Wrist Injury Required Four Months of Care; Brown Pelican Returns to the Wild

Healing from wrist injury and a leg fracture in at the Los Angeles wildlife center, Brown Pelican Y63 was successfully released on June 9, 2021. Photo: Angie Trumbo – International Bird Rescue

After 119 days in care at our Los Angeles Wildlife Center, we are overjoyed report that an adult male Brown Pelican flew gracefully back to the wild in early June. (Video of release)

When the pelican was rescued near Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf in February, he was in rough shape. This seabird had an old, infected, large, and deep laceration on the back side of his wrist joint that laid open several flight feather follicles (see Figure 2) and was preventing him from extending his wing. It seemed doubtful he would ever fly again.

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We don’t know what caused the wound but previous patients have had similar injuries when a fishing line wraps around the wing and cuts into their flesh. A very large fish hook like a shark hook is another possibility, as evidenced by a small second wound with a tunnel connecting the wounds.

The large wound had already done some contraction and was limiting his ability to extend his wrist to only about 60% of the degrees of motion a healthy pelican wrist should be able to move. Full mobility at the wrist is an absolute necessity for birds to be released back into the wild. We were unsure if this bird was going to be able to heal well enough, but because of how our previous pelican patients have healed, we thought this bird had a chance to regain mobility of the joint once all the traumatized soft tissue healed.

Figure 2: The pelican’s lacerated and infected tissue had contracted as it tried to heal, and was preventing the wing from being able to extend at the wrist. Photos: Dr. Rebecca Duerr – International Bird Rescue

The bird also had a partial leg fracture resulting in severe difficulty standing. One usual treatment for pelicans that are painful or unable to stand is to get them off their feet by letting them quietly float in a hospital pool and paddle around as they are able. In this bird’s case, treatment was complicated by that nasty wound on his wrist that needed wound dressings. We struck a balance between getting him off his feet and needing a dry wound dressing by having him float for a few hours each morning, followed by wound care once he was done floating.

As the leg healed, he was able to stand much more comfortably while we were still treating the complicated wrist wound. During the following weeks, 4 surgical procedures were needed to fully treat the wrist wound, and at 2 points it was necessary to place a drain through the tunnel between wounds to allow us to flush it with sterile fluids every day (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: The wounded area at the bird’s wrist where an IV catheter was modified to serve as a drain. Tiny holes were cut in the tubing to irrigate the wound as part of treating the infection.

Ultimately, the wound healed very well and the damaged flight feather follicles even started to show new growth. Although the first feather forming was of poor quality, at least there was no sign of it being ingrown, as sometimes happens when the tissue around feather follicles is damaged. The contracted tissue behind the joint formed a tight band of scar tissue that was preventing the joint from extending – when manually extending the wing the tension in the tissue was detectable. The wrist itself still felt normal and looked normal on radiographs. Nonetheless, we expected the bird would go through a period of time where the wrist extension would continue to be terrible and the prospect of flying again would seem hopeless. That was indeed the case!

About 2 months after admission, the tight scar behind the wrist started to loosen up and allow the growth of more of the missing feathers – it turned out the gap in flight feathers was greater than it initially appeared due to the contracted nature of the wound at admission. At one point there were three secondary flight feathers growing in all packed so tightly next to each other that they had to lie sideways to the rest of the flight feathers. Thanks to this bird’s feisty temperament, he was highly motivated to exercise on his own once he was in our outdoor aviaries, and the tight section continued to lengthen and loosen up such that eventually the flight feathers were able to lay normally again. By the time release was becoming a possibility, the only physical therapy we needed to help him with was some final stretching to get the last missing range of motion back.

I hoped this bird would show us once again how amazing pelicans can be and he did! He didn’t hesitate one second before marching out of the cage and taking flight with supreme confidence and grace. See: Release Video

Note: This released Brown Pelican was banded with Y63, a special blue band that helps spot these majestic birds in their natural environment. Learn more about how you can report our banded pelicans through this citizen science program.

Almost completely healed! Extension of the wrist and position of the flight feathers nearly ready for release.