Patient in Focus: Severely Injured Brown Pelican Bucks the Odds and is Released Back to Ocean

Hungry Brown Pelican prior to being captured (Fig. 1) , trying to eat a fish tossed by a kind person – while the large hole in the neck was preventing the bird from swallowing its meal. Photo courtesy Fraida Gutovich

Update: Released! Y55 Brown Pelican (video)

The neck laceration prior to surgical repair. (Fig. 2) Notice the change in texture mid wound? That’s where pouch tissue joins with esophagus – the esophagus is more muscular and has longitudinal folds.

After 103 days in care, we are ecstatic to report that we released a very special patient this past week. This beautiful bird’s saga began back on August 1, 2020 when Fraida Gutovich was out photographing birds in Marina del Rey, CA and captured images of fish falling out of a large hole in an active and obviously very hungry Brown Pelican’s neck. She posted the images to Facebook (Fig. 1) and was advised to call Marine Animal Rescue to hopefully get the bird some help.

After two days of trying, Peter Wallerstein of Marine Animal Rescue was finally able to catch the wily bird and delivered her to our Los Angeles Wildlife Center, where our staff discovered that the injuries were much more severe than a simple hole in the bird’s pouch. On top of the six-inch pouch laceration that extended into the bird’s esophagus on the right side (Fig. 2), she also had infected fish hook puncture wounds at a foot and another in her shoulder, another wound on her wrist, and an old fracture of the radius in her wing. Plus, not only had her pouch near the tip of the bill’s left side been fully ripped off the bone, but the two halves of her lower jaw were literally split apart in the middle, a problem technically known as a split mandibular symphysis (Fig. 3).

Laceration (Fig. 3) showing how the two halves of the lower bill were severed from each other (split mandibular symphysis) right before surgical repair. The tiny dots along the mandible are from the temporary repair while the bird was being stabilized for surgery.

Our capable staff performed stabilizing care to get the bird as healthy as possible before the long surgeries that no doubt lay ahead. As soon as her mouth had some temporary repairs, she enjoyed feasting on fish that didn’t fall out.

I have (unfortunately) a lot of experience repairing pouch and esophagus lacerations and other fish hook damage in pelicans, gulls, and all the other species that are commonly injured by fishing gear. But in the 11 years I have been with International Bird Rescue, I have only seen a split mandibular symphysis in two other Brown Pelicans, and neither bird’s mouth injuries were as severe as this patient. Consequently, building on the experience of these two previous cases, I planned the initial surgery knowing more procedures would be needed before all the problems were resolved.

During the first surgery, I opted to tackle the most serious injury first and reattached the pouch to the left side of her jaw and wired the split symphysis together with an external fixator (Fig. 4). This area is difficult to immobilize in pelicans because they normally spread the two halves of their lower bill apart when opening their mouth, and the bones themselves are extremely flexible. Plus, I suspected the symphysis would have difficulty healing until the pouch and its plentiful blood supply was reattached to the end of the mandible. In this bird’s case, the long, curved left mandible’s shape had warped while it was no longer attached to its counterpart and had become oddly flattened. Even when the two sides were put back together, they didn’t fit very well; I wasn’t sure how that was going to turn out and thought it possible I might have to surgically rebreak the mandible to reposition it after a few weeks of healing to get the top and bottom halves of the bill to line up correctly.

As for her other problems, the foot’s fish hook injury was severe enough to need a drain placed – drains are common in the treatment of dog and cat wounds and abscesses, but are not used very often in birds. Pelicans are unusual among birds in that their fishing gear wounds often produce liquid pus that benefits from drain placement. The wing injuries healed quickly, although we suspected she may have originally run into trouble due to the radius fracture, which must have rendered her unable to fly for a time. When a Brown Pelican cannot fly, it cannot catch its dinner and may be forced to survive by begging at bait stations or piers. Due to the prolonged healing required for her mouth, she had plenty of time to exercise out in our aviary and quickly regained strong flight.

End-on view of the bill (Fig. 4) after one of the surgeries to repair the bill tip. The gray material is epoxy which is providing support to the area by connecting pins inserted in the bone to each other.

Ultimately, rebreaking her mandible wasn’t necessary. In time, the warped mandible corrected its own shape once the tension from the opposing side of the mouth was restored. Nonetheless, the bird needed a total of 4 long surgeries over the course of 6 weeks to resolve all of the problems in her mouth, and there were several points where we almost gave up on the left and right sides ever fusing. Brown Pelicans hunt by plunge diving to catch fish; they dive into the water bill first from 50+ feet up, which means their bill needs to be strong and perfectly shaped to cleave cleanly into the water and grab fish. I had a feeling that if we gave her enough time to heal, that she would fill in the connection between the two sides.

And she did. Thankfully, after almost 15 weeks in care and two months after her last surgery, her lower bill had healed to be whole again and strong enough for us to be confident she would be able to plunge dive like a normal pelican. This was a tough case and often frustrating, but with some help and patience from a lot of caring people, she ultimately healed her bill to look like nothing ever happened (Figs. 5, 6, and 7). She was released November 17, 2020 with blue band Y55.

Editor’s note: Rebecca Duerr DVM MPVM PhD, is International Bird Rescue’s Director of Research and Veterinary Science. She’s been a staff member since 2009.

Pre-release view of the healed neck wound (Fig. 5). Just a scar to remember the whole bad experience by! Photos: Dr. Rebecca Duerr – International Bird Rescue
Pre-release view of near perfect lower bill shape (Fig. 6). We are so pleased her left mandible’s warped shape returned to normal after being reattached to the right side.
Pre-release view of the inside of her mouth (Fig. 7). You’d never know her pouch was completely detached from part of the left side (right side of image)! Pelicans are great healers.