Are you a litterbug? Sure you are—we’ve all been there. Tossed a cigarette butt out of the car window. Had a plastic Publix bag whip out of the boat as you get up on plane. Released helium balloons in celebration of a wedding or memorial of a loved one. But these seemingly insignificant acts that can actually have life-threatening consequences. The detritus we humans strew about this planet is a grave danger to the other inhabitants.
Peace River Wildlife Center admitted an adult sandhill crane with an injury to her upper beak. People in the neighborhood where she lived had been reporting her for over a week, but as long as she could still fly, it was difficult to catch her to assess the damage. Eventually, someone was able to corral her into a small area and she was caught up and brought to PRWC.
Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do for her, other than put her out of her misery. She had a small, grey, rubbery gasket around her upper beak. It had probably been on the ground where she was feeding and she speared the soil through it, looking for insects. As she fed, it wedged higher and tighter up her beak, toward her eyes, until it constricted the blood flow.
By the time she was admitted, most of the upper beak was dead. While the tip of the beak may mend or regrow, an injury at that level will never heal. She was left unable to feed herself and would die a slow death in the wild, eventually being set upon by predators as she got weaker.
PRWC and many other facilities have tried using prosthetics on birds for this sort of injury, as well as missing legs and other body parts. Success has been variable, depending on the species of bird and the reason for and site of the injury. A wild animal could never be released with a prosthetic on. Constant remodeling of the tissue to which the appliance is attached means the fitting has to be adjusted over time. The stump can also be a source of discomfort and infection that must be closely monitored.
So, why not keep her in captivity? This is an ethical question that we deal with on a daily basis. Being licensed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (migratory birds), U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (mammals), and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (all Florida native wildlife); PRWC is often not at liberty to make that call. There are specific guidelines by the regulatory federal and state agencies regarding what types of injuries are considered inhumane for a bird or mammal to live with. Some of our current residents were rehabbed before recent rules came into effect and have been grandfathered in.
A good case in point is Lucy, our resident turkey vulture. She had a broken bone in her wing that required amputation at the shoulder. This type of surgery is no longer permitted. If we are unable to preserve at least half of the humerus, we must euthanize the bird. This is necessary for balance issues, to give the bird a good quality of life. We often find Lucy on her back, unable to right herself. If she were to fall when no one is present, she could exhaust or hurt herself trying to get up. Should she fall into her water bowl, she could drown.
Luckily, in the more than 20 years Lucy has been with us, none of the numerous times we have had to “rescue” her from herself has proved life-threatening. We have made as many accommodations to her habitat as possible and all of our volunteers help us keep a close eye on her. As she has age, she has gotten less comfortable around the public and startles more easily. (Lucy and I have so much in common!) We moved her farther off display to a more secluded habitat and she is more comfortable there.
The sandhill crane with the injured upper beak would not have been suitable as an educational resident bird and could not be released. Her demise was ultimately due to a tiny piece of trash. Someone was doing some kind of repair and didn’t realize they had dropped the tiny gasket or couldn’t find it. It was only a half-inch round and a quarter-inch thick. What possible damage could something so small do?
It cost one bird her life, and could possibly have negatively impacted more of them. If she had a colt or two (baby sandhill cranes are called colts), they may not survive the fledgling period that they would be experiencing at this time of year without her. Hopefully their father will be able to raise them by himself. (Hats off to single fathers everywhere.)
What can we all do to prevent this type of situation? Take care not to litter, intentionally or not. Be mindful of the trash you see on your travels through your neighborhood. Plastic bags, deflated balloons, pieces of ribbon, Styrofoam cups, and just about anything that can be mistaken for food by an animal or trap and entangle them, can cause irreparable harm. Pick it up and throw it away, please. You’ll sleep better at night, and some unsuspecting animal might get the chance to wake up the next day thanks to you.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
A sandhill crane with a necrotic beak caused by a constriction
Once upon a time there was a sandhill crane named Chickie Pants. Well, in all fairness, that is probably not the name his biological parents gave him. But since it can sometimes be difficult to translate Cranese to modern English (the accent alone make most words almost impossible to pronounce) his foster parents at Peace River Wildlife Center dubbed him with this less-than-regal moniker.
Chickie was admitted to PRWC in May 2013 along with a sibling. His brother had gotten caught in a barbed wire fence and had to be cut out. When the rescuer arrived, the crane that was tangled in the fence was not alone. His parents and sibling were waiting there with him. The young crane was transported to PRWC to treat the wounds sustained from his encounter with the barbed wire. The other young crane was scooped up also because his beak was slightly off-kilter and we had hoped his presence would keep the injured crane from being too stressed.
Unfortunately, Chickie’s brother did not survive his ordeal. He had suffered spinal trauma from struggling against his entanglement and passed away after several days despite intensive treatment. Chickie, on the other hand, thrived in captivity. As he grew though, his beak got more and more deformed. What had started as a minor scissor beak deviation, the top grew off to one side while the bottom curved to the other side, became so bad that Chickie would not have been able to feed himself in the wild. He requires timely trimming of the beak and certain foods in special bowls that allow him to eat.
Chickie Pants takes a nap
After a few months with us, Chickie’s leg started to show signs of a problem also. His right “ankle” (a bird’s ankle joint is at the approximate level of a mammal’s knee) would twist inward at times when he was walking. It was subtle at first, but got progressively worse. We tried bracing it, but that did not help. X-rays showed that the bones were normal, but there was apparently a soft-tissue problem, similar to a football player with an MCL injury. We were completely unaware of Chickie having tried out for the Bucs, but perhaps if he had made the team they would have fared a little better than 9 wins and 7 losses this season. But since Chickie was sidelined with a medial collateral ligament injury anyway, it was probably a moot point.
Jason Eisele, DVM with Specialized Veterinary Services in Fort Myers performed orthopedic surgery on to stabilize the joint in January 2014. Screws were placed above and below the joint, and a thick nylon thread was stretched between the two to reinforce the joint against medial laxity.
We do not always go to such extremes for a wild animal. Most would not tolerate these ministrations, but Chickie Pants handles it all with aplomb. He eats his crane pellets, worms, and fish out of his deep bucket. He loves his handlers and got along well with the other birds at the pelican pond until recently.
Shakey Legs still has some life left in him
Unfortunately, nature has caught up with our beloved Chickie Pants. No, we haven’t lost him. Much worse. He is now an adolescent with all of the raging hormones and bad attitude that go with that diagnosis. He has been challenging our elderly resident male sandhill crane, Shakey Legs, for alpha status.
Shakey became an education bird at PRWC when his left wing was amputated after a devastating injury over 20 years ago. He is not only less than nimble now, he has a type of bone cancer in his remaining wing. Since the treatment options are severely limited (we can’t amputate his only wing), Shakey is living out his life as comfortably as we can make him. The good news is that he seems unaware of his declining health. He eats well and goes about his normal routine with his mate, Maleficent.
So Chickie has been cast out of the pelican pond area where he used to live until Shakey passes. Only then will it be safe to reintroduce him and Maleficent, who will undoubtedly accept Chickie as her new mate, since they have known each other for years.
Maleficent’s evil glare
For now, Chickie spends his days in the walkway between the visitor’s area and the bird habitats. He has made a nest on some ground cover plants—flattened then like pancakes! He shares his food bucket with a cheeky little wild raccoon that sneaks in when we have our backs turned. He limps sometimes on his bad leg and has to have his beak dremeled weekly, but he also seems unaware of his physical limitations.
While he never would have survived in the wild, Chickie Pants has the personality of a Disney character and it is impossible not to fall in love with him, even if he is acting like a bratty teenager right now.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Wally’s family is back in the news. Peace River Wildlife Center’s faithful followers may remember a sandhill crane we called Wally. He was a juvenile sandhill who suffered a broken leg in April 2014 when he got hit by a car near Walmart in Punta Gorda. This past week we admitted an adult sandhill crane with a broken leg. Aside from the family resemblance on the x-ray, we think this may be Wally’s mother since she came from the same area frequented by this crane family for years.
Wally’s mother, June, has been very calm in captivity—another sign that she is used to being around people. Her calm demeanor is good in that it keeps her from further hurting herself when we have to medicate and treat her, but if she were not so habituated to people, perhaps she and her family members would not keep getting hurt.
This sandhill crane pair had been mating in an overgrown area before Walmart built their store there. Normally after having been disrupted like that, the pair would have chosen a different area in their territory for future nesting activity. It is possible that they continue to return there because of well-meaning people who put food out. There are quite a few feral cats in that area also, and the food put out for them attracts all kinds of wildlife. Since it is a fairly busy intersection with high speed traffic in all directions, it is not an ideal location for any animals.
Regardless of the reason for the cranes’ refusal to leave this high traffic area, PRWC will continue to do our best to alleviate the damages as they occur. June’s leg was broken but not too badly displaced. We splinted it hoping it would heal quickly. After a week we checked the progress and knew more aggressive measures would be needed. We called on our friends at Specialized Veterinary Services in Fort Myers. These are the wonderful folks who helped us with our resident crane, Chickie Pants, when he needed cruciate surgery on his “knee.”
This time Dr. Scott Rose and his staff were more than up to the challenge. They placed an external fixation device on June’s leg during a grueling surgery that lasted for hours. The screws, rods and wires will hold the bone in place while it grows back together. It is a much more stable construct that will make June more comfortable than just a splint as she heals. It is difficult to appropriately stabilize the long leg bones on a bird like a crane, especially since they spend so much time walking, unlike some birds that spend more time on the wing.
We anticipate that June will be with us at PRWC for a few more weeks as she is on the mend. Of course, as with all of the rehabilitating wildlife that will be released back out into the wild, she is not on display to the public. Our goal is to keep the wild animals as wild as possible so as to cause the least amount of disruption in their lives as possible. We do have over 100 other birds on permanent display at PRWC, open to the public seven days a week from 11a.m. to 4p.m. These are birds that cannot be released, having been injured to the point of not being able to care for themselves in the wild.
Dr. Rose has agreed to come visit June for her check-up to avoid the stressful trip for her back down to his clinic. He will check her progress in a week or so and orchestrate the removal of the hardware when it is time. We are all anxious to get June back out to her family as quickly as possible. Her mate, Ward, along with another juvenile (could it be the Beave?) are still out there patiently waiting for mom to return.
by–Robin Jenkins, DVM
June under anesthesia
June in recovery cage
Sandhill Crane (June’s) x-ray