One of the most critical elements of the care we provide injured waterfowl is their housing. The more time a bird naturally spends in the water the more crucial it is that they are housed in a pool while in care. Millions of years have shaped some birds to a life spent almost exclusively on water. For full time aquatic birds, time spent on land while recovering from an injury can lead to even more serious, life threatening secondary problems. On land, delicate feet that rarely feel a hard surface quickly develop pressure sores that can become infected to the point that an entire foot could be lost. Typically heavy-bodied for their size, resting on their keel (sternum) on a hard surface rather than floating, can lead to a lesion that forms along the bone which can significantly lengthen their time in care. While we are able to treat many of these problems, preventing them is the best course. Protective wraps on their feet and sternum can extend the time that an aquatic bird can be housed away from water from a few days to a week, but even then, time is of the essence.
These concerns have a major impact on the types of injuries that we are able to treat. In the last fifteen years, we have developed techniques to prevent secondary captivity-related injuries – including the above-mentioned protective wraps – that have allowed us to treat wounds that once were considered hopeless, such as deep wounds below the ‘waterline’, keel lesions, and wing fractures that would need to be splinted for 12-16 days. Most splints that we use to stabilize fractures cannot be gotten wet. A wet splint could lead to feather rot, hypothermia, and sadly even death. So highly aquatic birds with wing fractures were very difficult to treat. Two weeks away from water could also be a death sentence.
Fortunately, especially for this American Wigeon (Mareca americana) who we admitted for care in mid January, in recent years we’ve added a new material to our splint making capabilities.
The wigeon was found in the Ma-le’l Dunes, unable to fly. In otherwise good condition the only injury we found was a fractured L radius. For most birds, a radius fracture, has the greatest chance for full recovery. As with people, the radius is paired with another bone, the Ulna. If the Ulna is intact, then it will serve as part of the stabilizing splint. In this wigeon’s case, the radius was fractured badly, with two breaks. But the skin was not broken, and the fractures were far enough from either the wrist or the elbow that we felt there was very good prognosis for this handsome duck. However, an ordinary wing wrap wouldn’t do. Wigeons aren’t like mallards and other dabbling ducks. Although able to stand and walk, wigeons are divers who spend most of their time on (or under) water. While we might be able to nurse him through two weeks on dry land while his wing fracture healed, it was a big risk. If we could house him on water without worrying about a wet splint, it would significantly improve his chances of a full recovery.
In the photographs that follow, you’ll see how we stabilized this wigeon’s fracture, using what we call a thermoplastic splint. The material is heated up in water until it is soft and then applied to the fractured limb where it hardens into a stabilizing cast.
Heating the material in a mug of hot water softens it so that we can shape it however it is needed.
Before we apply the thermoplastic, we put down a layer of paper tape to protect the wigeon’s feathers from the plastic which is somewhat sticky when soft. The tape will breakdown once it is wet, leaving only the hardened splint.
The tape is applied in the same pattern as a typical wing splint for a radius fracture – what we call the figure 8 wrap.
Hot, sticky and ready to be applied…
Following the tape, the thermoplastic splint easily conforms to the desired shape.
Applying the last piece…
A dose of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, for pain, and the procedure is complete!
Able to stand, eat and rest comfortably, the splint performed perfectly.
After 14 days of recuperation in our large seabird pool, we removed the splint. The fracture had healed well. We gave the wigeon a couple more days without the splint to make sure that all was well He began flying as soon as he was put back into his pool, but we wanted to be sure that everything was going to work out. A week ago, after 18 days in care, the wigeon was released back to Humboldt Bay near the Ma-le’l Dunes.
Our patient made it out of the box and halfway across the sky before we could get a shot due to a technical glitch that still upsets our staff photographer, but this wigeon’s caregivers don’t mind. We’re just happy to see our former patient flying this high above the trees, home again. We think its safe to say that the wigeon doesn’t care either that a more clear photo doesn’t exist.
Providing the best care that we can for any wild animal that comes through our doors means we have to be ready for anything, from a diving duck to a soaring raptor, from a burrowing rodent to an arboreal marten. Your support allows us to stay current in our field, search for onnovations that will improve care and add to our field’s collective knowledge and also help out each individual patient who we admit for care. It’s a big task, especially in a world that mostly ignores our wild neighbors’ needs. You make it possible. Thank you! And if you can, please donate today. We need your help every day of the week, every week of the month, every month of the year.
all photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX