Ten Things Every Avian Veterinarian Should Know About Conservation Medicine


Birds are in trouble worldwide. One in eight bird species are threatened with extinction, and even common species are declining. Only species able to flourish in altered habitats or supported by intervention techniques have stable or improving populations. Notable successes in North America include the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), whooping crane (Grus americana), peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), and the Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata). These species could not have increased in number over the last two decades without the perseverance and diligence of interdisciplinary conservation teams.

Condor restraint Myatt

California condor program volunteer restrains condor #79 (Pitahsi). Photo credit: Jon Myatt of USFWS via Flickr Creative Commons.

1. You are needed.

There are many conservation teams that can use your avian veterinary medical skills and experience. Find a project near you or start your own. There are also many international projects that need your support and expertise. Conservation efforts aimed at habitat protection or restoration can also use veterinary consultation. Directly provide your veterinary skills or consult with and teach local veterinarians and students. Provide distance learning and support through email, phone calls, and articles. Provide scholarships for local biologists and veterinarians to travel to your clinic or to conferences where they can acquire the knowledge and skills needed.

To find out more, visit:

You may also contact your local equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as local agencies such as wildlife rehabilitators and sanctuaries, state, county, and city parks, university programs on conservation biology or wildlife management, and national forests, parks, and monuments.

2. Volunteering feels good (or don’t expect to get paid)

A few projects may be able to pay for veterinary services, some can cover your expenses, but many worthy projects can do neither. Consider volunteering for what may be the experience of your life. Expenses are tax deductible as business expenses or as charitable donations.

3. Go heavily laden; come back empty

Conservation projects generally do not carry the necessary equipment for physical examination, specimen collection, rudimentary treatment, or record keeping due to limitations in both expertise and funding. When traveling abroad, come “over-prepared”, bringing everything that you may need (see Supplies for the Avian Conservation Medicine Field Kit ). Valuable time can be spent looking for equivalent pharmaceuticals or equipment in remote locations, only to discover sometimes they are not available at all. Projects that are new or in remote regions often need equipment and supplies, so equipment and supplies that are not used can be left for future use.

4. Conservation is for the long haul.

In human systems we often overestimate the difference we can make in five years and underestimate the difference we can make in twenty years. Conservation projects can take decades to mature and develop. Developing human relations, a funding base, and institutional infrastructure takes time. If possible, plan on a long-term relationship with your project. Stay with the project even when it looks hopeless for the bird’s survival, looks too difficult to navigate human relationships, or looks frustratingly under-supported. Conservation projects include complex ecological and social systems that do change over time if you remain committed to the project and are flexible about your outcome expectations. If you are traveling abroad, stay connected through correspondence throughout the year and plan short visits in subsequent years.

5. Conservation happens all the time.

If it is not possible to volunteer your time or donate resources, you can still participate in avian conservation on a daily fashion from your home or clinic.

  • Learn and teach about the conservation status and behavior of species you see in your clinic.
  • Offer resources to colleagues and clients about conservation.
  • “Green” your clinic and home to minimize our negative environmental impact, and decrease your “carbon footprint” in your daily and yearly activities.

See Ten Things You Can Do to Promote Avian Conservation for additional information.

6. Avian conservation is about the people.

Conservation projects cannot succeed if there is conflict, distrust, burnout, or discontent among the humans. For birds to be saved, the humans require a creative matrix for interdisciplinary synergy. Goals and objectives must be clear, however, even with the best plans and structure, there will be discord. Conflict, in fact, is a part of healthy collaboration. With planning and attention, conflict and tension helps a team develop effectiveness, cohesiveness, focus, and relevancy. Do not be afraid to consult outside of the team, or place on the team someone who understands social systems. Teams and team members can never have too much coaching and support in the human realm.

Ultimately, how you care for others and yourself may be more important than your veterinary expertise. Front line conservation can be frustrating, depressing, irritating, despairing, physically demanding, and even risky for one’s health. If people aren’t having fun, finding meaning in the work, and contributing creatively, then the team is not doing all it can for the birds and the people in the habitat. Cultivate gratitude for the work itself, regardless of the outcome, and plan for rest and celebration to nurture your well-being. Take time also to mourn and recognize the loss of beauty, lives, habitats, and biodiversity inherent in modern life.

7. There is no right way to “do” avian conservation or medicine—not even yours.

The best way to devastate any conservation project is by interjecting “experts” from the outside who tell people the right way to do things without exploring the current status of veterinary care and expertise in the project. People from other cultures, especially those in remote areas with few resources, are sensitive to others that assume other cultures or understandings are flawed, or outdated. People do not work well with others when their hard work is not valued, and such viewpoints can result in an “outsider” versus “insider” dualism.

How can you offer your valuable expertise while also valuing the contribution of others who many not have the skills or experience needed in veterinary matters? Effective conservation veterinarians embrace multiculturalism so that all team voices and experiences are held with respect and honor. As a veterinarian, you can do this in casual conversation and in planned meetings. If possible, consult with a sociologist or who can help your team understand the values and meanings of each other’s actions and words.

Balance offering plenty of time to work with people and unforeseen conditions with working with a sense of urgency. Exigency keeps teams on track and is a responsible response to the alarming threats to birds and their worlds.

8. When working in avian conservation, no clear lines delineate veterinary medicine from biology, ecology, or cognitive ethology.

As part of collecting medical history, performing a physical exam, and suggesting treatment protocols, the veterinarian is in fact taking a history and exam of the entire environment. Therefore veterinarians in conservation familiarize themselves with the natural behavior of a species in relation to its environment and evolution (cognitive ethology), how the species interacts with other species and the environment (ecology), and how the behavior and interspecies interactions produce individual and flock health (biology).

Collecting information for diagnostics and treatment involves the human realm as well. A rudimentary understanding of ethnology and ethno-ornithology helps the veterinarian work with people who are both part of the problem and part of the solution. Ethnology analyzes and compares human cultures, by looking at social structure, language, religion, cultural anthropology, and technology. Ethno-ornithology studies the relationship between people and birds, combining anthropological, cognitive, and linguistic perspectives with natural scientific approaches to the description and interpretation of people’s knowledge and use of birds.

Veterinarians clearly cannot be experts in all these fields, but it is helpful to have a working knowledge of how these fields contribute to the overall knowledge of a species so that the veterinarian can see the complex interactions of birds with their communities of mixed species. Here is an example of how these fields interact with avian medicine. Recently while working in Guatemala determining the health of wild scarlet macaw (Ara macao) chicks, investigators found several factors limiting the fledging success rate. Limiting factors included the nesting, feeding and foraging behavior of the parents (biology and ecology), availability of suitable nesting and food trees (ecology), predation (ecology), adaptive behavior of the parents and flocks in different habitats (ethology), and the ability and approaches possible to work with the local biologists, veterinarians, Mayan villages, and drug lords (ethnology and ethno-ornithology).

9. Avian conservation work can be risky to your health.

There are many benefits to working with birds in field conditions, but there are also disadvantages. Working in Central America, for instance, one cannot safely ignore the violence of drug lords, gangs, petty theft and burglary, organized crime, illegal land settlers, and political or military groups. There are also the risks of transportation: vehicles stranding you in remote areas, car accidents, and the criminal targeting of busses and cars in transportation hubs and roadways. Consult the State Department to discern the threat to your health and safety in each country. Speak to other foreigners who work, live, or travel abroad as well as local people.

The physical environment can also pose problems such as dehydration, unsanitary water supplies, food poisoning, biting and stinging animals and insects, exhaustion, falling debris, and naturally-occurring obstacles such as sinks, cliffs, falling trees and limbs. Sleeping arrangements may also fall below your usual expectations as you navigate sleeping on the ground, on floors, in cars, and sometimes even on mountainsides. With adequate precaution, practice, support, and equipment these concerns can be minimized.

10. Avian medicine is not value free.

Each of us comes with preconceived opinions, values, worldviews, ethical norms, and experiences. Much of how we respond to a particular situation works at the emotional, precognitive level and rational discourse may not be helpful, or possible. Despite the reliable data we gather and the scientific method we employ, we must be aware that there are layers upon layers, most of them subconscious, which affect our thinking and our working relationships.

One conservation team, for example, faced the question of whether or not to shoot hawks that were predating an endangered parrot species. Rationally it makes sense to sacrifice some individuals of an abundant species to save an entire other species. However, it can be argued that intentional violence as a means to an end undermines larger values. What an individual or conservation team decides on an issue like this will be based upon complex interactions that will ultimately come down to emotions and previous life experiences that interplay with others in unexpected ways.

What are we to do if so much of how we reason and work with others comes from a precognitive disposition? As veterinarians, we have the training to make sharp critical arguments about animal diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. The challenge now is to integrate that acumen consciously and effectively with emotional intelligence, moral discernment, empathy, and support for other viewpoints. These are ancient skills, honed by wise women and men in various cultures over millennia. In modernity, we look to reclaim the best of old wisdom while incorporating new scientific and social understanding such as socioscience, integral ecology, and nonviolent or compassionate communication. Attention to these emerging disciplines will facilitate our service to our beloved birds.

Further Reading

Collen C, Bekoff M. Species of Mind: The Philosophy and Biology of Cognitive Ethology . MIT Press: Cambridge, MA; 1999.

Esbjorn-Hargens S, Zimmerman ME. Integral Ecology: Using Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World . Boston: Integral Books; 2009.

Goleman D. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships . New York: Bantam Books; 2006.

Joyner L. The socioscientific art of avian medicine. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Association of Avian Veterinarians ; 2009.

Rosenberg M. Nonviolent Communication: The Language of Life . Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press ; 2003.

Tinbergen N. on Aims and methods in ethology Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 20: 410-433, 1963.

To cite this page:

Joyner L. Ten things every avian veterinarian should know about conservation medicine. LafeberVet Web site. Available at  https://lafeber.com/vet/ten-things-every-avian-veterinarian-should-know-about-conservation-medicine/