No Bone About It – Brown Pelican Survives Traumatic Bill Injury

All the while we were dealing with thousands of Elegant Tern chicks this summer, we also had plenty of regular patients in care, including this special bird, who was recently released!

On June 25th, our Los Angeles Wildlife Center staff texted me horrifying images of an adult Brown Pelican brought to us by animal control from Venice, CA with a horrendous injury to her face – the bone that forms the top third of the upper bill had been virtually sheared off and was hanging by a thread. The broken-off stump of the bone was protruding where her nares (bird nostrils) should be and the rest of the bill was a thick black mess of dried blood.

We discussed the poor bird’s uncertain prognosis for recovery vs whether we should humanely euthanize her to relieve her suffering. In favor of giving her a chance to heal: the roof of her mouth (underside of the upper bill) was intact, and other than the severe injury to the bill, the bird was in pretty good condition, albeit skinny and very weak. In favor of euthanasia: the detached bone was a lost cause, and never having seen this type of injury before, we were unsure whether she could heal her bill sufficient to have it function normally to catch dinner in the ocean after release. We know that Brown Pelicans can heal some severe injuries amazingly well, so we opted to give this girl a chance and see what she could do. We provided pain medication and thermal support plus intravenous and oral fluids. A simple bandage was applied to protect her broken bill and keep it cushioned and clean.

When I met her a day or two later, she was bright and alert, and had started eating almost right away. I removed loose pieces from the fractured area but was hesitant to do much else because of all of that thick dried blood…I didn’t want to make it start bleeding again. There was a gaping hole into her sinuses under the broken remainder of the bone, and a very important structure called the craniofacial hinge, which is part of the mechanism that allows the pelican’s mouth to open, was exposed. If that hinge didn’t remain functional, the bird would not be able to be released.

Although pelicans are often referred to as not having nares (nostrils), in truth they do indeed have them, they just are not large enough to move enough air for breathing. We usually only notice them when they have a ‘runny nose’. Pelicans use their nares to drain super salty solution produced by a gland near their eyes which helps them regulate their electrolyte levels while living in salt water. The missing bone from this bird’s bill included her left nare, and the right one was also in the damaged area. I had concerns she wasn’t going to be able to drain her sinuses properly when it was done healing, but that was a concern for later down the road. There was a small area of scalp missing where the bill meets the skull, which I surgically repaired a few weeks later.

Phil Gyori, CEO of Pelican Professional, releases Brown Pelican Y70 back to the wild.

As the weeks passed, we watched her literally fill in the giant gaping hole in her face with new tissue! Release seemed headed her way soon. Every time I did a checkup on her, it looked better and better. Not only did she fill in the entire sinus hole, but she was able to engulf the jagged remainder of bone with new flesh, and cover the important craniofacial hinge too. Her scalp repair healed beautifully and she even recreated her own nares, which were observed draining normally. By the time release day came she was almost done covering what started as scar tissue with pigmented keratin, turning it gray like a normal bill. We had thought she might end up as a weird-looking bird, but instead she healed back into a gorgeous girl.

Before release, she was fitted with blue leg band Y70. She flew off like a rocket when the cage door opened. Fly free Y70!