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Freedom at Fox Island

by Kevin Mack - PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

Arrival at PAWS Wildlife Center

On March 19, a woman named Sandra was driving across the bridge to Fox Island when she spotted a large bird sitting in the middle of the road. The bird, a sub-adult Brandt's Cormorant, appeared to be struggling to stand, and as Sandra's car approached he did not fly away. Recognizing that the cormorant was in danger and needed her help, Sandra captured him and drove him to the PAWS Wildlife Center for care.

The cormorant was thoroughly examined at PAWS and a serious fracture was found in a bone of his right leg. It's possible he had been struck by a car as he flew low over the bridge. Cormorants usually run on the water's surface to gain enough speed to take flight, or perch on a rock or piling that allows them to simply drop off into the air. Sitting in the middle of the road with a broken leg, this cormorant had no way to gain enough speed to take off. Even though his wings were still intact, his damaged leg had effectively grounded him.

PAWS' wildlife veterinary team stabilized the cormorant's fracture with a splint, and placed him in a cage to limit his movement while the bone was healing. As the fracture began to heal, the cormorant was moved into a large outdoor pool in which he could swim, flap, dive and condition himself for release. A strong current in the pool allowed the cormorant to swim in place against the flow which helped build strength in his injured leg.

The Cormorant was provided with a steady supply of live trout which both kept him well- fed and encouraged him to dive and use his leg even more. His leg was still slightly stiff after the fracture fully healed, but the veterinary staff was confident the stiffness would resolve with time and use.
 
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Early in his treatment, the cormorant was housed in a small enclosure to limit his movement. His leg was splinted and a guard was placed on his tail to keep the feathers in good condition.
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As the cormorant's leg healed, he was moved into a large, outdoor pool.
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A current in the pool encouraged the bird to keep swimming. The constant exercise was good physical therapy for the healing leg.
 

Release Day

On May 8, it was time to return the Brandt's Cormorant to his home. I placed his release carrier at the water's edge about 50 yards south of the Fox Island Bridge. Volunteer Irene Billa opened the carrier door, and after a moment's hesitation the cormorant made a dash for the water. He swam quickly away, looking in every direction as he went, doing his best to interpret this unexpected turn of events.

The day was bright and sunny, and the Olympic Mountains made a beautiful backdrop for the cormorant's transition back to the wild. After diving several times and shaking out his feathers the cormorant began to run on the surface of the water while flapping his wings. He ran about 20 yards and then was airborne. The cormorant flew in a wide circle around the bay, turned east and headed straight for the Fox Island Bridge. He passed under the bridge and continued on, eventually disappearing around a point and showing no signs of slowing down.
 
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At release, the cormorant made a quick dash into the water.
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The cormorant quickly put some distance between himself and his former caretakers.
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The Olympic Mountains were the perfect backdrop for the cormorant's return to freedom.
 



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