🐾 Maybe the reason I love animals so much, is because the only time they have broken my heart is when theirs has stopped beating.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Snooky and Avian Botulism

One evening about two weeks ago, when I was closing my girls up for the night, I noticed that one of my hens, Snooky, didn't look well at all. She entered the coop with her wings slightly spread and her tail hanging very low and my first thought was, "Oh no! A stuck egg!" I inspected her, but couldn't feel an egg at all. The next morning, when I opened up for the chickens, I found her in one of the nest boxes, unable to walk. I brought her inside and did a gentle internal examination, using some petroleum jelly on my finger, to feel if the egg was there now, but still nothing. And she was displaying some other disturbing symptoms. She couldn't use her legs at all, they seemed totally paralysed and she also had trouble sitting up straight and kept on falling over, either sideways or backwards. I did a thorough check for any other injuries but found nothing. The funny thing was that she didn't seem sick at all. She was alert and her eyes were bright, her comb was bright red and she ate and drank readily without any coaxing, but I had to hold her up so that she could reach the food and water. Her droppings were also perfectly normal.

Totally perplexed, I put her in a basket next to me in my studio and I had to wedge her in the corner otherwise she kept on falling over. As it was the weekend and a vet not readily available, I started treatment with a general antibiotic (Baytril) which I keep on hand for emergencies, just in case it was an infection of some sorts.

My mind was racing, trying to figure out what it could be. I searched all over the internet for 'paralysed chicken' and 'chicken can't walk' and after a long search I discovered Avian botulism which described all the symptoms I found with Snooky. I was horrified as it stated that there was no cure and that affected livestock had to be culled. 

Avian botulism is a paralytic disease caused by ingestion of a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum - an anaerobic, Gram positive, spore-forming rod. It acts by blocking nerve function and leads to respiratory and musculoskeletal paralysis.  In all cases, illness is caused by the toxin made by C. botulinum, not by the bacterium itself. There are several types of toxin produced by strains of this bacteria with birds being most commonly affected by type C and to a lesser extent type E.

This bacteria is widespread in soil and requires warm temperatures, a protein source and an anaerobic (no oxygen) environment in order to become active and produce toxin. Decomposing vegetation and invertebrates (i.e., insects) combined with warm temperatures can provide ideal conditions for the botulism bacteria to activate and produce toxin.

Birds either ingest the toxin directly or may eat invertebrates (e.g. chironomids, fly larvae) containing the toxin. Invertebrates are not affected by the toxin and store it in their body. 

It struck me that, just two days prior, I had composted my whole garden, never giving a thought that it might harm the chickens. I then Googled 'chickens and compost', and found a widespread consensus that compost is NOT harmful to chickens and that many farms have compost heaps and that the chickens just love scratching around in it. So now I was really puzzled.

Come Monday, I was off to the vet with Snooky and here's where it gets a bit dicey.  Not many veterinarians are knowledgeable about chickens or birds in general and the vet's puzzlement was even greater than mine. I mentioned to her that I suspected Avian Botulism and her vague answer, after consulting with her senior partner, was that it was quite probable that it was Botulism as the botulism bacteria is the only bacteria or virus that produces a (neuro) toxin that causes paralysis. After giving her a vitamin shot and another shot of Baytril, they concurred that I should keep up my treatment of Baytril for a couple of days but that they are positive that it would be better to have her euthanased.

I took Snooky home in despair and kept up the treatment for another two days. It was now almost a week and she showed no signs of improvement. I was on the point of going back to the vet to have her put down when I decided to give her some physio. I know that sounds silly, but I really was desperate. I massaged her back and her legs (the drumsticks) a couple of times a day and also gently pulled her legs in and out, exercising them a bit. I also took her outside to the other chickens in the chicken run three or four times a day, putting her on the lawn where she would just fell over, having to support herself with her wings or rest on her elbows. I also supported her with my hand under her tummy, pushing her forward gently so that her legs "walked", keeping this up for a couple of minutes before taking her inside to rest.

On the third day of her "exercise regime", I took her out to the garden where all the other chickens were enjoying their sand baths and put her in some loose sand. She was totally ecstatic, trying to go through the motions of kicking up sand, but all she could manage was to flick some sand on her back with her beak. But within a couple of minutes she was managing to sit up straight without falling over! After about ten minutes we went back inside and I rewarded her with some of her favourite snacks. The rest of the day she was sitting up straight in her basket without any support, even managing to preen some of the sand out of her feathers and reaching into the food bowl on her own.

The next day (fourth day) when I took her out to the garden and put her down in the sand, she struggled up onto her legs and actually stood! I was cheering her on and after a minute or two she took her first tentative step and proceeded on a very wobbly walk through the garden. I was totally ecstatic!

It soon became apparent to me where she was going - she had seen a lovely spot where Chi-Chi was sand bathing and without further ado she exercised her right in the pecking order by getting Chi-Chi to give up this prime spot, where she immediately got right down to the business of sand bathing, kicking legs and flapping wings and getting a good covering of the good stuff!

After that, there was no stopping her and she started exploring the garden, every now and then stumbling over a rock and falling down, but always getting up and going again. When we went back inside, I allowed her to sit outside the basket and a couple of times she got up, wandered through the house and back out to the garden again.

Going through the kitchen

The first obstacle, the kitchen step, which she managed quite well

Made it to outside on the patio!

Managed to get down the first step

Traversing her way down to the third step

After bringing her back from the garden, I put her back in the basket as it was almost time to put the other chickens to bed. But she wasn't having any of that. She jumped onto the side of the basket, where she sat for a while, jumped off and headed for the garden again. That was the sign for me. She was better and ready to join the other girls in the coop again!

Snooky managed to get to the second rung of the roost!

Everybody settling in for the night with Snooky quite happy down on the second rung

When I opened up for everybody this morning, they all ran into the garden, with Snooky in the lead! Yay!!

Snooky running to catch up with the crowd

Happily grazing together

 Relaxing under the ferns in the garden

Snooky is still not 100% and I often see her stumble or have a slight wobble, and I'm not sure if she will ever recover fully, but I am so grateful that she's improved to the point where she can carry on with her normal life en enjoy the friendship of her companions. As to whether it was Avian Botulism or not I might never know but it has taught me two things - patience is always rewarded and don't under-estimate the will of a chicken that wants to sand bath!


Friday, 27 September 2013

Laughing Dove (Stigmatopelia senegalensis)

This Laughing Dove became a pet of mine after I found her as a baby, where the Fiscal Shrike had dropped her on the lawn, obviously intent on spiking her in his pantry for a later-in-the-day-snack. I have often watched, helplessly, as the Fiscal Shrike raids nests and carries off the newly hatched babies. 

  The raised wing is saying "keep away!"

 I named her Flutterby' and she lived with us in the house, only venturing out the door when she saw me going out, happily sitting on my shoulder as I tended to things in the garden. As she slowly gained more confidence, she spent more and more time outside, only coming in to roost at dusk, but eventually she started staying out at night, harassing me for seeds first thing in the morning as I left the house.

 Flutterby contentedly roosting on a rock and watching me digging in my new garden.

We sold that smallholding we were living on and I managed to catch her before we moved, bringing her up to our new property, where I kept her inside for a couple of days before allowing her to go outside. She now happily lives in my new garden and I've watched her and her new husband rear many babies. 

Flutterby preening herself before settling down to roost. 

The Laughing Doves are regular visitors to my feed tables, but gentle creatures that they are, they always seem to be the last allowed to feed, with the Weavers and Red Bishops leading the pack, making sure nobody gets close until they've had their fill. 

I have now resorted to spreading the feeding tables all over the garden, as well as putting some seeds on the ground, out of the way where it's easy for the Laughing Doves to also get something. 

The infamous but lovable Fiscal Shrike having some minced meat at one of my feeding tables. 

If you look closely, you can see a mouse that the Fiscal Shrike spiked on a branch in my peach tree. She is a fearsome little predator that will pluck the eye out a fully grown bird if they're not aware! Besides insects, they will hunt fledglings, birds, lizards, frogs and mice.

Another mouse spiked on one of the thorns of the White Karee

(See another one of the Fiscal Shrike's larders here.)

The Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) is a small pigeon that is a resident breeder in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East east to the Indian Subcontinent. This small long-tailed dove is found in dry scrub and semi-desert habitats where pairs can often be seen feeding on the ground. A rufous and black chequered necklace gives it a distinctive pattern and is also easily distinguished from other doves by its call. 

It is a common and widespread species in scrub, dry farmland and habitation over a good deal of its range, often becoming very tame, often to its own detriment as it always waits to the last minute before taking flight, making it easy prey for predators. The laughing dove feeds primarily on seeds, but it also eats other vegetable matter, such as fruit, as well as small insects, particularly termites. It typically takes fallen seeds and fruit from the ground, although occasionally it may pluck and eat fruit while perched. They actually often make use of my feeding tables provided access is fairly easy.

 Although the laughing dove typically occurs individually or in pairs, it may gather in flocks at watering points, roosting spots, or where there is an abundance of food. At such feeding sites, hooting and moaning can be heard as the laughing doves bicker over the food. Sometimes I think they get very little to eat while they are so busy worrying about who else wants to eat! 

A fledgling that hatched this spring in my garden. Where there's one, there's usually another one and it wasn't long before I found him in the Black Karee next to the peach tree

These doves are monogamous and only have one partner and will tend to return to the same nesting site year after year. It may nest at any time during the year, but peaks in nesting are often recorded in spring, or during the rainy season. Each nest is typically situated on its own, in a fruit tree, but occasionally a few breeding pairs may nest close together. The male laughing dove collects materials for the nest and the female then builds the nest with meticulous care and despite its flimsy appearance it can last a couple of seasons. The female lays two eggs and both the male and female take turns to incubate the eggs for up to two weeks.


Sunday, 22 September 2013

A bath and a clean nest

After Kiep's broodiness finished a couple of days ago, I decided she needed a bath after sitting on her golfball for almost a month. She looked decidedly drab and worse for the wear and needed a bit of special TLC.

I prepared some luke warm water in a tub and put her in. At first she struggled a bit (it was her first bath ever), but the minute she felt the warmth of the water, she actually lay down! I gently shampooed her back, chest and vent area, careful not to ruffle her feathers too much. 

I remembered using vinegar as a youngster to rinse my hair after a wash when we'd run out of conditioner and it always left my hair soft and shiny. So, after a first rinse, I transferred Kiep to another tub with a bit of vinegar in the water, gave her a good rinsing, dried her gently with a towel and then used the hair dryer to get her nice and dry. I was a bit worried about the noise of the hair dryer, but she seemed to enjoy it, fluffing up her feathers to let in the hot air. 

Kiep sunning herself in the bathroom court-yard 

After she was all nice and dry, and oh so extremely soft and fluffy! we went out into the bathroom court-yard, where she spent a while preening and getting her feathers in the correct order again and when she was ready, I led her out to the main garden where she immediately rushed up to Artemis, greeting him with some wing-flapping and a lot of prancing around. 

Kiep meeting up with Artemis after her bath 

Spending some time with Artemis in the garden after a nice warm bath

Now it was time to also clean out her nest-box, which is on top of one of my art tables in my studio. I cleaned out the box thoroughly, put in fresh grass and then placed it back, all nice and clean. 

Later in the morning she strutted into my studio to deliver her breakfast, but it turned into a big to-do. She took one look at the nest and, horrified, she proceeded to unpack all the grass and then putting it back to her liking before settling down to the serious job of laying the egg! 

 Her eggs are different after this last broody incident, much bigger and not so white, more brown. My little girl is growing up now… 


Thursday, 19 September 2013

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

W&N watercolour on Bockingford 300gsm 
Barn Owl (Tyto alba) 
Afrikaans : Nonnetjie-uil 

The Barn Owl (Tyta alba) is a frequent visitor to my property and is not shy to hunt in broad daylight. I often see one pouncing on something in the long grass during the day, flying off with its prize, probably to feed some babies. 

Ghostly pale and (not) strictly nocturnal, Barn Owls (Tyto alba) are silent predators of the night world. Lanky, with a whitish face, chest, and belly, and buffy upperparts, this owl roosts in hidden, quiet places during the day. By night, they hunt on buoyant wingbeats in open fields and meadows. You can find them by listening for their eerie, raspy calls, quite unlike the hoots of other owls. Despite a worldwide distribution, Barn Owls are declining in parts of their range due to habitat loss. I for one do not see them as often as I used to. 


Barn Owls love to use man-made structures to build their nests and are very partial to nest boxes one supplies. I’ve always had a box or two in my garden but, sadly to say, the weather has taken it’s toll on them and seeing as I’m past the stage of climbing trees to put one up, it’ll have to wait until I find someone young and agile to do the job for me! 

Once welcomed by farmers as one form of pest control, the population is now under threat from modern farming techniques, e.g. the destruction of hedgerows and meadowland, which affect their prey, the removal of old barns & buildings, which were their nesting places and the use of chemicals to control rodents. 

The Owl Rescue Centre is the only raptor centre in South Africa that primarily focus on owl species. They give all their time and attention to owl species because of the high mortality rate of owls in South Africa, making owls vulnerable to a decreasing population. They rehabilitate and release 200 – 250 Spotted Eagle Owls, 100 – 150 Barn Owls and 80 -100 other owl species each year.



Sunday, 15 September 2013

Feeder Tweeter - The ultimate bird table

I need one of these!

The Feeder Tweeter - It’s autonomous, it’s solar-powered, it feeds, it photographs, it tweets images when a bird comes to feed, and it’s open source.

A PIR (passive infra-red) sensor detects when a bird lands at the table to feed, and triggers the camera. Photographs are then uploaded to Twitter. PIR’s a great choice here because it only responds to warm-body heat; if a leaf blows in front of the assembly, nothing will trigger, but if a toasty-warm little bird stops by for some seed, the sensor will detect it, and set off the camera.

Read more at Raspberry Pi



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