I recently had the pleasure of releasing a Brown Pelican that was with us for 130 days! In truth, I was a bit surprised that she made it to release given the severity of her problems. She had a very guarded prognosis from the beginning, but as I have written before, Brown Pelicans are amazing healers, so we often go the extra mile to help, even when the odds are against them. Here is her story:
On January 17, California Wildlife Center’s rescue team captured the bird at Leo Carrillo State Beach where she had been reported standing around with a drooping wing. At their clinic, they found her to be cold, skinny, and depressed, with a serious wingtip injury. They stabilized her with warmth and fluids and transferred her to International Bird Rescue’s Los Angeles Wildlife Center the next day.
On examination, we found her to be a beautiful adult female bird with an injury that might end her ability to ever fly again. X-rays were taken, and we found she had a chronic, open luxation (AKA dislocation, where the joint is wrecked but the bones are not broken) of the proximal metacarpal joint, and a broken toe. While I have successfully repaired similar injuries in Brown Pelicans before, those were fresh injuries with intact skin over the affected area.
This one was a nasty open wound with eroded bone exposed (Figure 1). Our amazing rehabilitation technicians continued strengthening the bird with plenty of food and rest until the day of the first surgery, when I was able to remove the degraded bone and realign the bone pieces, then advance neighboring skin to get the problem area covered with live skin (Figure 2). We splinted it and allowed the skin to heal for a bit. A second surgery came along shortly thereafter when I could see that the skin was healing great, and I pinned the wingtip to immobilize it across the joint.
The bird was doing well with the pins, and they were removed a few weeks later, at which time the cranky bird was allowed to go into a real aviary with full access to water. She was starting to flap but had developed another problem that was going to take some time to recover from: she had dropped several of her primary flight feathers in the area of the injury.
This sometimes happens when birds break their wings – the feather follicles within a short distance of the injury loosen, and the feathers may fall out. They usually grow back fairly rapidly, so I wasn’t too concerned. However, once the replacement feathers were all grown in, she was flying well, but the new feathers were not normally shaped. The shafts were warped and the feather vanes had stress marks.
Brown Pelicans, like many large birds, do not replace their flight feathers every year – it may take them up to three years to replace a full set in their normal molt cycle. So these abnormal feathers were going to need to function for a good long time, and the stress marks would make them prone to breaking. It wouldn’t be fair to a wild creature like this bird to be kept in captivity long enough for her to replace those feathers naturally, so we opted to use a technique called ‘imping’ to graft on replacement feathers from a deceased pelican that had been too injured to survive. The donor bird was thankfully also an adult female, as Brown Pelicans vary quite a bit in size, and male feathers would have been too large. Each feather has a unique shape depending on where it is on the wing, and pelicans have 10 primary flight feathers, numbered one through 10 starting at the wrist. This lady needed replacements for feathers five through seven.
We anesthetized the bird to imp the feathers, not because the procedure is painful at all, but rather so the bird holds still until we are finished. The corresponding feather from the donor was cut to match the feather being replaced and a piece of bamboo used to fill the cavity inside the feather shaft, secured with epoxy. The new feathers were a vast improvement!
Finally, she was fit to be released: flying very well, toe fracture healed great with a shoe splint, no longer skinny and sad but now vibrant and raring to go. She flew away with two aviary friends on Sunday, May 28, with blue leg band 1E1, which will probably be reported as 131 but that’s ok, we’ll know who she is. Good luck out there!