Thayer’s Gull Turns Life Around

Every winter Humboldt Wildlife Care Center/BAX admits several gulls with injuries – usually from being struck by a vehicle. So when we got a call on the third day of the new year from someone in Eureka who’d found a gull not able to fly in her backyard, we figured it would be another case of a wing smashed in traffic. We drove over and picked up the bird, who turned out to be a juvenile Thayer’s Gull (Larus thayeri). Not the most common gull in our area, they breed high in the Arctic but are fairly regular visitors to our coast during Winter months. We’ve treated several over the years.

Once we had this bird back at our hospital, an initial examination found a bird with no obvious injuries, but definitely favoring her or his left wing – no fractured bones, no swelling, just an apparent weakness on that side, shown by an asymmetrical carriage of the wings.

We also detected that this young bird’s jaw had been fractured, but had healed in place, with a slight misalignment. The lower bill (mandible) didn’t quite sit right in the upper bill (maxilla). Although this might seem to be a minor problem, nearly all of a bird’s ability to keep their feathers in good, functional shape, critical for survival, is done using the beak. Preening – that is, cleaning, adjusting, realigning feathers that are out of place – is critical for a bird to able to withstand the elements, especially here on the North Coast with our stormy winters.

So we housed this gull, otherwise healthy, in an outdoor aviary with access to a pool. While we waited for the undetectable soft-tissue injury that was preventing flight to heal, we would learn if this gull could maintain her or his feathers in an outdoor winter setting.

The answer was yes. Through the various storms of January, our patient stayed warm, dry and looking good, feathers unruffled, spirit unflappable. S/he was a major fish enthusiast, eating everything offered in short order. Convincing a bird to eat in captivity can sometimes be challenging, but this gull knew the meaning of a plate of night smelt (Spirinchus starksi), the fish of choice that we feed most of our piscivore patients.

After 10 days, the gull began making short flights, using both wings, that gave care providers a reason for optimism. By 2 weeks, the gull was flying from perch to perch in our large aviary, clearly on the re-bound. After a few more days of strong flight in our aviary, we checked over the patient one more time. Everything looked terrific – blood values perfect, weight  normal, body condition fantastic, attitude fierce, and desire to get as far from us perfectly intact. So we put Larus thayeri one last time into a box and then into a car and down to the edge of Humboldt Bay where this bird became our patient no more forever!

You hope they go one way, but wild animals don’t care what we hope!

Dedicated volunteer says, “gull!” – Gull says, “duck!”

Landing several feet away, giving us the “look”…

And then it’s time to go…

So often with gull releases, they fly back to the release site, swoop around, check us out. Just as we are intensely interested in their world, perhaps they are also curious about ours.

Drinking the bay! Like most birds that live near saline water, gulls have a gland that allows them to eliminate the salt.

There is nothing like the sight of a patient flying away.

The injuries this gull suffered were relatively minor and really healed on their own. What we provided was a safe haven. It is very likely that the two weeks of rest needed, the two weeks of being unable to fly, would have been the end for this young bird without help. But such wasn’t the case. The gull’s collision with the casual violence of human civilization didn’t end in death because we were here. Just like everyday. And we’re here because of one reason only: your support. Thank you for keeping our doors open. You make a difference for wildlife. If you’d like to help, please donate today.

photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX