Stick out your tongue and say ‘Ugh!’

Great blue heron tongue
Great blue heron tongue

At Peace River Wildlife Center, our primary mission is to rehabilitate orphaned and injured native Florida wildlife and get the healthy individuals back out into the wild as soon as we can.  Sometimes getting them in to rehab is even more of a challenge than getting them out.

For a month, we kept getting calls about a great blue heron that had a stick protruding from his neck.  At each incidence, by the time we got a rescuer there, the bird was gone.  We asked the caller to take a picture with their smartphone and send it to us, so we could get a better idea of what we were up against.

Sometimes these photos can tell us a lot.  Like the time a landscaper called to report a “bald eagle” had walked into his equipment trailer and was just sitting there.  The photo showed us a white fancy pigeon with fluffy foot feathers.  I love this guy—because after I explained to him the identity of the bird, he was no less worried about it.  We picked up the wayward pet and found its owner.

The fuzzy picture of the alleged great blue heron might have been a Sasquatch sighting for all I could tell, so the mystery continued.  Eventually someone was able to lure the bird onto their lanai and trap it there until a rescuer arrived.

The bird was finally transported to PRWC for an examination.  What had looked like a stick from a distance, turned out to be the bird’s tongue.  We aren’t sure how it happened, but the soft tissue behind the bird’s bottom beak had been torn open, and his tongue had fallen through.

It had been like this for at least a month that we know of.  Most of the soft tissue had healed around the tongue.  What had started out as an inch-long lesion was now only a quarter of an inch.  The area where the tongue protruded had healed as an open fistula.

The heron was in surprisingly good shape.  The fact that he wasn’t thin or dehydrated made it clear that he had been eating well despite this injury.  Luckily, we were able to retract his tongue up into his mouth without causing further damage.  We kept him under observation for a few days to make sure it wouldn’t fall through again, but by then the hole was too small for that to happen.

Suturing the remaining hole wouldn’t have helped, since the tissue had already granulated or healed along the edges.  (It would be like sewing two of your fingers together; they won’t become one finger.)  The other option would be to “freshen” the edges of the lesion—cut the healed tissue off so the open lesions can be sutured and heal together.  (Yes, if you really need to have your fingers grow together, this is how to do it.)  This would require a potentially lengthy recovery, antibiotics, and force-feeding the heron.

Although the bird was able to eat with a gaping hole in his head in the wild, he refused to eat anything we presented to him in captivity.  We already knew he wasn’t particularly fond of our accommodations.  Housekeeping terrified him, and he turned his nose up at everything room service had to offer.  I’ve done time at that kind of hotel—and I’m here to tell you, an early check-out is the only cure.

A great blue heron being released
A great blue heron being released

In the spirit of doing no harm, we released the great blue heron back to his home territory.  His human neighbors had been doing a pretty good job of keeping track of him for the month before he was admitted to PRWC, so we were confident that should he get into trouble, we would be notified.

To date, we haven’t heard anything.  As they say, no news is good news.  Unless you work for the media, then no news is a good excuse to make up some inflammatory accusations that will sell more ads than actual boring stuff that happens to actual people.  (Editor’s note: She’s talking about cable TV, not your friendly hometown reporters.  Right, Doc?  Right?)

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM