Sunday, September 12, 2010

On the Tail of a Raptor

Not too long ago, trouble swooped into WBR on the tail of a raptor.  As I've previously written, our facility deals strictly with Passeriformes meaning "those who perch" a/k/a the beloved, backyard songbirds.  To a raptor (colloquially known as a bird of prey), our entire facility appears as fresh lobster in a grocery store tank might appear to you:  ripe for the eating.  However, the particular raptor in question was hardly in a position to do any songbird hunting.  For one thing, he was securely confined to a carrier large enough to house a medium-sized dog.  For another, he had suffered some sort of injury - initially suspected to be an issue of toxicity, according to the animal control officer, Newton, who had called ahead to request that we triage the bird.*

Our ER tech, Janey, began her examination by donning thick, leather handling gloves that comically dwarfed her diminutive upper extremities.  Frankly, the bird himself, with his powerful talons and ultra sharp sense of his surroundings (even while injured), didn't appear all that intimidated by her medical trappings.  Indeed, nothing much seemed to be bothering this raptor at all.  For this reason, Newton suspected that the raptor might have eaten or attacked a bird who had been poisoned.  Our raptor seemed to be neurologically inhibited (another classic sign of toxicity) and just a few sandwiches short of a picnic basket.

After finding the gloves far too cumbersome to utilize properly, Janey abandoned them for her customary thick towel.  She dropped the towel quickly over the raptor's head (thus, preventing him from visually tracking her), wrapped it closely around his body (thus, immobilizing him), and then extracted him expertly from his carrier.  Janey proceeded to examine him thoroughly for any visible signs of injury.  Other than his docility (healthy, wild raptors are not usually handled by humans with any level of ease), we could find no other signs or symptoms to account for his strange behavior (after animal control received a call reporting that this raptor had spent several hours perched, essentially unmoving, on a residential porch banister, he had been picked up by them just as easily as Janey had handled him).

Hopeful that the effects of the presumed poison might already be lessening, Janey decided to give the raptor some fluids.  She slowly and carefully inserted a thin, rubber tube down his throat (he was still wrapped in the towel and did not seem to be under any duress) and injected the tube with fluids.  As she was removing the tube, Newton noticed a pink fluid escape from the corner of the bird's beak.  We next spotted several small pink dots on the white towel.  This was just the information we needed:  from there, we were able to conclude that this raptor was experiencing some minor internal bleeding.  Given that he had originally been picked up at a busy intersection, we deduced that he must have been struck by a car.  Janey then administered to him some anti-inflammatory by injection and turned the bird back over to Newton for safe keeping until the local raptor rehab facility opened in the morning.  I later found out that our patient had been successfully admitted to the proper facility with a good prognosis.  


I was delighted to be able to witness this simple procedure involving the raptor.  It felt like a special treat because I far prefer birds of prey to songbirds.  I admire their strength, their intellect, their graceful, yet powerful, flight.  Honestly, it is all I can do to keep my eyes on the road when I drive through the countryside; I am that raptor-crazed.  After we received the call from Newton requesting our services, I was nearly overcome w/ giddy anticipation.  However, as exciting as it was to triage the raptor, we had an even more exciting new admit the following week - but in an entirely different regard.  This charge was exciting with respect to the severity of his injuries.  He was a snow-white, racing pigeon with a pink beak and matching pink feet.  He also had a troublesome, rather large, pink splotch covering his upper chest feathers.  The elderly couple who had brought him in theorized that he might have been hit w/ a BB gun, but they were hopeful for his recovery because they had observed the pigeon eating voraciously while he was under their care.

I was too chicken shit to examine the bird myself, lest I somehow exacerbate its injuries, so I again summoned the help of Janey.  As was her wont, she wrapped the bird in a heavy towel to immobilize him and then began to inspect the area that blood had painted pink.  In no time whatsoever Janey discovered why the bird had been eating so much and so often - he had a gaping hole in his crop. To explain, according to Wikipedia, "in a bird's digestive system, the crop is an expanded, muscular pouch near the throat. It is a part of the digestive tract, essentially an enlarged part of the esophagus."  As you can imagine, it is quite difficult to gain any substantial nourishment when you have your throat torn open.

Oddly enough, despite the traumatic wound, this bird was stable and attempting to eat.  It appeared as though his wound had somehow been cauterized (possibly as a result of fermented bird seed in the wound?), which was beneficial, in that the wound had not been infected, but was problematic, in that we were not sure if necrosis (the premature death of tissue) had set in.  If we were dealing w/ necrosis, then the bird did not have a very good chance of surviving - even if we were able to successfully close the wound.  Janey dutifully attempted to reach the vets that volunteered for our facility when serious cases were involved, but no one was available this late Friday evening before a holiday weekend.

After briefly conferring with me, Janey made the decision to intervene and attempt to glue the wound shut.  She felt that he would not survive the weekend with this open wound and that this was his best chance at viability.  First, Janey gave him some medicine for pain and then went to work cleaning the wound and removing the broken feathers surrounding it.  At that point, we were able to rule out necrosis because the wound began to bleed.  It was viscerally painful for me to watch, but I felt that I owed the bird my full attention.  That if he was going to have to endure this procedure, than we would have to be present with his suffering, too.  He hardly struggled at all during the cleaning, only closing his eyes when Janey plucked a particularly large feather near the wound.  He was utterly silent, too.  In sum, this bird was one of the more stoic patients I'd ever met.
Eventually, we were able to clean the wound and prep the bird for the gluing procedure.  Unfortunately, the tear was quite jagged (ironically reminiscent of a raptor attack), which would make it all the more difficult to properly close.  I applied the glue to the wound myself and then held the bird still as Janey dexterously sealed it.  We checked the wound a couple of more times before leaving WBR for the evening and it remained securely closed.  We were hopeful that he would enjoy a successful recovery.  Sadly, I subsequently learned that the wound had reopened and instead of attempting to reseal it, our director decided to put the bird down.  (She is very conservative about these sorts of procedures and not a proponent of gluing, in general, so we were not surprised at her decision.)  Nevertheless, Janey and I still believe this pigeon would have survived to race again, had our director simply re-glued the wound.


To conclude on a less existential note, typically at this time of year, things begin to slow down at WBR so far as juvenile new intakes are concerned.  With one exception:  baby American Goldfinches.  For some reason, they have a late clutch compared with the rest of the St. Louis area song birds.  If you are curious about our little goldies, check out this video of three different goldfinches at three different stages in their development.  Note, the beeee boop-boop-boop call of the oldest of the three.  Curiously, theirs is a very catchy call and difficult not to imitate.  I'm sure I'll be beee booping up a storm at WBR as these guys get older and another busy baby season draws to a close. 

Om shanti.

*If there are no other alternatives available, most at WBR will not refuse emergency care to a needy patient - songbird or otherwise.