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The Modern Apprentice



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General health issues link Raptor nutrition link Raptor diseases link Raptor first aid link Raptor electrocution link Raptor mutes link
Properly managing a raptor's health takes knowledge and skill. Raptors, as every other animal, have very specific nutritional needs. Unlike most pets, these cannot be met through typical mass-market outlets. Even many licensed veterinarians have no knowledge of avian medicine, and raptors in particular. If at all possible, find a veterinarian who is knowledgeable and skilled in the care of raptors for your bird's medical needs
This page is also available in Russian

You should be familiar with your raptor's basal condition and be prepared to describe typical or atypical behavior to a veterinarian. Some of the data points they will be interested in include:
  • General temperament and demeanor
  • Activity level
  • Appetite
  • Castings
  • Mutes
  • Rate of crop emptying
  • Thirst
  • Discharge from eyes or nares
  • Change in voice
  • Recent weights
  • Diet
You should always have an avian first aid kit on hand along with instructions and review the avian disease information and the recommended raptor veterinarian list. However, many common issues cannot be solved by anyone other than a vet. This guide is no replacement, but meant to give some direction as to what to look for to determine when to go to the vet.

Overall condition
A healthy bird has some energy. She preens, feaks, watches her environment, bates, mutes, rouses, and even plays. A bird who is bathing regularly and preening, bating a little and interested in her surroundings is most likely healthy. Also good signs are a bird who is eating and interested in food. Likewise, a bird who does not preen or rouse, and particularly shows not interest in her environment is most likely not in top health. If she shows neither interest in attacking food nor uncertainty towards some things in her environment, then there may be something wrong. Some birds lay down regularly, others never tuck their heads behind their wing to sleep. Some birds play continuously while others show no interest in additional objects in their mews. Each bird has a normal pattern of behavior that should be understood by their handler.
If the bird is listless or lethargic, there are problems. If the bird's eyes look bigger than normal, there may be problems. Puffiness around the eyes and a general listlessness are definite indications that you need to see a vet.
If the bird stops eating normally, there is a problem. This means that the bird might take in food, but disgorge it out of the crop, or it may mean that the bird tears at food, but flicks it away. It may just appear that a bird is more polite than normal. Any reduction in food intake or interest should be monitored.
Is there an offensive smell to the mutes?
If your bird is standing staring at the ceiling or with the head backwards over the shoulders, consider if there is an inflammation of the brain caused by a lack of Vitamin B1. This is commonly called Stargazing Syndrome. The vitamin deficiency can be addressed by feeding a whole food diet and using raptor specific vitamins.
What's normal for your bird? If feaking after eating is normal and she ceases to feak, pay attention to that.
Perhaps the most important things for your bird are high quality food, good ventilation, and a good source of water. Given proper housing that protects your bird from the weather, the bird's nutrition is, above all, the most important element to her health.

Your bird may get scratched or scraped while hunting, and at the worst could be attacked by a wild bird or bitten by prey. If there are more serious scratches or punctures, apply Neosporin. Punctures (such a talon wounds from another raptor, Panopthalmitis) or bite wounds (such as from a squirrel) should be seen by a vet. General wounds can be treated with amoxycillin/clavulanic acid combination as it will cover a wide range of bacteria.

Any labored breathing, shallow breathing, wheezing, or a change of voice or lack of vocalization in a normally vocal bird are indicators that Aspergillosis is brooding. Asper is a fungal infection of the respiratory tract and is usually treated with ancoban or amphotericin B. Prevention includes maintaining a well ventilated facility for the bird and clean facilities.
Pneumonia is a common secondary infection in an asper bird. Pneumonia is a bacterial infection of the lower respiratory tract and is commonly treated with antibiotics.
Any bird showing signs of asper should also be checked for pneumonia.
Nasal discharge that is clear and watery is normal as a lubricant. This frequently starts running at meal time and may drip a few droplets from the beak. A milky white discharge that is globby is rare, but would indicate a microplasm infection and would usually be coupled with a swelling around the eyes and supraorbital ridges.

Flat cheesy plaques inside the mouth are the tell-tale signs of frounce or Trichomoniasis. The bird most likely is messy in its eating due to the growths impairing the tongue. This is typically treated with Flagyl, Spartrix, dimetridazole, or metronidazole.
A swelling at the side of the throat can be an infected salivary gland. Looking down the throat may reveal a pus "plug" where the gland outputs into the mouth. Having a vet clear this plug and treating with antibiotics should resolve the situation.
Another injury which may appear, at least initially, to be similar happens when the bird gets a small cut on the mouth and develops an infection. This happens when a bird eats a bone that just happens to be a bit too sharp and it scratches the corner of the mouth or otherwise cuts into that area.
A bulging crop left from the previous day's feeding and bad breath is usually a sign of sour crop. Sour crop can be brought on by antibiotic use while treating another problem or by over-feeding a thin or weak bird. Feeding Pedialyte will keep the bird hydrated and help flush the crop contents while cleansing the system. If there is no improvement within 8 hours, see a vet.
Castings should be well formed and regular (i.e. produced within an amount of time of eating).

Coping the beak is important. Only cope with a power tool or Dremel if you are highly skilled at this. It is far too easy to make a wrong move and have a disfigured or severely injured bird. The experience itself is also highly stressful with the noise and motions. And moreover, the heat buildup is very difficult to control.
Coping your bird's beak

Any sort of injury to the feet is potentially very problematic. A small corn on the bottom of the foot is the beginnings of Bumblefoot. The corn will swell, become warm to the touch, and begin to turn red and the hawk will try to lay down to prevent having to stand on the sore foot. Proper perching surfaces and nutrition are the best preventions. Bumblefoot will usually respond well to external cleansing of the site and removal of the corns that have formed as well as an external antibiotic.
A "proper" perching surface is up for debate. Some recommended surfaces range from a tire to Astroturf, however there is much debate around the optimal surfaces. One vet I consulted with commented that every Bumblefoot case he has seen has the "welcome mat" type of Astroturf in the recent history. The speculation was from the physical characteristics to the chemical properties, but the advice was to avoid it. The most highly recommended types of perch surfaces are those of natural origin - hemp rope wrapped perches, sisal, cocoa mats, bark, and cork are all natural fibers and provide a variety for the bird. Be aware of any chemical treatments that have been applied to these as additives such as formaldehyde are discouraged. A variety of perch diameters will also help to ensure that the feet are not worn unevenly. Leaving a bird perched on icy, hard surfaces can insult the skin on the foot.
Removing any sharp surfaces from the bird's vicinity will prevent her from injuring her foot and starting an infection.
Soaking the feet as needed or scrubbing the feet with a soft toothbrush and Dial antibacterial soap are good ways to keep them clean and healthy. Pay special attention to keep the underside of the talon where it meets the skin free of dried meat. Frequently this is a site where meat and blood collect and eventually irritate leading to an infection. Cleaning along that site will prevent the problem. Massaging a tiny amount of foot salve into the feet can also be beneficial. Care should be taken here to prevent dirt from collecting on that surface as it would be worse than not doing anything. Also use a tiny amount massaged in fully else the bird will wipe the salve off onto her feathers when she pulls a foot up. A simple yet effective salve can be made by mixing one part anhydrous lanolin with one part Dermaclense. The horse hoof care ointment Corona is also a thick salve combining moisturizing and antibacterial properties. Rubbing a salve of this type onto a minor foot problem twice a day can quickly revert the problem.

As with the beak care, only use Dremels or power tools if you are highly skilled at this. Use the emery board to shape back the talons to the proper shape. "Spiraling" talons can be seen in many captive birds. Use the emery board to correct the spiral and encourage it to grow straight.
Soaking talons does not produce needle sharp talons quickly. Use the emery board to get the desired shape. Some birds will even stand quietly and allow you to gently shape the talon rather than being cast.
Taking a picture right after trapping can give a reference point as to what the bird's talons looked like and should be reshaped to.
Reference shot for the bottom of feet. Particularly look under the talons where they meet the flesh of the toe, and the creases on the bottom of the feet. These are places that are very likely to begin with a foot infection. Spots or lines of red indicate the beginning of an infection. Older Bumblefoot may have a more natural color, but will be hard or raised, almost like a wart.

Mutes come in many forms - very watery to very chalky. The fecal portion can be an almost tan color to a tarry black color and from a consistency of a hard pellet to a tarry goo. Green in the mutes usually indicates that bile is being passed through. Although the bird is not typically in immediate danger from this, it is an indication that the bird is low in weight. The diet will also effect the coloration and consistency of the mutes. A lot of rabbit meat will produce pale mutes that look almost like soft chalk. Lots of bone material will produce mutes almost beige in color. A diet heavy in day old chicks will produce mutes that are beige or yellow.
     Mute image A normal mute from a healthy bird. A solid, large, dark fecal with a clean urate.

Flecks of red in the mutes indicate coccidiosis. See your vet immediately as this is highly treatable in this stage. Later signs as this progresses will be watery black mutes and slimy dark brown casting which smell.
Greenish or bright green mutes may be an indication of Frounce. Check the mouth and throat region.
Watery grey-ish green-ish fecals may indicate a bird is well hydrated or may indicate a parasite presence. One way to tell if there are problems is to put the bird into her hawk box for a few hours or overnight to see if there is a distinct and offensive smell to the fecals. This would definitely point to a parasitic presence.
What is normal for your bird?
If you are collecting mute samples for a fecal float for the vet, one trick is to lay wax paper down around her perch or line her hawk box with wax paper (Note: this will cause the mutes to slide all over and probably out any crack of the box, so setting this on newspaper or paper towels is advised).

Castings can be many different colors and consistencies, mostly based on the food that was taken in, but also based on the bird and her health. If a bird is not casting up when a casting is expected, then that is not a good sign. Know you bird's typical casting schedule and the general look, consistency, and smell of castings. If things are not coming up properly, then there may be an impaction preventing a casting from being brought back up.
     Casting image
Five normal castings. From left to right: a small quail casting (you can make out the feather vanes), two rabbit castings (one white rabbit and one dark rabbit), a mouse casting (three mice), and a rat casting (one whole rat eaten on the ground).

Some state regulations require that we have bathpans, even though many passage birds will not use them. Proper bathpan use includes not always putting the bathpan out for the bird. The constant presence of the bathpan may not induce the bird to really get in and get wet, soaking off blood and tissue and getting their feathers wet enough to induce preening. Putting the bathpan out for one afternoon a week and making it a limited time offer can assist here, however you are taking the responsibility to make sure that your bird is properly hydrated. You can drill a small hole in the bottom to allow the water to slowly drain such that all you have to do is fill it up and it empties itself out. Using the hose spraying nozzle to spray water into the air to fall on the bird creates a shower for birds uninterested in dunking in the bathpan. This does nothing for their feet, but it may get them wet enough to interest them in preening.

Disinfectants and Cleaning
Keeping things clean can be a challenge, but is necessary. The best disinfectant is bleach mixed with water such that it's a 1 part bleach to 20 parts water mixture (roughly one cup of Clorox bleach to one gallon of water, or about a 5% bleach solution). When you have soaked whatever it is you are cleaning, let it sit on the surface for at least 15 minutes. I'm overly cautious in working with any chemicals and will rinse the surface well and then leave it out in the sun/rain for at least a day before putting it back with the bird. This lets the bleach disintegrate so it is not active on the bird's skin or evaporating and being breathed in. Another good solution is calcium hypochlorite, commonly used as swimming pool chlorine. It is equally as effective as bleach but not as noxious. A simple 1:30 (roughly one cup of calcium hypochlorite to 2 gallons of water) is sufficient for regular cleanings, and a 1:20 ration (one cup of calcium hypochlorite to 1 gallon of water) for any specific problematic cleaning.
Bleach is very poor at cutting through grease, and if you've been feeding on a surface the fat from the meat will have left grease behind. Scrubbing the surface with Spic 'N' Span or liquid Tide, then rinsing well, will cut through the grease and clean the surface in preparation of bleaching.
A power washer can make quick work of cleaning mutes and dirt off of almost any surface, however be warned. The spray into the air is carrying bacteria and fecal matter. Keep any bird away from an area that has been power washed for a little while - at least until the air has exchanged and the particulate matter has dissipated. If you have just cleaned out her hawk box with the power washer, let the box stand in the sun for at least a few hours to air out and dry before introducing the bird. Many birds have been known to get sick off the matter that this throws into the air and care should be taken else the birds become infected.

For feather lice, these are very easily taken care of in one or two treatments. A simple spray-down starting at the neck and moving down the rest of the body, then repeated ten days later will usually solve this.
Ticks are sometimes found attached to raptors. Besides removing, antibiotics may be necessary.
Roundworms and tapeworms may be passed, but more frequently there are no signs. Many birds are infested with low levels of these parasites and it can be the cause of refusing slips, general lethargy, delayed moult, or odorous mutes. Vets recommend worming a bird at the time of trapping followed by a follow-up treatment two weeks later, and then an annual check-up and worming at the end of the hunting season both to clear the system from anything picked up during the season as well as prepare for the moult. One favored drug currently is Panacur. It can be given several ways including injected into a hunk of meat, but the most effective is to use a small tube dropped into the crop (let an experienced vet do this - if you get the tube down the windpipe you will drown the bird with the medicine or cause pneumonia through even a drop inhaled into the lungs).
Capillaria (gapeworms) is a frequent parasite, but usually in very low levels (1 per field in a fecal float). It is actually not a worm at all but rather a nematode. At these levels there is no effect known to bother the raptor and the solution is expensive, time consuming, and not guaranteed. Unless Capillaria levels are significant, it's best just to acknowledge the existence and keep an eye on it.

For any bird recovering from any illness, it is important to reduce stress. Reduce visual stress, any auditory stress, and anything else that makes sense. Keep the bird comfortably warm and dry. Keep the bird on a diet of quality food, appropriate vitamins and supplements, and clean water.

All images and text Copyright © 2004 - 2020 - Lydia Ash