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Posts Tagged ‘respiratory disease’

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Photo: Jason Hosking
The kākāpō parrots in New Zealand were suffering from a frequently fatal respiratory disease and needed several months of treatment before being returned to the wild.

There’s a lot of dark news in today’s headlines. I won’t get into it. Looking for a little something positive, I learned about a fat parrot that is no longer on the brink of extinction, thanks to people who are focused on doing good. Such people actually exist, you know.

Kate Evans writes at the Guardian, “Growing up in the north of England, Dr James Chatterton was enthralled by the books of the pioneering zookeeper and conservationist Gerald Durrell and dreamed of saving endangered species. Now, on the other side of the world, Chatterton has done just that, helping to bring the world’s fattest parrot back from the brink.

“Chatterton and his team spent the best part of a year [testing] new treatments on the frontline of a killer disease afflicting New Zealand’s kākāpō. … The respiratory disease aspergillosis began to spread through the endangered kākāpō population [in April 2019], threatening to reverse the gains of the bird’s most successful breeding season in living memory.

“Kākāpo are not just rare, they are also deeply weird: flightless, nocturnal, with fragrant feathers and a comical waddling run. Males ‘boom’ to attract females, and they only breed every three to six years when the native rimu trees [produce] large numbers of seeds. …

“By the end of the southern hemisphere’s summer in February, thanks to intensive intervention by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) Kākāpō Recovery Programme, the population of 147 kākāpō had produced more than 80 chicks – a record number. …

“Then one of the chicks died suddenly. It was found to have aspergillosis, a brutal infection in which lumps of fungus form in the birds’ lungs and slowly choke them to death.

“ ‘It’s hard to diagnose, extremely hard to treat, and usually fatal, particularly in wild birds. You usually just find them dead,’ says Chatterton, [manager of veterinary services at Auckland Zoo’s New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine]. …

“With aspergillosis, by the time a wild bird begins to display symptoms – or anything unusual shows up in blood tests – it is usually too late to save them. The only way to diagnose the disease in time is using a CT scan or endoscopy to spot fungal growths in the lungs.

“The vets and DOC scientists began mapping which kākāpō had shared a nest with the sick birds and which had been on the same food run. [‘Ahoy! Note the importance of contact tracing,’ says Suzanne and John’s Mom!]

“The 12 deemed at highest risk were evacuated from their home, Codfish Island/Whenua Hou, and taken by helicopter to Auckland. Unfortunately, the city’s veterinary CT scanner was being replaced and was out of action for a crucial five weeks, so the vets took the kākāpō to one of the city’s human hospitals. Though they appeared completely healthy, all 12 were found to have lesions on their lungs.

“That was a stomach-dropping moment, says kākāpō scientist Andrew Digby, who was based on Whenua Hou at the time. …

“Aspergillosis can be treated with oral anti-fungal drugs if you catch it early enough. ‘It’s worked really well with other parrots, but each new species you try needs a different dose,’ says Chatterton. ‘We had birds dying, so we went with a high dose, but worried that in saving some we might kill some.’

“To get the drugs into the birds’ air sacs, the vets also needed to use a nebuliser. Kākāpō may be the world’s fattest parrot, but their airways are still too small for the droplets produced by an adult human nebuliser, so Chatterton tried a paediatric one. It worked – but New Zealand is a small country, and initially only two were available. …

“Volunteer vets arrived to help from around the world. Extra pens were built to house the birds. People brought in sheets and duvets from home to cover the floors, and these had to be washed every day. [People! What does this remind you of?] Others went to the city’s regional parks to gather armfuls of the native plants kākāpō like to eat. Chatterton worked every day for five weeks. …

“Many birds needed months of daily care, but the outbreak was contained. Chicks became juveniles, and while a few died from other causes, most survived and are now counted in the population number: 211, up from just 123 when Chatterton arrived in New Zealand seven years ago. …

” ‘The only chance these endangered species have is if we all work together,’ Chatterton says.”

Amen.

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