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Chapter 12 - Miscellaneous Bacterial Diseases

Authors: Milton Friend.

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Miscellaneous Bacterial Diseases

Disease in free-ranging birds is caused by many other pathogenic bacteria in addition to those illustrated within this section. These other diseases are currently considered less important because of their infrequent occurrence, the small numbers of birds generally lost annually, or because they primarily result from infection by opportunistic pathogens and they require concurrent disease processes for them to become apparent. The following brief highlights about the more important of these diseases are included to acquaint readers with their existence and provide some basic information about their ecology.

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Erysipelas is caused by infection with the bacterium Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae. This disease is primarily associated with swine and domestic turkeys, but it has been diagnosed in many groups of birds (Fig. 12.1) and in mammals. The causative agent has also been isolated from the slime layer of marine and freshwater fish and from crocodiles. Erysipelas is found worldwide. Little is known of the ecology of this disease in birds. Most reports of erysipelas in free-ranging birds involve individuals or small numbers of birds, but major die-offs can occur. The largest recorded die-off killed an estimated 5,000 birds, primarily eared grebes, during 1975 on the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Small numbers of waterfowl (green-winged teal, northern shoveler, and common mergansers) and a few herring gulls also died. Erysipelas has also been diagnosed as the cause of a die-off of brown pelicans in southern California during the late 1980s. Other free-ranging birds diagnosed with erysipelas include hawks, crows, raven, wood pigeon, starling, doves, finches, and European blackbird. The causative bacterium is able to survive in the environment for prolonged periods of time, and it was isolated from grebe carcasses approximately 18 weeks after their death during the Great Salt Lake mortality event. The bacteria probably are transmitted through ingestion, such as when gulls feed on carcasses, or entry of the organism through cuts and abrasions. Humans are susceptible to infection. Most human cases involve localized infections resulting from entry through a cut in the skin. Human cases have been fatal when the disease progressed to an infection of the blood and spreads throughout the body (a septicemic infection).

Figure 12.1
Click Illustration for full-page viewReported occurrences of erysipelas in birds.

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New Duck Disease

Pasteurella anatipestifer causes an important disease of domestic ducks that has infrequently caused the deaths of wild birds. This disease has also killed domestic turkeys and chickens and captive-reared pheasants, quail, and waterfowl. Major mortality events from infection with P. anatipestifer have occurred in free-ranging black swans in Tasmania and in tundra swans in Canada. New duck disease has also been diagnosed as the cause of mortality in small numbers of other free-ranging birds, including lesser snow geese. In the domestic duck industry, mortality primarily involves birds 2–3 months old. The swans that died in Tasmania and Canada were primarily young-of-the-year, which is consistent with mortalities of captive wild waterfowl. Birds can die within 24–48 hours after the onset of clinical signs of listlessness, a droopy appearance, fluid discharges from the eyes and bill, greenish diarrhea, and variety of nervous system disorders. The most prominent lesion seen during postmortem examination is a fibrinous covering on the surface of various organs such as the liver and heart (Fig. 12.2).

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Necrotic Enteritis

Necrotizing enteritis is caused by an enterotoxemia or toxins in the blood produced in the intestine resulting from infections with Clostridium perfringens. This disease is found throughout much of the world where poultry are produced, and it is often an important cause of mortality for adult domestic breeder ducks. Sporadic cases have been diagnosed in waterfowl collections and in wild mallards, black ducks, and Canada geese. A die-off in Florida involved mallards and other wild ducks along with several species of shore-birds and wading birds. Wild ducks are also reported to have died from this disease in Germany.

During recent years, increasing numbers of small die-offs have been detected in snow geese, Canada geese, and white-fronted geese in Canada and the United States. An abrupt change in diet associated with seasons and bird migrations are thought to disrupt the intestinal microflora and allow C. perfringens to proliferate in the intestine. The toxins produced by these bacteria are the cause of death. The onset of death is generally rapid and without obvious clinical signs. Severe depression is sometimes observed in chickens along with reluctance to move, diarrhea, and ruffled feathers. Lesions generally appear as a mixture of dead cellular materials and plasma debris, tan-yellow in color, that covers much of the lower region of the intestine of affected waterfowl (Fig. 12.3).

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Ulcerative Enteritis

Quail are highly susceptible to infection by Clostridium colinum, the cause of ulcerative enteritis or "quail disease." Outbreaks of this disease in free-ranging wild birds are rare, but outbreaks have been reported for California quail in Washington State. This acute bacterial infection is characterized by sudden onset followed by rapid spread through the flock. Outbreaks have been reported worldwide wherever game birds are raised in captivity under crowded conditions. In addition to upland game species such as grouse, quail, pheasant, and partridges, outbreaks have been reported in chickens, pigeons and robins. Mortality in young quail can reach 100 percent of the flock. Gross lesions vary and depend upon how long the bird lives following infection. Ulcers within the intestine originate as small yellow spots or infected areas with hemorrhagic borders and progress to circular forms that may join together as large areas of dead tissue that resemble thickened mucous membranes with raised edges (Fig. 12.4). Liver lesions include yellow areas of tissue death or necrosis along the edges of the liver and scattered gray spots or small yellow circumscribed spots within the liver itself that sometimes are surrounded by a light yellow halo effect.

Figure 12.2
Click Photo for full-page viewFibrinous covering on the heart and liver of a bird with Pasteurella anatipestifer.


Figure 12.3
Click Photo for full-page viewLesions of necrotic enteritis in the intestine of a goose.


Figure 12.4
Click Photo for full-page viewAdvanced lesions of ulcerative enteritis in the intestine of a chukar partridge.

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All avian species are susceptible to staphylococcal infections, and Staphylococcus aureus is the most common cause of disease. An often observed form of infection is a lesion that appears as an inflammation of the skin of the foot or pododermatitis, that is commonly referred to as "bumblefoot" (Fig. 12.5). Staphylococcal bacteria are ubiquitous, normal inhabitants of the skin and mucous membranes, and the bacteria require a break in those protective layers for infection to occur. Captive birds are more commonly found infected than free-ranging birds. Abrasions from rough surfaces where birds perch or stand may contribute to the occurrence of this disease. Studies in Spain with free-ranging imperial eagles demonstrated that staphylococcal infection can be transferred from humans to chicks being handled for banding. Infection was common in nestlings handled without latex gloves, whereas infection was rare in those birds handled with gloves. Mallard and redhead duck, bald and golden eagle, and ferruginous hawk have been among the species submitted to the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) that have been diagnosed with this condition.

Septicemic staphylococosis or staphylococcal blood poisoning can also occur, generally in birds that are immunocompromised or whose immune systems are not fully functioning. These types of infection can result in sudden death. Lesions associated with this form of infection generally consist of congestion of internal organs, including the liver, spleen, kidneys, and lungs, accompanied by areas of tissue death (Fig. 12.6). Bald eagles, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, a duck, a mute swan, and herring and ring-billed gulls are among the species submitted to the NWHC for which septicemic staphylococcal infections have been diagnosed.

S. aureus can also cause serious disease in humans both as a wound infection and as a source of food poisoning. Good sanitation procedures should always be followed when handling animals, and protective gloves should be worn when handling wildlife found dead.

Figure 12.5
Click Photo for full-page viewBumblefoot in a domestic duck.


Figure 12.6 Congested liver (A) and spleen (B) from birds with staphylococosis.
Click Photo for full-page view(A) Click Photo for full-page view(B)

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Tularemia is primarily a disease of mammals, but natural infections by Francisella tularensis have caused die-offs of ruffed grouse and other grouse species. A variety of avian species have been found to be susceptible to infection as a result of serological surveys that have detected antibody against tularemia, experimental studies to determine susceptibility, and by cause-of-death assessments for birds submitted for necropsy (Table 12.1). The strains of F. tularensis that caused natural infection of ruffed grouse are of low virulence for humans despite ruffed grouse becoming infected by the same tick (Haemaphysalis leporispaulstris) that causes highly virulent tularemia in snowshoe hare.

Ticks are the primary source for disease transmission in natural cases of tularemia in upland gamebirds such as grouse and pheasants; ingestion of diseased birds and rodents is the primary source of disease transmission to raptors, gulls, and other scavenger species. Tularemia is infrequently reported as a cause of disease in wild birds. Ruffed grouse in northern climates have been the primary focus for reports in the scientific literature. The primary lesion seen is multiple, discrete spots scattered throughout the liver tissue (Fig. 12.7).

Table 12.1 Avian species reported to be susceptible to infection by Francisella tularensis.

Upland game species Other birds
Ruffed grouse
Sharp-tailed grouse
Sage grouse
Blue grouse
Bobwhite quail
Gulls and terns
Raptors (such as hawks and eagles)
Scavengers (such as shrikes)
Ducks and geese


Figure 12.7
Click Photo for full-page viewThe numerous, small, yellow and white spots on the liver of this beaver that died of tularemia are similar to the appearance of liver lesions in ruffed grouse.


Figure 12.8
Click Photo for full-page view(A) Pericarditis and perihepatitus in a bird with colibacillosis. Click Photo for full-page view(B) Infection results in the liver being encased in a translucent covering.

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Colibacillosis, which is caused by infection with Escherichia coli, is one of several additional bacterial diseases occasionally encountered in wild birds. Avian strains of E. coli are generally not considered important causes of infection for humans or species other than birds. E. coli is a common inhabitant of the intestinal tract, but it often infects the respiratory tracts of birds, usually in conjunction with infection by other pathogens. These infections result in disease of the air sacs, and the infections are referred to as chronic respiratory disease. Lesions commonly associated with this disease include pericarditis or inflammation of the transparent membrane that encloses the heart and perihepatitis or inflammation of the peritoneal covering of the liver. These conditions make the coverings of the heart and liver look like a white or yellow mass that somewhat resembles the icing of a cake (Fig. 12.8). The livers of infected birds often appear swollen, dark in color, and may be bile stained (Fig. 12.9). Unhygienic hatcheries and other areas where young waterfowl and gamebirds are being held are often heavily contaminated with E. coli, and this results in infections causing acute mortality.

Similar to the other sections of this Manual, the bacterial diseases discussed are not comprehensive of diseases of wild birds. The similarities in clinical signs and gross lesions displayed in illustrations in this section emphasize the need for cause-of-death evaluations by qualified animal disease laboratories. Also, the environmental persistence and human health impacts noted for some of these pathogens emphasize the need to consider personal and environmental protection when handling dead birds. Assumptions that the cause of death is due to a pathogen of minor importance could have serious consequences if highly virulent infections are involved.

Figure 12.9
Click Photo for full-page viewSwollen bile-stained liver in a bird with colibacillosis.

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Supplementary Reading

  • Calnek, B.W., and others, eds., 1997, Diseases of poultry
    (10 th ed.): Ames, Iowa, Iowa State University Press, 929 p.
  • Davis, J.W., Anderson, R.C., Karstad, L., and Trainer, D.O. eds.,
    1971, Infectious and parasitic diseases of wild birds: Ames,
    Iowa, Iowa State University Press, 344 p.
  • Jellison, W.L., 1974, Tularemia in North America, 1930–1974:
    University of Montana, Missoula, p. 1–276.
  • Jensen, W.I., and Cotter, S.E., 1976, An outbreak of erysipelas in
    eared grebes (Podiceps nigricollis)., Journal of Wildlife Diseases, v. 12: 583–586
  • Wobeser, G., and Rainnie, D.J., 1987, Epizootic necrotic enteritis
    in wild geese: Journal of Wildlife Diseases, v. 23: 376–386

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