If you have been a bird breeder or keeper for any length of time then you will be no stranger to having crossed paths with various health issues that can affect your birds. There is no other aspect in the world of aviculture that is worse than to lose a bird and then find out you have a bacterial infection or diseases running rampant in your aviary.

When it comes to the health care of our gouldian finches, or any other bird species for that matter, there’s an old saying which has been said a thousand times before and no doubt will be said a thousand times more, “Prevention is the best cure!” Like any saying that has stood the test of time it has done so because there is truth to it. But before we look at ways to prevent your bird becoming ill, let’s first look at how to tell if your bird is sick.

Identifying a sick bird

Gouldian finches that become ill may display one, or a combination of symptoms. Listed below are some of the more common signs that your bird could be sick and in need of medical attention.

  • Fluffed up
  • Largely inactive (depressed)
  • Sleeps during the day
  • Has a dirty vent
  • Has a bloated stomach
  • Constantly eating but losing weight
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sneezing and/or coughing
  • Clicking when breathing
  • Loss of voice
  • Loss of balance
  • Unable to fly

Not so many years ago it would have been fair to say, when it came to health, that the Gouldian finches had a reputation of being closer to fragility than that of hardiness. Although the balance of the scales has now tipped in favour of Gouldian finches being a lot more hardy, there are still some health issues that seem to pop up with Gouldian finches more than most, they are “air sac mites, “balding” and “going light.”

Air sac mites

Air sac mites are microscopic mites that can live inside your bird’s air sacs. Gouldian finches have nine air sacs with very thin tissue walls, this allows the mites to feed off of the bird’s blood through these thin walls. Air sac mites will pass from bird to bird mainly through parent birds feeding their young. It is however believed that the mites can live for a limited amount of time in the cage/aviary environment. They will hang around food and water containers after being dropped off by their previous host, and when presented with the opportunity for new host they infect another bird. If your aviary is free of air sac mites but you introduce one bird into the aviary that is carrying air sac mites, then in a matter of several weeks you can bet that most of your birds will have air sac mites.

Symptoms of air sac mites

  • Difficulty breathing and open mouth breathing
  • Fluffed up and/or sleeping during the day
  • Clicking sounds when breathing
  • Sneezing and/or coughing
  • Loss of voice

Treatment for air sac mites

The mites are persistent but treatable with a course Ivermectin or a product called “Scatt,” which contains moxidectine and belongs to Ivermectin family. Both Ivermectin and Scatt will also rid your birds of other types of mite, including scaly feet and face mites. When a bird is heavily infected with air sac mites, the bird’s immune system may become compromised which will make it vulnerable to secondary bacterial infections. Healthy birds can sustain air sac mite infestations for longer periods of time, however, prolonged infestations will usually ultimately result in death unless treated.

Balding

Gouldian finches that go bald are not a pretty sight. Balding birds will show signs of balding anywhere on the face, though the back of the head, and above the neck, is often the most common place for birds to go bald. Balding birds can range in severity from mild feather loss to almost complete loss of feathers all over the face and head, this can make your bird look almost unrecognisable without its normal colourful facial mask. There are four possible causes as to what may be causing the bird in question to go bald. The possible causes are “scaly face mites, Stuck in the moult, Inadequate diet, and genetics.”

Scaly face mites

Scaly face mites live on the bird’s skin, mainly on bird’s face and feet. They burrow under the surface where they cause skin to look rough and discoloured in appearance. They can also be the cause of overgrown beaks and nails. When birds show symptoms of scaly face mites it is common for their facial feathers to become damaged and fall out, thus making the bird look bald. Scaly face mites is easily treatable with a course of Ivermectin or Scatt. Left untreated the mites will continue to infest the bird which can cause serious harm, often resulting in death.

Stuck in the moult

During the gouldian finches’ lifecycle they will go through an annual moult where they grow new feathers. In as little as 6 weeks the bird may change up to 80% of its feathers. One of the reasons behind the cause of Gouldian finch balding is that the bird has shed its old feathers but has not begun to grow any new ones, in other words it has become stuck in the moult. Birds that are fed the full Gouldian finch lifecycle diet (Austerity, Breeding and Maintenance diet) are highly unlikely to become stuck in the moult. This is because we know that the physiological changes that take place in our Gouldian finches’ bodies are triggered by the availability of foods. The varying availability and nutritional quality of foods are what tells the bird’s body what it should be doing. From an evolutionary perspective the Gouldian finch has adapted and evolved to suit its wild conditions over hundreds of thousands of years, so by us mimicking the seasonal availabilities and nutritional quality of wild foods in our bird room and aviaries we assist the bird in staying synchronised with the correct breeding, resting and moulting periods of its lifecycle. This will help prevent certain problems that may otherwise arise.

Inadequate diet

There is the belief system encompassed within the gouldian finch keeping world that an iodine deficiency is the cause of balding and that it should be treated with an iodine supplement in the bird’s diet. In my experience with gouldian finches I’ve never known a bird to go bald as a result of an iodine deficiency. I believe it to be unlikely that an iodine deficiency can be a sole reason why gouldian finches would go bald, especially if they share a diet and an aviary and with other Gouldian finches who show no signs of balding. If your birds are lacking in iodine then it is likely there are other nutrient deficiencies it may be suffering from. Rather than providing just an iodine supplement, an all-inclusive vitamin and mineral supplement that also contains iodine would be a much better choice to use. A bird deficient in nutrients will mostly likely not grow new feathers in the facial region, as these feathers are the least important for the bird to grow in order to survive. This physiological survival mechanism allows the bird to adapt in harsher environments when not enough nutritional foods are available, so it can get by and survive until there is an improvement in the availabilities of food.

Genetics

Unfortunately, much like male pattern baldness, there is little that can be done for a bird that is balding due to genetic reasons. Although balding gouldian’s will moult out and grow new feathers at some point during their lifecycle, they can spend as many months with feathers as without, and the process of balding repeats itself all to soon.

A bird that is not suffering from scaly face mites, has been on a diet programme mimicking the natural seasonal change in its wild environment, and has access to all the necessary supplements, then there can be only one other known reason why this bird is going bald, and that unfortunately is bad genetics. Bird’s that are partial to balding often pass on their genetics to their offspring who can begin to show the same signs of balding within a year of hatching.

A big factor that can cause bad genetics (not just in birds) is the result of inbreeding. Inbreeding is the root cause of what forces the different types of mutations in the Gouldian finches appearance. Inbreeding any species of bird should be avoided at all costs. Not only can this harm the genetics pool of aviculture, but it can also breed weaker birds that are more prone to illness and disease. Birds that are partial to balding should be removed from all breeding programmes and retired from breeding.

Going Light

The important thing to understand hear is that going light is not a condition of illness but rather a symptom of an illness. In other words the bird is exhibiting symptoms upon a spectrum of possible illnesses yet it has not been diagnosed by an avian vet and treated accordingly. Possible conditions of illness can range from “worms” to “salmonella,” and beyond. A bird with going light can be identified primarily by the bird losing weight and the keel bone begins to protrude against the skin to the point it will feel quite sharp and defined. There may also be a wastage of muscle upon the breast bone of the bird and it will feel quite light if you pick it up to handle. Birds that are going light will also seem weaker when handled.

Accompanying symptoms of going light

  • Bloated stomach
  • Dirty vent
  • Diarrhoea
  • Lethargic
  • Listless and unbalanced
  • Sleeping during the day
  • Constantly eating but losing weight

Perhaps more often than not, bird keepers will avoid taking birds to the vets as the vet fees can cost more than the worth of the bird. However, it is of paramount importance to understand that there are some possible conditions of illness in which “going light” will not only result in the death of your bird but the infecting and killing of all other birds that have come into contact with it. This can happen over a short or long period of time depending on the nature of the undiagnosed “going light” condition. One thing is for sure, if you start losing birds and don’t seek out the help of an avian vet, the cost of replacing your birds in the long run will end up costing more than the vet fees.

Handling sick birds

If you spot a sick bird in your aviary, acting quickly and in the right manner improves the likelihood that the bird will make a full recovery. The first thing I would advise anyone to do should they spot a sick bird is to isolate it away from any other birds that are in close proximity to it. Place the sick bird in a cage and bring them indoors or somewhere where it will have access to a heat source.

Temperatures of around 26oc are ideal. Provide clean water and food for the bird. I practice using white tissue paper to line the cage floor with as this will show up anything unusual within the droppings, which may later, if necessary, assist the vet in making a quicker diagnosis. Check the bird for air sac mites. If you are 100% certain the bird has air sac mites then this is easily treatable without the need to see a vet. If you are certain that the bird does not have air sac mites then list down any symptoms the bird has, this will be useful should you need to speak/see a vet. If the only symptoms your bird exhibits is being fluffed up and a little sleepy then you should notice an improvement in the isolated bird’s condition between 24 to a 48 hour period. However, if the bird has a dirty vent, and/or other symptoms then I would recommend seeking the help of a professional avian vet.

Prevention is the best cure

There are several proactive practices we can do as bird keepers within our aviaries/bird rooms to improve overall health and minimise risks of illness and diseases spreading throughout our flocks. Prevention is the best cure. Good husbandry will breed healthy birds. I’ve listed what I consider some key points below to promote good health and hygiene in the bird room.

  • Clean and sanitise water containers/dispensers regularly.
  • Only use water and food containers/dispensers that birds cannot soil in.
  • Provide working ventilation for your bird room. Air purifiers that target airborne bacteria/moulds are a great idea.
  • Do not neglect bird’s nutritional needs. If your bird’s diet does not contain all the essential nutrients then provide the necessary supplements which do promote heath.
  • If you have a walk in aviary then keep a pair of clean shoes by your aviary for whenever you need to enter the flight. I use a pair of slippers which never leave my aviary. Their purpose is to not tread any bacteria or dirt into my bird flights like my day to day shoes will from the street.
  • Clean your aviaries, cages and birds rooms regularly. Using sterilised woodchips as litter will make the environment safer for the bird if there are longer periods between cleans.
  • Avoid positioning perching directly above any food or water source.
  • Remove any green foods, egg foods and sprouting seed that the birds have been given before the end of the day. This will prevent any protozoa from manifesting in harmful numbers.

Quarantine

Whether you’re looking to add new bloodlines into your flock’s gene pool, or simply wish to try your hand at a different species of bird, there should be one fast and hard rule to live by when the time comes to introduce new birds into your bird rooms and aviaries, and that is “quarantine, quarantine, quarantine”! I cannot stress it enough how important it is that the temptation is resisted to add new birds straight into your set up without any period of quarantine. Failure to do so is like playing Russian roulette, you spin the barrel and pull the trigger and hope you don’t get the deadly bullet that will bring disease into your bird room.

It is advisable that all new purchases undergo a minimum of 4-6 weeks quarantine. I prefer to quarantine for 2 to 3 months depending on how healthy the new birds act while under my observation. Only after this period of time, and without showing any sign of illness or disease, will my new birds be allowed join the main flock.
You don’t need any special laboratory or clinical space to quarantine your birds. A cage not housed under the same roof as your bird room will more than suffice. This is because some bacteria can travel from host to host via being airborne. It is advisable to feed and care for your main flock first each day before any quarantined birds. This will help minimise the risk of contamination should any of the quarantined birds be carrying a disease.

Final note

I would advise anyone who has a sick bird(s) to seek out professional help from an avian vet. At the end of the day it is better for the suffering bird and better for your own piece of mind to get a diagnosis and treatment for the bird in question.