Hot Bird Summer

I’m not pre-med, I’m pre-vet. Instead of interning at a hospital or working in a lab last summer, I spent eight weeks living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere Oregon, treating sick birds. Thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, 50 species, 200 animals, and zero days off. While these critters ranged from baby hummingbirds to injured eagles and a few scattered mammals, caring for them generally followed the same procedure.

An animal arrives at the clinic at any hour of the day, any day of the week. Birds come in cardboard boxes three-times-too-large or rusty cat carriers. The first step to any examination is to get them out of the box and onto the exam table. The first rule to holding a raptor is to secure the feet, and regardless of what happens next, never let go. Even when a bald eagle is trying to bite your neck. Never. Let. Go. Wrap a towel around the bird to keep its wings tucked in, and hold them against your chest as you fit an anesthesia mask around its unique beak. A hummingbird receives anesthesia through a repurposed bottle cap, a pelican’s bill fits perfectly into an old pasta strainer.

When the bird’s eyes close, its head drooping and legs relaxed, the search to find the injury can begin. Palpation starts by placing your index finger in the center of the lower neck where the clavicle and coracoid bones meet. Work your way down the arm bones to their equivalents of our digits. Symmetry is key for flight; a broken wing bone can make the difference between a releasable and non-releasable bird.

A bird’s keel is an extension of their breastbone which supports the extra wing muscles needed for flight. A healthy, active bird will have large muscles, rounding out the keel. The keel of a sick bird will lack muscle and feel sharp. The emaciated birds will be tube fed mouse slurry for three days.

After examining the pectoral area, move down to the hip and pelvic bones. Lower body injuries can be assessed by comparing the lengths of the right and left legs. Differences can mean either fracture or dislocation. Head trauma can be examined at the foot level through reflexes. Push up on their legs gently to see if their claws close; to avoid falling off of branches when sleeping, birds’ claws default to clenching when their legs are bent, and they relax when the legs are straightened.

After palpating, we tape the birds to the center of the exam table, keel straight, wings outstretched. The radiograph is meant for a small animal vet’s clinic, but the settings for a cat work just as well for a hawk. To read the radiograph, we look for asymmetric structures, comparing the left and right sides. Birds with healable injuries get splinted — wrapped legs, taped wings. Birds with unhealable injuries (gunshots and bad crashes) get euthanized. We necropsy them later in the week to learn more about what went wrong inside. Time and time again it shocks me that inside every bird, the same fundamental units exist. The heart pumps blood, the liver filters and detoxifies materials, the gizzard and small intestine break down food. All of this needs to function properly in order for an animal to survive in the wild. I’ve learned about the vertebrate body plan in anatomy class, but it was not until I worked with these animals, feeling them closely for broken bones, propping raptor beaks open with my thumb as I feed them through rubber tubes, that I appreciated how life — and the body’s ability to function and sustain life — is just a bunch of organs diligently doing their jobs.

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