Biosecurity: Why I Can Never Own a Parrot

My aunt and uncle got a parrot as a wedding present (the full story from my aunt is at the bottom of the post). When I was a kid, I thought that was probably the best possible type of wedding present and I always wanted someone to give me a parrot when I got married. I really like parrots in general, I worked in an exotic animal zoo for a summer and there was a parrot there who took a real shine to me, yelling “HELLOOOOO” at me when I came in in the morning, and serenading me with his renditions of “Old MacDonald” throughout the day (it was mostly just him yelling the “E-I-E-I-O” part over and over again).

The problem is that I now work with farm animals, chickens specifically, and for the health and safety of the birds I work with, I’m not allowed to own parrots.

Healthy animals are the most successful.  Just the same way someone with the flu won’t get out of bed and go to work, a sick animal will grow slower, make less milk or lay fewer eggs. On top of the production aspects, most farmers are just good people who don’t want the animals they care for to be unwell. Instead of treating animals when they are sick, it is better to prevent them from getting sick in the first place.

Biosecurity is the process of taking steps to prevent animals from catching diseases which could harm them, the humans who care for them or the food supply. This can be as simple as changing your clothes between different farms or can be as complicated as having a shower ever time you enter or exit a barn and having scheduled days off between different farms. A lot of these preventative measures can be likened to the way nurses and doctors will disinfect tools and scrub up before a surgery, to prevent a patient from getting an infection.

There’s a lot of different ways a biosecurity program can be implemented and just about every farm I know of has some sort of plan in place.

With poultry and pigs, farmers will often use “all-in/all-out” systems, where all the animals are grouped together by age and will arrive into a barn at the same time (either be hatched at the same time in the case of chickens and turkeys or be weaned from their mothers at the same time in the case of pigs). This has quite a few benefits – all of the animals are at the same life stage, so they can all be cared for the same way but also with no new animals coming in, there is a dramatically decreased risk of a new animal arriving and bringing an illness with it.

Humans can also be a vector that brings in diseases, not necessarily with the people themselves having an illness, but by having small amounts of pathogens on their bodies, clothes, equipment or vehicles that can affect the animals. The treads on boots can pick up mud and manure and then if those boots are worn through a different barn, there is a chance that they can spread diseases to the animals in the different barn. Most farms as a result have barn shoes that are exclusively worn in the barn, as well as a boot dip – a pan of water mixed with some sort of sanitizing agent that you must step into with both feet before you go any further into the barn.

Vehicles like feed trucks or livestock hauling trucks can be another carrier of disease pathogens because they go around to multiple farms.  Every time a livestock truck is used, it is cleaned and then disinfected thoroughly before it is used again.  When a vehicle arrives at a farm, there is usually a sprayer with a sanitizing agent in it at the foot of the driveway that is used to spray off the wheels, wheel wells and undercarriage of the vehicle before it comes any closer to the barn.

Even the design of a barn takes into account biosecurity.  Animal feed will come from one end of the barn, while manure will be cleaned and removed through the back of the barn. This decreases the chance of the food for the animals being contaminated with any bacteria, fungus or viruses that may be waiting in the manure.

Now in North America, it is almost spring time (finally!) and with that, migratory birds are starting to come back up to Canada and the US.  These birds will be bringing new strains of illnesses like avian influenza (AI) with them and there’s a risk that domestic poultry around here could get sick from it. Here in Ontario, there was a nasty AI outbreak in the summer of 2015.  The Canadian Food Inspection Agency website has a great timeline of events if you want to look at all the details, but the gist of it is as follows:

In early April 2015, a flock of turkeys was found with AI and within a week that farm and the neighbouring farm had been put under quarantine and the affected farm had all the birds euthanized. An Avian Influenza Control Zone was set up around the farm, meaning that no hatching eggs, day old chicks, or young birds (poults) were allowed within that 10 km radius. This was particularly tricky because part of the 401 (a major cross-province highway that stretches from the Quebec boarder to the US boarder with Detroit) fell inside the quarantine zone. As a result, livestock trucks with birds heading from one end of the province to the other would have had to get off the 401 and go south of the highway until they were past the quarantine zone. By mid April, a second farm, this time a meat chicken farm, had been found to have AI as well. While AI is not passed through properly cooked food and is not often caught by people working with sick birds, it can be devastating to a flock of birds, quickly making almost all of them sick and die.  When the second positive farm was discovered, some of Canada’s international trade partners had to be notified of the outbreak and all poultry producers were encouraged to increase their biosecurity programs. Fortunately, once the affected barns had been emptied and cleaned out and a waiting period of 21 days with no new cases appearing, the quarantine zones around the affected farms were lifted and normal travelling routes were resumed. Because AI is so contagious and devastating, as soon as an outbreak is found in Canada, farmers are notified so that they can help protect their flocks.

For my job, I’m not allowed to own parrots or other livestock because my employer does not want me to carry a pathogen from those animals to the animals I work with.  With parrots, the most commonly caught illness is Psittacosis or Parrot Fever. My aunt and uncle actually caught Parrot Fever from the parrots they got as a wedding present.  I leave you with the email my from aunt, Carol, explaining the whole thing:

“Richard and I received as a wedding present in August 1980, a Yellow Fronted Amazon Parrot from our Best Man.  It was an awesome and unique gift that was going to be with us for likely 50 years or more.  His name was ‘Herbie’ and he was very friendly.  So we started our married life in married student residence at the University of Waterloo (I was in my last year, and Richard was talking courses towards his Chartered Accountant designation) with Herbie.  His wings were clipped, so he would walk around the apartment, like a cat or dog, and play with his toys.  Unfortunately, within the first couple of month of his life he became ill.  We had no money, poor starving students, but found a kind vet who said that he had eaten something that was destroying his liver and he would not live past the end of the week.  Because the cost of ‘Herbie’ was huge, our friend had paid for a life insurance policy on him, and we quite quickly picked up a second parrot, same breed from the same pet store and called him Gomer.  This was around the end of October, beginning of November.

In mid December, Richard and I couldn’t figure out why we seemed to need to sleep so much, we would get a good 8 hours of sleep a night, but want to have a nap around 10 am, and again in the afternoon, and into bed at 7 pm.  Then we started to notice that we had no energy, taking the stairs to our third floor apartment was a real chore, and we seemed to need more sleep and have less and less appetite.  We would talk to Mom once a week, and was telling her that neither of us were feeling very good and she mentioned that over the weekly conversations we were complaining about our symptoms that were getting worse, she recommended we go to the hospital.

So Saturday morning, maybe 10 days before Christmas (and right into December exams) we went to the Kitchener Waterloo Hospital.  They separated us and starting asking the same questions, had we been out of the country, were we drug users, had we eaten in a strange restaurant etc., etc.  They took blood tests, did small stress tests and were somewhat baffled.  Then Richard thought to mention Gomer.  The doctor in emergency had some experience with strange diseases and grabbed a book to start looking up exotic indicators, he found it almost immediately, we fit all the criteria for Parrot Fever (Psittacosis).

He put Richard and I on high doses of Tetracycline, and he contacted Public Health about our diagnosis.  We were sent home and told to quarantine ourselves in our apartment, no visitors were aloud and Public Health would come by to assess.  Through Public Health, Gomer was also put on Tetracycline, but unfortunately, because of either the high doses of the antibiotic, or because Gomer had suffered from a high fever without us knowing, his personality changed, he was no longer friendly, he preferred to be on his own, Richard could work with him, but he wasn’t keen to be with anyone else, so he spent more time in his cage than we liked.  For us personally, we spent a week or so relying on friends and family to place food at our door, Richard missed work, I missed my December exams (had to write them in January) and we were advised that if we got pregnant in the next 2 -3 years, we should abort the pregnancy (so we waited 5 years to have our first child).

Public Health checked on us for a few months, but had immediately shut down the pet store as they had found that they were bringing in these parrots, and not following the Canadian quarantine policies or procedures.

As a side note, we had Gomer for about 8 years, he really didn’t ever become any friendlier, and through a family member, we found him a home with other parrots, they felt he was in really good health given how he started his life, so we gave him to a new owner for a better ‘parrot’ life and in return, we got the piano that is still in our living room.”

Egg Basics

I went out for dinner with an old friend the other night, a friend  who I’m a little ashamed to say I haven’t seen much of recently (I’m admitting that so that this becomes my public reminder to do better). We had a lot to talk about – my new job, her grad school research, our families, our friends, how delicious dinner was and my blog came up.  She, like many other people in my life, had read the first post and was very supportive of me. She asked me what I was going to write next. I told her I wasn’t sure and I was a little stuck.

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing and I have a couple half-finished posts sitting in my drafts folder.  But I wasn’t really sure which one I should start with.  Do I dive in to current ag topics like Dairy Farmers of Canada changing their logo or how Donald Trump hasn’t picked a Department of Agriculture Secretary yet? Do I go for the perpetual hot-button topics like GMO food, hormones and antibiotics in meat, or animal welfare? Or do I find my favourite science myths and start ranting about them?

My friend talked about her research on feeding behaviour in dairy cows and how she had a new volunteer in the lab who didn’t come from a farming background, much like the both of us.  This volunteer was apparently amazed at how much cows poop (if you’re wondering, they poop a lot). We started swapping stories of the things we had been amazed to learn about agriculture (chickens rely on only one ovary to produce their eggs, non-castrated male pigs produce off-flavoured meat) and it clicked that maybe starting with the very basics, at least until I had enough of an archive built up to reference back to, would be a good place to begin.

With that in mind, I would like to offer you a quick crash course in different eggs at the grocery store, since eggs and chickens are what I know best.

White vs Brown Eggs: You may have noticed a price difference between white and brown eggs, usually about 10¢ more per half dozen for brown eggs.  This is because chickens that lay brown eggs eat more food than chickens that lay white eggs, so there is a higher feed cost associated with producing brown eggs. Some people believe that there is a nutritional difference between white and brown eggs but when you break down the components, they have the exact same nutritional value.  The brown colour of egg shells is actually a pigment that is deposited on the shell in the 90 minutes before a bird lays it.  If you look at the header photo on this post, you’ll see that there’s a variety of different shades of brown that eggs can come in.  These are sorted out at an egg grading station, so that the whole eggs you see in a carton in a store look nice and uniform.  The other eggs are still completely edible, just not as quickly purchased at a grocery store, so they go into the breaker market.

Blue and Green Eggs: These actually exist. You won’t find them in big North American grocery stores but people with hobby farms might have some coloured egg layers around for fun. Blue eggs come from specific breeds of chicken, like the Ameruacana chickens, and the blue pigment goes through the shell, so the eggs are blue on the inside (as opposed to brown eggs, which are white on the inside).  Green eggs are produced by cross breeding a blue egg laying breed with a brown egg laying breed.

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Blue and brown eggs. Source: Autumn Mott, StockSnap

Omega3 Eggs: These are a relatively new addition to the egg shelf.  The chickens that produce these eggs have flax seed or fish oil included in their diets and that allows them to lay eggs with higher amounts of Omega3 in them.  The increase in this good fat may not be the best source of Omega3 though, so it is still better to rely on eating oily fish like salmon or trout. The Globe and Mail did a good article on Omega3 eggs a couple years back.

Enriched Cages, Free Run, and Free Range: All of these labels explain how the chickens who laid the eggs were housed. The Egg Farmers of Alberta have a nice little summary of all the different housing styles, including a fact sheet with a comparison of welfare in different housing styles. Conventional cages are what has been used in Canada for decades and are essentially cages that just have food and water in them. They are no longer allowed to be built in Canada and will be completely out of use by 2036.  That seems like a long time from now, but it is hard to overhaul an entire supply chain. Enriched or furnished cages allow for more space for the birds, perches, scratch pads and nest boxes.  Free run means that the birds are loose in the barns, with nest boxes and perches available.  In some instances, these barns can have different levels for the chickens to hop and fly up to.  Finally, free range is similar to free run, but the birds spend time outside as well.  This one can be a little challenging for a few reasons, most notably the 5-month-long-hell all Canadians must endure, called winter. Like myself, chickens are happiest at a comfortable 20·C temperature and if the weather is too cold or too hot, the birds can get cold or heat stressed, respectively, so there’s only certain temperatures when they can comfortably go outside. There is also some concern with wild birds shedding disease (like avian influenza) or a predator attack with free range birds.  Ultimately, it is up to a farmer to decide which housing system works best for them.

Fertile Eggs: This last one drives me nuts. In Canada, no eggs in a supermarket are fertile. A hen will lay an egg regardless of whether she has mated with a rooster and in Canadian egg barns, there are only female birds thus making fertilization impossible. Some people claim that they bought eggs at a grocery store and “saw a chick starting to form”. Chances are, they saw some white, squiggly, tissue-like material attached to the yolk.  These are called the chalaza and are proteins designed to keep the yolk suspended in the right spot in the shell.  They are seen mostly in fresh eggs, and the older an egg gets, the less visible the chalaza will be.

Hopefully this summary gives you a better sense of what all the labels on the egg shelf in the grocery store mean!

A photo by JOHN TOWNER. unsplash.com/photos/0uN9iF4mgDI
I’m including this picture solely because I think it’s really funny. It’s like the hen is modelling for the camera. Source: John Towner, StockSnap