Gouldian finches are prone to an array of infectious and genetic diseases. Illness plagued my aviary for about ten years before I developed a system for maintaining a disease-free flock. I use a multitude of tools to ward off illness. The most important foundation for health in Gouldians is strong genes. I never breed birds that have any suspicious physical weaknesses: I’ve never gotten away with this so I finally gave up trying! After genetic health is achieved, I rely on nutritional strategies for health maintenance (see “Feeding”), strict quarantine protocols, and good hygiene practices (see “Cleaning”). This takes me most of the way in terms of preventing disease, but I also rely on herbal medicine when disease actually strikes.
I have learned the importance of stringent quarantine practices the hard way. In 1993, I lost my entire flock of two hundred Gouldian finches to the Gouldian herpesvirus, which came into my flock through some parrot finches from Belgium. I did quarantine the parrot finches, but not correctly. Again, some years later, I set off a six month long outbreak of air sac mites among my entire Gouldian flock due to carelessness in quarantine. It’s simply not worth it to risk these types of consequences in order to forego a few months of extra effort with incoming birds.
All of my incoming birds go directly into a quarantine cage on the second floor of my house where there are no other birds. Within a few days, I place the new birds on an antimicrobial neem leaf tea as their sole water source for one to three months (see more here: https://essentialbird.com/using-neem-leaf-for-birds/). Neem leaf tea is wonderful to use for Gouldians because while non-toxic to birds, it eradicates air sac mites, bacteria, fungus and parasites simultaneously. The eggs of air sac mites (and other parasites) are rendered unable to hatch by the neem tea, which substantially reduces the likelihood that mites will persist as a chronic, long-term condition. I honestly don’t know how I managed before I discovered this tea. Most air sac mite remedies involve ongoing treatments, but as long as I use neem tea in quarantine, I never have air sac mite outbreaks in my home. During the treatment period, I generally use neem tea six days per week and offer plain water on Sundays. For more information on neem leaf tea, please feel free to join my IO email group “Essentialbird” where all types of natural remedies for birds are discussed: https://groups.io/g/essentialbird. There are a number of other herbal remedies that I may add to my quarantine protocol, depending on the condition of the birds. I have written several articles about natural treatments for quarantine and specific avian diseases which can be found at my sister site here: https://essentialbird.com/herbs/.
One caveat with neem leaf tea is that it works fairly slowly. Therefore, if new birds are visibly or audibly infected with air sac mites, I may use a drop of Scatt on the skin between the shoulder blades to kill off mites quickly while I wait for the neem tea to work more slowly. One drop of Scatt will persist for three weeks in a bird’s system, and can then be repeated. However, I only use Scatt if I sense that a bird’s life is in danger as I feel that neem tea is infinitely more effective longterm, and is certainly safer. I have had numerous fatalities and close calls using Scatt: it is a serious medication. For an active air sac mite infestation, I have found that a full three months of treatment with neem leaf tea is necessary in order to completely eliminate the problem.
With visibly healthy newcomers, I might quarantine on neem tea for only four weeks. This is the absolute minimum length of quarantine I use. But as my flock becomes more irreplaceable over time, I lean toward using the full three month quarantine no matter how the birds appear. This long quarantine period, coupled with aggressive antimicrobial treatments, ensures that I rarely-to-never have problems with contagious disease.
Although a long quarantine and careful stock selection go most of the way to preventing disease in my flock, there are other health challenges that always arise. These include body weight problems, accidents, accidental exposure to contaminated food/water and other miscellaneous issues. One of the most recurrent health themes in Gouldian flocks involves weight control: Gouldian finches are prone to obesity! Recently purchased birds often carry excess weight in the form of fatty deposits on either side of the keel bone and in the abdomen. I always feel along the keel bone whenever I catch a Gouldian: the keel should protrude palpably but not alarmingly, and there should be no palpable squishiness around the keel. Overweight Gouldians become increasingly lethargic, and struggle to produce fertile eggs. Happily I have found an effective solution to obesity in my flock which seems to work readily. I place all my non-breeding birds into large aviaries in which drinking water and greens are placed near high perches, but seeds are placed on the ground. Flying up and down to retrieve their favored food works miraculously to maintain correct body weight, obviating the need for controlling weight through food restriction.
Accidents are inevitable, and I have a medley of herbal anti-inflammatories, antimicrobials, tissue repair and various other emergency herbs on hand at all times. These include dried herbs like neem leaf, goldenseal root, calendula flowers, echinacea root, various medicinal essential oils, raw honey and numerous other plant remedies. Immediate treatment with these plant medicines will usually prevent progression to debility or death – or a trip to the vet! Please feel free to explore my articles on this topic at my Essentialbird website: https://essentialbird.com/cases-conditions/ Also please feel free to email me with specific questions about natural Gouldian remedies: email@example.com.
When disease does strike one of my Gouldians, I immediately treat the individual bird in isolation, and if I suspect contagious disease, I treat every other finch in the house. Because I rely on herbal medicine, this is not harmful to the flock, and is fairly easy to administer as most of the time I use either airborne remedies (medicinal essential oils) or teas. As the administration of these remedies varies from case to case it is difficult to elaborate on specific treatment protocols; however, again, please feel free to join the IO group “Essentialbird” to learn more about these amazing natural remedies. One of the most convenient and exciting features of herbal medicine is the fact that antimicrobial plants tend to cover broad spectrums of pathogens and do not require prior lab testing to determine the specific pathogen to be treated. Since we rarely know whether we are dealing with a bacterial, parasitic or fungal infection in a sick Gouldian, it has been a godsend to me to be able to apply a safe, broad spectrum antimicrobial in these situations and effect a cure. Additionally, plant remedies will not produce resistant strains of pathogens the way conventional medicines can; therefore frequent or long term use will not lead to the development of superbugs in our flocks. Natural medicine really works well in Gouldians: I would have been defeated by keeping Gouldians a long time ago if not for plant remedies.
Dehydration: Over the years I have come to appreciate the vital importance of addressing dehydration in every case of puffy, lethargic, eggbound, or any visibly sick bird. Vets always administer fluids and I never quite understood why until I started rehydrating sick birds myself: it is amazingly effective! I usually start by simply dropping some warm water or electrolyte solution off the tip of my finger into the bird’s beak. This needs to be repeated every half hour or so. Generally they will respond quickly to this simple intervention, thereby increasing the likelihood that other interventions will succeed. The bottom line is that sick birds stop hydrating, and this kills them faster than whatever else is wrong.
Eggbinding: Eggbinding occurs more frequently in Gouldian finch than in the other finch species I have bred, it may be related to the relatively large egg size in Gouldian hens proportional to their bodies. This makes it particularly important to supply unlimited mineral and protein sources (see “feeding”) from the time of setting up breeding pairs until a few days after the final egg is laid. Gouldian hens need two or three weeks of high mineral, high protein foods prior to laying in order to produce healthy eggs, and then they need a few days of dense foods after laying in order to replenish their internal resources. Sometimes hens won’t eat the way they should before laying eggs, or sometimes it’s too cold, or perhaps they lay when they are out of the breeding hormone cycle – and in these cases you can get eggbinding. The most important strategy for helping an eggbound hen is to supply a heatlamp that will shine directly onto the hen so she can get completely warm. The second most important strategy, in my experience, has been dripping water into the beak at half hour intervals. This can be mixed with electrolytes or avian calcium/magnesium liquid. The egg should appear within 24 to 48 hours. If an egg is broken or if there is internal infection, the hen will usually die as this is considered untreatable.
Air Sac Mites: Air sac mites are probably the most common ailment that afflicts Gouldian finches. Most Gouldians either carry ASM or they will become infected at some point in their lives. Symptoms of ASM include labored breathing with a chronic squeaking breath or intermittent cough, and tail bobbing. The absolute best way to check for ASM is to listen to the birds at night after they go to sleep: squeaks, coughs and tail bobbing can be heard or viewed in dim light.
The standard veterinary treatments for ASM are S76 and Scatt which can be purchased online. While useful to prevent imminent death if a bird is in danger of suffocation, these medications usually need to be used regularly to keep mite populations down. They are not terribly good at eradicating ASM, rather they control it. I much prefer to use neem leaf tea for ASM, which truly does eradicate this problem if used in quarantine as described above.
Pressure Sores: The more experience I have with pressure sores, the less I underestimate this problem. Pressure sores are common in Gouldians, and develop when birds spend long periods of time perching on smooth dowels. They are extremely painful, they can get infected (bumblefoot), they can lead to fatalities, and they are a real drag to correct. The main factor in healing pressure sores is patience. It takes months. In order to prevent or reverse infection (indicated by redness and swelling), I use goldenseal root tea soaks (see https://essentialbird.com/goldenseal-root/) twice daily for three minutes each. Goldenseal root tea will cool the area and also reduce inflammation, both of which help with pain. Next I will use a small dab of Boiron calendula ointment to keep the area moist and promote tissue healing. This process needs to be maintained for quite some time until the foot tissue has healed. There will be a period where the area callouses over but then the scab will fall off and vigilance is needed at this point to prevent re-injury. The most important ingredient for success with treatments is to provide soft, natural perches such as fleece-wrapped sticks or textured manzanita, or soft rope perches. Nothing smooth or hard. Gouldians die from pressure sores readily because the pain causes them to cut back on food and water, and eventually they simply give up completely. Again, best to prevent this if at all possible.
Despite my best efforts, some Gouldians simply fail to thrive. In these cases, as a last resort, I always try placing the birds outdoors in direct sunlight. When all else fails, this technique has often worked miracles for me. Captive Gouldians are meant to live outdoors in sunlight, and their optimal health can be restored by providing them with access to the sun. Outdoor living has tremendous challenges in the way of predators, fungal exposure, parasite exposure, etc., but with stubborn cases, it has always been worth the effort for me to set these birds up outdoors, even in winter!