The fact that the Wildlife Medical Clinic is in central Illinois and surrounded by corn means that we don’t get many water-loving animals, including shorebirds. Except for killdeer. Killdeer are shorebirds that have adapted to life away from the water. They’ll make do with a golf course, a field, or even a parking lot. If you’ve been out at night during the summer, you may have heard their high-pitched calls outside of a grocery store or school playground. Killdeer are small with fragile legs and wings—not the least bit dangerous. And they know it. These remarkable animals have used their apparent weakness to their advantage when it comes to protecting their young. An adult will feign injury to lure predators away from its nest and then fly away when its offspring are safe. It’s a pretty convincing show. I actually encountered it by accident this past spring, and despite my familiarity with this tactic, I was momentarily duped into thinking the bird needed help.
Unfortunately, the broken-wing act only works on certain types of danger. The Wildlife Medical Clinic is currently caring for a killdeer that got into trouble alone in a parking lot. The bird was found covered in tar and unable to fly. On examination, we noted that the bird was apparently uninjured, but his major flight feathers had been pulled out, likely from being stuck in the tar.
We stabilized him and set him up with a smorgasbord of food—crickets, earthworms, mealworms, fish, krill, bloodworms—in hopes that he would eat for us (these patients are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity), and he did! Over the next few days, we used a special type of oil to gently remove the tar from the remaining feathers and then, when all of it was gone, we performed a thorough cleaning using dish soap to remove the oil. (See photo at right.)
Washing wild animals is a delicate process, and it should only be done by someone with experience. The students and staff at the Wildlife Medical Clinic have been properly trained, and with a little sedation to help minimize the stress on our patient, the procedure went off without a hitch! But now it’s time to wait. The killdeer’s remaining feathers are good as new, but he cannot be released until his flight feathers grow back. So this week, we will transfer him to a licensed rehabilitator where he will have a larger enclosure and the time he needs to regrow those feathers in a safe environment with lots and lots of free food.
SOFTSHELL TURTLE UPDATE: The softshell turtle that had a gastrotomy (gastro: stomach, -tomy: act of cutting) to remove a fish hook a few weeks ago was released back to where she was caught!