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