Avicultural Medical Management

An Introduction to Basic Principles of Flock Medicine and the Closed Aviary Concept

Brian L. Speer, DVM, DABVP-Avian

As our knowledge and expertise in the field of avian medicine and surgery have developed and evolved over the last 20 years, it has become evident to an increasing number of veterinary practitioners that many of the individual diseases and medical problems currently seen in private practice have an underlying link to management and husbandry flaws in aviculture. The demand for a systematic approach to the whole field of avicultural medical management seems to be rapidly increasing in the veterinary community, as well as the avicultural community. This systematic approach must include the careful integration of avian medicine, surgery, nutrition, epidemiology, and husbandry into a single multidisciplinary unit. The interdependence of these individual disciplines should become the foundation for a successful avicultural medical management effort.

For this reason, avicultural medical management should be viewed as the marriage of avian medicine and seasoned avicultural experience. Unlike that seen in pet bird medicine, the primary "patient" for the avicultural veterinarian is not the individual birds themselves, but the collection as a group. In a sense, the entire aviary and the group of birds therein are the "patient" in avicultural practice. Only through the joint efforts of the avian veterinarian and the aviculturalist can the specific desired goals of improved productivity be achieved. The manner in which improved productivity is defined can vary quite significantly between individual aviculturalists and veterinarians. Although most of this material is oriented toward the needs of the psittacine aviculturalist, the basic concepts included here should be found valid in most bird breeding endeavors regardless of their taxonomic order.

The author would caution veterinarians, as well as aviculturalists that this area of avian medicine and surgery is still in its infancy at best. There are no uniform standards that exist for veterinarians or aviculturalists at this time. Personal experience, practicality, and clinical preferences still prevail as the most common influencing factors in avicultural management efforts. Unfortunately, little attention has been dedicated to foundational concepts of the discipline as a framework with which the practicing veterinarian can generate a more organized development of an individualized avicultural medical management effort.

For definition purposes, aviculture should be viewed as productivity-oriented avian stewardship. In simpler terms, it is bird-keeping for some form of productivity goal attainment. Productivity, in this light, should be viewed in a much more broad sense than reproductive success. Productivity is the target of performance. As far as the avicultural practicing veterinarian is concerned, productivity should be defined by the aviculturalist as well as the veterinarian servicing the group. Incredible differences in opinions exist currently between clients. Therefore, there is little common ground from which to base a standardized management effort. If one client desires merely to have a decorative display of birds with no mortality, but minimal emphasis on reproduction, this should be the target of management efforts. Conversely, in an operation in which there is a set amount of product that must be generated to maintain the economic viability of the facility, this should be mutually understood and targeted by the veterinarian, as well as the aviculturalist. Dorland's Medical Dictionary defines the word "disease" as a morbid process having a characteristic train of symptoms capable of affecting the whole body or any of its parts; its etiology, pathology, and prognosis may or may not be known. In the terms of this text, "disease" must be expanded to include not only clinical disease, but also sub clinical disease and management flaws. All three of these aspects of disease can result in sub optimal productivity performance. Allowing that management flaws should be viewed as part or all of a disease process, the aviary can now be approached as a "patient" in need of diagnoses, therapeutics, and preventive medical management. Symptoms of disease from the aviary may well include individually diseased birds, as well as impaired productivity.

Aviculture is farming.

The veterinary practitioner working with flock or herd health management in all domestic species has always been integrally involved with productivity-oriented operations. In this sense, many correlations can easily be drawn between the avicultural veterinarian involved with avian productivity management and the diary, pork, and poultry industries. Granted the specific goals that are to be achieved vary immensely between clients, but avicultural productivity should still be viewed in many cases by the avian veterinarian in a similar manner as farm productivity is viewed by the livestock veterinarian. One client's "farm" may be a single breeding pair of Macaws; the next may be a backyard aviary collection of Cockatiels; the next may be an intensely monitored and maintained group of 450 pairs of large psittacines in a series of specifically-built and designed breeding barns. Aviculture must be viewed as productivity-oriented avian stewardship, or "bird farming" in more general terms. This farm concept also includes birds of prey, ratites, waterfowl, and game birds.

Productivity is the lifeblood of the farm.

Failure to produce the desired product successfully results in hardship for the farm. Financial hardship can seriously reduce veterinary service demands. The veterinarian must have a number of successful farm accounts to maintain a stable practice base in aviculture. In this sense, productivity is the lifeblood of the avicultural veterinarian as well.

Aviculturalists must receive specific service that is individually-oriented to their needs and goals.

Successful management always stems from knowledge of the intended goals of the operation. Unlike the food animal industries, in which efficient meat production is a common basic goal, private, as well as public avicultural programs have vastly ranging individual needs and goals that must be clarified at the onset of a management effort. Where one individual collector may simply desire to steward his or her collection properly and with minimal disease and mortality, the next may require a set volume of production per annum to remain financially sound. Fair and mandatory points for discussion between the veterinarian and the aviculturalist should include the following:

Why do you have these birds?

What do you want to accomplish with this collection?

In what timeframe do you want to achieve your goal?

Without this type of knowledge, the veterinarian may well fall into the "trap" of assuming to know what the client wants and be more prone to failure.

Time and cost must always be justified.

As in any production-oriented business, time and cost-effectiveness are always of concern. In many psittacine breeding endeavors, veterinary expense can be a significant portion of the budget. The veterinarian should be aware of the constant need for cost and labor effectiveness of the services that are provided. The general inclination for veterinarians to fill a management program with every known preventive measure and screening test with no cost or labor justification can easily result in more financial loss than that threatened by many of the diseases they set out to prevent. A lack of awareness of this point can lead to significant hardship for the farm, as well as have an adverse effect on the breeding operation and its stock. These types of programs, when instituted in the late 1960's and early 1970's in herd health management, often cost more than the wastage that they set out to prevent. Failure in a management effort of this nature frequently resulted in decreased veterinary demands due to perceived lack of benefit for the farm. Physical time invested in new management efforts must not compromise current maintenance efforts, or the ramifications from those distractions can pose a significant threat to the overall effectiveness of the farm.

The flock always takes precedence over the individual.

Flock and herd health is oriented to the group, rather than the individual. As such, the individual diseased bird is still diagnosed and treated, However, the emphasis is always carried toward prevention of the occurrence of the problem(s) in the future and to attempt to protect the group from infectious or management-induced disease. The point at which the individual bird is diagnosed and treated is frequently the end point in pet bird practice. The avicultural practitioner uses these diagnoses to affect future management efforts for the flock. Potential threat of disease to the flock as represented by the single "sentinel" bird diagnosis must be a primary concern to the avicultural veterinarian. Single bird diagnoses are essential tools with which management efforts are conceptualized, evaluated, or refined. No single bird can be prioritized ahead of the entire collection deemed at risk. A classic example of a situation that challenges this principle would include the tendency to keep an individual Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease afflicted bird for emotional reasons in a setting that can potentially threaten the collection at large. This is not a sound action from a management or avicultural point of view.

Culling and replacement are fundamental for improvement.

The concept of culling and stock rotation is a fundamental part of any progressive animal breeding or production-oriented operation. Just because the avicultural veterinarian is working with birds that are exceptionally beautiful, valuable, or endangered does not mean that this important aspect of the animal production industry can be ignored. Based on the individual aviculturalist's definition of production parameters and criteria desired, those individual birds not meeting the desired goals should be culled, relocated, or reevaluated with the intent of identifying the link(s) barring successful production. Reevaluation of these non-producers should include specific veterinary attention. Infertility examinations, behavior analysis, and management or husbandry changes are classic examples of intervention targeted for the non-producers identified within the flock. Contrary to what is popularly perceived, culling and replacement do not necessarily mean destruction of the bird. Rather, culling can merely be removal of those individuals from the existing collection, rotation of individual mates, or relocation within the facility to a group with different production criteria.

Stock management protocols are dictated by productivity parameters.

The desired goals of the aviculturalist fundamentally influence the management protocols that are implemented. Veterinarians have a potential significant role in assisting their avicultural clients define production parameters for their individual flocks. Declining productivity is a symptom of avicultural disease as defined in this text. Therefore, declining productivity should be followed by diagnostic evaluation and a management plan to improve productivity and monitor that improvement. New parameters for productivity evaluation are developed based on changes in the goals and needs of the aviculturalist. These parameters lead to new or changed management protocols. This pattern should continue to feed itself and progress into a more sophisticated, individually-designed, and successful avicultural medical management effort.

Productivity success is best achieved by restriction to one or a few taxonomic orders or genera.

Animal breeding operations have increased success traditionally through species specialization. Comparatively few farms successfully raise beef and dairy cattle, horses, swine, and poultry together with the same degree of success that those farms focusing on one species alone do. This pattern should be expected to hold true in avicultural efforts as well. Extremely varying disease susceptibilities, management requirements, and nutritional needs interject more variables into the operation from which failure or complications can rise. Those psittacine breeders specializing in species from one continent of origin or one taxonomic genus or family are becoming more common with time and the declining imported breeding stock supply.

A thorough understanding of the closed aviary concept is essential to success.

A breeding aviary that is self-contained and generates all of its own breeding stock with no outside input is an idealistic view of the psittacine aviary. Unlike the poultry industry with its "all in, all out" principles, psittacine aviaries rarely can cohere to this example. For this reason, the concept of the closed aviary is defined in terms that are more directly applicable to non-poultry species of birds. Infectious disease is best avoided in the breeding operation through strict traffic control. The closed aviary restricts introduction of infectious disease agents into the breeding aviary and controls traffic flow within the collection in an regimented manner to prevent spread of infectious disease within the facility. Lack of control of human or bird movements entering and within the breeding facility results in increased disease, impaired production, and increased risk of failure to meet desired production goals. This basic concept regarding traffic control principles is a critical foundation from which a successful avicultural management effort originates.

Preventive medicine is more desirable and economical than symptomatic medicine.

As tradition states, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." With very few exceptions, it is less costly to establish the preventive mechanisms to avoid disease than to treat it medically. Cost must be defined in cost and labor terms and be weighed in view of perceived risk to the flock. Disease prevention through improved management efforts should be a common goal for both the aviculturalist and the attending veterinarian. As mentioned previously, however, cost must be justified.

Most flock diseases are a symptom of management flaws and are not a viable avicultural diagnosis unto themselves.

The avicultural veterinarian must be convinced that the conventional companion animal stance focusing on diagnosis, treatment, and control of clinical disease as the sole objective is inappropriate to avicultural medical management. This approach frequently fails to recognize the strong relationship between management and disease. Veterinarians working with breeding flocks must seek answers above and beyond the standard pet bird diagnoses — again, with the betterment of the flock in mind. Once an individual disease or group of diseases are diagnosed, the veterinarian must seek diligently for the management links that could potentially have set the stage for the disease to be manifested. Failure to view most disease in this manner results in failure to identify potential management or husbandry flaws and locks the veterinarian into a "symptomatic" treatment regimen - addressing the disease, but ignoring or downplaying the potential causes for the development of disease.

Specialty consultation with its advanced technology is an integral part of responsible management.

As in any multidisciplinary field of veterinary medicine, specialists are available and should be used in an avicultural medical management effort. Toxicologists, immunologists, species specialists, nutritionists, environmental engineers, reproductive physiologists, virologists, mechanical engineers, and many others have a wealth of information available that can easily influence the potential success or failure of an avicultural medical management effort. Veterinarians who maintain avicultural clients with no outside input cannot achieve the highest levels of production efficiency for those clients. Specialty consultants should be viewed as potential tools with which the private practitioner can improve health maintenance plans, as well as production management plans for the aviculturalist. This principle tends to be evoked most frequently regarding those collections of large size or monetary value, but should not be disregarded in small avicultural settings as well.

Short-term goals must be prioritized and realized to achieve long-term goals.

Without the ability to achieve the short-term goals set by the aviculturalist, progression to newer and farther-reaching goals is inhibited. Immediate financial or emotional return is a frequently desired goal by the aviculturalist. Classic examples may include an outbreak of disease in the nursery or breeding aviary, with the short-term goal of stopping the losses as soon and effectively as possible. Unable to achieve some degree of success as measured by the aviculturalist's standards, the attending veterinarian will be less bale to proceed further with an avicultural medial management effort. It does not benefit the veterinarian to fail to pay close attention to the short-term and long-term goals of the avicultural client. Of note, short-term goals may conflict directly with long-term or projected goals. Potential conflicts of this nature must be identified by the veterinarian and clarified to the aviculturalist. Viewing the significance of the definition and prioritization of these goals, it has become common practice for the author to set these in writing in the flock medical record and reevaluate them regularly during the year.

Avicultural medical management requires a thorough knowledge of pet bird medicine and personal avicultural experience.

Veterinarians have been traditionally cast in the role of healers. Additional information and experience are required if they are to be involved in decisions on management. Without an in-depth knowledge of the species being managed, the avian veterinarian will have little long-term success in mounting an effective avicultural medical management effort. This is not to say that basic clinical skills are not necessary. A preventive management program depends on fast and accurate diagnosis followed by prompt action. Accurate diagnoses requires careful clinical examination in conjunction with laboratory investigations. A true management effort in this sense is the equal mixture of avian medical skills and knowledge with seasoned avicultural experience in the avicultural field. In this light, avicultural experience must be taken just as seriously by the avian veterinarian as continuing education on medical and surgical topics. Veterinarians who raise and breed birds are examples of colleagues who are pursuing this train of thought. If a veterinarian in a pet bird practice finds himself or herself in a clinical setting with avicultural requirements, consultation may be necessary to best serve the client's needs.

Drugs are not a substitute for sound management.

In the same context that empirical antibiotic therapy is not to be regarded as a substitute for aseptic surgical technique, empirical antibiotic or drug therapy is not a substitute for sound management in aviculture. Persistent or cyclical drug therapy warrants evaluation for an underlying source of the problem. Sound management has never been founded on drug therapy alone. An idealistic, but necessary goal in management, is to use as little drug therapy as is necessary to meet production goals. Regular antibiotic usage on a maintenance or empiric flock basis is currently a widespread avicultural problem. The result is an ever-increasing spiral of background bacterial resistance and sub-clinical disease. Improved management in the vase majority of instances results in less demand for drug therapy on an empiric basis. Background management flaws and their resultant stresses are frequently the overlooked primary problem.

Strict client confidentiality is mandatory for veterinary success.

Failure to assure and maintain physician-client confidentiality rapidly and seriously limits a veterinarian's avicultural practice potential. Unlike what is commonly allowed in the context of casual conversation in companion pet practice, the ethical obligation of the attending veterinarian to maintain confidentiality is immense. Most aviculturalists, or anyone involved in an animal production industry, should not have to deal with outside awareness of the problems that are being held in confidence between the attending veterinarian and themselves. One inadvertent mention of an infectious disease's presence in a given collection can easily hit the avicultural "grapevine" and result in significant personal and economic impact on the aviculturalist. Currently, these types of ethical violations are a common problem preventing the development of a trusting physician-client relationship. A successful management effort is based on trust and confidence between the veterinarian and the aviculturalist.

The Closed Aviary Concept

Perhaps the single most unifying theme in an avicultural medical management effort is that of the Closed Aviary Concept. Both clinical and sub-clinical disease are controlled and monitored through careful following of the basic principles of designated areas and controlled flow of human, animal, and supplies traffic. Traffic control is used to reduce avicultural variables during movements within the individual designated areas of the aviary, as well as within the aviary as a whole. Record systems that are generated and used in management are targeted for the designated areas of the closed aviary and are used to help clarify and monitor potential problems or current management areas.

The "typical" or theoretical aviary has several distinct and separate areas within it. The attending veterinarian must have these areas well understood and properly conceptualized. Each designated area should have a distinct and separate location in the entire breeding operation. Those areas are outlined next with a brief description of their functions or roles for the entire avicultural operation.


This is the location(s) where all new arrivals to the aviary are to be housed until such time as they are deemed admissible to the breeding aviary. The quarantine area is the primary defense with which the existing collection can be protected from the introduction of infectious disease agents. Regardless of the intensity or number of screening tests performed, all entering breeding stock must pass through quarantine.

Breeding Aviary

This is the location(s) where the adult breeding birds are housed. Potential products produced from the breeding aviary include young, eggs, feathers, and adult birds that are being culled or removed from the breeding collection for any reason. In psittacine breeding operations, the successful production of young for direct sale or eggs and hand-feeding young for transfer to the nursery is the common goal. The designated breeding aviary can vary in individual circumstances from a room in the house, to another outdoor aviary, or a separately-built and designed building. Multiple units are perfectly acceptable and desirable in many circumstances.


This is the location(s) where young are hand-fed and raised. Potential product produced from the psittacine nursery is exclusively hand-fed birds, and it is these young that represent the primary product from most psittacine breeding operations. As such, proper and successful nursery management has a key role in maintaining the viability of the entire farm. The designated nursery can potentially include the hatchery and juvenile holding areas as well. The nursery can be a specifically-built and designed room or building or as a designated part of the home residence. Any breeding effort that does not have a designated nursery cannot hope to manage the young on any other than a crisis-to-crisis basis.


This is the area(s) where clinically ill or diseased birds that have already been admitted to the collection are housed. These birds should never be returned to the quarantine area since potential exposure to infectious disease is a greater risk there. The isolation area should include the "hospital" or treatment areas as well.

Food Storage

This is the area(s) within the facility where food supplies are stored. Traffic flow between the food and supply sources must be carefully monitored and evaluated for cross contamination, as well as between other components of the closed aviary. The food storage area can potentially include the food preparation (kitchen) and wash areas.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the veterinarian's grasp of this concept is his or her ability to visualize these components in an individual client's facility (Fig. 1).

Aviary Flow Control Map 1

With these anatomic components visualized and mapped out, a systematic examination of the aviary as a patient can begin. Careful scrutiny of the traffic flow patterns between these components, as well as within each one, reveal significantly greater information to the veterinarian who has carefully identified these designated areas in an aviary (Fig. 2).

Aviary Flow Control Map 2

Disease crises can be mapped out, controlled, and prevented in the future through the use of traffic flow analysis as part of the avicultural medical management effort. Potential benefit and areas of concentration for record systems rapidly become evident to the aviculturalist and attending veterinarian. Records documenting quality of product at the point of exit or arrival to and from other areas allow detection of sub-clinical disease and subsequent improved management efforts. Production records from these areas give standards from which improvement or failure can be documented. Recommendations for structural design and modifications within the aviary become more easy to analyze. New insight into means of evaluating food and water systems, waste removal systems, and pest control programs, to name a few, evolves. Direct or indirect violations of this Closed Aviary Concept can be identified and frequently found to be responsible, at least in part, for most avicultural disease (Fig. 3).

Aviary Flow Control Map 3

The resulting management efforts from these discoveries lead to the evolution of a true avicultural medical management effort.


The purpose of this article is not to set out definitive management protocols for breeding flocks. These protocols must be individually designed and executed by the aviculturalist and attending veterinarian. The success of an avicultural medical management effort depends on the enthusiasm and competence of the veterinarian, the management expertise of the aviculturalist, and demonstrable progress through improved performance. The responsibility for avian veterinarians to enter this field with proper orientation beyond the individual bird and to document their individual management programs as they evolve is immense. Documentation and publication of successes and failures allow a more accurate and factual evolution of the discipline of avicultural medical management. As a profession, we as veterinarians hold one of the keys to the future success or failure of many avicultural efforts. It is sincerely hoped that these basic principles serve to orient and focus better our efforts in the future.

Suggested Readings:
1. Clipsham R: "An Introduction to Avicultural Medicine" in Proceedings of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Seattle, 1989, pp 223-238.
2. Clipsham R: "Environmental Preventative Medicine: Food and water management for re-infection control" in Proceedings of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Phoenix, 1990, pp 87-105.
3. Clipsham R: "Preventative Medical Management of Aviary Diseases" in Proceedings of the Parrot Management Seminar, Concord, NH, 1991, pp 23-56.
4. Clubb SL: "The Pet Bird Industry - Past, Present, and Future" in Proceedings of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Oahu, HI, 1987, pp 233-242.
5. Clubb SL: "Disease Control in the Aviary" in Proceedings of the Seminar on Breeding Psittacines in Captivity, Emeryville, California, 1989, pp 81-91.
6. Dhillon AS, Jack O: "Management of a Psittacine Aviary" in Proceedings of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Phoenix, 1990, pp 83-86.
7. Flammer K: "Aviculture Management" in Harrison GJ, Harrison LR (eds): Clinical Avian Medicine and Surgery, Philadelphia, WB Saunders, 1986, pp 601-612.
8. Gaskin JM: "Considerations in the Diagnosis and Control of Psittacine Viral Infections" in Proceedings of Association of Avian Veterinarians, Oahu, HI, 1987, pp 1-14.
9. Joyner KL: "Psittacine Pediatric Diagnostics" in Proceedings of the Avian/Exotic Animal Medicine Symposium. Davis, CA, 1990, pp 22-45.
10.Joyner KL: "Psittacine Pediatric Diagnostics" in Proceedings of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Phoenix, 1990, pp 60-82.
11. Radostits OM: "Blood DC: General Principles" in Herd Health Philadelphia, WB Saunders, 195, pp 1-23.
12. Speer BL: "Psittacine Productivity Management" in Proceedings of the Seminar on Breeding Psittacines in Captivity, Emeryville, California 1989, pp 129-169.
13. Speer BL: "Avicultural Medical Management" in Proceedings of the Parrot Management Seminar, Concord, NH, 1991, pp 125-152.
14. Speer BL: "The Eclectus Parrot: Medicine and Avicultural Aspects" in Proceedings of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Seattle, 1989, pp 239-247.
15. Worrell A: "Management and Medicine of Toucans" in Proceedings of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Houston, 1988, pp 24-262.

This article was reproduced with the author's permission, Brian L. Speer, DVM, DIP, ABVP, ECAMS.

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