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What’s Killing Our Budgies

(Mortality of Exhibition Budgies)


Norman Webster



Disclaimer: I am not medically trained, and take absolutely NO responsibility for any unfortunate consequences that occur as a result of using the information in this article as the basis for treating your bird or birds. Always consult your vet for advice on how to deal with avian medical problems.



For some time now, we have been witness to reports of ever diminishing life expectancies for exhibition budgies. At the present time, we can expect our English budgies to live only somewhere in the range of two to three years. And although we all know individual budgies that have lived much longer, the expected typical lifespan continues to decline. As distressing as this is, the situation is particularly perplexing because ordinary pet budgies seem to be much longer lived. Studies that focus on pet budgies report typical lifespans on the order of five or six years, with some living far beyond that. I recall one pet budgie of mine that lived at least fifteen years.


Dr. Baker’s Eleven-Year Study:

Budgie enthusiests in both the U.S. and the U.K. have long noted the declining life expectancy of exhibition budgies. Several studies have been done with the goal of better understanding what’s happening and finding ways to improve the situation. In the early 1980s, several U.K. exhibition budgie sanctioning organizations commissioned veterinary researcher/pathologist Doctor J.R. Baker to determine what was killing exhibition budgies. The result was a study that began in 1984 and continued to 1995. Over the course of the study, 1525 birds were examined post mortem. Approximately 1000 of the birds were deceased when received. The remainder, all sick birds with incurable conditions, were euthanized when received. All of the birds were examined for bacterial and other disease conditions, and careful detailed records were maintained. No attempt was made to determine the primary cause of the bird’s demise, but rather to determine all the health problems that could be determined for the examined birds. Baker published his findings in a definitive paper (Causes of Mortality and morbidity in exhibition budgerigars in the United Kingdom, Veterinary Record (1996) 139, 156-162).


The study results confirmed that exhibition birds are dying young. The average age of the birds in the study was only about 1.5 years. Many exhibition budgies are making it to maturity, but not a whole lot further. Second, Baker found a wide range of diseases to be responsible. In particular, trichomoniasis, enteritis, and pneumonia were common in the birds that were received dead, with chronic conditions such as psittacosis and megabacteriosis (AGY) present at higher levels in the euthanized birds. It seems probable that improving our prevention and control of these diseases in particular would be helpful in halting or reversing the the declining lifespan of exhibition budgies.


The information and opinions presented in the following paragraphs draw both on Dr. Baker’s report and on other sources, including the author’s experience.


Five Major Killers:


Trichomoniasis: This illness is caused by a microscopic protozoan (trichomonas gallinae) that invades the gut. It can kill rapidly or cause a more chronic condition that can continue for some time with few if any visible symptoms. The disease has long been recognized by pigeon fanciers, where it is known as canker. Fortunately, the disease can be easily and very inexpensively controlled. Pigeon Supply Houses, such as Global Pigeon Supply (www.globalpigeon.com/) offer a variety of treatment products that can be added to birds’ drinking water to prevent and control trichomoniasis. Note that a treatment for trichomoniasis will generally also prove effective for other protozoan gut diseases as well, such as coccidiosis. Treating the birds in your aviary twice a year can go a long ways toward minimizing the risk that you’ll lose birds to these common protozoan diseases.


Enteritis: An all too common inflammation of the gut, enteritis has many possible causes, with everything from bacteria to grit implicated. It poses a difficult treatment problem because, although many birds recover on their own, there’s no way to know which birds will swiftly recover on their own and which will die if left untreated. Good management is important, and could include minimizing stress and maintaining a clean warm environment.


Some of the causes of enteritis are infectious. Some are not. Some are treatable. Some aren’t. None occurs so frequently as to warrant being pointed out as the main cause of enteritis. If a bird develops enteritis, the one thing you should always do is isolate it, preferably in a nice warm hospital cage, and supply it with easily digested food, such as spray millet. Isolating the bird helps assure a bacterial illness won’t be spread throughout the aviary. Sprinkling a little bismuth carbonate on the bird’s food could be beneficial according to some sources, and antibiotics such as Baytril could prove helpful if a bacterial infection is at fault. Further testing and expert diagnosis by an avian veterinarian may be required. One hurdle to successful treatment is that the time factor can be critical; a bird with enteritis may remain chronically ill for a long time, or it might die in a few hours, depending on the specific cause and the bird’s condition.


In the context of Enteritis, “Going Light” needs mention. Baker uses the term, not to describe a symptom, but as the name of a specific kind of degenerative enteritis resulting from an allergic reaction, in which a bird that is eating normally loses weight steadily. Since predisposition to the condition is genetic, a bird exhibiting the condition should not be bred, nor should birds that are closely related be bred. Note that many different conditions could cause a bird to lose weight, making diagnosis difficult.    


Pneumonia: Unfortunately, pnemonia is almost always swiftly fatal in budgies. Birds that appear to be perfectly fine in the morning may be found dead before day’s end. As a result, should you note a bird that has pnemonia, your options may be limited. The one thing you should always do though is to isolate the bird at once, placing it in a warm humid location, and begin treating it with an antibiotic. If the pneumonia is the result of a bacterial infection susceptible to the antibiotic, you just might save the bird. Running tests to pin down the specific cause may not be helpful because the bird probably won’t survive long enough to get the test results.


According to Baker, good ventilation has a role to play in preventing pneumonia. It seems to occur most frequently where the ventilation is poor and the air in the region of the cages becomes stagnant.


Pssitacosis: Budgies that “have a cold” too often turn out to be suffering from pssitacosis (avian chlamydia). It is highly contagious and deadly. Moreover, it can be easily transferred to humans, where it is not as dangerous but is nevertheless not be taken lightly. Fortunately, there are tests for it and the treatment, doxycycline, administered via injection or in the drinking water, is generally effective. 


Avian Gastric Yeast (AGY or Megabacteria): There are many unanswered questions regarding the history and impact of this organism, which, when viewed with a microscope, looks for all the world like gigantic rod-shaped bacteria. It basically resides in the proventriculus and that’s primarily where it attacks the host budgie. AGY was completely unknown just a few decades ago. Now it seems that it is present in a great many avian species, to the extent that some researchers regard it as part of the normal gut flora of birds in general. Given the ability of this organism to sicken and kill host birds, it seems remarkable that it went unnoticed until recently. Mortality studies prior to Baker’s don’t mention the organism’s presence. Was it there but overlooked, or did it only recently become pathogenic in budgerigars? For such a ubiquitous organism, the latter seems unlikely, and we are left with a mystery.


The mystery aside, it appears that AGY is present in most, if not all, aviaries, and that a good portion of the world’s budgies harbor the organism in their gut. Year by year throughout the Baker study, the number of euthanized birds diagnosed as having AGY rose steadily. What’s not clear is whether the increase was real or whether budgie hobbiests were becoming aware of AGY and more skilled at recognizing its symptoms, resulting in more and more of these birds being singled out for Dr. Baker’s study.


Make no mistake about it. AGY is widespread and it is a killer. In the search for a specific cause for the declining mortality of exhibition budgies, AGY certainly would seem to be one possibility, one worthy of further study.


Although AGY is contagious, it tends not to sweep through an aviary striking down every bird in its path. Rather, it sickens one or two, then later on, one or two more. Progress through the flock is typically stealthy and slow, and although the attrition over time can be heavy, its presence may remain unnoticed. Budgies often tolerate AGY very well and remain non-symptomatic for a long time, perhaps for life. It may be that, when a bird becomes stressed, perhaps from change or from being attacked by another illness, it becomes vulnerable to AGY. Some hobbiests have noted that AGY tends to attack older birds more often than young ones. Perhaps changes in the immune system with age lead to increased vulnerability. It may be worth noting that the smaller American budgies are just as susceptible to AGY as are exhibition budgies.


There is only one medication proven to be effective against AGY and that is the anti-fungal Amphotericin B. This drug is available in a commercial product, Vetafarm’s ( http://www.vetafarm.com/index2.asp ) Megabac S. Information provided with Megabac S describes its use for treating a flock. For information on diagnosis and on an effective treatment regimen using this product to treat a critically ill bird, see An Effective Treatment Regimen for Budgies Suffering From AGY (Megabacteria) Disease .


Note that other anti-fungals may be beneficial. For example, Diflucan® (fluconazole) has also been shown to be active against AGY, but only at toxic levels.



 Together, the five sources of budgie morbidity discussed in the preceding paragraphs play a major role in cutting short the lives of exhibition budgies. Doing a better job of recognizing and treating these conditions would help to reverse the trend towards decreasing lifespans. However, even if the situation improves for the conditions discussed, our budgies still face a myriad of other possible health problems. Although they may not occur as frequently as those discussed, many of them are nonetheless potentially lethal.


The nature of the hobby itself tends to keep the risk at a high level. Enthusiasts who competitively show their budgies more or less continually acquire new birds, either by exchanging or buying. At the same time, they endeavor to find homes for birds that don't fit in their breeding program. These birds are generally sold, often at shows, or given away. The result is that there is a lot of mixing taking place, which has the potential for swiftly spreading infectious agents far and wide.


Quarantining newly acquired birds is good practice, but it falls far short of the degree of protection needed. A bird could be harboring trichomoniasis, pssitacosis, and AGY, all three, and still pass a three or four week quarantine with flying colors.


More testing would provide some help, but it’s not a panacea either. In the case of a viral illness, unless a bird is “shedding” the virus being tested for, the test result will be a false negative. In the case of AGY, there is no test available. The organism is ordinarily only present in a very small section of the gut, where it is not easily accessible. Sick birds may shed AGY organisms in their droppings, but asymptomatic birds are unlikely to do so. The problem is compounded by AGY already being so wideapread. I know it’s present in my aviary. Chances are it’s present in yours too.


Given the nature of the hobby, preventing the spread of serious disease would seem to be just about impossible. However, breeder/exhibitors should be able to improve the longevity of their birds by becoming more skilled in diagnosing and treating the aforementioned serious illnesses.


An explanation of why pet budgies outlive their exhibition cousins seems straightforward. Although there may be instances where genetics comes into play, it isn’t likely that exhibition budgies are genetically inferior overall because of the many generations of line-breeding needed to develop desirable traits, and that this genetic inferiority causes them to be naturally short-lived. Rather, the reason pet budgies live longer is that they are far less likely to contract illnesses from other budgies. A great many pet budgies end up in single-bird homes, where they live out their entire life without coming in contact with another bird. In effect, they live lives of continuous quarantine. With no opportunity to acquire contageous diseases from other birds, their chance of living out their normal lifespan is far better than it might otherwise be.