No big deal? It was for her

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 stricture
A sandhill crane with a necrotic beak caused by a constriction