2019 Year in Review: Dr. Claire Butkus, Veterinary Intern

It’s time to look back on 2019! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2019 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

My last several months at the Wildlife Center of Virginia have given me the opportunity to work with a multitude of amazing species. One of the many wonderful elements about working at the WCV is that within the same day you may treat a Harvest Mouse, a Bald Eagle, and a Snapping Turtle. This variety also makes choosing a single patient as a favorite case very difficult, but one of the most memorable cases for me in 2019 was an adult Common Loon.

I grew up in the Midwest and spent a large amount of my childhood immersed in the nature of the Northwoods of Wisconsin. This allowed me to grow up watching Bald Eagles fish, Painted Turtles bask on sunken logs, and be a witness to loons raising their chicks on the chain of lakes. Loons held a highly revered place in my early experiences of nature; I always felt incredibly lucky if I was able to catch a glimpse of a loon while kayaking or was able to hear their calls echo across the lake while I was falling asleep at night.

It was very exciting for me to aid in the treatment of the adult Common Loon that presented in December of this year. This patient was found on the road with abrasions on its feet and was not able to fly away. Loons possess unique anatomy that prevents them from taking off in flight if they are not in water, and they sometimes will mistake roads for waterways and will try to land on them. This misunderstanding often leaves these loons with damaged feet and stranded in the road. This is another unfortunate example of how we as humans significantly alter the environment and how wildlife is negatively affected.

Loons often do not cope well with captivity, so we had to be especially careful with our handling of this patient to minimize its stress. We began treating the abrasions on the loon’s feet, and we also determined that this loon had severely damaged primary feathers. Primary feathers are crucial for the flight of any flighted bird and we could not release the patient with non-functional primary feathers. So, we had to get creative and “imp” this patient’s wings. Imping is a technique of feather mending where a damaged feather is replaced with a functional feather that is a close match from another bird. Feathers regrow but can take several months, so this technique allows the bird’s release to be expedited, which is often much better for wildlife patients. I like to think of imping as “feather extensions”, but instead of the goal being just cosmetic, it allows a bird to fly again and return to the wild.

Unfortunately, loons will not sit patiently in a barber chair to receive their “feather extensions”. To keep the patient calm and safe during the procedure, we placed it under general anesthesia. This required careful monitoring of the patient’s heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature for the whole process. While I lead the anesthesia component of the procedure, our wildlife rehab team worked to restore this patient’s feathers. After less than an hour, the work was complete! The patient recovered well from anesthesia and was moved to an outdoor pool to improve the waterproofing of its feathers before release. Although the loon is still not out of the woods and still requires further monitoring, we have greatly improved its chance of survival in the wild with this unique technique of imping.

For more information about feather imping, please refer to this helpful link!

— Dr. Claire Butkus, Veterinary Intern

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!