The Case of the Fractured Feathers
Diagnosing an animal’s ailment is a lot like detective work. Because the animal cannot directly tell the veterinarian where it hurts, the doctor has to look for clues, from blood tests, digital X-rays and other evidence, and ask questions of key witnesses—the trainers—to solve the medical mystery.
Athens, a male red-tailed hawk, was not a good flyer when he arrived at Shedd in April 2010. The powerful soaring bird could only flutter and flap for short distances. His history was vague: He’d been hit by a car, gone to a wildlife rehabilitation facility, been deemed nonreleasable and later lived at several smaller zoos. Radiographs taken during his first full exam at Shedd did not show any healed wing fractures or other obvious injuries. Other tests indicated that the bird was healthy.
When Athens had been at Shedd about 10 months, the trainers noticed that he was breaking the primary flight feathers on his left wing. Kelly Schaaf, manager of sea lions and birds of prey and an expert bird handler, says, “Watching him in flight, we couldn’t tell how he was breaking these feathers.” But with a gap in his wing from a total of four broken feathers, his already impaired flying ability deteriorated more.
Dr. Caryn Poll, section chief, medicine, and the Shedd team of veterinarians were called in to get to the bottom of this: Was Athens breaking his feathers, causing him to fly abnormally, or was he flying abnormally, causing him to break his feathers?
Dr. Gwen Jankowski, one of Shedd’s veterinary residents through the Illinois Zoological and Aquatic Animal Residency program in 2011-2012, worked closely with the trainers on the case. She suggested videotaping an airborne Athens from behind.
The video showed that during flight, he held his left wing lower than the right. If he tried to glide, he veered to the left; if he actively flew, he arced to the right. And viewing the video in slow motion, they all immediately saw that the downward-tilted left wing hit his perch when he landed, oftentimes breaking feathers.
Athens was temporarily grounded. Then, with the bird anesthetized, Dr. Gwen did a manual examination of his left shoulder. Dr. Caryn recalls, “She put the shoulder through a range-of-motion exercise and found that the ROM was limited compared to the right wing. That suggested a previous injury—something that would not, especially if it was a soft-tissue injury, be obvious on an X-ray.”
The resident prescribed a regimen of physical therapy with simulated flights. Kelly says, “We trained him to sit on a gloved arm and flap his wings as the trainer moved her arm up and down. This got him to extend his left wing in a normal flight pattern. We slowly built him up to 45 seconds of flapping, twice, done twice daily.
“We built up our left arms, too.”
For a second exercise, she says, “By reinforcing our trusting relationship with Athens, he quickly allowed us to stretch his wing, which loosened up his muscles.” In the process, Kelly says, she discovered new facets of Athens’ personality. “He’s the most tactile red-tailed hawk I’ve ever worked with. He doesn’t mind being touched.
“He’s also very vocal. Once he got comfortable with the trainers doing the wing stretches, he started to make little chirps and squawks. He kind of sings to us.”
To keep him flexible and comfortable during and after his physical therapy, Athens was prescribed an anti-inflammatory drug—what Dr. Caryn calls “an avian Advil” —and a pain-control medication. The combined therapies set up Athens for successful rehabilitation.
Dr. Gwen saw improvement in the first two weeks. After seven months of simulated flight, Athens was allowed short flights. As his range of motion slowly increased, so did his flying time.
While the resident graduated in July last year, Athens continues PT at the maintenance level, voluntarily extending his wing to trainers at the beginning of a session. And he no longer requires medication.
Dr. Caryn says, “Since the PT started, we have not seen any more feather fractures. As Dr. Gwen correctly diagnosed, it was the shoulder issue that was causing abnormal flight, causing the broken feathers, and not vice versa.”
She continues, “This is probably the first time that Athens has had normal use of his wing since his long-ago injury.” Not only can he soar the 60-foot length of his flight run, but now he is also the best flyer among Shedd’s raptors. You might see for yourself during an aquatic show.
Shedd Aquarium is a partner with the University of Illinois and Brookfield Zoo in the Illinois Zoological and Aquatic Animal Residency (IZAAR) program. The Shaw Family Supporting Organization generously funded IZAAR at Shedd in 2012.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor