Every Bird Matters
news and views from international bird rescue

July 28, 2016

Patient of the Week: Double Trouble American White Pelican

Photo of American White Pelican with two fractured legs i care at International Bird Rescue

American White Pelican with two fractured legs contemplating fish while in a recovery cage we call a “peli box”. (Photos by Rebecca Duerr – International Bird Rescue)

American White Pelican standing on exam table during a check-up. Both external fixators are visible; they are made of steel pins that pass through the bone and a combination of metal and epoxy that holds the external portions of the pins in the correct position. The odd shapes are due to the shapes of pelican legs, each fracture's different need for support, and the need for the bird to be able to both stand and crouch comfortably.

American White Pelican standing on exam table during a check-up. Both external fixators are visible; they are made of steel pins that pass through the bone and a combination of metal and epoxy that holds the external portions of the pins in the correct position.

This beautiful American White Pelican was transferred to us on July 18 from our colleagues at the SPCA for Monterey County’s Wildlife Center, after being found on a rural road in Monterey County with injuries consistent with being stuck by a vehicle. They sent our staff veterinarian, Dr. Rebecca Duerr, some x-rays that did not make the case seem very hopeful…but it was intriguing! The bird had a good attitude (snappy and feisty) and was in otherwise good condition, but had two broken legs. In pelicans, the bone that is broken in this bird (the tarsometatarsus) is a fracture that requires pinning in order to have a good outcome. Our vet had pinned several of these in pelicans before but never both legs on the same bird! The rehabilitators in Monterey splinted the fractures temporarily and transferred him to our San Francisco Bay center for surgery.

On examination at our center, the left tarsometatarsus had intact skin but felt like a crunchy shattered mess through the whole middle half of the bone. On the x-rays we could see a series of longitudinal cracks, but it felt structurally sound on each end, which boded well for holding pins. The right side felt more-or-less intact but had a squishy, caved-in area on the front side that appeared as a greenstick (incomplete) fracture on x-rays. Even in a well-fitted splint, greenstick tarsometatarsus fractures in pelicans tend to bend and warp as they heal, leaving the bird with altered weight-bearing on the leg and subsequent trouble standing and walking. Both legs definitely needed pinning. Surgery to place pins happened last week.

We are happy to report this bird is now standing and walking very well on his pinned legs! He is also much less cranky now that he can stand up and walk away from us. He has been spending his time enjoying the menu and has gained quite a bit of weight. His foot posture when standing is excellent and he has perfect control of all his toes. So far so good!

The pins will be removed in a few weeks.

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X-rays of American White Pelican with broken legs in care at International Bird Rescue

Radiographs of the left (on left) and right (on right) tarsometatarsus (leg) fractures in an American White Pelican. The right leg has a a greenstick (incomplete) fracture, and the metal piece of bird shot does not appear associated with the fracture. The left leg shows multiple longitudinal fractures throughout the central half of the bone.

Closeup of American White Pelican sleeping peacefully under anesthesia while his two fractured legs are being pinned.

Closeup of American White Pelican sleeping peacefully under anesthesia while his two fractured legs are being pinned.

9 Responses to “Patient of the Week: Double Trouble American White Pelican”

  1. Helen K Says:

    Wow! What a story and what an experience for this pelican to endure. Thanks for giving us the detailed account. I just learned a new word “greenstick”. With his recovery, I presume he’ll be on dry land. What kinds of complications are possible? Can the pinning fail? Is there a possibility of infection? Are pelicans able to recover from this kind of procedure. It seems to me that white pelicans tend to be bigger and therefore heavier than Brown so will the rehab process take longer and is there a possibility of hydrotherapy? Thanks especially for being there and willing to give this patient a real chance!

  2. Elizabeth Smith Says:

    How can I forward this on Favcebook and Twitter?

  3. Bird-Rescue Says:

    Hi Elizabeth! You can just copy and paste the url and post from your Facebook. Thanks for your interest in International Bird Rescue!

  4. David Gill Says:

    What a beautiful story with its happy ending, so far. At first was fearful, with the headline, that
    it was not to be a positive outcome. But you folks are phenomenal there, and I was SO highly
    impressed when I visited a number of years ago. Keep up the good work. You will be remembered in my estate!!

  5. Bird-Rescue Says:

    Thanks David we appreciate your kind words.

  6. Judy Joerger Says:

    What a story! I was so happy to hear the pins in both legs worked so well. I love pelicans and was so interested in hearing this happy ending story.
    Keep up the good work! You’re wonderful.

  7. Helen K Says:

    Wow, I just found out that the pins have been removed and the bird is able to stand comfortably. I look forward to him/her getting better every day and that golden moment when released!

  8. Rebecca Duerr Says:

    Here are a few answers (IBR’s vet here!): These sorts of injuries are complicated to manage in such a big (and cranky!) bird– he came in under 6kg, now is around 7kg! Yes having pins in generally means a waterbird cannot be in the water, which is a complicating factor to their management we always have to consider. Some species are more amenable to this than others. Time-wise, I gave this guy a slightly longer period of time in his pins than I would have given a Brown Pelican. I removed the pins recently and his broken bones healed rock solid! This guy has some other issues with his feet that are still concerning but are headed in the right direction. I want him to float as much as possible and he has been choosing to stand around in the pelican aviary more than I’d like (rather than swimming), so starting tomorrow he will be having his own private small pool during the day. So, not quite out of the woods yet but I sure hope he will be soon!

  9. Helen K Says:

    Thanks for the update and explanation, Dr. Becky! Hopefully, his feet are enjoying the water and he’s getting stronger and closer to being released.

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