By Jen Mannas, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist
On July 28th a Great Blue Heron was rescued after spending several days stranded in a backyard. The homeowners suspected something was wrong but did not have the means to catch the bird on their own.
Luckily two PAWS staff members were in a park nearby releasing some swallows. PAWS does not typically conduct wildlife rescues because we simply do not have the man power, but every once in a while we make an exception if we are in the area.
Upon our arrival, the heron was standing on one leg on top of an old tree stump. It was apparent that his other leg was broken but the extent of the break was not obvious. We only had one chance to catch him; if we miss and he takes flight he would most certainly get away and we would have no way of finding him again.
With a little luck and some skill we were able to net the bird in one try. Once in hand we could see the extent of his injury. It was an open fracture in his right tibiotarsus. Humans don't have a tibiotarsus, in fact bird legs and feet are very different from ours. We have a few of the same bones but bird bones are fused differently and are more elongated. The tibiotarus is found below the femur and consists of the tibia fused with the upper bones of the foot.
The tibiotarsus fracture seemed so bad at first glance that we thought it would not be treatable and the heron would never regain use of that leg. Herons, of course, need full function of both of their legs to survive in the wild since they spend so much time standing in water stalking their prey. If regaining full function was not possible this bird would have to be humanely euthanized.
Back at PAWS the heron was examined right away by a rehabilitator. Luckily the tissue and most of the bone at the fracture site was still healthy; he was given pain medication and scheduled to see the veterinarians the next day.
After an exam, radiographs and some discussion amongst our vet team they decided to go ahead and try to surgically mend the fracture. This would involve a long, sterile surgery.
During round one of surgery a section of necrotic bone was removed from the leg to promote healing and the fracture site was sutured closed to protect the healthy bone and tissue. This round of surgery had to be aborted early due to the patient not responding well to anesthesia. The heron was put on antibiotics and his fractured leg was secured with a splint.
The second round of surgery was attempted two days later and after an hour it was a success. An external skeletal fixator, with five pins, was placed in the leg at the fracture site to hold the bone in place while it healed.
The heron was housed in our hospital ward for four days post-surgery to limit his movement, allow the fracture site to stabilize, and so we could keep a close eye on him.
Post surgery he was very weak and stopped eating. Our rehabilitation staff had to work very hard to help him regain his strength. He was given fluids, medication and tube fed several times a day. He started knuckling his right foot when he stood and a specialized shoe was made to help with foot placement. Miraculously 10 days after surgery he started eating on his own again and regaining strength.
He wore the fixator for a total of 19 days and as he healed he was gradually given more space.
Once the fixator was removed he needed a little more time to regain strength and be monitored. We needed to assess his ability to stand, perch and land after a flight.
Thanks to all the efforts of our veterinarians, rehab team and volunteers he was released back to the wild, in a wetland close to where he was found, on August 29.
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