The kinds of water birds we most often see are fish-eaters like herons, egrets, and cormorants; more traditional waterfowl like geese and ducks; fish-eating raptors like ospreys and bald eagles; and unintended visitors from the ocean, usually brown pelicans that were blown off course by coastal storms. Occasionally we get even rarer birds in that last category, and right now Liberty Wildlife is treating a red-billed tropicbird, a Central and South American ocean bird that has been spotted in Arizona only a handful of times. With any patient, our primary goal, after seeing to its medical needs, is to address its daily living requirements to enable a speedy rehabilitation. Only the geese and the ducks have a diet other than fish, and the bald eagle is the only fish-eater that can alternatively be fed other meats. The rest are very much set in their ways, which means that we must keep large numbers of frozen fish on hand, in varying sizes, to meet the needs of birds both large and small.
Providing the species-appropriate food is sometimes not enough, though. Wild birds are accustomed to eating their food in a certain way, and we often have to mimic that process to ensure that our patients stay nourished. Ducks, which we typically feed a mixture of crumble, worms, and lettuce, will sometimes only eat if they can float around and scoop their food from the water’s surface, which we accomplish by letting them bob for their food in special wading pools. Pelicans not only require a wading pool for their fish to float in, but will only eat if the dead fish are “moving.” All of the water bird enclosures feature wading pools of different sizes to allow our birds to experience something like their daily routine, but for the pelicans we must go a step further and rig a pump to circulate the water and cause their fish to “swim.” Otherwise, they simply won’t eat. There are more physical challenges involved with rehabbing water birds, as well. Though some of the eagles may have comparable wingspans, water birds, especially the big ones, tend to be bigger-bodied or otherwise larger in some way. Egrets and great blue herons have extremely long, stilt-like legs, and though their bodies are rather slim, their height makes them awkward to handle when they require medication. Additionally, herons and egrets have long, sharp beaks, and in some cases very, very long necks; when threatened, they quickly go for the eyes, mandating protective goggles for anyone handling them. The smaller green heron and black-crowned night heron present challenges as well. Though lacking the gangly height and reach of great blue herons, these smaller birds can be extremely territorial with one another, especially if they sense weakness, and their ability to switch from indifference to belligerence and back demands extra attention to make sure that everyone is coexisting peacefully, and that all of the birds are getting their fill to eat.
Over time, volunteers and staff have become familiar with the nuances of these species, just as they have for our other patients. Cormorants, for instance, are small, soft, and very beautiful, almost cartoonishly innocent-looking birds. The tip of their long beak, however, is a sharp, curved hook used for fishing, and they are able to cause so much bodily harm with it that it’s not unusual to see volunteers handling them with the same thick, forearm-length welding gloves usually reserved for the biggest raptors. Our Medical Services volunteers have to be watchful when ducks are brought in because they are especially prone to botulism, and though we have the means to treat it, it can be easily missed, and very dangerous if not dealt with. Getting to know these and other quirks means being better able to provide for our patients; it also means an incredible opportunity for us, as volunteers, to be around these utterly amazing creatures, be they birds we’ve seen only in the distance along the river, as blips on the other side of the lake, or in the case of the red-billed tropicbird, a true visitor from a different part of the world.
For all of these birds – for any of the birds we treat – they’re fortunate in that we can afford them a second chance at life. But make no mistake – the volunteers and staff who care for them are the truly lucky ones.