Avian Expert Articles

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: African Grey Athena’s Unexpected Health Issue

Sometimes Things Just Happen…

African greyI’ve already written about the move to our temporary summer quarters in 2019, high up in a building with amazing views of the Boston skyline. But it also offers views of less positive items — that is, hawk fly-bys and thunderstorms that initially caused Griffin and Athena some stress. Happily, they adjusted quite well over time. By the end of the summer, they actively wanted to be by the windows. We didn’t expect any other consequences of the move, but, well, sometimes things just happen.

The Normal Environment For Good Health

To explain what transpired, I first have to describe a bit more about our permanent basement quarters. In addition to the full-spectrum lights that provide an appropriate visual environment, we’ve invested in some other fancy equipment to keep the birds healthy. Having dealt with aspergillosis in the past, we have an extremely high-grade air filtration system. It removes most of the impurities and allergens that could be harmful to our birds’ respiratory system. We also monitor the humidity. African grey parrots live in equatorial Africa, and thus are used to moderately moist conditions. We, therefore, have a very elaborate cold-mist humidifier that uses water that we purify ourselves so that there are no particulates that could be sent into the air. (NB: We don’t use that water for drinking, as it lacks things such as calcium and fluoride that are important for the birds’ health.)

The humidifier is disinfected on a regular basis. We also shower the birds each day, and occasionally they decide to soak themselves in their water dishes (these are big dog bowls, so there’s lots of room), which also helps with humidity. We remove our outdoor shoes and use liberal amounts of hand sanitizer when we enter the premises. Cages are constantly being scrubbed and cage liners are changed twice per day, and our vacuum cleaner has a HEPA filter. The lab isn’t a germ-free environment by any means, but we do try to keep it as clean and healthful as possible.

A Reaction To Humidity Change?

We maintained our protocols during the move, but the temporary summer quarters lacked much of our fancy equipment. It was at least twice the size of our permanent space. Neither our air filter nor our humidifier would have done an adequate job, as they simply were not designed for that amount of square footage. Plus, we were supposed to be in place only for about two-and-a-half months. Nothing untoward had happened the last time we spent that much amount of time upstairs, so we weren’t overly concerned.

This time, however, the two-and-a-half months stretched to four. September was an unusually dry month. We weren’t back in place before classes started. In the schedule upheaval that always occurs during turnover between summer and fall research assistants and the confusion about exactly when we were to move, somehow the daily showers decreased to just a few per week with no one quite realizing what had happened. Then, one morning, my lab manager began the day to find that Athena had some blood on one side of her body. Close inspection showed that she had removed all her small underwing feathers, breaking a blood feather in the process. We were really concerned.

An emergency trip to the veterinarian resulted in a diagnosis of dermatitis and an infection. Argh! We were assured that what had happened was actually not that uncommon in African greys when humidity levels change, and that a course of antibiotics and the application of some special cream would do the trick. Unfortunately, Athena reacted poorly to the cream and plucked out all the feathers on the side of her body just under that wing. This led to another emergency trip to the veterinarian.

The Challenges Of Athena’s Treatment

We were told to extend the course of antibiotics, a different cream was suggested, and Athena came back with a soft white collar that was supposed to keep her from plucking. The collar barely stayed intact through the hour-long ride back to the lab. For a while, we were able to keep her distracted during the day, but she seemed to be spending nights messing with her wing instead of sleeping. Thus, our young bird, who never seemed to have an “off-switch,” was napping a lot during sessions. The area under her wing wasn’t improving.

So, we purchased a sturdier collar — a rather attractive, small felt one. Athena did look rather cute (see image), and seemed to tolerate it. But the wing area, although not looking worse, was still not looking better. And she figured out how to remove the collar. Another trip to the veterinarian, and Athena came back with a bandaged wing and some serious neckware. She will have bi-weekly trips to the veterinarian until she is healed. Interestingly, she still seems interested in sessions…maybe they are a pleasant distraction? We have our fingers crossed that all will be well before too long.

Stay Alert For Health Issues When Any Changes Occur

Thankfully, this problem isn’t among the most serious, but it has increased our awareness of just how sensitive these birds can be. The moral of the story, therefore, is to be aware of how any changes in a parrot’s environment can affect its health. In our case, it was a confluence of several small things that added up, none of which by themselves would have been of note or likely have caused the problem. And whatever happened affected only one bird. Griffin took all these changes in stride, so possibly Athena was just super-sensitive. Be that as it may, whenever you make ANY change — or are forced to make one — keep an eye out for all possible effects and check every bird in your aviary — and keep checking! Sometimes things just happen.

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