Posts Tagged ‘Injury’

I spent this past weekend camping with family and friends. We camped at a spot that I have not been before called Upper Blue Lake in Alpine County, California. This site is about 45 min south of Lake Tahoe, at around 8,200 ft in elevation, and just off the Pacific Crest Trail. It is a pretty spot set in pine and fir trees, and we had a really nice and relaxing time.

The birds around the campground were pretty entertaining. We had Brown Creepers, Red-tailed Hawks, Williamson’s Sapsuckers, Audubon’s Warblers, Mountain Chickadees, Steller’s Jays, and a Cooper’s Hawk in the trees surrounding out campsite.

But one bird was particularly memorable. As several of our group were watching a Williamson’s Sapsucker, when I heard a warbler chip in the trees above me. I found the warbler and saw an adult male Wilson’s Warblers flitting in the branches. As I and a few others watched, I noticed that the bird seemed significantly more clumsy than most. It was very active hoping from twig to twig looking for, and catching insects. Each time it landed, however, it would wobble around, loose it balance, and need to flap its wings a bit to regain its perch. I was starting to really wonder about this odd behavior when something caught my eye. As this warbler was just landing on a twig, and attempting to hold its position, I saw that one leg was gripping the twig. There was only a stump where the other leg should have been!

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The one-legged Wilson’s Warbler (photo courtesy of Erin Hess).

From what I could see, it looked like the leg ended cleanly at the distal end of the tibiotarsus, or where the “ankle” joint would have been. Most of the time the tibiotarsus was held up in the feathers, tucked out of sight. It was only visible when the bird lost its balance a bit and instinctively reached out with the incomplete leg. A friend of mine was able to snap a few pictures, and in them you can see the bird standing on a branch and only one foot gripping the bark.

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Clear view of the one-legged Wilson’s Warbler standing on one leg (photo courtesy of Erin Hess)

I have no idea if this was an injury (seems more likely) or a birth defect (seems much less likely especially for an adult bird). Regardless of how it happened, the bird seemed to be doing ok. It was very active, the feathers looked to be in good condition, and it was vocalizing normally as well.

This was an impressive example of how resilient birds are. I have seen numerous wild birds that have injuries that were severe enough to cripple a mammal, but the birds have healed and are still able to function at a survivable level. For how fragile they seem, birds a tough!


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Birds striking windows is rather common and accounts for a lot of bird moralities each year.  I often get asked what one should do if they find a bird that has struck a window.  Well, yesterday, at my mom’s house, a Warbling Vireo hit one of the windows, and this prompted me to provide a little information on what to do.  The vireo was quite stunned, sitting on the deck and breathing very heavily.  To know how stressed a songbird is, there are a few warning signs.  The three most common signs are fluffed feathers (when the bird raises their feathers up away from their skin), labored breathing (sometimes it can get so labored that their whole body heaves with each breath), and closing of the eyes.  If a bird is found that shows any of these signs, the best course of action is to place the bird in a dark, quite, warm place.  Whatever the container is used, make sure that air can circulate through it.  Birds seem to recover from the stress of an impact best when they are left in such a setting for 15 to 20 minutes.

The reasoning for this kind of treatment is as follows.  Birds are highly visually sensitive, that they can be overstimulated by a lot of visual activity.  If they are already stressed from an injury, this extra input can be more then they can easily deal with, so being in the dark seems to let birds lower their stress levels.  This is why it is important to keep the bird in a dark place.  This principal is why falconers use hood on their birds.  By limiting the amount of visual stimuli, they can keep their raptors calm.  While birds a mostly visually sensitive animals, they also have fine hearing, and keeping their environment quite when they are recovering is another way to reduce the level of stress in a bird.  Finally, birds have a significantly higher metabolism than humans and have a higher basal temperature.  When they are highly stressed, they seem to loose some of the ability to regulate their own temperature and so cool off, which is bad, and which is why a warm place is so important.

I have had very good success with this technique in many situations (including when the warmest place available was in my shirt), and it worked for the Warbling Vireo.  After about 20 minutes, it was recovered enough to fly away go back to its insect eating life.  Hopefully it will remember to be more careful and not run into windows any more.

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