Beak Speak


 Avian Health With Dr Bob - Do We Have A Social Licence to Keep Birds?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Author and Images Dr Bob Doneley BVSc FANZCVS

Do We Have a Social Licence to Keep Birds?

The recent notion of having a ‘social licence to operate’ is gaining popularity as a defining principle for many projects, hobbies, and pastimes (not to mention businesses). It has been defined as ‘the informal acceptance granted to an individual or organisation by a local community’. While having a formal licence to operate, such as a licence to keep native or exotic birds issued by a state or federal government, may be necessary, it is rarely sufficient to gain community acceptance. Individuals and organisations will find it difficult (if not impossible) to operate effectively if they do not enjoy the trust and confidence of the community in which they are located. Typically, this requires the presence of three components—legitimacy, credibility and trust.

For bird keepers to keep birds, it is important to have a social licence. They must conduct their business, hobby or pet ownership legally and give at least a credible standard of care to their charges. This in turn leads to them being trusted by the community to take good care of their birds. 

Bird keepers of both aviary and companion birds face rising pressure from animal welfare groups. This is not in itself a bad thing as it drives a need for self-awareness. But in order to gain and retain a social licence to keep birds, we must demonstrate credibility and thereby show the community that we can be trusted. 

As such, we need to focus on the welfare of the birds in our charge. 

The Five Domains

Animal welfare is an indication of how well an animal is coping with the conditions in which it lives. The experiences it encounters, and how it deals with them, determine its welfare. These experiences can be negative or positive. The Five Freedoms (freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behaviour, and freedom from fear and distress) were the first attempt to keep animals free of conditions inside and outside their bodies that led to negative experiences. 

However, some of these negative experiences are needed to keep animals alive. For example, reasonable hunger and thirst stimulate eating and drinking. 

Other negative experiences are detrimental to an animal’s welfare. These may arise when animals are kept alone in a small, featureless area with little to do, or when they feel threatened in various ways. Loneliness, depression, boredom, fear and anxiety are examples. 

The aim of animal care should therefore be both to keep the negative experiences generated within the body at low levels (but still available to stimulate normal behaviour), and to maximise positive experiences. This has led to the concept of the Five Domains of animal welfare:

Good nutrition, 
Good environment,
Good health,
Appropriate behaviour, and  
Positive mental experiences.

If we all make an effort to ensure our birds’ welfare falls within the realm of the Five Domains, we will be able to demonstrate credibility, gain the trust of the community and, therefore, retain our social licence to keep birds. Conversely, failing to do so may cause the community to lose their trust in bird keepers and, with that, we lose our social licence. 

Five Problems in Bird Keeping Today 

I have been a veterinarian treating birds for 36 years now and, in that time I have seen some incredible advances in bird keeping and the attitudes of bird owners towards both their birds and their hobby. Unfortunately, I have also seen some terrible things…

There are still five common problems I see today. If we, as bird keepers, address these problems, the welfare of our birds can only improve and our social licence is ensured. 

1. Inappropriate Nutrition

Despite all the advances in avian nutrition in the past 10 years (in particular), there are still far too many people (both breeders and pet owners) who maintain that:

Seed is a natural diet for birds, and
Seed is all a bird needs.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Ripened agricultural grain is a food that birds have taken advantage of, but it is not a diet on which they evolved. To say that it is natural and healthy for them is like saying pizza is a complete natural and healthy diet for people. Soaking or sprouting the seed only has minimal effect on the nutritional value of seed and may often open a whole new range of problems with bacterial and mould contamination. 

That’s not to say that seed can’t be part of a bird’s diet, but it cannot be the whole diet. The same can be said for pelleted foods. They can be a large part of a bird’s diet but should not be a complete diet. 

Yet another issue with feeding birds is offering them fruit and vegetables. Giving your bird a quarter of an apple every now and then does not constitute a varied and healthy diet! Look at the species you are keeping and determine if fruit is part of their evolution. Budgies, Cockatiels and cockatoos are not fruit-eaters and fruit should not appear in their diet (except as an occasional treat). Tropical birds, such as South American species and Eclectus, benefit from fruit, but it should be low GI such as stone fruit, passionfruit and tropical fruits. 

Vegetables should be fed to all birds every day. They should be dark green (beans, peas, broccoli, silverbeet, etc.), red (beetroot, chilies, capsicum) and yellow (corn, carrot, pumpkin, sweet potato). Lettuce and celery aren’t harmful, but they lack nutritional value, and should only be fed as a treat. 

If we can’t be bothered to feed our birds properly, how can we expect the community to trust us to care for them? 

2. Lack of Biosecurity

Biosecurity is defined as ‘a set of measures designed to protect a property from the entry and spread of pests and diseases. Biosecurity is your responsibility and that of every person visiting or working on your property’. How many times have you seen someone buy a bird from a breeder or at a sale, take it home, and immediately place it in with their other birds? How many of you have seen explosive disease outbreaks as a consequence of this behaviour? I have, many times, and it never ends well. Diseases such as Psittacosis, Beak and Feather Disease, Macrorhabdus and even worms can suddenly be a problem when there wasn’t one before the new birds were introduced. It’s no good saying, ‘it won’t happen to me’. Keep playing Russian roulette and eventually it will happen to you… 

The key concepts for biosecurity are:

Traffic flow, and
Early identification and removal of sick birds.

Quarantine is the act of physically isolating a bird on arrival into a new home or collection for a period of time (usually six weeks) before introducing it to the existing birds. This serves several purposes. It will hopefully prevent the introduction of diseases into the collection by careful observation for signs of illness, it allows for routine husbandry procedures such as worming and treatment for lice, and it allows the new bird time to adjust to new management and food before it has to cope with future companions. Your avian vet can best advise you on what tests and treatment should be carried out for the species and age of the bird you have purchased. 

Traffic flow is the control of movement around an aviary complex or house so that diseases and parasites are not spread, especially from a new bird to older birds. It means you don’t feed the new bird first then the others—so you don’t backtrack and spread disease on your hands, clothing, shoes, etc. 

Identifying a sick bird and removing it from a collection to a hospital cage (or, better yet, a vet clinic) helps to prevent it from potentially infecting other birds. We call these sick birds ‘disease multipliers’. (If you have one sick bird, soon you’ll have two, then four, then 16, and so on.) Learn to recognise signs of illness and, when you see a sick bird, do something about it, don’t ‘wait and see if it gets better’. 

If bird keepers can’t be relied on to keep their birds in good health through the use of sound and proven biosecurity measures, their social licence is at risk. 

3. Inappropriate Use of Medications

Antimicrobial resistance is a looming issue which is raising community concerns, and we need to be ahead of it. The biggest problems in this area, which I still see frequently, are the use of drugs to overcome poor management, and the indiscriminate or inappropriate use of these drugs. 

Poor management—poor diet, biosecurity and hygiene—will stress birds, making them more susceptible to infection. Using antibiotics to fix this, rather than addressing the underlying cause, leads to the excessive use of drugs and hastens the development of antimicrobial resistance. I’m not blaming bird owners alone for this, veterinarians need to play a more active role in identifying the stressors leading to disease, but bird owners must allow them to do so. 

The indiscriminate and inappropriate use of drugs is another big issue. I often see situations where people ‘borrow’ drugs from friends or stockpile drugs, and then use them whenever they have a sick bird, without any veterinary input. The result is often that the wrong drug is used, the drugs are out of date, or they are used incorrectly. Even worse is the habit of giving drugs for 1–2 days each week ‘in case birds get sick’. This is a recipe for developing drug resistance and when things do go wrong, there are no drugs left that can be used. 

Bird owners need to be aware that veterinarians are under strict controls in the use of drugs (including antibiotics). These controls are enforced by state health departments, veterinary surgeons’ boards, and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. Asking vets to dispense drugs without having seen the patient is, literally, asking them to commit an offence.

This indiscriminate and inappropriate use of medications, especially antibiotics, will eventually erode both the credibility of people keeping birds, and the community trust in bird keepers. Once you have lost credibility and trust, you will almost certainly lose your social license to keep birds. 

4. Failing to Seek Veterinary Assistance Early

Bird owners need to realise that birds, as a prey species, will hide signs of illness for as long as they can. In other words, they only start to look sick towards the end of the illness, not at the start. This is known as the ‘masking phenomenon’ and is the reason why birds have a reputation for been ‘soft’ and rarely responding to treatment. Add to this the fact that many bird owners will ‘wait and see if he gets better’ and then ask their friends, the pet shop, or Facebook for advice and, by the time the bird gets to a vet, it is often too late to provide effective treatment. 

Another issue develops when an aviculturist is losing birds but fails to get necropsies performed. Often by the time a vet becomes involved, the disease is widespread in a collection and the financial and emotional toll on the owner is high. It is even more frustrating for the vet when the disease is subsequently diagnosed as something relatively easy to treat. If only we had seen the first bird, the rest could have been saved…

Bird owners need to involve vets in the welfare of their birds earlier and more frequently. Preventative care is always much easier and less costly than treatment. Again, using the Five Domains as a model for animal welfare, owners are obligated to provide for the good health of their charges, and this can only be done with veterinary assistance.  

5. Failing to Keep Current on Improvements in Bird Keeping

Over the past 30 years there have been major advances in understanding avian husbandry, reproduction, nutrition, and even grooming. They have been exciting years and the result has been a massive improvement in the welfare of birds in captive conditions. Unfortunately, there are still many people out there who have not made any effort to keep up. 

Things like selling unweaned parrot chicks to novice bird owners, the hack jobs some aviculturists think suffice for a wing trim, the bad advice given to other bird owners on health and nutrition, the trapping of wild birds because some breeders can’t make the effort to learn how to breed a species… While incidence of these issues has declined over the past 10 years in particular, they are still far too common. 

We have many wonderful bird owners in this country who love their birds and care for them in an exemplary fashion. But the few rogues out there who won’t make the effort to keep up and remain current on what’s new and what works best, spoil the reputation of the rest. 


If bird owners are going to resist the claims made by the animal liberation movement and groups such as PETA, we have to be able to gain and retain our social licence to keep birds. We can only do that if everyone focuses on animal welfare, especially the welfare standards laid out in the Five Domains. If we lose our social licence, it makes it so much easier for these groups to pressure the government and legislate against our hobby. 

Bird sales and bird shows—without a social licence, these activities will become a thing of the past

Malnourished King Parrot fed a seed-only diet—how can society trust bird owners if they do this to their charges? 

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