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Challenging Surgery Gives Barred Owl A Chance

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(credit: CBS) Bill Hudson
Bill Hudson has been with WCCO-TV since 1989. The native of Elk Rive...
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By Bill Hudson, WCCO-TV

ST. PAUL (WCCO) — It’s one thing to set a broken arm on a child, where metal pins and a plaster cast hold the fracture tightly in place. But how does one go about mending the wing of an owl with bones not much larger than the size of pencil lead?

Veterinarians at the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center faced that challenge recently on a bird injured during a recent Minnesota snowstorm.

But like a newborn in a maternity ward, the badly injured Barred Owl couldn’t be in better hands.

“Sweet little thing,” said Dr. Paula Castano, as she gently picks up the injured bird. Its puffed-up feathers and piercing looks hide the magnitude of its hurt.

X-ray images reveal the challenge facing the young veterinary intern. A close look at the black and white images clearly shows a clean fracture in one of the owl’s tiny bones connecting its left wing.

“It’s not do you have a fracture that’s a very tiny piece but you’re right at the joint,” said Raptor Center’s Executive Director Dr. Julia Ponder, looking at the X-ray.

Like so many of the 700 to 800 birds rushed to the Raptor Center each year, the Barred Owl was in dire condition when it was discovered, unable to fly.

Two women returning home during last Friday’s snowy rush hour found the owl in the middle of St. Paul’s Shepard Road, not far from Interstate 35E. It was most likely struck by a passing vehicle as it swooped down from a tree along the Mississippi River in search of a mouse or a vole.

“It’s a little bit swollen,” said Castano, as she takes a good look at her recent repair job.

By all accounts, Castano performed a near perfect surgical procedure to put the owl’s wing back together. The operation involved screwing five tiny metal pins into a broken bone that is roughly the diameter of a toothpick. Those pins protrude vertically from the owl’s wing and are then attached to a plastic rod that acts as an external splint.

As if that’s not enough of a challenge, Ponder pointed out, “of course, avian bones are hollow.”

Twenty-four hours after the surgery was completed, Castano and her team are pleased with what they see. Besides the slight swelling at the joint, X-rays now show a clean re-attachment of the bone.

“Yes, it’s very firm, so it will give support for the bones so it can heal,” said Castano.

She will apply a small amount of antibiotic cream on the wound and place a few liquid drops in the owl’s huge brown eyes. In a matter of minutes, the wounded wing is bandaged firmly to its fluffy body to help keep it immobilized.

Having done everything they can, the bird is now on the road to recovery. While veterinarians say it will take six to eight weeks for the bone to completely heal, there is hope, but no guarantees, the injured Barred Owl will once again take flight.

“The joint’s soft tissue may have taken some trauma that will lead to degenerative joint disease long term. I think, at this point, is the biggest challenge, but the bird has a great chance,” said Ponder.

For more information about the Raptor Center’s mission and needs, you can visit its website at http://www.cvm.umn.edu/raptor/.

WCCO-TV’s Bill Hudson Reports

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