It Could Happen to You…

Now that we have read about all that scientific stuff, I am going to tell you a not so happy story that happened to me in the fall and winter of 2009. First let me say that I have met many Gouldian and Canary breeders during the last 18 years that will deny ever finding air sac mites in their flock…or they will deny even knowing what an air sac mite is.  I believe that the thought behind this is that they are afraid that no one will purchase their birds if they know that there are air sac mites present. As was stated previously in this article, in the Tidemann study they found that 62% of the birds that they checked were infected with air sac mites. So prior to 1992 there was a possibility that some wild Gouldians may never have become infected. The wild birds do hang out in flocks during certain parts of the year, but never within the close proximity that our captive birds do. They do all drink from the same water sources, but nothing as tiny as our water bottles and bowls (in relationship to the number of birds). Therefore, I believe, based upon my own experiences, and the numbers of Gouldian people with infected birds that have contacted me for help in the last 18 years, that Gouldians raised in captivity in close proximity to each other are all infected with air sac mites. If they have had good nutrition since the day that they were hatched, they were able to develop a strong immune system which will be able to keep the infection in check. So those quality breeders that claim never to have had air sac mites in their flock, while not being absolutely factual, were being truthful in their claims. They may truly never have seen any symptoms of an infestation exhibited in their birds.


What does it sound like?

My first experience with air sac mites was in my flock of Canaries back in 1984. When I walked through the house at night, I began to hear noises while the birds slept that sounded like a child, after a crying spell,  who was trying to catch their breath. I’m sure that everyone reading this has probably heard what I am referring to. I would not know how to spell out the sound, but to me it sounded like the birds were trying to catch their breath…by inhaling quickly multiple times in a row. It wasn’t a loud sound, as I only heard it at night when the house was completely quite. My vet gave me Ivermectin to treat them, and since that time, I had never, ever heard that or any other respiratory sound coming from either my Canaries or Gouldians.  But since that day, I have ALWAYS treated my birds, on a very regular schedule with either Ivermectin or Moxidectin. And I would never think to claim that there were absolutely no air sac mites in my flock. Personally I don’t think that you could make that claim, once you had known for a fact that there were air sac mites found in even one bird. Since the protonymphs migrate to the posterior airsac where they are protected from the immune system of their host, AND they are untouched by the insecticides that kill the adult air sac mites, unless you were going to do a necropsy on each bird, in which case you would not have any birds, you can never be sure that you do not have air sac mites in your flock!


It all began with the flood…

My not so happy story began at 2:30AM on September 21st, 2009 when the Atlanta, Georgia area was hit by rising flood waters after having 3 weeks of almost constant rain. The ground was completely saturated and could hold no more water, so it began infiltrating the basements of just about everyone I know that lives here. Many, many people lost their homes completely to the flooding rivers, so what happened to me was a mere inconvenience compared to some, but none the less it has led me to believe that what I am about to tell you COULD HAPPEN TO ANYONE…


Our basement took on 4 inches of water, and my husband and I spent 18 hours with shop vacs and mops attempting to clean up the mess. When the lights came on in my aviary at 7:30 AM, I could see that it too had 4 inches of water on the floor. At that time, I was one week from setting my birds up for the 2009-2010 breeding season. The breeders were primed and ready to go. I spent that day catching them from the flights filled with floating bedding and moving them to smaller holding cages, above the water, in very crowded conditions. The humidity in the aviary had gone from a constant 35% to over 90% in less than 5 hours. And the humidity would unfortunately remain that high for almost 10 days. My dehumidifier was ruined by the flooding water and buying another was impossible for another 10 days, because literally, the entire city was going thru the exact same problem that we were. Dehumidifiers just weren’t to be found. Once I got one, it took 3 days to dry everything out and bring the humidity levels back to 35%.


I should have known better…

It took about a month to get everything cleaned up and back to the way it had been. And at this point, I should have known better than to set the birds up to breed. My 18 years of experience should have told me that they had been under too much stress over the last month. But looking at them, they did not appear to be out of condition. The hen’s beaks were still dark and the cocks were still singing their little hearts out. So I went ahead and set them up.


The breeding did not start off with a bang the way it had the year before. That should have been my first sign as many of these were experienced, bonded pairs. Of the 26 pairs set up to breed, a few went right to work, but when the babies hatched they began pitching or just abandoning the nests. I had not had pitched babies in years, and these were experienced pairs, not newbies. Because I have about 100 birds in my aviary, it took a while before I heard the noise…a loud, wet, raspy, wheezing sound coming from 3 birds. I knew that I had been treating for air sac mites every 3 weeks, so it couldn’t be that. I figured that because of the wet conditions they had been exposed to for a month, the problem might be a protozoa infection like Trichomonas, so the entire flock was treated with Ronivet-S for a week. The 3 birds continued to make that same wet, raspy noise although I never heard it in any of the other birds. So then I treated those 3 with Amoxicillin and Tylan for another week thinking that it was a bacterial respiratory infection, but still the noise persisted. The rest of the flock appeared to be just fine but the breeding had gotten only slightly better. So as a last resort, I applied the air sac mite treatment directly to the skin of those 3 noisemakers, and one bird stopped the noise.


This is scary stuff…

I kept the other 2 isolated from the rest of the flock, but I found one of them… a beautiful, red headed, normal hen dead the next morning. I immediately placed her in a plastic bag and refrigerated her. I e-mailed a friend that has done necropsies of her own birds and asked if she would be willing to necropsy this hen if I Express Mailed her that same day. She agreed and so off the poor girl went. As the Post Office so often does, they took 2 days to deliver the one day package, so by the time my friend receive it, the bird was already dead for 3 days. It was late in the day when the package arrived, so she planned to do the necropsy the very next morning.


She reported that when she opened her up, every organ looked perfect, She was not under weight, just a bit dried out since she was now 4 days dead! Since we suspected something respiratory, she took some goo that she found in the upper respiratory tract, prepared a slide and looked at it under the microscope. Shock!…Horror!…she found air sac mites. As she rushed to the phone to call me, her college age daughter took a look at the microscope slide and I could hear her in the background on my voice mail asking her Mom…”should these things be moving?”


"No, heavens NO…NO WAY!” I hear my friend shouting back to her daughter.


By the time we spoke later that day, things had settled down in their household, but she had found LIVE, MOVING AIR SAC MITES in a bird that had been dead for 4 days! How could this be possible? How could they survive that long? I still don’t have an answer for you on that, but I’m sure that you’ve heard the joke about the fact that cockroaches would probably be the only survivors if we ever had a nuclear disaster? Well my bet is that air sac mites would still be around too!


This is a photo of a gravid (pregnant) female air sac mite that was still living inside of my 4 day dead bird. It was reported in the Bell study from 1995, that "Ivermectin is known to kill S. tracheacolum (e.g. Grimm and Centufier, 1986; Kummerfeld and Schafer-Nolte, 1987) When Ivomec® (i.e. 0.8g Ivermectin) is administered orally to captive Gouldian Finches Erythrura gouldiae the egg in utero of the killed female mite does not die but continues to develop (Bell, 1995).”  


This is scary stuff folks! You can kill the female mite and yet her egg does not die, but continues to grow and be born!



Reviewing the facts…

After the shock settled into my brain, I began to look for a pattern. To my horror, I discovered 3 more birds that were displaying similar raspy symptoms, but not nearly as pronounced or loud as the 3 original birds. Then, all of a sudden I saw that every bird with these symptoms had the same "family colored leg-band”. All but one of these symptomatic birds came from the same parents. This fact alleviated most of my concern. What I was seeing in these related birds was what will happen when a bird does not have a strong, vibrant, healthy immune system. These birds "looked” fine, but it was evident that none of them had an immune system strong enough to keep the air sac mite population in check during the stress caused by the flooding, being confined to crowded holding cages for a month, and then being placed into a breeding situation to top it all off.


All but one of these birds, coming from the same parents, were "weak gened” and unable to build a strong, healthy immune system, even though they were provided the best diet possible. Their parents are unrelated and show no sign of an air sac mite  problem, however this particular pairing is not a good one and therefore will not be paired together again in the future. This is the type of decision making that must be made if we are going to keep improving our captive populations of Gouldians. We must be able to selectively pair and breed only the BEST birds, and not just whatever we can find to purchase, that is the exact color that we have been looking for.


As luck would have it, I kept all but one of their offspring as this was a new bloodline that I was developing. Unfortunately every one of those offspring died within 3 months of the flood. The one bird that I gave to a friend before the floods and the resulting stress is showing no sign of a problem. But I have advised him not to breed this bird and to keep it in as stress free an environment as possible, keep up the regular air sac mite treatments and just enjoy his lovely bird as a pet.


Looks can be deceiving…

I hope that you can now see that just because a bird "looks” fine, you can not just assume that it will be fine when placed under the stresses that life throws at it. I hope that you will learn from my mistake in thinking that everything was just fine after such a stressful period for my flock.


It has been said that everything happens for a reason. Back on September 21st, I could not think of anything good coming from that day. But it is now my opinion that what happened on that day, lead me down a path that will help to enlighten all of you Lady Gouldian lovers. Air sac mites are real! Air sac mites can be a real killer for your birds and therefore you need to be vigilant in keeping these mites in check with regular treatments to kill the adult mite population living in your birds.


Follow Up

I remember back in those early years when the only thing available to us to treat our birds for air sac mites was 5% Sevin Dust via the "shake ‘n bake” method. I never want to go back to that again! I can also remember when Ivermectin was discovered, unless you had a local avian vet who could give your birds liquid Ivermectin by mouth, we had only the horse paste and later the injectible Ivomec and then the Pour-On Ivomec all made for horses, sheep and cattle. It seemed that we always had to use products made for other animals, and in so doing lost numerous birds due to calculation errors in amounts to administer on such small birds.


Now we have 2 products, Scatt and S76,  made specifically for our birds and both of these products, when used correctly and following label directions, will allow our captive birds to live long happy, healthy lives. I know that some of you reading this article feel that I only offer this information because I sell both products. I want to assure you that your perception of my motives is not correct. 


I want to assure the rest of you that I offer this information and sell both of these products because I want all of you to have strong healthy birds. It does not matter to me whether you purchase the products from me or not. What does matter is that now that we can so easily eliminate the possibility of death from these parasites, I think that it is a shame to allow one single Canary or Lady Gouldian to die from them.



I wish to extend a special THANKS to my friend Kristen Reeves for the wonderful air sac mite photos she took when she did the necropsy on my Gouldian hen!

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