The Department of Conservation (DOC) collaborates with other government agencies, researchers and community groups to investigate wildlife disease.
The following information is about wildlife diseases which are found in New Zealand, or which pose a threat to our endangered species.
Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease
Lead poisoning in kea
Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease
Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (or PBFD) is a serious viral disease that affects parrots. It is also known as Psittacine Circovirus or Beak and Feather Disease Virus (BFDV).
PBFD is highly contagious to parrot species, spreading through direct contact with infected birds, feather dust, dander and faeces. The virus can also be transmitted via contact with contaminated sources such as nesting materials and roosting holes. The virus survives for a long time in the environment, especially in shared spaces like roosting and nesting holes, making it easy to spread from bird to bird.
What does it do?
The virus attacks the cells responsible for growing a bird’s feathers and beak, causing feather discolouring, loss of feathers, and abnormal beak growth in some parrots. The disease also has a general suppressive effect on the immune system of the bird, clearing the path for secondary viral and bacterial infections, which can lead to death.
Younger birds appear to be more susceptible to infection, especially small chicks in the nest. Many will die when infected. Others will lose feathers and may be unable to fly, making them vulnerable to predators like cats and stoats. Adult birds can develop feather loss, beak deformities, and their immune system may fail. Some adult birds may fight off infection, but could remain carriers of the virus and therefore can be a risk to healthy birds.
What's happening in New Zealand?
The virus is commonly found in aviary-kept parrot species all over New Zealand. In the wild, the virus is known to be widespread in the North Island amongst exotic parrots, such as sulphur-crested cockatoos and eastern rosellas. The presence of the disease in the South Island is unknown.
PBFD has been confirmed in native wild populations of red-crowned parakeets/kākāriki on Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island, Tiritiri Matangi Island; and in yellow-crowned parakeets/kākāriki in Fiordland.
DOC has introduced a national ban on moving parrots from areas with known PBFD exposure to areas of unknown or negative PBFD status. Testing on kākā, kea and kākāpō in many locations has not detected any infections.
You can help
Never release captive-held parrots into the wild unless you have a DOC permit to do so. The permit ensures the birds have been tested for the virus. This prevents unwanted spread of the virus into wild populations.
Consider getting your aviary birds tested for the virus. Talk to your local vet about how to do this. Always quarantine new birds and get them tested before they join your flock.
Report sick or dead wild native parrots to your local DOC office. We can get them diagnosed by a vet. This will help us understand what effect the virus has on our native birds.
Download a factsheet: Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease: a threat to our native parrots (PDF, 824K)
Lead poisoning in kea
Kea can be killed by lead poisoning. They get the lead from chewing on human made objects. The most likely source is lead head nails and lead flashing on houses. They can also get lead from rubbish dumps, car wheel weights, lead shot and bullets.
What’s the problem with lead?
Lead is one of the most toxic metals in the world. It affects many parts of the body. The kidney, liver, brain, nerves, intestines and the reproductive system can all be affected.
Birds which have recently eaten a lot of lead may be seen with vomiting, seizures (fits) and loss of appetite. This may not be detected in wild birds if they die away from human habitation. Other birds may eat a small amount over a long period. They may not be obviously sick, but they are still being poisoned. This might show up as poor reproduction or early death due to predation, starvation or misadventure.
Poisoning is often seen in captive parrots due to chewing on objects including their cages. It is seen in waterfowl and birds of prey when they accidentally eat lead shot.
Why do kea eat it?
Kea (and other parrots) chew on lead because it is soft and sweet. They think they are eating a yummy treat! Young kea learn about food by chewing on everything. They mistake lead for food and continue to eat it, even when they get sick. Groups of young kea will hang out together in a gang. If one chews on a nail, they all want to have a turn. This makes them very susceptible to poisoning.
For the kea, the problem is where they live and who lives nearby. Human objects are the source of lead. If kea live near humans they are at risk of finding and eating lead.
What can I do?
If you live near kea or kākā, check your property for lead objects. Check the roof of your house and shed for lead head nails or lead flashing and replace them. Clean up any rubbish and use kea/kaka-proof bins to keep it safe. If you hunt, don’t use lead shot.
Check the Kea Conservation Trust website for projects to help kea.
Avian influenza virus
DOC is monitoring the international effects of H5N1 (bird flu). Currently the risk of the virus reaching New Zealand is very low. We are lucky to be isolated form other land masses and we have good border biosecurity.
Monitoring of bird populations is part of DOC’s core work. Dead or sick birds are tested for disease. This will help us to detect any arrival of H5N1 in New Zealand.
If the virus arrives in New Zealand, we have a contingency plan to protect native species. This plan uses good biosecurity to reduce or prevent the spread of the virus.
Measures such as disinfection will reduce viral contamination of equipment and people’s clothes. Where possible, translocations of animals will be cancelled or delayed. Staff will be discouraged from handling animals except where absolutely necessary. Threatened species and conservation land will be monitored to detect any outbreaks. If the virus causes illness in native species, vaccination programmes will provide protection for key populations of threatened species.
Biosecurity in New Zealand, part of the Ministry for Primary Industries, will lead any response to the virus. DOC will work closely with them to make sure we protect our native and exotic animals, and our people.