Encouraging the breeding of every parrot in New Zealand whether in the wild or captivity

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Avian Nutrition

With Dr Alicia McWalters


Alicia McWalters resides in the mountainous region of NM with her family and many animal and bird friends. She shares her home with 5 parrots, a Congo African Grey “Tiffany”, a caique “Joey”, a Solomon Island Eclectus “Chynna” and Umbrella Cockatoo “Dexter” and an African Red-Bellied Parrot “Lucy”. A former breeder of Pionus parrots and African Greys, she holds her doctorate degree in nutrition and is a certified nutritional consultant.

McWalters runs a private holistic avian healthcare practice and is a pioneer in her field. She provides long-distance telephone consultations and in-home consultation visits to local bird owners. She teaches her clients about natural avian nutrition, feeding and natural healing methods. Herbal medicine, homeopathy and vitamin and mineral therapy are a few of the natural modalities she incorporates into her nutritional healing programs.

McWalters is a contributing writer for many aviculture publications. She has written a book on natural bird care entitled “A Guide to a Naturally Healthy Bird” and she has a Nutritional Q/A column on-line where she answers questions on avian nutrition and natural health.

Introduction to Herbal Medicine

By Alicia McWalters Ph.D., C.N.C.

The word herb, as used in herbal medicine, also known as botanical medicine or, in Europe, as Physiotherapy or Phytomedicine means a plant or plant part that is used to make medicine to assist the healing process during illness and disease. An herb can be a leaf, a stem, a root, a seed, a fruit, a flower or bark, used for its medicinal properties. These may be used in many forms, e.g. fresh, dried, cut, as a powder, ointment, tincture or oil extract, or made into liquid by infusion or decoction.

Herbs have provided all living organisms with medicine from the earliest beginnings of civilisation. Throughout history, various cultures have handed down their accumulated knowledge of the medicinal use of herbs. The vast body of information serves as the basis for much allopathic medicine today. About 25% of the modern drugs currently used by doctors have a component of an herb whose origin is often from the Amazonian rainforest or similar climate. But in today’s allopathic medicine, most remedies are synthetic preparations devoid of any life-promoting vital energy. Nevertheless, allopathic medicine has its place and has saved many lives.

I strongly believe that allopathic medicines should be saved for when there is no other option for a particular disease or illness. If a safer, natural remedy is available, then it should be implemented before the use of a harsher, more powerful drug. A patient suffering from a life-threatening disease may require allopathic drugs combined with natural remedies…providing the best of both worlds! The additional benefit of certain natural medicines is that they can counteract the side effects of allopathic drugs.

Allopathic treatment may either be permanent or temporary depending on the bird’s physical damage. Once a parrot’s health has improved through nutritional methods, sometimes they can be weaned from the synthetic drugs. Following the strong interest of the public toward natural remedies, some doctors are now combining allopathic with naturopathy into their practice, which offers a much broader opportunity for curing and for the wellness of our parrots.

It has been estimated that an average of 500,000 plant species exist on earth today, with the number varying depending on whether subspecies are included. Approximately 5,000 of these have been studied at length by modern science for their medicinal qualities. There are 121 prescription drugs in use today that come from only 90 plant species. Of these 121, 74% came from following up on native folklore claims. It is noteworthy that 80% of the world’s population still rely on plant medicine.

There are many countries and cultures where people have inherited knowledge about plant medicine. South America, Africa, India, China and Japan use herbs for healing many ailments on a day to day basis, while in our North American continent we have many beneficial medicinal plants as well. Many of these plants were discovered and identified for their curative qualities by Native Americans, and therefore are referred to as “Indian Medicine”. In the tropical rainforest, the medicinal plants are often referred to as “Jungle Medicine”. These remedies are second nature to most of these native people, and even with the opportunity to receive modern medicine, they would prefer to heal their way…because it works!!!

All parts of a tree or plant absorb the nutrients from the soil – dissolved minerals and liquid material – and pass them on from the root through the stem bark to the leaves, fruits and flowers by transpiration pull. Root bark may have different properties than the stem bark or the leaves. Most believe that the roots extract the most potent chemicals from the soil, mainly minerals, and as these are passed on through the tree/plant bark they get less and less concentrated as they reach the leaves where a chemical change occurs through insulation – the photo effects from the sun. In the leaves photosynthesis takes place and this process creates change and the difference between the chemicals components derived from the leaves compared with those in the tree bark or the root bark, which is protected from this exposure. But this is not the rule in every case. On the contrary, there are certain plants where the essential curative properties are in the leaf, flowers or seed. An experienced herbalist knows this information from extensive experience, research and experiments.

As an example, in Ghana and in other parts of Africa the belief is that the dense tropical forest, there are medicinal properties in the undergrowth. But some harvesters believe that the plants that are more potent are the ones that receive direct insulation. So, many use grassland plants for certain diseases.

There are different types of plant medicine in different ecosystems in Africa and in other continents. Those of the rainforest have different qualities than those which grow in the grassland or desert. Then there are those plants which overlap these benefits. A herbalist can determine which diseases an herb is to be used for by three main factors: where they are from, how much insulation they receive and their chemical properties.

Medicinal plants contain varying degrees of chemicals (or antibiotics) and they have a direct impact on physiological activity. When taken internally they activate overall body metabolism by providing a healing stimulus. A common approach to choosing what herb may be right for a certain condition would be to categorise herbs by looking at what kinds of problems can be treated by their help. This information is listed in numerous herbology books that contain specific details for every illness or symptom, including the emotional as well as the physical ones. Anyone with interest can begin learning about herbal medicine, as there is extensive literature, schools and workshops to teach you. However, a deep understanding of herbs should be obtained prior to their unassisted use.

I have had the opportunity to observe my birds respond in a positive manner to herbal medicine. Similarly, I have achieved great satisfaction in knowing my clients’ birds have recovered from many common ailments through the use of herbal medicine in the nutritional programs I offer in my consulting practice. Helping my clients’ birds achieve wellness through nutritional and herbal medicines is a great pleasure.

My priority in the use of herbs for birds is to use the least invasive way. I use a variety of methods for offering herbal extract remedies, all of which depend upon the individual’s age, if the bird is ill, and if easily handled or not. I use the following techniques: orally in the form of a tea, tincture or extract; by eyedropper/syringe, over fresh food either dried, an extract or a capsule powder; topically with a tea compress, oil or ointment, eye or nasal drops, or as an inhalant/drink by fine mist. For babies, I use either the tea methods or the capsule powder in the formula. I also serve herbs freshly picked from our garden. Some of these are mixed into our “mash” diet, such as comfrey, dandelion and parsley.

Certain herbs are fed daily as a preventative medicine, while others are used primarily for illness. These herbs, used in small amounts, have a mild curative effect and work well over the long-term, giving a bird a higher immunity level and a better chance for recovery. A bird that is in a weakened state from nutritional deficiencies or advanced illness does not often have the strength by itself to get well. Unfortunately, antibiotics, steroids and other artificial means increase this debilitation by depleting nutrients from the body. Natural remedies, such as herbs and homeopathic remedies (when properly chosen) help to strengthen the body and begin the healing process.

When confronted with a veterinarian’s selection of an allopathic medicine, it is very important to weigh the benefits versus the side effects, and with the proper knowledge, make the decision to use the most appropriate modalities to correct your bird’s health problems. If natural remedies are appropriate, then consulting with a holistic avian veterinarian or other qualified avian health professional should be your next step. However, certain health problems may require specific allopathic medicines.

Extensive scientific documentation now exists concerning the use of herbs for health conditions for people and animals. A great deal of similarity exists which can be applied for birds; however, modified dosages must be given. A bird’s high metabolic rate and low body weight requires that we give them smaller, more frequent doses of a particular herb. Dosages, frequency, dilution and recovery time would depend on the severity of the condition and the overall receptiveness of the bird, Birds can respond rapidly if the illness is detected at the onset and if dosages are given consistently over a period of days or weeks.

Both the qualities of the herb and the dosage level contribute to its effectiveness. Too little of the remedy may show little or no results, On the other hand, medicinal herbs can be overdosed and harmful if misused, therefore proper education is a MUST before the use of herbal therapy for your birds.

It is important to know the types of disease or health problems your particular bird species may be prone to in order to be prepared if symptoms arise. For example, conditions such as feather picking, PBFD, stress and calcium deficiencies are unfortunately too commonly found in African Greys. Along with the proper foods, vitamin and mineral supplements, there are herbs which can improve these conditions. For instance, herbs contain varying degrees of nutrients and chemical compounds; some herbs are antimicrobial and stimulate the immune system, others improve blood circulation and the glandular system, or create better function of a specific organ or organ system. Again, be sure when selecting a particular herbal treatment for your bird that you seek supervision from a veterinarian or other qualified individual.

While we are in the midst of an ecological crisis, trying to preserve what’s left of our tropical rainforests and the many species of bird, animal and plant they contain, we can all take part by supporting the efforts of aviculturists, biologists, botanists, ethno botanists and conservation groups who work so hard to make a difference. It is important to realise the potential of the rainforest flora for all the possibilities of new medicines, which could benefit us all.

Herbal medicine is useful all over the world, and I believe, will become a major factor in the change of direction for health and the treatment of disease in the next century. Many of these plant medicines have been proven, while others are new and in the experimental stages. These newer plants may in addition to the timeless ones, share the potential to cure many of the illnesses we are presently faced with today. These are the hopes I have for the future of aviculture.

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