Part Two: Setting the Bill Straight

Dr. Rebecca Duerr applied pins to realign the Brown Pelican’s crooked bill, which was secured by fast curing epoxy and tape.  Photos by Ariana Gastelum – International Bird Rescue

Read about how this pelican escaped starvation and came to be a patient in Part One: Unlikely Pelican Parking Lot Rescue.

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When I saw the radiographs of the Brown Pelican’s bill, I was not entirely sure I could repair her damaged mouth but looked forward to giving it a good solid try. I was going to have to re-break some areas that were healing wrong. We planned surgery to occur after the bird had a few days to become stronger.

On surgery day, we anesthetized the bird and got to work. The right and left sides were similar but different in their dysfunction. The left side was fractured in such a way that it exaggerated the normal curve of the bill. The right side had a more complicated problem: it also bent to the right, but this made it into an S shape, and it wasn’t stable in the up-down (dorsal-ventral) direction either. Both sides had semi-stable bony calluses that reinforced the wrongness of the bill shape.

Radiographs revealed that both sides of the pelican’s fractured bill were similar but different in dysfunction.

Being careful not to exert so much force that I snapped the bone in half, I applied pressure with my fingers to destabilize the bones and calluses, gently bending the bones back towards their normal shape. The goal was to get the upper and lower tips to match and to have the right and left sides as normally shaped as possible. Brown Pelicans catch dinner by plunging bill-tip first into the ocean to grab fish – so getting it straight was crucial.

Dr. Duerr placed pins in the Brown Pelican’s bill to position the bones correctly while they healed. Fast curing epoxy secured everything in place. Photo by Rebecca Duerr – International Bird Rescue

I kept gently applying pressure to the bones until they finally were in good positions, then placed pins to position the bones correctly while they healed. Once pins were in, fast curing epoxy secured everything in place. This bird needed the most hardware I have ever put in a pelican’s face to hold the bill stable while it healed, with that more-unstable right side requiring an additional row of pins because of the up-down instability. She woke up fine after the procedure and immediately wanted to eat.

A few days later, I wasn’t completely happy with the alignment so made the decision to tape her mouth shut completely to improve the bones’ positions even further, which necessitated a quick anesthesia to cut two holes in her pouch – one for hand-feeding and one for breathing. This is the pelican equivalent of placing a feeding tube in a different species that needs its mouth wired shut to allow healing. Thereafter, treatment entailed daily medications against pain and infection, vitamins to complement a diet of fish, and several weeks of confinement in one of our ‘pelican boxes’, resting and eating.

After removing the pins, Dr. Duerr examined the pelican’s bill and found that it appeared to be a slightly asymmetrical but very functional bill. Photo by Rebecca Duerr

I was apprehensive about removing the pins three weeks later. Would it be a disaster? Would it need another surgery? We anesthetized her again and I removed all the hardware, flushed the pin holes thoroughly, and woke her up. Thankfully everything was fine. The bill tips matched very well and, although the right and left sides were mildly asymmetrical, it appeared to be a very functional, nearly normal pelican bill (Figure 4). Big sigh of relief.

Our patient spent a few weeks getting reconditioned for life in the wild out in our pelican aviary. While in our care, she almost doubled her weight, going from a very thin 2438 grams (5.4 pounds) to a nice robust 4202 grams (9.25 pounds).

After 66 days in care, this formerly broken pelican was released July 13, 2023 with blue leg band 1E6. Anne Fishbein, the pelican’s rescuer, had the opportunity to open the crate’s gate and set her free. We wish this spunky bird the best of luck out there and a long happy life of flying gracefully over the waves, hunting for fish.

After 66 days in care, the recovered Brown Pelican was released back into the wild in San Pedro, CA on July 13, 2023. Photo by Ariana Gastelum