By Dr   BSc, BVSc, MRCVS, MACVSc(Avian health)

Being an avian vet can give you exciting times, distressing times, sad times and times with humour but one thing is for certain, it will also give you rewarding times and will never be dull. This is evident in some of our recent cases.

‘Puddles’ the Rock Biter
‘Puddles’ is a great duck but with a very bad habit. She likes eating rocks. Not small pebbles or stones but large rocks, bigger than a golf ball.

‘Puddles’ first came to the clinic several months ago. As her owner placed her on the examination table it was obvious that ‘Puddles’ was uncomfortable. She was displaying the rather disturbing behaviour of trying to vomit while simultaneously adopting a horizontal posture and straining as if she was horribly constipated. Palpating her abdomen, I could feel that her gizzard (second stomach compartment) was enlarged and repeatedly contracting. A grinding type sensation was palpable through its wall. Gizzard hyper motility is usually associated with some form of irritation and so it was decided to admit ‘Puddles’ to the clinic for some X-rays. As the X-rays came out of the developer and were placed on the viewer by one of the clinics nurses, we looked in disbelief. Seven large rocks were stretching ‘Puddles’ stomach so that it occupied a quarter of her abdominal cavity. A further three rocks were visible in her crop. Another vet suggested that she must have gone into some feeding frenzy while underwater with her eyes closed and had not realized what she was eating. Perhaps she could do this once, but 10 times? I had my doubts. Birds have been known to gorge on inorganic material like grit if they are hungry, have crop or stomach pain or are on a nutritionally poor diet but ‘Puddles’ appeared healthy and was well cared for. The reason for her behaviour was unclear but the solution was obvious. ‘Puddles’ would need to have an operation to remove the rocks. The operation would be involved and expensive and although it would carry some risk the long term prognosis was good. ‘Puddles’ spent the day sitting quietly in one of the clinics’ pens while her owner discussed the matter with her husband. She rang the clinic later in the day with the go ahead to proceed.

Puddles the rock eating duck
The next day ‘Puddles’’ food and water was taken away at about 9am and at 11am she was taken to surgery. Ducks can be tricky to anesthetise because they have a mechanism called the ‘dive reflex’ where they hold their breath for a long time. As the usual anaesthetic used to anesthetise birds is a gas anaesthetic this means that if they don’t breathe, they don’t get the anaesthetic gas and start to wake up. This can make initial stabilisation of a duck under anaesthetic quite hard. Eventually ‘Puddles’ was stable and the operation was started. The three rocks in her crop were massaged up into her throat and with some difficulty, removed through her mouth. Her abdomen was then opened and the enlarged stomach located. The stomach was then opened and the rocks removed. Their combined weight was 400g. ‘Puddles’ only weighed 2kg.

After being kept in the clinics’ hospital area for several days ‘Puddles’ was allowed to go home. At discharge I pointed out to ‘Puddles’’ owner that it was important that ‘Puddles’ not have further access to rocks. Not an easy task, but she thought she could organise it. Four weeks later ‘Puddles’ was back. She was a real daredevil when it came to eating rocks. This time she had eaten three rocks. Surgery was again performed and again ‘Puddles’ made an uneventful recovery. Today ‘Puddles’ lives in a compound lined with plastic. Her owner kept the rocks as a memento but just why ‘Puddles’ ate them in the first place remains a mystery.

Magpie – Bushfire Victim
Sometimes vets have to make difficult decisions and the answer to a particular problem is just not clear. Following a bushfire an injured magpie was found by a young man and taken to the local vet. The bird had been horribly burnt and had actually lost both wings and both legs. The man had generally cared for the bird, washing its wounds and keeping it clean, also preparing food and offering it by hand which the bird had accepted. The man had also prepared a cloth sling which supported the bird and in which it could rest and be carried around.
The vet said the bird should be put down. The man had already started to become fond of the bird and was therefore reluctant to accept this advice. He went to a second vet who also after examining the bird said it should be put down. After all, what quality of life did a magpie with no wings and no legs have? Again, the man was reluctant to accept this advice. He decided to take the bird to an avian vet for a third opinion. The vet noticed that the wounds had healed and the bird did not seem to be in pain. The bird was eating the offered food well and was in good condition. The man was a dedicated carer and kept the bird clean and had fashioned the support sling so that it could be fitted around his neck. He took the bird with him on occasion when he went out. The bird had become tame and interacted with its owner and other humans. The avian vet advised that the birds’ physical and mental needs were being met and also advised that provided the man was happy to continue caring for the bird in the same manner, that he could see no problem with him keeping the bird.

Four months later the avian vet received a phone call from a local doctor. The man with the magpie was his patient. He advised that the man had had a rough medical time having contracted HIV several years earlier. Since caring for the magpie he had been in remission and his health had increased dramatically. It seemed that in fact the magpie and man were caring for each other.

‘Mavis’ the Macaw
In February this year, a five month old Blue and Gold Macaw called ‘Mavis’ was brought in to our clinic by an aviculturalist living in Victoria’s western district. ‘Mavis’ had been taken from her parents as an egg and had been hand raised. As she grew however she started to have trouble breathing. Her owners had taken her to a local vet, but being in a rural area he did not see many birds and had suggested referral. On arrival after her four hour journey ‘Mavis’ was in a bad way. She was a bit thin, her feather quality was poor and she was exhausted from the continual effort of trying to get her breath. ‘Mavis’ was admitted to the clinic for diagnostic work. Blood was drawn for screening biochemistry (organ function tests) and haematology (red and white blood cell values) which showed no diagnostic changes. A test for Chlamydophilia (a common cause of respiratory infection in parrots) was negative. X-rays were also taken of her lungs and airsacs while she was lying on her back and side. Again, no diagnostic changes. Blue and Gold Macaws are prone to valve defects in the heart. An ultrasound was organised at a local specialist centre. While I kept ‘Mavis’ anesthetized a veterinary internal medicine specialist performed the procedure. Everything seemed OK. Back at the clinic the next day, it was decided to give ‘Mavis’ a short anaesthetic to examine her throat and windpipe. During the examination an endoscope (a metal rod packed with fibreoptic cables which magnifies and illuminates) was passed over the back of ‘Mavis’ tongue down into her windpipe. Looking through the endoscope as it passed down the windpipe, all seemed normal until about 15cm down. Suddenly the cause of ‘Mavis’ shortness of breath was revealed. Instead of rounded cartilage rings maintaining the tubular shape of the windpipe, several rings were deformed and twisted into a D shape. The windpipe diameter was narrowed to about half its normal width. This deformed section of windpipe would need to be removed. A catheter was inserted into one of ‘Mavis’ abdominal airsacs so she could breathe anaesthetic gas through this and the skin over the deformed area of windpipe surgically opened. I left the endoscope in the windpipe with its light on and its end touching the deformed area. This light could be seen through the wall of the windpipe, helping to localize the deformed area and make sure that we cut the windpipe in the right places. With sharp scissors the section of deformed windpipe was cut away, and with very fine sutures the two ends sown into apposition.

As ‘Mavis’ started to wake from the anaesthetic it was as if a huge cloud had been lifted. Suddenly she could breathe easily. She kept swallowing and opening and closing her beak. For the first time in her life breathing was not an effort. Removal of a section of the windpipe is never regarded as a routine procedure and so it was important that ‘Mavis’ be regularly monitored through the next few days. However, when only a few hours after surgery she sidled along her perch to the front of the cage and bent her head down for a scratch we all thought she was going to be OK. She went home a few days later.


The section of deformed windpipe removed from ‘Mavis’ The same section opened longitudinally. The deformed narrow area is clearly visible.
The section of deformed windpipe removed from ‘Mavis’

‘Peter’- the Duck that was nearly Decapitated
One of our clients was on the phone. A neighbour’s dog had jumped the fence and attacked his duck ‘Peter’. He said the birds’ neck had been badly damaged and that he was on his way. On arrival it appeared as if ‘Peter’ had nearly been decapitated. The duck had no skin from the back of his head to his shoulders. Parts of the eyelids were missing as was the skin around the ears which were now just gory holes in the side of his head. But incredibly, everything required for life – the windpipe, the important blood vessels and nerves and indeed the spine itself were all there and intact. Despite the severity of his wounds ‘Peter’ seemed quite bright. Antibiotics were given and the wound cleaned and dressed with bandages impregnated with medications to control infection and stimulate healing. ‘Peter’ was crop fed with a liquid convalescent diet and placed in a heated cage. Every few days for the next three weeks ‘Peter’s’ bandages were changed. Initially a bed of granulation tissue – the beginnings of new skin, formed and then the epidermis – the top layer of skin, started to migrate in from the edges of the wound. As this happened it dragged feather follicles with it. This meant that ‘Peter’ developed a sparse feather covering over the damaged area. All together it took ‘Peter’ about four weeks to recover with the only legacy of the dog attack being a few scars on his neck. Who said birds were fragile?

Peter on presentation at the Melbourne Bird Vet Clinic Peter a few weeks after initial presentation at the Melbourne Bird Clinic
Peter on presentation and a few weeks after at a revisit