Editor's Note: This article is being reprinted with permission from its author Jenny Drummey who is an adoption coordinator and teacher for the Phoenix Landing Foundation. She is the author of two books, Project Parrot: A Behavior Guidebook for You and Your Bird, and Biting Matters: Living Bite-free with Your Parrot. Visit www.projectparrot.com to learn more about Jenny and her work.
Lories are brilliantly colored, playful, high-energy birds: easy to love, but difficult to clean up after. I've fostered lories in the past, but never adopted one. Their nectar-heavy diet results in frequent, sticky droppings. Too much work for me.
But, on the rare occasion that we have one relinquished to us, I am always curious about the bird, and wish I had enough time to care for one properly. The bird recently relinquished to Phoenix Landing sounded wonderful: friendly, and he'd even had an exam with an avian vet a few weeks before. He was being given up to Phoenix Landing for the same reason that 80 percent of the birds that come to us share: The caretaker no longer had the time to care for him. Remembering that Debbie, our MD adoption coordinator, had mentioned a family looking for a lory, I sent the information on, and very soon afterward, we had found a foster family.
We arranged for the lory to be dropped off at a recent event held on a Saturday, and I met the relinquisher outside. She was obviously distressed, sad to be giving up her companion of almost 10 years, but she knew it was for the best. She brought out bags of supplies for him, including lots of toys. He also had a powdered lory nectar diet, and she emphasized that he only consumed in the liquid form, it couldn't be served in powder. She also said that he had increased his regurgitation lately, and that it was sexual behavior, and that the problem had gotten worse the less time she was able to spend with him.
I looked at the incredible, gorgeous creature in the sunlight. He looked to be the picture of health. I envied Jane and Pete, his new foster family, getting to share their life with something so splendid.
He regurgitated when I looked at him. He pretty much regurgitated any time someone came up to the cage. I guess he just likes everyone, I thought.
Jane took the bird home, and I thought we'd had yet another happy landing. I was certain they would adopt the lory, and I hoped she'd send out pictures soon. I really wanted to get a chance to paint a picture of that bird.
The next morning, Debbie called with some bad news: The lory was being rushed to Pender Exotics in Fairfax. He hadn't eaten or passed food since Jane had picked him up, and he was constantly vomiting. I was confused: the relinquisher had told me the behavior was sexual, so that's how I'd seen it. The foster family had not had the bird for even a day. But could we all be overreacting? Was this bird just stressed? He had looked so healthy.
The more Debbie and I talked about the bird's behavior, the more alarming it sounded.
Once the bird made it to Pender, I started communicating with the vet on-call, Dr. McDonald. She suggested we start with an X-ray, to see if anything was obviously blocking his digestive tract and preventing food from getting through. The results of the X-ray were inconclusive: It appeared as though there was some strange gas patterns visible in his digestive tract, but that was all.
The next test to run was a barium series.
A barium series is a set of X-rays taken of a bird's digestive system as a dye passes through it. Using this test, vets can see how much and how quickly food passes through the bird, and if there are any obstructions. The test takes hours to run, but it was crucial to find an obstruction (if one existed) before proceeding with medication to help food pass more quickly through the bird.
Late Sunday afternoon, Dr. McDonald called with the results: the lory was passing some, but not all, of the barium. She suspected a probable hernia and possible ulcerations in the stomach, as the syringe used to give the lory the barium had some blood on it after she administered the medicine. However, they wanted to keep the lory overnight and have Dr. Davis pick up care in the morning.
The next day, Dr. Davis called, and, after reviewing the results of the barium test and the X-ray, and considering the fact that the bird was still vomiting, she recommended exploratory surgery.
This was a really hard call to make. The surgery would be over $1,000, and both Debbie and I agreed that we needed more information and another opinion before we could pursue this option. Jane kindly offered to help do whatever it took to get the little bird well, as she'd already come to care for him, and though the financial investment was a concern, it wasn't my biggest one.
Surgery was risky, introducing additional stress on an already compromised animal, raising the chance of infection, and then there was that word "exploratory." The surgery was no guarantee the vets would be able to help the bird get better. Frankly, it didn't sound to me like he would make it through the procedure.
We decided to move him to a vet closer to Jane, and, in the process, get a second opinion. We needed a few days to arrange a space at the next vet hospital. Dr. Davis said that they could keep him stable for a day or two.
We made arrangements to get him moved, and hoped for the best.
Phone calls in the middle of the night are never good, and, sadly, Pender Exotics called to tell me the lory died in his sleep at 3:30 on Tuesday morning. Phoenix Landing had not had this bird in legal custody for three full days yet.
I talked to Dr. Davis early Tuesday, and she said he was an incredibly sweet and well socialized bird who they were very sorry to lose.
But now, we had to make a choice, should we do a necropsy? We had already spent $900 on care for this bird. But we had to know why the lory died, to make sure it was nothing contagious, even though Jane had practiced good quarantine in her home. It was vital for us to learn what had claimed this beautiful bird's life.
Dr. Davis performed the procedure Tuesday afternoon, and then she called me with the results.
A parrot's digestive tract starts with the mouth, goes into the crop, then into the stomach, which has two parts, the glandular proventriculus, and the muscular ventriculus (also called the gizzard). A massive wad of thread or material filled the bird's proventriculus entirely, and partially filled the ventriculus as well, causing a hernia as the GI tract was squeezed and forced into an unnatural position. His kidneys, brown in a healthy bird, where white and had an excess of uric acid crystals. Dr. Davis said there was nothing that could have been done to save this bird.
Dr. Davis said she has seen this happen to other birds too, those that like to pick on thread or fabric. If the bird ingests tiny pieces, a mass can form that plugs the bird's stomach. Unfortunately, he would not have survived any surgery, and the condition had been around for a while.
This experience has been heartbreaking, but it's taught me many important lessons.
Don't be so quick to accept that a description of a condition is the only possible explanation. What had been identified as sexual regurgitation was clearly not that to Jane. She saw a bird who is vomiting, and she reacted exactly the right way.
It has also taught me to be more vigilant about fabric, thread and material in general. Jane looked through the bird's toys, and did see an obvious culprit, a small dishtowel hanging in the cage like a toy.
Know your bird. Watch what he plays with, and how he plays. If toys are missing pieces, find the pieces. If you don't find the pieces, throw the toy away, no matter how much it cost you, or how much he likes it. My guess is that the washcloth was the bird's favorite toy.
Know the difference between regurgitation related to sexual behavior and vomiting. Foster parent Pete who helped transport the lory to the vet, reported that the bird was trying desperately to eat, but vomited everything. If the bird isn't ingesting any food and isn't producing any droppings, the problem is serious. We have no way of knowing how long this bird had been swallowing the bits of fabric that filled his stomach and eventually killed him, but it was probably months.
Finally, I am always amazed when I think of all of the "behind the scenes" work at Phoenix Landing. It takes dedicated volunteers, lots of time, and lots of money to help parrots.