September 28, 2009 in Whooping Crane
Photo: Dr. Dominique Keller and Dr. Barry Hartup about to give medication to a bird held by Barb Clauss of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.
On September 9th, 10th and 16th, I accompanied the ICF Veterinary Services team to pre-migratory health checks on the WCEP ultralight and DAR cohorts at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we embarked on the hour-long journey from the ICF at 5:30 am each day.
Being new to the process of interacting with “wild” cranes, I was reminded to talk in a whisper and to stay behind the camouflaged blinds until each bird was brought to us by costumed aviculturists Kelly Maguire, Kim Boardman, Sara Zimorski, Marianne Wellington (ICF) and Barb Claus (USGS Patuxent). While each bird was picked up by hand and hooded to reduce stress, a comprehensive physical exam, diagnostic sampling, microchipping, deworming, West Nile virus/ Eastern Equine Encephalitis vaccination and application of temporary transponders by USFWS biologist Richard Urbanek was performed.
Physical exams revealed respiratory abnormalities in birds 1-09, 14-09, and 28-09 and mild limb deformities displayed by birds 26-09 and 34-09 (DAR). The respiratory abnormalities included a range of sounds not normally heard during exams of cranes: wheezing, gurgling, and even squeaking noises. Veterinarians Barry Hartup and Dominique Keller were uncertain if any of these vocalizations were associated with disease, but placed 28-09 on voriconazole, an effective anti-fungal medication, to treat a presumed infection with Aspergillus.
Fortunately, the cranes displaying these signs showed no lack of performance during ultralight flight training. Similarly, the birds with mild limb deformities mobility did not appear to be affected by this problem. Some ongoing problems were reassessed during DAR health checks like the chronic vent protrusion in 38-09, which improved with medical treatment. Number 39-09, who sustained a muscle tear in the left leg last month and will not be released, had reduced swelling, but still needs some rest and recuperation before enduring a long trip to his new home in North Carolina.
As a veterinary student and preceptor at the ICF, my experience with wildlife medicine has often revealed the cost and benefits of intervening with wildlife. Without interventions such as costumes, swamp monsters and ultralights, whooping crane conservation efforts may be fruitless. The same goes for health management. To ensure that birds are not reintroduced with potential disease causing agents that may be a threat to native wildlife and to promote crane survival and reproduction in the wild, health checks must be performed.
Unfortunately, just prior to examination, 22-09 fractured a portion of her left tibia despite proper handling. She died of anesthetic complications at ICF while seeing if surgery could fix the fracture. This is a reminder of how fragile these birds are, despite our best efforts to prevent injury. The success of the WCEP project cannot come without some pitfalls, while learning along the way. In my short time here I have learned the heartache involved in conservation management, when each individual can seem so precious. However, it is the health and fitness of the entire population of cranes we ultimately need to consider in our efforts.
Update by Natalie Padgurskis, ICF Veterinary Student Preceptor.
Photo: Natalie placing a microchip in one of the ultralight cohort cranes.