Danger! Danger! Danger!
The Risks of Rope Perching In the Bird Flight
(or the Mystery of the Toe Eating Flight)

By: Marie Miley-Russell

First published in the American Singers Club newsletter, July 2004.

Our homes can be a dangerous place for our little canaries- they are much safer in a caged environment away from the various perils presented by stove burners, windows, cats, and the myriad other dangers of the average household. The typical manufactured cage is relatively safe- provided correct bar spacing and other concerns are properly addressed- but impractical for the breeder of even a moderate number of birds. Many breeders address the need for housing of their flocks by building their own flights from various materials and in an amazing assortment of configurations, all of which have their own pros and cons. The one common denominator seems to be the use of rope for perching- it*s economical, flexible, comes in a range of sizes allowing adequate foot exercise, and readily available. All sorts of rope is used- sisal being the most common, but also cotton which provides a nice soft alternative to the rough texture of the sisal. As a new canary breeder wanting the healthiest environment for my American Singers, I built a nice, roomy 10'x7' flight with paneled walls on two sides and 1/2"x1/2" GAW (galvanized after welding) wire mesh mounted on a frame of painted 2"x 4" boards following generally the flight plans provided by DRAGON and used by several DRAGON members. I attached the wire mesh to the outside of the frame to ensure that the birds could not reach any of the cut ends of the wire. I caulked every hole, crack, opening, and rough spot. And, like nearly every other breeder, I hung sisal rope for perching.

The first summer was fine- all the birds were happy and healthy flying around in their big room. It was easy to clean and sterilize and I loved the ease of caring for the 40 or so birds I had at the time. Rope was changed every month or sooner if it became dirty. Then fall came and the shows started and I purchased some new birds who came home and went into the flight- only to come out after a few weeks with injuries to their toes. This struck me as odd, since only the new birds were experiencing this, but I went through the flight and felt everything and could locate nothing that could be responsible for this.

Most of the birds afflicted by what I came to call the *Dreaded Hurt Toe* recovered after some time in a tabletop flight with dowel perching. A couple of birds experienced infection in their wounds and died within a matter of a day or two. I discovered that administering antibiotics to the injured birds as soon as possible was vital as any delay often resulted in alarmingly quick mortality. Still, the number of birds affected was not extremely high and no bird that recovered ever became re-injured.

Then came this spring- my nests overflowed with babies who were soon big enough to go into the flight. More than eighty babies and 20 or so adults were all placed in the flight by mid April. This was when the blood bath began- the Dreaded Hurt Toe struck at a rate of one or more nearly every day until more than half of the flock was in some stage of injury- newly injured, recovering with antibiotics, or recovered. The injuries were widely varied- sometimes one or a couple of toes ripped off about halfway down the toe, sometimes just a nail that wasbloody at the base, sometimes the bottom of a foot was a bloody mess. Surprisingly not a single bird died from loss of blood, despite the enormous quantity lost.

Up to this point I had been using a wild scattershot approach- pulling out any bird that acted like a plucker, removed all the toys, put in new toys so no one else will be tempted to pluck, changed the type of rope used, clipped everyone*s nails- I did everything and nothing. Then the problems began in a smaller walk in flight where I had placed my older hens, a couple of old males and some of the calmer babies (everyone was molting heavily at this time). This flight was professionally manufactured and was about as safe as a cage could be.

At this point a more reasoned approach was obviously needed; I assumed that one or even several of the following things was occurring- mice were attacking the birds; there was a cannibal in the flock (and apparently in both flights); there was a sharp spot somewhere in the flight; or the birds were getting their toes caught in something. I had considered the possibility of mice being the problem but with five cats and a large amount of mouse poison and traps distributed liberally all over the place it seemed a rather unlikely scenario as the mouse would have to first have the agility and sophistication of Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible to make it past all the barriers to the birds and then be blood hungry enough to choose bird toes over the bird seed which was more accessible. I pulled all of the birds out of the flights and went over both flights - running my hands over every surface and covering anything that seemed less than perfectly smooth. I sat and watched the birds for hours (no one ever got hurt, no one plucked, everyone was as mild mannered as they could be). Notably, not a single bird was injured while held in the tabletop flights for the two days when I was working on the big flight. I put everyone back in the big flight and the next day two birds were injured- one in each flight. The single thing both flights had in common was the rope perching.

After discussing the problem with a number of experienced breeders- including a few who have always used rope and have never had a problem - I decided to replace the rope with wood dowels. It has only been a week since I made the changeover, but not a single bird has been injured since!

Copyright © 2004 Marie Miley-Russell. All rights reserved.

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