When I first fielded the call I wasn’t overly concerned, probably because the caller was about 80 miles away and somebody else’s patient. It’s easy to give telephone advice. I am, in truth, happy to share knowledge that might benefit another veterinarian’s patient as it is by similar sharing that I have been taught how to heal. So I carefully shared my experiences in Avian Obstetrics and wished all a good outcome. Then I cheerfully went about my own day.
Sometimes that is not the end of the story. Many days later I found myself enmeshed in the case personally. It started out simply enough. A young family owned several parrots. One of them, a delightful little green-cheeked Conure was a clown and gentle enough to tolerate their young toddler. The bird was named Salsa, for her green and red feathers. I say “her” loosely, because most birds in the psittacine or parrot family groups cannot be sexed visually and require a DNA blood test to know whether you have a boy or girl. We used to surgically sex birds years ago, entering the abdomen only on the left side because most birds have one sole functioning ovary, on the left. Males have two testes, located in the same area in the abdomen, in front of the kidneys, tucked up under their protective spine.
So nobody knew if Salsa was a boy or a girl, which hadn’t been very important until the family left for vacation and Salsa became ill. She began to sit in the corner of the cage bottom, very quietly. Her breathing was fine, and if disturbed she was a little snippy but hopped about brightly. The babysitter noticed that Salsa was straining, maybe trying to poop, and her abdomen seemed distended. A quick trip to her regular veterinarian confirmed that Salsa had an egg stuck inside! (This also confirmed she was a female! Smile).
Welcome to the world of birds and their babies! Remember, birds are not mammals. Any female bird can make an egg, fertilization is not required. Nothing hatches from these eggs. The eggs produced by chickens for grocery store sale I call “baking” eggs, the kind you cook with. The formation of an egg is fascinating. The left ovary is attached to an oviduct, similar to the uterine horn in a dog and cat. The ovum or egg looks like a miniature yolk as it is first released into the oviduct, where it travels to the shell gland or uterus to become coated in calcium carbonate as a hard shell. The whole process takes around 24 hours. Most parrots lay an egg every 2 to 3 days, until they have a full “clutch” which completes their nest. Certain external stimuli such as increased sunlight, warmer temperatures and more food may promote egg production. In a pet bird there is no denying that egg laying can be a risky business.
Sometimes the egg shell is not properly hard, termed a “soft-shelled” egg. This is a warning sign that the bird may be malnourished, particularly deficient in calcium and vitamin D. Birds that live exclusively indoors and on seed diets are at high risk of this type of malnutrition. Calcium is needed not only for strong bones and firm egg shells, but also to produce the muscle contractions that will allow the egg to be laid. First time eggs may be too large to pass easily. Once the egg is stuck, things can go bad very quickly. The egg may be so large to prevent the bird from breathing easily. It may squish the intestines and block passage of fecal matter. The egg may press against the sciatic nerve, causing permanent left leg paralysis. It may lose moisture and become stuck to the tissues of the oviduct, eventually starting an infection that leads to death. Egg binding is a serious medical emergency in birds.
Salsa didn’t have a mate, so we knew this was just an empty egg inside her. Because Salsa couldn’t pass the egg on her own, her veterinarian, very appropriately, anesthetized the little Conure and attempted oocentesis, (don’t you love new words? Pronounce it “oh-oh-sent-e-sis”). A needle is inserted into the egg to withdraw the contents, in an effort to collapse and allow passage of the now much smaller egg. Salsa’s egg collapsed but did not pass. However, she was bright and perky once the pressure in her abdomen was relieved so no one was worried. When the owners returned home Salsa was delighted to see them. Over the next few days they noted, however, that she became increasingly less active, until finally she was sitting at the bottom of her cage again. Which is when she was referred to me, 17 days after becoming egg bound. I started her on antibiotics, gave her injections of Vitamin D and Calcium, and rehydrated her with fluids before taking her to surgery. I use a surgical laser instead of a “cold steel” scalpel for surgical incisions as there is minimal blood loss. The oviduct with the collapsed egg and a second egg behind it (!) was isolated and carefully removed. The ovary was left in place. Her little abdomen was flushed and sutured up and within 15 minutes Salsa was back in her incubator, recovering from her “spay” surgery. At her recheck two weeks later her family reported that Salsa was back to her old self, all fun and games. She weighed exactly 65 grams on that visit, smaller than a cockatiel. Her diet had been fortified with pellets, fresh fruits, vegetables and a calcium supplement. Salsa celebrated her recovery with a pistachio nut!
****Please note : The images and video used in this post are NOT the same patient being discussed in the ‘Egg Bound Bird’ blog post. In the video, the obstetrical problem was managed medically. This video is shown with permission from the gracious owner of another egg bound patient. The Sun conure in the video is roughly twice the size of the little conure in the story, which required surgical intervention, similar to a C-section and hysterectomy. Now you can have visual aids to go along with the blog!
WARNING THE VIDEO BELOW CONTAINS SENSITIVE MATERIAL THAT MAY BE TOO MUCH FOR SOME TO VIEW.
Christine B. McFadden, DVM