2022 Year in Review: Jess Ransier, Licensed Veterinary Technician Supervisor

It’s time to look back on 2022! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2022 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

One of my favorite and most memorable patients from 2022 was an adult Purple Martin (PUMA) that was admitted to the Center early this spring. If you have not had the pleasure of seeing one of these birds up close, I would highly recommend a quick Google search. They are beautiful little creatures – very closely related to swifts, and like many sexually dimorphic species, the males in particular are striking, with their dark indigo-iridescent plumage.

To provide a little bit of background info about this particular patient, PUMA #22- 0687 was admitted to WCV on April 27th after being found on the ground near a driveway, unable to fly. The vet team performed an initial exam, including radiographs; we determined that the bird had fractures in both the radius and ulna of his right wing. The exact cause of the bird’s injuries was not determined, but he was otherwise in stable condition, very bright, but in for a long road to recovery. Dr. Karra, our Director of Veterinary Services, was able to successfully place an intramedullary (IM) pin in the ulna to help stabilize the fractures, and we continued to re-check the progress of healing with weekly radiographs.

Part of the reason this patient was so memorable for me, is that I have a mild obsession with all birds in the taxonomic clade Strisores. This clade includes nightjars, nighthawks, hummingbirds, swifts, frogmouths, oilbirds, owlet-nightjars, and potoos. If you take a close look at any of these birds, you’ll find that they all share a similar resemblance in their anatomy, with their short legs, long tapered wings, and my favorite quality – their large, wide mouths. Many of these species are known for being aerial insectivores, meaning they hunt their insect prey on the wing. Having this type of foraging strategy requires near-perfect flight in order to effectively maneuver through the air with enough speed and agility to catch tiny, speedy insects. This element of a PUMA’s natural history, combined with the medical background for this particular patient, created some additional complications for our rehabilitation setting – and pretty stressful for the PUMA.

Due to the physical demands required for their unique foraging strategy, these birds require a higher standard for what it means for “return to full function”. We aim to achieve this with all patients prior to release, but this requirement for near-perfect flight meant that the vet and rehab team would be working together to monitor and evaluate this patient’s ability to maneuver throughout its outdoor enclosure, gain altitude during flight, and increase stamina through exercise. This patient also presented a challenge in terms of managing nutritional needs in a long-term recovery setting. In many cases, aerial insectivores do not eat well in captivity because there is no way to effectively (or logistically) re-create that foraging strategy for patients that will have mobility restrictions, or be housed in outdoor enclosures where live prey might escape. For this reason, PUMAs, swifts, and other aerial insectivore species often end up needing supplemental gavage feedings every two hours or so, depending on the size of the patient. Needless to say, this was a very large undertaking during what is usually our busiest time of the year.

Somehow, during the course of several weeks, the PUMA continued to show signs of improvement with each re-check exam. Remarkably, he was able to maintain a healthy weight and body condition, despite being exclusively gavage-fed a liquid diet for nearly 12 weeks. Students and staff took turns with his regimented daily feedings, and eventually, he was moved to an outdoor space to start exercise and pre-release conditioning. Despite all the factors working against this patient, and after almost 12 weeks in care, PUMA #22- 0687 was finally released back to its habitat near Fishersville, Virginia, on July 20, 2022. Although we have had many patients stay in care longer than three months, this PUMA required so much time and attention from all members of the vet team, and I am so happy to have had the opportunity to help this patient return to the wild!

— Jess Ransier, Licensed Veterinary Technician Supervisor

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