Sick as a parrot: Birds get health checks in amnesty

A parrot undergoes a health check as part of the ongoing six-month amnesty on the ownership of Cayman parrots. - Photos: DoE

Obesity, diabetes, broken bones, cataracts and heart conditions. This list of ailments is not a catalogue of complaints found at a local hospital, but rather what Department of Environment experts are finding when they carry out health checks on pet Cayman parrots.

Since a six-month amnesty on the illegal keeping of the parrots was launched on 1 Sept., 90 of the birds have been registered with the DoE, according to Jane Haakonsson, a terrestrial research officer with the department.

Once the birds are registered, a veterinarian working with the DoE examines the birds to determine the state of their health to ensure the birds get the treatments and medication they need.

Haakonsson said what they have been finding is not encouraging, but that most of the owners were willing to cooperate to ensure the birds’ health improves.

“We carry out very general health checks on the birds and ask for the history of injuries, in particular,” she said. “A lot of them are rescue birds.”

She added, “We check that everything is intact … We see quite a lot of birds with broken wings, in the shoulder or further down in the wrist area, which renders the bird flightless. Quite a few have been shot or have slingshot injuries. One was without an eye after being hit by a slingshot.”

Registered parrots are fitted with leg-bands.

A condition that appears to be quite prevalent among the parrots the DoE has checked is obesity. “We look for overall general health, like obesity, for example, whether they are overweight or underweight, whether they are too fat or don’t have enough muscle. A lot of them are kept in cages and don’t have enough space. We call it ‘skinny fat’ – they don’t have muscle but they are quite large birds.”

Some of the birds have developed diabetes or other obesity-related illnesses.

During each visit, the DoE team weighs the birds, using a kitchen scale and a bucket that the parrots cannot get out of. “We want to see healthy, lean birds, but we’re seeing ones that are 300 grams, and some even 400 grams. The ideal weight is around 280 grams,” she said.

The six-month amnesty during owners can register their pet Cayman parrots ends on 29 Feb. 2020.

In such cases, the DoE advises the owners about the birds’ diet. “For example, we tell owners not to feed them a mix with sunflower seeds. Those are pure fat for the birds. It’s like junk food. It is like asking them to go to Wendy’s every day without working for it,” Haakonsson said.

The birds’ nails, feet, beak and eyes are also examined. Haakonsson said the vet has found cataracts in the eyes of some of the older birds, but also found a young bird with cataracts in both eyes, probably as a result of a birth defect. In those cases, the DoE tells owners to make sure the parrot’s cage holds no surprises so that the bird is familiar with its surroundings if it cannot see.

Overgrown nails are also a problem. “The birds don’t have natural branches of different diameters that they can use to file down the nails. That is quite a natural process in the wild, but not in cages,” Haakonsson said. “So we trim the nails. One had such overgrown nails that it couldn’t scratch itself. Birds take off their old feathers by scratching.”

Missing digits and nails are also issues, perhaps from the initial capture of the bird or from the parrot getting stuck in toys that are placed in its cage. “We’re asking owners to make sure that any toys are parrot-safe, with no small plastic or metal bits that can fall off or that the parrot can get stuck in,” the research officer said.

The parrot registration team: Veterinarian Dr. Karen Rosenthal, left, and DoE terrestrial resources officer Jane Haakonsson.

The respiratory functions and heart rates of the birds are also checked, resulting in one parrot being found to have a heart murmur. “For birds with heart problems, we ask the owners not to let the birds get too excited,” Haakonsson said.

The veterinarian working with the DoE, Dr. Karen Rosenthal, the former head of St. Matthew’s Veterinarian School, prescribes medication for the parrots when needed, sometimes working with veterinarians who are already treating the birds.

“Everyone so far has cooperated,” Haakonsson said. “The owners are quite happy to have their birds looked at. It is a great service to get a health screening for free and get a diagnosis and additional husbandry care specific to your bird, door to door.”

She said initially people were worried that the DoE was going to take the registered birds away. “We are not,” she said.

But some birds may have a shot at freedom under the amnesty, nonetheless. Haakonsson said that in some cases where owners have healthy birds that were born this year to whom they have not become particularly attached, the DoE will offer to take the birds, put them in quarantine and release them into the wild.

“I have had one man release four birds that had been captured from the wild,” she said. “Another was breeding a sibling couple. We recommend against that as it leads to inbreeding and depression. We don’t want to have diluted genes.”

Most of the birds seen by the DoE team were birds that were poached from the wild. The owners often say they bought the parrots or were given them as a gift. “All of these came straight from the wild,” Haakonsson said, adding that some were shot by farmers or stolen from nests.

The six-month amnesty is scheduled to end in February 2020.

| Residents who own parrots can contact the DoE at 949-8469 or email [email protected]

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