American Wigeon Gets Fancy Splint and It Worked

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


They Shoot Coots, Don’t They?

It happens regularly during waterfowl season – we admit a patient who is a gunshot victim. Of course it makes sense that when people are discharging shotguns – firing a blast of pellets into a flock of birds – that some will be killed and others injured. The killing is intentional. But the injured – collateral damage, to use the war propagandist’s term – are unlikely to be found and depending on the severity of their wounds, they are in a terrible situation – suffering is likely the only thing they have left until a slow death by starvation, or infection, or blood loss eventually ends it.

But sometimes these injured birds are seen! In the middle of January some caring people found an American Coot (Fulica americana) in their backyard in South Eureka. The bird was weak, barely able to fly, but in relatively good body condition, which means that the problem had a sudden onset – that usually means an injury as opposed to poisoning or an illness. With no obvious fractures or gaping wounds, we had to thoroughly search beneath the bird’s soft, black feathers before we found the problem. On his abdomen and right leg a few small pellet-sized holes told the story. He’d been shot.

Who knows where he was headed, but from the site of his shooting – Eureka is surrounded by habitat that is heavily used during waterfowl season, and Coots are a much hunted game bird – he made it this far – a backyard on a dead end side street a mile from anywhere he might have found food or other coots – before his injuries brought him to the ground.

Once in care, it was obvious that he’d gotten lucky – the pellets might have caused much worse damage. We cleaned the wounds thoroughly, found no pellets, closed them with veterinary glue, gave him antibiotics, a pain reliever and some food and safety.

For the first few days in care, we tended the wounds and kept him in a quiet, low-activity environment. His leg wound made it difficult for him to walk and all of his wounds were below his “waterline” so until they were further a long in healing he couldn’t be housed in water. Also, for the first week we worried that his loss of appetite, certainly stress-related, would mean that more invasive care (as an example, force feeding) would be required.

The stress for any wild animal in captivity is extreme – studies have shown that the loss of control over their own destiny – an intolerable situation for most people – causes deeply injurious physiological responses, impacting every aspect of their health, physical and mental. Obviously our patients are being held captive against their will. Our commitment to their eventual recovery and release is the only justification we have for holding our patients without their consent. This commitment and promise is the bedrock of our work. This means we have to take careful steps to reduce the stress they feel in captivity as much as we can. Stress inhibits healing. It’s a simple equation: encouraging healing means reduction of stress.

Fortunately, the coot found his appetite. Between the right mix of dietary items (fish, krill, mealworms, aquatic vegetation, and aquatic invertebrates) and his own impulse to thrive, he slowly began putting the weight he’d lost back on without us having to increase his handling and therefore his stress. This was the beginning of his real recovery.

Wounds heal. It’s one of the ordinary, everyday miracles of our world. Tissue grows back together. Bones mend. Even psychological trauma eventually recedes. Some wounds take more time than others. It took this Coot nearly five weeks to fully recover, from both his wounds, his weight loss, and regain complete use of his legs.

American Coots, with their distinctive white bills and duck-like habits, are regular winter residents of Humboldt County. In wet years they can be easily found in the ephemeral ponds that form on the agricultural bottom lands all around the Bay. Every year Arcata Marsh is home to hundreds of these birds. On his release day, that’s where we took him. As you can see he made short work of putting some great distance between us.

In care in our waterfowl aviary, still favoring his right leg.

Typical diet for Coots includes fish and aquatic invertebrates.

To the release site!

And gone… The work of rescuing injured and orphaned wild animals is fully realized when they shed their case numbers, their care givers and their constraints and return, healthy and strong, to their free and wild lives.

We have no real way of knowing, but it has been estimated that for every animal killed by hunters, two or more are wounded and not recovered. While it matters to those few who we are able help, there is much work to be done if we are to minimize or eliminate this kind of suffering.

Meanwhile, our facility, capable of treating everyone we admit, from songbirds to aquatic birds to land mammals to raptors is open every day for those who are injured by any of the multiple and overwhelming threats that our humn built world puts in their path. Thank you for keeping our doors open. Without you, wild neighbors, like this Coot, would have nowhere to be helped.

photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX
video: Lucinda Adamson/BAX


Fixin’ a Hole where the Skunk gets in, and stop Her from Going in to Den… (or a Raccoon)

by Lucinda Adamson
Assistant Center Manager

Now is the time to inspect and maintain your home and yard to ensure that, come spring, you won’t have any unwanted wild animals raising their families in your space.

Every year Humboldt Wildlife Care Center raises orphaned skunks and raccoons, most of whom need not have been orphaned. Typically the mother was trapped and relocated when homeowners heard or saw activity in the spring, not realizing they were separating a young family and leaving 3-5 infants alone to die unless their screams for help are heard and they are rescued in time.

Wild mothers look for places that are warm, dark, quiet and protected to give birth and raise their babies. Once the babies are old enough (2-3months) they will follow their mothers out at night and the den will be abandoned until next spring. In urban environments, Raccoons may den under the house, often in the void around the bathtub, or in the attic where the entrance is hard to access and easy to defend from predators. Skunks often den under sheds or woodpiles

Walk around your property pay careful attention to these areas:

  • Foundation vents: make sure all vents are covered with metal screen. Gently push on all vents to ensure the screen is firmly attached. Any missing screens, broken screens, or rusty screens should be replaced.
  • Signs of digging:  especially around foundation, sheds, and porches
  • Mobile home or porch skirting: Make sure there are no missing boards or openings that will allow access to animals. Even small holes should be patched.
  • Attic vents and roof overhangs: Make sure vents are screened and all openings are securely covered.
  • Chimney: Make sure the chimney cap didn’t blow off in the winter storms. Bats and swifts roost or nest in chimneys and other animals could fall in and become trapped.
  • Roof: Trim back any tree branches that may provide roof access to raccoons. Never trim branches during nesting season, though!

Securing these access points will prevent wild mothers from using your home as their nursery. Since these dens are only used to raise young, winter is the best time to make any necessary repairs because it is unlikely that any animals will be trapped inside. If you do suspect an animal is actively using an opening call us at HWCC (707) 822-8839, so we can help determine when it is safe to close the opening.

A little time spent maintaining your home now can help prevent a lot of suffering for your wild neighbors come spring.

An orphaned Raccoon is released after 4 months in care. It’s better for everyone if Mama raises her own babies.

If raccoons or skunks do end up denning under your home, take heart in knowing they won’t be there for long. If you are able to tolerate their presence for a few months they will be on their way before long.

If you are not able to tolerate their presence, do NOT set a trap and do NOT call a pest control company. It is possible to convince the mother to move her babies to another den away from your home and we can help humanely resolve the situation in a manner that satisfies you and the animals. Call us and we will be happy to walk you through the steps that will work best for your situation.

As always, thank you! Your support not only helps us provide excellent care for our wild neighbors in need, but also helps us prevent orphanings and injuries in the first place! Promoting co-existence with our wild neighbors is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing.


How can you mend a broken wing?

We strive to do the best work we can, for our patients, for our community, for our Mother Earth.

We strive to improve. We strive to better translate the needs, the injuries, the desired futures of our wild patients into something that our fellow citizens of this built world can hear. It’s hard work, but not too hard. We are all allies of the wild. The wild is the first ally of us all.

Over the next few months we’ll be asking for support as we prepare for our busy and financially stressful Spring and Summer months. We need your support now. We’ll need it then. Thank you for making a difference for our wild neighbors when they’re in a jam.


A New Loon’s Year

Our friends at Friends of the Dunes called one Monday morning in the middle of January to tell us that someone had stopped by their facility, the Humboldt Coastal Nature Center, to report a stranded Loon. We were well staffed that morning so we were able to send a couple people over to take a look. All Winter long we admit seabirds into care who are struggling, for one reason or another, and wind up on the beach in serious trouble.

Seabirds, including those like Loons, who raise their young on freshwater lakes and winter on salt water bays and near shore ocean, evolved millions of years ago to a life spent primarily on water. Dense pale feathers on their ventral surface, below the waterline, keep birds warm in the cold ocean and also provide cryptic coloring against predators from below, such as sharks, sea lions, and whales, who may have a harder time detecting the birds floating above them in the light. Another change the aquatic environment has driven in some species is the placement of the pelvis and legs far to the rear of their bodies. As foot-propelled pursuit divers, loons and grebes are dramatic examples of this adaptation. On land these kinds of birds appear very awkward, often unable to stand or walk. Relatively heavy birds, on land they can be literally stranded (stuck on a strand, i.e. beach) where they need a running start across open water to gain the speed necessary for lift. Because of this many people who find them on a beach might mistakenly think the bird is suffering a broken leg!

Typically, all of these adaptations add up to the fact that a seabird on the beach needs help. A terribly vulnerable location, only a bird with no other options would chose the beach over the water, where everything that supports life is found. Injuries, contaminants such as oils that interfere with the feathers’ waterproof insulation, and illness are common factors in stranded birds, but most often, the birds we admit from beaches are juveniles spending their first winter at sea.

Struggling to feed themselves, storms, heavy surf and the challenges of learning the ropes on the job all contribute to the failures of these birds, especially in our times, when ocean health is in a critical state. Over-fishing, agricultural waste run-off, plastic pollution, derelict fishing gear and the great onrushing disaster of climate chaos make the already challenging ocean into a rapidly unfolding disaster.

When our staff arrived at the beach in Manila, they quickly found the bird, a juvenile Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica), high up the beach above the line of wrack that marked the highest tide. Quickly scooping him up, they brought the young bird back to Humboldt Wildlife Care Center.HWCC volunteer heads back up the dune with a young Pacific Loon safely in the box. (photo: Lucinda Adamson/BAX)

On the admission exam we found no real problems – just a young thin bird who’d missed to many meals. The loon was fortunate. Another day unseen and dehydration alone would have begun taking a terrible on his health. Instead, we were able to stabilize his condition and get him turned around. Within a day he was floating in one of our pools, rapidly recovering. In cases like this, fish is medicine.
Our pools are a critical part of our facility. Aquatic birds make up nearly half the patients that HWCC treats.

Typically, it takes about 3 weeks for a seabird to recover from emaciation. This bird however, was in somewhat better condition, and also individuals vary. Some just get down to the business of recovery faster, either due to relative health, certain capabilities, or any of the myriad other factors that we can sense or imagine, but may never know. In any case, after 11 days in care, this Loon was ready to go home. Besides the measurable parameters, such as body mass and red blood cell percentages that we use for all seabirds. Able to “dive like a banshee” (an in-joke here at the clinic – banshees scream; they don’t dive.), meaning when we tried to capture for an exam, he would slip beneath the water and swim laps around the pool, staying down for minutes at a time.
It’s a simple, inescapable fact that none of our procedures are done with the consent of our patient. This fact demands that we bring our A-game to all of our actions, but especially in our empathy for the indignities of our handling. Swift, gentle, decisive and accurate are the qualities we strive for in all our dealings. Acknowledging the stress and trauma of captivity that all of our patients endure so that we can mitigate their impact is an important ingredient in respecting them and providing the care they need.

So on a cool, cloudy morning we took the Loon down to the edge of Humboldt Bay for release. As soon as he hit the water, he dove, eager to rinse the stench of his caregivers from his beautiful and oceanic young feathers and get back to the business of his life, riding the wave of a second chance.

The last box this Loon will know – heading out for release.

At the release site, an HWCC volunteer lifts the Loon gently to place in the water.

And under he goes!

Back up!

And he begins to sail off, freedom and salt water and hopefully no walls confining him ever again.

Alone at last, our ex-patient starts hunting for his own fish.

So far this year we’ve already admitted over 60 of our wild neighbors, each of them desperate for care, a certain death the only other avenue. We’re committed to providing that care. We’ve built the pools; we’ve stocked the larder; we’ve trained the staff. None of these would’ve ben possible without your support. Thank you!

We’ve begun our fundraising to prepare for another busy year. We need to raise $25,000 by the end of April. This will get us through the first half of the Summer, and by then we’ll need to ask again. We hope you can help get us there! If you can, please donate today! Thank you!

photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX except where noted