Last week the Chintimini Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (CWC) north of Corvallis, brought a bald eagle with a badly injured wing to the hospital. Small animal surgeon Dr. Jennifer Warnock consulted with CWC director Jeff Picton on how best to repair the delicate bones. “It was a nasty, comminuted fracture that could not be anatomically reconstructed,” says Warnock. “Bird bone is particularly thin and brittle, making implant placement a delicate affair: pins placed in bird bone can easily strip out or further fracture the bone.” The team decided to use a minimally invasive procedure with the C-arm fluoroscope to place a pin and external fixator through tiny incisions. “By not disturbing the soft tissues we use the principle of biological osteosynthesis to assist in fracture healing,” says Warnock.
The damaged wing also created challenges for anesthesiologist Dr. Ron Mandsager. “The avian humerus is pneumatic, meaning it is connected with the respiratory system making the bird lighter for flight and keeping them cool,” says Warnock. This caused air to leak out of the injured wing and Mandsager kept loosing pressure on the anesthetic machine causing it to indicate the bird wasn’t breathing when they could see it taking breaths on the bag.
The two-hour surgery went well and the eagle came out of anesthesia feisty as ever. In fact, immediately upon waking, he bit Picton and drew blood. “We were all saying, “Oh great, he’s fast! That is a good sign,” laughs Claire Peterson, a third-year veterinary student and regular volunteer at CWC.
In a couple of weeks, the external fixator on the wing can be removed so that physical therapy can begin. The sooner he can begin using his injured wing, the greater the chance of successful return to function.
The jury is still out on whether the bald eagle will recover well enough to be released. According to Peterson, he has a better chance of returning to the wild than other raptors. “If it were a falcon, it would be unlikely,” says Peterson. “They are the athletes of the bird world. They are hunting ducks and songbirds so they need to be able to fly really well. Eagles can scavenge and they can catch fish. He doesn’t need to be an athlete; he just needs to be able to get along. We’re hoping that it’s enough.”