Suburban birdbaths and backyard feeders may be helping to spread a deadly wasting disease among Australia’s king parrots.
King parrots in Victoria, NSW and Queensland are dying from a disease that leaves them unable to fly
Veterinarians and researchers are investigating the cause of the disease
Backyard bird feeders may be contributing to the problem by accelerating the spread of the disease
Dozens of emaciated king parrots have been surrendered to wildlife carers and veterinarians in Far North Queensland over the past 12 months.
But it is not an issue isolated to Queensland’s north.
“It’s been seen in Victoria and New South Wales and other parts of Queensland,” University of Sydney veterinary science professor David Phalen said.
“It’s a wasting disease where king parrots gradually, or sometimes relatively rapidly, lose weight and go down to the point they’re so weak they can’t fly.”
Cairns-based veterinarian Annabelle Olsson estimated she had examined about 40 king parrots displaying the symptoms during winter.
She said wildlife carers in the region had reported many more that were either already dead or close to it.
“Generally they present as very weak, debilitated, extremely skinny and just too weak to get off the ground,” Dr Olsson said.
“If you offer them food, mostly they have a voracious appetite.
‘They can’t digest’
Dr Phalen and Dr Olsson have been working together with Animal Health Australia to identify the cause of the disease and any possible solutions.
“There’s been a number of different infectious agents that have been associated with it in other locations, including a single cell parasite called spironucleus yeast that grows in their stomach,” Dr Phalen said.
“Spironucleus, possibly in combination with another virus — we’re not sure yet — completely colonises the small intestine, which is the part of the intestine that’s critical for digesting and absorbing nutrients.
“By literally coating the lining of the small intestine it blocks the nutrient absorption in these birds and that’s why they lose so much condition because they can’t digest their food properly.”
The cost, in both time and money, of treating a disease that is still poorly understood is a source of frustration for Dr Olsson.
“It’s not knowing the best way to help these animals — or in fact knowing that the best way to help them is to actually put them out of their misery — but it’s also not having the funding and resources to be able to diagnose these diseases properly ,” she said.
“If this was your pet bird we’d have a suite of diagnostic capabilities, but when it’s wildlife and the clinic is treating these pro bono it’s really limiting.
Feeders speeding spread
While the experts agreed that spironucleus was unlikely to be the root cause of this wasting disease, they both said it was potentially exacerbating the issue and that steps could be taken to stop it spreading further.
“It’s well-documented that in areas where they are being fed at collective food tables, where they are sitting on top of one another, that this will spread very rapidly,” Dr Olsson said.
She said while it was neither recommended nor legal in many places to feed wild birds, those who could not resist the urge should take precautions.
“Spreading food out so that it’s not concentrating birds abnormally around food bowls or feed areas is particularly important in the poor season when there’s little food around,” Dr Olsson said.
“If you are support feeding, seek advice on the sort of food that’s likely to help these starving birds rather than giving them food that’s likely to pass straight through.”
Dr Phalen also said backyard feeding practices should be carefully considered.
“We always encourage people feeding birds to clean their feeders every single day, and that they use feeders that don’t allow birds just to sit on them and eat in one place and poo in the same place,” he said.