McFADDEN: Feathers, claws and a penchant for mischief

06/06/2014 4:21 PM

06/06/2014 4:23 PM

Birds are an altogether different sort of animal. It goes beyond having feathers instead of fur – they are not mammals. And somehow “animals” and “mammals” share a bunch of M’s and the words start to sound the same, and it all becomes very confusing.

So let’s get back to the basics – birds are not mammals. Ignoring the occasional exception to the rule, it’s kind of interesting that birds have feathers instead of fur, have scales and claws instead of pads and paws, fly much better than they walk or run, and lay eggs instead of giving live birth to their young.

Baby mammals receive nourishment from their mother’s milk. Birds regurgitate already-chewed-up food into their babies’ crops. Ewww – science fiction come to life! The crop is a modified stomach, though birds do have a true stomach called the proventriculus, and a gizzard or ventriculus for heavy duty grinding of food.

If we narrow bird-dom down to the parrot family, we find a group of birds that are highly companionable, brightly colored, and can even talk. Research with an African gray parrot named Alex at Arizona State University demonstrated he could think and figure things out at the level of about a 3-year-old child. If you haven’t spent time with a toddler lately, watch out. For example, Alex could differentiate not just a wooden key from a metal key, but a green, square wooden key. Parrots are noted for the use of “tools” such as sticks to obtain food – a sign of higher intelligence.

Although veterinarians traditionally receive training in a wide number of species, from companion dogs and cats to livestock cattle and horses, they are all mammals. Birds are very different. Birds don’t even have normal lungs, but do most of their breathing through cellophane-like little bags throughout their body called air sacs. Some of these air sacs invade the larger wing and leg bones (pneumatic bones), which keeps bone density lighter and helps to deliver oxygen directly where needed for long flights. Pretty amazing!

Since I have been known to say that I have a license to practice medicine and surgery on every living species on earth with one exception (you), it’s probably obvious that it is the diversity of working with birds that makes them fascinating. Parrots in particular are so interactive that they are a joy to study. Sylvester Stallone referred to parakeets as “flying candy” in one of his movies.

Working with them up close and personal brings certain features to the forefront. Like beaks. All birds come with them and yes, they all bite. That little 30-gram parakeet can dig into your cuticle and the lumbering Macaw, a 2- to 3-pound parrot, is capable of breaking fingers. We treat them all with respect.

Birds are adaptable. One of my staff members, Amanda, recalled a little bird that had crippled legs. Her owner wrapped the bird in a little shirt with a piece of Velcro, and herself had a broad patch she had sewn onto her clothes. Sure enough, the little bird could fly around, then return to her owner via her personal landing pad.

And if you thought kids say the darnedest things, try birds. Say one bad word once (chances are you said it loudly and with energy) and the bird has it nailed forever. One client taught his Amazon to say, “Let me outta here!” I wasn’t aware of this until the bird boarded with us. This was in a small clinic where the ward rooms were very near the exam rooms. Sound carried. You can imagine the look on my clients face – and mine – when suddenly someone started to scream, “Let me outta here! Let me outta here!” I actually had to show a few people that indeed it was a talking bird before I could calm them down (the bird thought he was hysterical – we began to feed him special treats about a half hour before afternoon calls to occupy his little mind).

My favorite story of all, though, centers around a female staff member who opened the clinic early Saturdays. Pat loved her job and usually rushed down extra early to be the first one there, so she was by herself that day, walking from room to room as she checked on patients. She had just turned on the lights as she entered one ward and was crossing the room to open another when behind her she heard a soft voice say, “I know what you like.” The hair rose at the back of her neck and she froze – just as the Mynah bird screeched “bananas!” Bananas, indeed. It took about five years off Pat’s life and we had to post a sign after that warning everyone when that particular bird stayed with us.

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