Dr. Jennifer Warnock, an orthopedic surgeon at the Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital, releases at Merlin falcon after repairing its fractured wing.
Dr. Jennifer Warnock, an orthopedic surgeon at the Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital, releases at Merlin falcon after repairing its fractured wing.

At the Rogers Wayside Park near Silverton, Oregon, Dr. Jennifer Warnock and OSU veterinary student Kyra Knutson placed a pet carrier in the middle of a grassy field. It was a quiet spot surrounded by trees and, more importantly, it was on the north-south bird migration path of the Pacific Flyway. Warnock donned a pair of heavy, foot-long, leather gloves, opened the carrier door, and gently removed a brown bird the size of a cockatoo. The bird was covered with a lightweight blanket to keep it warm and calm. As Knutson removed the blanket, Warnock lifted her arms and let go. The bird was so fast, it took off in a blur and landed in the nearest tree before they could even watch it fly. After a few minutes, the bird flew across the field to a taller tree. “She’s cutting just the way she is supposed to; that’s a good sign,” said Warnock.

The bird was a Merlin, a type of small migratory falcon, also known as a Pigeon Hawk.  Six months earlier, a good Samaritan had stopped and rescued the bird from the middle of a road north of Rogers Wayside and took it to the Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center near Salem. The Merlin had a fractured wing so they called the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital to ask if a surgeon was available to repair it.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is often, ‘No’. The small animal hospital at OSU is generally limited to the treatment of cats and dogs, but Warnock is an orthopedic surgeon with a personal interest in raptor rehabilitation, and squeezes enough money out of her teaching fund to help about one bird a year. She uses that opportunity to give students with an interest in avian medicine an chance to observe the surgery. “It’s a great learning experience for them,” she says.

One of the missions of the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital is to use minimally invasive surgery whenever possible. Dr. Warnock repaired the Merlin’s fractured radius and ulna using fluoroscopy, a technique that uses images obtained during surgery via x-ray. Those images appear on a monitor that the surgeon watches as she operates. “We were able to stabilize the fracture without making incisions, which not only decreases postoperative pain,” says Warnock, “but also preserves bone blood supply, thus allowing comminuted fractures to heal.”

Once the Merlin’s bone was set, Warnock worked through tiny incisions to pin the bones and attach an external fixator to hold it in place until it healed. One of the most challenging parts of surgery on a small raptor is the anesthesia.  Veterinary anesthesiologist Dr. Ron Mandsager, anesthesia resident Dr. Ciara de Caro Carella, and certified veterinary technicians Jenn Houston and Shauna Smith, were a critical part of the surgery team. “Anesthesia is tricky with a bird like this because there is a fine line between being awake (and biting and taloning people) and being dead,” says Warnock. “Kudos to the great anesthesia team.”

The surgery went well. In fact, as Warnock moved the Merlin from the operating table to cage, it woke up and bit her. “It nailed me and we all went, ‘Yay, that’s a good sign’,” says Warnock.

The Merlin’s wing took about six weeks to heal, then the bird was moved to a flight cage at Turtle Ridge where it spent two more months exercising to get its flight muscles back in shape.

Knutson is a volunteer at Turtle Ridge and was very involved in the Merlin’s rehabilitation and care. She also researched the best place for the bird’s release. “We normally release where they are found,” she says, “but because this is a migratory species, we picked a spot directly south.”

At the Rogers Wayside, Warnock and Knutson watched the Merlin up in its new roost for fifteen minutes, then they packed up their carrier and drove back to Corvallis. “To see an animal get back in the wild like this, and not be in pain . . . I’m really happy with that. It’s awesome,” says Warnock.

The Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital at OSU is raising money to fund more live-saving surgeries like the one for Merlin. To contribute, visit http://campaignforosu.org/olivebritt and designate Raptor Repair Fund in the comment box.

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