DRACULA OF THE BIRD WORLD
KRISTEN REEVES, MEADOWLARK FARMS AVIAN SUPPLY, INC.
As bird keepers, we all know the importance of keeping cages clean and observing our birds closely each day for changes in behavior and health. It is my hope that once you've read this article, it will reinforce the importance of these duties and express to you the urgency of finding problems early.
Dermanyssus Gallinae (Blood Mites, Red Mites, Chicken Mites)
Blood mites are the Dracula of the bird world. They appear as tiny specks, no larger than a grain of salt. The female mites feed on birds when they roost for the night, or settle down in their nest boxes. After feeding, the mites will appear a brownish red to bright red – not unlike those fast little red spiders we may see climbing on us after a walk through our gardens. They will colonize in any dark, dry space such as the ends of wooden perches, under the flaps of sheet metal cage trays, in the cracks of molded sand perches that have begun to separate, nooks and crannies of manzanita perches – anywhere they can squeeze that is within a close proximity of their nightly meal.
Under the microscope, the mites look like miniature crabs with 8 legs and a sharp mouth. The newly hatched young appear white, not unlike bird dander or dust. The eggs are not visible to the naked eye, but can be seen with 1000x magnification.
After many long and rewarding years of owning and breeding several types of canaries and small finches, I found myself in need of additional breeding cages. Good breeding cages are costly, especially those that have the amount of room I demand for my breeding pairs. So when I found two sets of used stackable breeders for sale at a reasonable price, I snatched them up.
Now, I tell my own clients not to purchase used cages. You never know what might be lurking in them even after they have been thoroughly cleaned. On this day I was feeling pretty confident that I could make these cages work. Heaven forbid I practice what I preach! I brought them home and completely dismantled them for cleaning. I was horrified to see thousands of dead blood mites (dermanyssus gallinae) under every overlapping surface (Hint, hint! Danger Will Robinson!). I called my local bird veterinarian who instructed me to use bleach and hot soapy water to clean the cages, and then spray them with a commercial, bird-safe insecticide. She said I should have no problem since the mites I was seeing were dead.
Assuming the information I had received was correct, I proceeded to solder loose and broken cage bars and divider slides, then spent two full weeks with my oldest daughter scrubbing every crack and crevice with hot soapy water, then again with hot bleach water. We allowed the cage parts to dry in the hot sun. To be safe, we painted the cages with commercial grade auto paint in an effort to seal up any crevices that may conceal anything we couldn't wash away.
By this time, I had spent nearly a month and a whole lot of money preparing the cages for use – they looked like new – I thought, hmmm, I think it's time for a new, larger bird room to show off my beautiful birds! I went about clearing out a room in my basement. I purchased additional full spectrum lighting, timers, and shelving. I installed an aquarium in the room to keep a modest humidity level, and a thermometer and hygrometer to monitor the heat and humidity, respectively. I installed my grow light table for growing bird greens and sprouting seed. I organized my microscope and accessories so that I could easily monitor droppings and perform gram stains with my bi-yearly quarantine procedures. This room was shaping up to be what I had always wanted for my beautiful babies! I was finally able to place my breeding pairs in their new cages, and all was right with the world...for about 22 days.
The first sign of trouble was when I began to notice that my Gouldian finches, in particular, were behaving very strangely. They were extremely restless and fluttered their wings constantly. They spent a great deal of time jumping from perch to cage bars and back again. They preened almost constantly when they weren't jumping around. Those of us who own Goulds know that they DO NOT JUMP AROUND! I had no idea what the problem was. I took each and every one of those birds in hand and inspected their vents, skin, feathers, legs and beaks. I could see nothing but perfect little bodies. I ran gram stains on all of them, but found nothing out of the ordinary. I was certain their seed mix was correct and they were getting the right amount of nutrients through the supplements I gave them. I allowed them an extra bath each day and adjusted the heat to about 75 degrees so that they would be dry before lights out. Nothing seemed to calm them. I watched over the next few days only to see them going light. This was not good! What could possibly be wrong? I was perplexed!
About the 25th day, my worst nightmare came true, literally – I figured out exactly what the problem was...blood mites!
I Don't Do Bugs!!!
As I was cleaning cages and making my daily inspection, I needed to change out the cuttlebone my finches love so dearly. I carefully unclipped the wooden clothespin I use to attach the cuttlebone to the cage. Hmmm, why is there mold on the cuttlebone? Uh, THAT'S NOT MOLD!!!! Oh NOOOOO! The mold is MOVING!!!!!!! This can't be!!! I knew immediately that I had made a very grave error purchasing these used cages!
Now, when I say I don't do bugs, I mean I DON'T DO BUGS!!! My birds all receive live insects daily, but know that, "Mommy is gonna toss the container of bugs in the cage and run!" The birds know what is expected of them – eat every bug – do not leave a single leg or speck of bug in the bowl or she won't give us more!!! I can't stand creepy crawlies. I can barely bring myself to look at the bowls to make certain the birds ate them all before I remove the bowl for cleaning and more bugs! So to see bugs crawling on the cuttlebone nearly made me ill. I began to check other areas of the cages – perches, nest boxes, dishes. I only saw them on the cuttlebone. Whew!
Okay, this isn't so bad...think clearly now, what needs to be done to get these bugs under control? First, remove the birds and spray them with insecticide, then Scatt them. Okay, I can do that. Next, place them in a clean new cage in another room of the house. Okay, I can do that too! So I did – all of them – and that's a lot of birds! Next I dismantled every cage in my bird room and cleaned them with hot soapy bleach water. I placed all of the perches, dishes and cage accessories in my bird dishwasher and added two full cups of bleach. I cranked up the water heater to the highest setting and ran the dishwasher. I vacuumed every crack and crevice of the bird room and washed the floor with bleach water. I then sprayed everything down with insecticide (including the inside of the vacuum cleaner and the hoses). I ordered some Pestex and S76 from Laraine because now I had completely depleted my arsenal. I figure that having used two full bottles of pesticide, I should have killed the mites. Boy was I wrong!!
The Never Ending Saga
Over the course of the next few weeks (soon to become months, then a year), I spent my every waking moment (in between chauffeuring my four children to school and running my normal errands) inspecting the walls and cages for signs of the mites. Every single day, I still found more, but the most disturbing part was that they had obviously been feeding. Hello??? There are no birds in here – do they eat people??? Please tell me they don't eat people! I spent hours researching blood mites on the Internet. I called every Exterminator in the phone book. I called every available Avian Veterinarian in the State of Michigan. I contacted Michigan State University and many websites pleading for information on how to get rid of the mites. Nobody can help because they had never heard of a "blood mite". They all ask me if I've correctly identified the bug...hello????? I'm positive I know what this menace is, thank you very much!!! They still can't help.
Now I'm in a panic. Will the mites move to other parts of my home??? Will they suck my blood, my husband's, my children's, my other pets'??? I need answers NOW! Here I am, a grown, 40 year old woman, brandishing a magnifying glass in one hand, a bottle of Pestex in the other and screaming, "DIE, DIE, DIE", as I spray every mite I see. There must be a better way!!! Then it hits me. Pestex is made of pyrethrin, a naturally occurring pesticide derived from a form of chrysanthemum. Maybe if I use a bug bomb that contains pyrethrin, it will kill the mites. I run off to the hardware store and read every label on every bug bomb they carry. Most of them contain permethrin and a very low dose of pyrethrin. I consult with the sales staff. They are concerned for the safety of my family and other pets...this stuff is deadly...but I purchase several of them and head home to do the deed.
I sit down to read the instructions...I have to what??? Remove all people and pets for 3 hours then "air" the room out for another 30 minutes??? Turn off all pilot lights and unplug everything including my fire alarms??? Does this company realize it is snowing early in Michigan and that we require heat to survive????? I think maybe I can get away with sealing off just the bird room...I can't possibly take all of my pets out of the house! So I prepare the bird room by sealing up the first of two outer doors with duct tape. I unlock the one small window and set up a step ladder with a window fan to air the room out after the bomb is done. I seal up the aquarium with plastic wrap and duct tape. I set all of the cages in the center of the room, directly under the bug bomb, set it off, then seal up the remaining outer door and move to the upstairs.
Then it hits me. Oh no, I can smell the pesticide filtering up through the floor boards!!! Will it kill us? Will it kill my African Grey and other birds and pets??? I quick run to the van, fold the seats flat, grab my son, the four huge cages I've crammed my entire flock into, the cat (without a kennel), the dog (without a leash), the mouse in her aquarium, and lastly, my African Grey as she tries to peel the skin off the back of my hand and arm. I cram us all into the van and pull out of the driveway. Oh no...I need to use the little girls room...I have no money, no coat, no phone. But I do have a DVD player in my van, so my son can watch movies, and I had packed his lunch before he left for school...we can do this!!!
After three hours of listening to Cat in the Hat, I am finally able to come home and air out the bird room...did it work? I won't know until morning.
First thing in the morning, I'm in the bird room scouting for mites. Oh no, they are now everywhere! They've come out of hiding looking for food! Even the rubber gloves I had used when cleaning with bleach had mites in and on them!!! So I pack up the animals and my son again, but this time I'm prepared, kennels, leashes and lunch for all! I turn off all the pilots and alarms and set off the bomb and leave the house. Surely this will work!!!
The next morning I follow the same routine. I still see mites crawling everywhere. I pack everyone up and set off a third bomb, come back and clean everything again. I wait a day and set off a fourth bomb. I'm really starting to panic now! They are in my lights, the timers, and the electrical sockets the timers are plugged into. They are in the holes I had drilled to hang shelving; they are under the wall paper and in the acoustical ceiling tile. They are in my stash of nesting materials and the corncob and walnut shell bedding I use in my cages. They are in the aquarium lights I use on my hospital cage...anywhere that was dry, but especially warm. It hits me...everything must be thrown away. I can't take any chances that I miss even one little mite!!! I also dismantle and pack up the used cages transport them back to where I purchased them. I return them for a refund (after an R-Rated and rousing chorus of expletives) and am able to recover a small portion of the money I've already spent trying to eradicate the mites.
It's become obvious that In order to kill them, I need to find out the life cycle of these critters so I know how long it will be before I kill them all! I call Laraine at LadyGouldian.com in a panic. I explain to the nice lady who answers the phone my dilemma. She tells me Laraine is in the aviaries, but that she'll give her the message and have her call me back. Thank goodness!!! I wait, not so patiently, for Laraine's call.
When Laraine returns my call, I explain my situation. This is not just a cage of birds - this is my entire 10' x 12' bird room and an entire flock! Laraine has the patience of a Saint! We discuss bleach and the various pesticides I had tried to use, she asks me a few questions such as, "Do I have mice?". She makes me think of a few other ideas for searching my house AND the Internet. I finish my call with her and spend the rest of the evening and well into the wee hours researching and looking for mouse droppings. I drag out every bird book I own and start pouring over every bit of information I can find about blood mites and locate the proper spelling for their Latin term. I type the term into my search engine and voila! A huge list of sites!! Maybe now I'll get some answers!!! Maybe...
Hours of Research
Much to my dismay, the mites are known to the general population as "chicken mites". They are difficult to eradicate. I discover things I already know such as they like to hide in warm dry places during the day and feed on the birds only at night. I read that they will, indeed, move to other parts of the structure and feed on humans and other pets if there are no birds to feed on (little panic here!). There is conflicting information. One site says the mites and their eggs can remain dormant for up to six months and can go without a blood meal just as long; another says it takes a mere few days without a meal for them to die. I also read that it appears they require a higher humidity to reproduce. I realize that in my effort to give my birds the most comfortable and advantageous breeding environment possible, I have created a "best case scenario" and haven for the mites. I have contributed to the population explosion by keeping the humidity and heat high in my bird room!!! I cannot imagine how many there might have been had I not found them early!!!
Over a year later, I'm cleaning up the residual effects. The real tragedy here is that I lost a huge number of birds to infection and anemia. You see, mites are bad enough, but they also carry other diseases, and I'm not completely convinced that bleach and hot water kills some of the diseases that must have been residing in those cages.
My poor babies contracted scaly face/leg mites and had to be aggressively treated. Some of the birds, already weak from anemia, did not handle the treatment well and died. Others contracted Trichomoniasis. Because I did not recognize the symptoms, they grew so sick that they had to be euthanized. I couldn't bear to see them suffer any longer AND I was afraid they would make the rest of the flock sicker. This was before I really knew what I was looking at. Now I feel horrible that I have put them down, since I had the cure right there in my medicine cabinet!!! Most of the birds have shown very poor plumage from over preening (which should be remedied once they all complete their molt.) I've had to contend with worms – whether from the cages or the mites, I don't know – and the worst of all, anemia, which is now finally under control through an aggressive protocol of iron supplements and dark green, leafy vegetables, as well as a change in the vitamins I add to their food and water.
I feel some of my birds are finally strong enough to breed again, but I'll only take the chance with a few of the strongest. I do not want to stress their wee bodies any more than they've already been. I've lost nearly two whole breeding seasons because of the mites.
As for me, well, I've been scarred for life! To this day I walk around my bird room with a jewelers loop looking at every speck that doesn't look "quite right" to make sure the mites haven't returned. I never want to go through something like this again and will ALWAYS follow my own best advice – DO NOT PURCHASE USED CAGES AND INSPECT EVERYTHING CAREFULLY, DAILY!
Eliminating the Mites
Unfortunately, I don't know if I've really figured out the life cycle. I just kept bombing until I saw no more signs of mites. So how did I finally rid my bird room of this potentially deadly pest? Unfortunately, I'm not sure which step finally killed them. I DO know, however, that pyrethrin kills them on contact. I also know that the measures I have taken seem to have worked...FINALLY!
Steps That Worked for Me
I eventually removed EVERYTHING from my bird room and replaced it (I am still replacing items more than a year later!). Hoped and prayed my husband doesn't find out how much I've spent trying to replace everything!!!