The Long Road to Recovery
Late last month we released a young Brown Pelican who came to us in 2019! This bird was found in Half Moon Bay, CA, in December standing around looking dazed on a beach, ignoring dogs running up to him. After his rescue, he was brought to our San Francisco Bay-Delta Wildlife Center for care. Radiographs showed this bird had suffered a wing fracture – the ulna.
Sometimes fractures of the ulna in birds can be successfully treated with splints and wraps, but due to previous experience with pelicans recovering from ulna fractures, Bird Rescue’s veterinarian Dr. Rebecca Duerr opted to place orthopedic pins and two external fixators, securing the fracture site from two different angles.
Pinning can reduce the probability that a bird will develop range of motion problems in their wing joints as a result of a prolonged time in a wrap. Pinned wings are generally kept wrapped only for the first few days, then the bird can have the wing unrestrained for the duration of healing, which lets them wiggle and move and keep their joints in good shape. This pelican patient then had a long road to recovery ahead under the expert care of our rehabilitation technicians, needing to fully regain the strength in its wing to be able to survive again in the wild.
Bird bones generally heal much faster than mammals – after just 3 weeks, the ulna had healed and the pins were removed. Although he did not have any range of motion problems in his joints, the wing was very weak. Once he was ready, we moved him to our pelican aviary where he could bathe and preen, and start exercising by swimming. When birds bathe, they vigorously move all the muscles and joints of the chest, shoulders, and wings, and this provides amazing exercise for a bird recovering from a wing injury.
Once he began flying, we could see he was flapping asymmetrically with the formerly broken wing not extending fully with each flap, but thankfully this improved with practice. Due to the large size of our pelican aviary, we are able to see when a pelican is not flying normally or is compensating for a mobility deficit. We could see that as his flight strength and coordination improved, he persisted in leaning his head to one side when flying. As plunge-divers, Brown Pelicans have a very athletically intense way of catching dinner in the wild; consequently, we kept him for more exercise until his flight normalized. We want every bird we release to be as able-bodied as wild birds that never had a health crisis, so that they have the best possible chance of leading a long wild life.
After 94 days in care, he was finally ready for us to put bands on his legs and say Good Bye and Happy Fishing to Blue Band 0A2!