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Lysine deficiency in Sparrows – the cause of their decline?

Over the decade and more that I have been taking in and rearing baby birds, I have noticed and recorded a lot of changes in the species I care for, notably the decline in Greenfinch numbers seen in rescue centres, the times of year that certain illness and ailments are waxing and waning, the calcium deficiency increase in Collared Doves, plus Trichomoniasis and Young Bird Sickness in Wood Pigeons and over the last few years, the decline in the feather condition of baby Sparrows.

This Year it has been particularly noticeable and we currently have approximately 10 Sparrows in care with feather condition too poor for release. The young birds will have to stay in care until they moult a new set of feathers, probably next Year.

When we first started seeing this condition I assumed that similarly to Collared Doves it was a calcium deficiency and thought little more of it, giving the birds extra vitamins and minerals in their food to compensate. Then, over the last few years there have been more and more coming in with tatty, brittle, white feathers and I really had to start giving the cause more thought. The more I began to think about it the more I realised it couldn’t be calcium deficiency because unlike Collared Doves which begin breeding as early as January in the Uk (due to a lack of adaptability from their breeding patterns in Southern Europe from where they originated) and end up with Vitamin D deficiencies and resulting calcium issues, Sparrows who are native and breed in May and June should not be having these issues as there is no lack of Vitamin D by then.

I began to follow the RSPB research on the decline of Sparrows, which are now a red listed species in the UK and a study in Leicester has found that “Starvation of chicks due to lack of invertebrate prey was found to be the main cause of high levels of chick mortality in a declining suburban sparrow population in Leicester”

So, if lack of invertebrate prey is the issue, then those that are able to keep their chicks alive are presumably supplementing with other foods, probably seed from bird feeders and this may be the problem. As most rehabbers will know, all baby birds (including finches who grow into adults that eat seeds) need insects when they are growing as they need higher levels of proteins than seeds can provide. This seed supplementing, if that is what is happening, is missing the vital amino acids that biosynthesise the proteins needed and is therefore leading to Achromatosis caused particularly by Lysine deficiency.

The same RSPB study in Leicester found that

  • Supplementary feeding of mealworms increased nesting success (fledglings produced per nesting attempt) by 55% in Leicester.
  • Supplementary feeding of mealworms at 66 colonies in London increased breeding success (by 62%) but only had a small positive impact on colony size (adult abundance). Additional supplementary feeding of seed had no impact on the abundance of fledglings or adult sparrows. There seemed to be plenty of unoccupied suitable nesting sites in the London study areas.

The fact that supplemental feeding of seed had no impact but that supplemental feeding of insects improved fledging success, will in the long term be the key to the survival of our Sparrows in my humble opinion, unless we are able to redress the decline of our native insect populations, and that is a whole new battle.

In the meantime, all we as rehabbers, can do is to take in the affected fledglings and feed them plenty of insects up to the point of weaning (after which it would have no effect due to the growth period stopping) and then feed a healthy diet until the next moult.


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Calcium Deficiency in Collared Doves

Young Collared Doves found in February/March are extremely prone to calcium deficiency in the UK, similar to what we would term rickets, in humans. Vitamin D from the Sun usually ensures that calcium levels are sufficient to enable the production of healthy bones and given that these birds historically bred in sub-tropical Asia, this wouldn’t have been a problem. However, since its arrival in the UK in the 1950’s this bird has become widespread throughout the Country but has not yet adapted its breeding patterns to reflect our far less sunny climate. The bird therefore begins to breed as early as January, leading to inevitable problems for the early offspring produced.

Whilst in the nest the lack of bone density is not noticeable, the chick is safe and fed by the parents. However, when the bird attempts to leave the nest and follow the parents as doves do, their legs and wings are not strong enough to do anything more than futter to the ground where they stay unable to fly and often even unable to walk.

The lucky birds are found, picked up and taken to a rescue centre where hopefully, the staff will know that this is an annual phenomenon and take appropriate actions. The severity of the disease can vary from year to year (depending on the harshness of the Winter) from a mild “rubbery” beak and weakness in the limbs to severely deformed and twisted legs. The most severely affected birds will often never be able to walk, even with temporary splints and should sadly be euthanised.

When the birds first arrive at our facility they are warmed up in an incubator or on a heatpad and once the temperature is stabilised, are given critical care, at body temperature, via a feeding tube (gavage). This can often be daunting as they have a tendency to regurgitate and often appear to “fit” for the first few feeds, so little and often is the key to prevent inhalation pneumonia.

We then begin to introduce Tropican Breeding Mash to their tube feeds, again at body temperature and also again, in small but frequent feeds dependent on the size and weight of the bird. If the bird is severely affected, adding a drop of liquid calcium to the feed can be beneficial but otherwise, the Tropican has everything in it that is needed.

Within a few days the bird should be showing signs of improvement and attempting to perch, usually on the side of a nest bowl and most go on to make a full recovery but may need feeding via gavage for longer than the same species born later in the Year. Don’t try to rush them into self feeding, they can only benefit from the minerals and nutrients in the Tropican.

These are 3 of our most recent intake during February 2017 which hasn’t seen too many severe cases coming into wildlife rescues. Ours are all are now awaiting some finer weather for release so it is worth putting in the time and effort.


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Young Bird Sickness

This is a condition affecting Pigeons and Doves that has had devastating effects in wildlife centres around the UK over the last 2 – 3 years, particularly during the Autumn months. It is a combined sickness consisting of both virus and bacteria and is transmitted by air, dust and contact between birds. Symptoms are varied but often involve lethargy, fluffed up appearance, crop stasis, green/yellow faeces and vomiting.

Sadly, symptoms do not always precede sudden death and the problem with any condition involving a virus is that there is no treatment.

When the bird contracts the virus it weakens their liver and immune system allowing the secondary bacterial, fungal and protozoal infections to take hold, so all that can be done is to treat the secondary infections and boost the immunity of the bird so that it can fight the viral infection itself.

This is our current hospital treatment plan to try and save as many YBS birds as we can:-

  1. Isolate all incoming young Pigeons and Doves on arrival, especially in the Autumn months, ie September, October and November.
  1. Any birds with symptoms described above should be immediately treated with a broad spectrum antibiotic (Baytril, Marbocyl or Synulox as per the dose rates in our download), plus given a Spartrix tablet an Anti-Coccidia tablet and they should be wormed.
  1. A new product Harkers Wonder Pigeon has been released which improves the intestinal health of the pigeon by a selective non – pH dependant anti-bacterial effect and can be added to any drinking water and/or to any liquid food being tubed into the crop. Available here – Wonder Pigeon
  1. Hygiene is of paramount importance. Clean cages using veterinary disinfectant such as F10, Safe4 or Anigene.
  1. Carry out regular faecal sampling or ask a vet to help and continue to treat anything found in them.
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Baby Bird Handrearing Formula

So, after many Years of giving out the recipe, via our book and over social media and email, we have decided that we should sell our Baby Bird Handrearing Formula as a ready made mix.

It is sold in 1kg weight bags and contains the following:-

500g Ground up 80% Chicken Cat Biscuits

250g Proprietary Breeding Mash Formula

250g Dried Insects – Ants, Daphnia and Insect Mix

Multivitamins and Probiotics

Because this is a dry mix, it lasts for a long time and you can scoop out just a small amount, mix with water and feed your baby birds

Keep refrigerated between feeds or make up a fresh amount before each feed.

Sterilise all feeding equipment between feeds

See our video below:-


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Trichomoniasis is back!

It’s that time of Year again when wet, mild conditions provide the perfect breeding ground for Trichomoniasis (Canker).

Whilst there are effective ways to treat Trich when birds come in, there’s no really effective way to treat it without catching infected birds, sadly.

Characterised by yellow/white lesions in the mouth and throat of the bird, a thick, mucoid saliva and swellings around the eyes, the organism will grow until eventually the bird cannot feed properly and dies of starvation or predation.  The more advanced the disease is, the more difficult it is to treat.

Other signs of the disease that would be noticeable to members of the public would be birds that have dirty looking beaks with patches of wet feathers around the beak area and swollen eyes.  Any birds that have difficulty swallowing food are fluffed up, lethargic and slow to fly off will also need help. It should be noted that this is a disease of birds only and cannot be passed on to cats, dogs, rabbits or humans.

It is believed that the increase in the spread of this disease in recent years is due partly to a lack of hygiene around bird feeding and watering stations.  A bird with trichmoniasis drinking from a bird bath is likely to pass the disease on to other and so continue the spread of the disease.  Some organisations advise immediately removing feeders and bird baths as soon as an infected bird is noticed, but what happens then? The answer is simple, the affected bird is stressed and hungry adding to his deterioration and he and any other infected birds will all move, as a group, to another garden where there is food, thus infecting that area too.

Disinfectants are all very well BUT the only definitive way to kill trichomonas gallinae is by dessication, ie drying out. Leaving feeders and especially bird baths to dry out after washing them is vital. A recommended drying time is 48 hours or at the very least (when regularly cleaned, ie weekly) 24 hours.

Homeowners can help combat the spread of this disease:-

  • Clean, disinfect and dry out your feeders for 48 hours, then
  • Clean and completely dry out bird tables and bird baths, weekly
  • Completely change drinking water daily, do not just top up
  • Spread feed stations out to reduce crowding
  • Make drainage holes in any exposed tables to prevent moisture build up