Patient of the Month: Unlucky, Lucky Brown Pelican Patient #20-1658

The young Brown Pelican arrived wrapped in fishing line. Photos by International Bird Rescue

Editor’s note: This post is by Dr. Rebecca Duerr, DVM, MPVM, and PhD. She is clinical veterinarian and research director at International Bird Rescue’s two wildlife clinics in California.

Late last fall, we received a small influx of Brown Pelicans that were all injured by fishing gear. Although it wasn’t a huge number of birds, I thought I would explain some of what it takes to get these birds healed and back in the wild. Each and every bird we receive with injuries similar to this takes a huge amount of time, effort, and care; if anything, this bird’s recovery was simpler than many. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into our work. Read on…

Figure 1. The arrows point to an area on the bottom side of a wing where fishing line has constricted the skin, causing it to die. The dark line of dead skin may not show for a few days after the culprit line has been removed. This is one reason it is often a bad idea to immediately release entangled birds – the extent of their injuries may not be obvious at first, or the damage may be hidden under the feathers. Once these injuries mature, they can leave the bird with a large open wound exposing tendons and muscles below.

On November 2, 2020, this unlucky lucky pelican was rescued at Salinas River State Beach near Moss Landing, California, halfway between Monterey and Santa Cruz on beautiful Monterey Bay. This beach is quite remote from the tourist traffic of either city, even when there isn’t a pandemic going on. This is why the unlucky bird was lucky – someone found him and cared enough to get him help before it was too late.

The young bird was wrapped in fishing line. A hook was removed by the person who found him and he was taken to the SPCA for Monterey County’s Wildlife Department for help. They found the bird to have serious injuries to both of his wings, both legs, and his pouch too. His attitude was depressed and he was dehydrated, anemic, and underweight. They started him on fluids, medications for pain and infection, got him started eating again, and transferred him to us a few days later for longer term care when he was feeling stronger.

Figure 2. Right lower leg with a wide band of dead skin tightly adhered to the bone beneath, and also to the bundle of tendons at the back of the leg. Note the swelling above the constriction due to circulation being impaired. There is also an area of dead webbing between the toes. These dead zones eventually separate from the live tissue and often result in large open wounds. They also can continue to constrict the limb after the line has long been removed due to being stiff and not flexible enough for normal circulation to happen.

On admission, our staff identified numerous minor injuries and six serious separate wounds that needed addressing. Both wings had constriction injuries with lines of dead tissue where the monofilament had cut in (see Figure 1). The left leg had another line of dead skin running across the hock joint up into the feathered skin of the thigh, and the left foot had a wound on a toe. One of his eyelids had a laceration. But the right leg had the injury that was really concerning: the lower leg bone (the tarsometatarsus, the long bone located between the hock and foot joints) had a broad section of dead skin that was obviously adhered to the bone and crossed the bundle of irreplaceable tendons that run down the back of the leg (Figure 2). More lines of dead skin crossed the inside of the hock joint diagonally. The leg was very swollen above the constricted area due to impeded blood flow.

Once a constricting material such as fishing line is removed, the skin it has damaged often dies, and once it is dead it continues to constrict the limb because it becomes kind of like jerky – hard and shrunken. Dead skin that is adhered to the bone beneath it is very treatable in birds, but if the dead skin is adhered to tendons or joints, not only does the dead tissue provide no barrier against bacterial invasion to the living tissue beneath, but when it inevitably opens up due to loss of elasticity, it leaves the animal with exposed tendons, an open joint, or other problems. Without thoughtful treatment, all of those things can lead to a severely disabled animal that cannot survive in the wild.

Figure 3. The right leg wound once the dead skin was removed to restore circulation to the lower leg. The right side of the image shows bare bone.The left side shows exposed tendons.

To treat this bird, we needed to soften up then remove the dead tissue, then foster a wound environment for the bird to heal the skin defects (Figures 3-4). Over the course of the first 30 of his 65 days with us, he had more than 35 separate wound dressings, plus was on antibiotics and pain medication for a month as well. He ate about 5 pounds of fish each day supplemented with vitamins such as thiamine and vitamin E. That right leg also required surgery to remove dead tissue and infected debris from the delicate bundle of important leg tendons. Once the wounds had largely healed, he needed several weeks of physical therapy to regain strong flight – he had lingering triceps and biceps tendonitis in both wings due to the earlier constriction injuries. Brown Pelicans have a very high athleticism bar for release – they have to be fit to plunge dive for dinner at release or they will starve.

Figure 4. The right leg wound well on the way to healing. Healthy tissue now covers the tendons and all the swelling has resolved.

In many ways the best medicine for an injured pelican is a whole lot of food – repairing tissue and healing wounds takes energy, and thankfully this guy had a pretty good appetite once he was feeling a bit better. However, many of the horribly injured pelicans we treat need to be syringe fed, or hand fed, or assist fed, where our skilled ‘pelican whisperers’ staff work closely with each bird to help them rediscover their enthusiasm for eating fish. Some will start eating when left alone with less stress, some won’t; we do whatever each bird needs. This process can take a day or two or even several weeks for stubborn individuals. Certain of our staff are absolute artists at getting a depressed pelican to rediscover the joy of eating. Once the bird is a good eater, even if they have really serious problems, we know they are on the road to getting better and hopefully back out to the ocean.

Mid-treatment: Pelican was finally able to get out to flying and swimming again.

Patient #20-1658 was released January 10th, 2021 in San Francisco Bay with blue band 1A5. I hope he has a long productive life of eating fish, flying the coast, and doing pelican things like making new baby pelicans each year. Hopefully, he will stay very far away from people and the hazards we humans have created for wildlife. But if this lucky pelican becomes unlucky again, we’ll be here.

Released: Blue banded 1A5 Brown Pelican heads back to the wild. Note the missing webbing on his right foot. We have had plenty of re-sightings of former patients after having lost portions of their feet, so we know they can do great after release.