A number of cases of sick and dying owls have been reported over the past month, prompting the Roodepoort Northsider to take a look at what’s causing the illness and the decline in Johannesburg’s raptor population.
Pigeons have been carriers of many an important message throughout history, but now they find themselves the unfortunate carriers of the parasite known as Trichomonas gallinae – a parasitic disease that is slowly infecting and killing off raptors across South Africa. Trich, as the disease is commonly known, manifests itself and develops inside a seed, which is naturally common feed for pigeons and doves right around the world.
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To be more specific, Trich preferably makes itself at home inside wet or damp seeds which are common during the summer as it is the rainy season. The heat that comes with the summer months helps incubate the parasite inside the seed, which is eventually eaten by a dove, pigeon, or another bird, which means the bird becomes a new carrier of the Trich infection.
Once the bird is infected with the parasite, the disease spreads extremely easily. For example, the bird’s droppings could fall into a birdbath, thus infecting the water, but more specifically, the weakened bird becomes easy prey for raptors. According to the Owl Rescue Centre’s Danelle Murray, Joburg’s large pigeon population is common prey for owls and other raptors.
“A Spotted Eagle Owl’s diet in Johannesburg is primarily made up of pigeons and doves,” she said.
The parasite has no favourites, however, and can be picked up by any bird, including our beloved Verreaux’s eagles (Black Eagles) in the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden. Once the bird is infected by Trich, the incubation period isn’t long.
“It generally takes three to seven days for the symptoms to start showing and for the bird to really get sick,” Danelle pointed out.
So, how can you play a part in halting the Trich spread? For starters, people all around the country need to remove their bird feeders and bird baths from their gardens, as these are an easy way to spread the parasite. We also need to refrain from throwing out feed, as it can pick up moisture and become a Trich breeding ground.
“Food is generally not a problem during summer as there’s plenty of trees to feed off, so not putting out food for a few months won’t negatively affect the birds,” Danelle said.
What should you look out for in the bird? Any unusual behaviour by the bird is often a good indication of infection. But, slightly more obvious signs would be if the bird has become lethargic and has a puffy face or swollen eyes. For owls in particular, said Danelle, sitting next to water for an extended period of time is a tell-tale sign. “Owls don’t usually need a lot of water, so that is generally how we know for sure that they are ill.”
If you have fears that your owl or bird has been infected, you can contact the Owl Rescue Centre in Hartbeespoort on 082 719 5463.