplement form, so I chose to use powdered rosehips, which are a potent and nourishing source of vitamin C, palatable to birds. I also chose two powerful antiviral herbs to use on a rotation: pau d'arco and St johnswort. Finally I added powdered astragalus root for its role in boosting deep, long term immunity reserves and its long term safety. I made the three herbs into a mixture (either pau or St johnswort mixed with the rosehips and astragalus) which I sprinkled onto my parrots' food each day. I would use this powder for three months, then take two weeks off, then resume for another three months, repeating this pattern throughout the two year treatment period. During each three month period I would use either pau d'arco or St johnswort, switching these back and forth.
In addition to all of the above maintenance strategies, I like to use an herbal cleansing program for any incoming birds; I usually quarantine for one to three months. If the birds were kept outdoors, or if they were kept with birds that may have been kept outdoors at any time, I always use a parasite treatment which involves sprinkling all their food with Perma Guard diatomaceous earth (please never use any other brand for birds) and offering neem leaf tea as the sole water source. Between these two products, very few, if any, parasites can survive a lengthy treatment. I have even used neem leaf tea to successfully treat air sac mites in finches. The best way to treat for parasites is to use the anti-parasite products for two weeks on, one week off and repeat this for a total of four two week sessions (eleven weeks in all). If I am not worried about parasites, I will still always treat all of the birds with neem leaf tea as their sole water source, five days a week for the duration of the quarantine period. Neem leaf tea, used in this way, will clean out most fungus, bacteria and parasites without depleting immunity. Finally, if I sense the need for extra protection I will use antimicrobial medical grade essential oils dropped onto a kleenex and pinned to the side of the quarantine cage five days per week.
I hope this lengthy article has provided not only a variety of concrete ideas for people to try, but also a reason for hope that some of the more distressing avian diseases can be contained, eliminated, or managed safely and effectively with natural medicine. In my experience, the longer I rely on plants as medicine, the less I worry about infectious avian disease, and the less I live in fear of the type of tragic experiences that introduced me to my life with birds. The plants and products I have described have never caused distress or side effects in any of my birds, but instead have brought them vitality and serenity: true medicine!
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, nor by any veterinarian. All information, including any product or technique mentioned, is for educational purposes only. None of the information is intended to diagnose or treat any disease.
Natural Techniques for Healthcare Maintenance in Flocks