As I come to the end of my internship at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, one lesson has become increasingly clear: There is still so much to learn about wildlife medicine and rehabilitation.
I am about to start my second year of veterinary school at the Atlantic Veterinary College (University of Prince Edward Island) and I am at the beginning of my career. I know very little compared with the rest of my field who already have degrees upon degrees. But with inexperience comes a lot of excitement.
I was ecstatic to accept an internship with the Bird Center and to come in every day this summer in order to learn more about the ins and outs of this specific field. I not only got to work with species I had never seen before in the wild (such as the Magnificent Frigatebird and Masked Booby, both of which are currently in the care of the hospital), but I also got to learn many of the physical skills involved in rehabilitation such as administering subcutaneous and oral fluids, wrapping fractures, and drawing blood.
Working in rehabilitation can be extremely rewarding. I once got an emergency call around 9:00pm about a bird sitting on a dock in Islamorada that had been there for many hours. I went to the house where the call had come from to find an extremely lethargic, emaciated, and dehydrated juvenile Tricolored Heron. After a few weeks of supportive care, the heron gained back its strength and was deemed releasable. I personally got to do the release. Being a part of all aspects of a patient’s success story from the intake to the release is incredible. However, not all cases are so cut-and-dry. This Tricolored Heron only needed a little nurturing before getting back out into the wild.
Some birds come in loaded with parasites or have multiple fractures and require more than just food and a place to sleep. One of our nestling Gray Kingbirds came in with necrotic toes on one foot which means that the tissue in those toes was dead rendering them unusable. As a result, the bird was not able to perch and over time its knee joint started to rotate outwards due to the foot constantly slipping on the perch. At first, we tried wrapping the foot to give it some traction. Then we tried wrapping the perches and finally we just let it be for a while to see if he could grow to live without working toes. Eventually this little Kingbird grew enough to start learning how to fly and hunt for insects and began to perch much better. A lot of rehabilitation ends up being just trial and error, only increasing the satisfaction when you happen upon the right trial that doesn’t end in error. But that’s also the problem.
So many birds come in weak and dehydrated and this could be due to a multitude of reasons. We could do a simple fecal flotation exam (a technique used to find eggs laid by parasites in a stool sample), but not all GI parasites present on a fecal float. Even if the parasite can present on a fecal float, we, like many rehab centers and some smaller pet hospitals, only perform simple fecal floats as opposed to a centrifugal fecal flotation exam. The latter test has a higher sensitivity meaning that one would see parasites more often if the fecal is positive for parasites. In other words, it is easier to misdiagnose the sample as negative using a simple fecal flotation exam. Without knowing the exact parasite, choosing an antiparasitic can be tricky and the wrong medication might be completely ineffective.
Because of a lack of resources in the non-profit world, definitive diagnostic testing just isn’t a feasible option most of the time. In rehabilitation, supportive care is the name of the game and that could mean life or death for a bird with an easily treatable disease that we just aren’t aware of. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that this lack of resources extends past our field of wildlife rehabilitation. The resources that influence our daily medical practices are based on research published in veterinary medical journals, and the research that is available mostly involves pet birds. That makes sense logically because pet birds are readily available. Involving them does not disrupt nature and data most likely will not be skewed by the stress response of a wild bird being captured and held in captivity for the extent of the study period.
This again might seem all fine and good. After all, most of veterinary medicine is comparative medicine. You learn about domestic house cats in vet school and you can treat wild cheetahs whenever that task may present itself (Side note: That sounds awesome and I hope I can treat a cheetah in my future, just saying). However, the problem is that we just don’t know how comparable a pet parrot is to a wild bird. There are issues that arise with seeing a wild bird as the same as its domesticated counterpart. A parrot does not have the same diet and physiological needs as a shorebird such as the Tricolored Heron. The paucity of research in wildlife medicine is outrageous. Furthering research in this field is of paramount importance to the birds whose lives depend on it.
The claim I have made about the lack of understanding regarding wild birds may seem extreme to some because we have come a long way in rehabilitation even in the last twenty years. For example, laser therapy and radiographic imaging have both become more commonplace in recent years. Nevertheless, there is still so much we have to learn. The desire to contribute to the knowledge of this field has been a driving force in my academic pursuits. Over the course of my summer spent at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center I learned a great deal about the care of wild birds but the most meaningful lesson I will take away is that it is not enough to simply care. We do everything in our power to save every bird we can. But in order to save the lives of countless wild birds, it is essential to put more money, time, and resources into rehabilitation centers and research. It is up to the public to decide if this is an important cause so we can save more and more birds each year.
Tara Tischio, FKWBC Intern, 2016Share