Specialized Anatomy, Difficult Patients
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist
arrived in early January after being found on the beach in Ocean
Shores. In all, more than 60 Western Grebes and one Clark’s Grebe were
brought to the PAWS Wildlife Rehabilitation Center for treatment.
Although that number seems large, these individuals represented only a
fraction of the total number of grebes that had apparently fallen on
hard times. It happens periodically, this large influx of water birds
in trouble. Sometimes they are Northern Fulmars; other times they are
scoters or murres. On a more frequent basis, they are Western Grebes.
No matter what the species, their plight is usually the same, and the
intake forms almost always bear the description “beached and
emaciated.” What is never clear is which of those two conditions came
first, and why.
Grebes are birds that are highly specialized for a life in the water.
Their flattened legs and lobed feet are situated on the rear of their
body. Like a motor on the back of a boat, this configuration propels
them swiftly through the water, but it makes it nearly impossible to
stand or walk on land. The one time you might see a grebe leave the
water voluntarily is during mating season, when they migrate inland to
breed on freshwater lakes. Even then they make only a short hop onto a
nest built at the water’s edge or on a mat of floating vegetation. They
really are helpless on land, and they cannot even take flight without
first making a very long run on the surface of a body of water.
possible that the grebes in Ocean Shores beached themselves voluntarily
because they were starving. It’s also possible that they were blown
ashore by strong winds and surf. Once on the beach they would have had
great difficulty reentering the water and getting out past the
breakers. Repeated attempts would have driven them to exhaustion and
starvation. We’ll never be certain what series of events led to the
mass beaching of the grebes, but we do know what happened to many of
them after they became stranded. They were collected by concerned
citizens and transported to PAWS for care.
| While in care, the grebes required tube feeding up to seven times per day.
for sick grebes is no easy task. Because of their specialized anatomy,
the birds must be kept in the water as much as possible. Grebes quickly
develop pressure sores on their feet, keels (breastbone) and hocks
(equivalent to our ankle joint) if they are out of the water for an
extended period of time. Unfortunately, most beached grebes that we
receive have already been out of the water for some time. Their
feathers are dirty, they are emaciated and too weak to preen, and many
already have the beginnings of pressure sores. They cannot be placed in
the water right away because their dirty feathers will not repel water,
and they cannot be washed because they are too weak to survive the
process. The emaciated birds must gain strength quickly enough so that
we can get them into the water before they develop untreatable sores or
other secondary problems. While they are out of the water, they are
housed in special net-bottomed cages that distribute their weight more
evenly. This buys them a little extra time before sores develop.
Unfortunately, most of the 60-plus grebes that we received in January
were in such an advanced stage of emaciation that time was not on their
| A grebe preens sand and debris from his feathers.
more than two weeks, PAWS staff and volunteers put in long hours and
staged a valiant effort to save as many of the grebes as possible. The
birds had to be tube fed as much as seven times per day, and they
required medications to help stave off bacterial and fungal infections.
Over the course of the two weeks, their numbers began to drop. Many
birds succumbed on their own, many others were humanely euthanized. One
of the unfortunate realities of working with emaciated grebes is that
you can expect a very high attrition rate. In this case, the attrition
rate was more than 90 percent.
| A grebe paddles quickly away at his release.
the disappointing losses, six especially resilient Western Grebes made
a full recovery. The first grebe was released on January 26 th, and she
wasted no time saying goodbye. As soon as I placed her in the water she
paddled quickly away and then dove beneath the surface. About thirty
seconds later she popped to the surface right next to a Common
Goldeneye, startling both herself and the unsuspecting duck. She dove
again and I left her to continue exploring on her own. Three more
grebes were released together on January 28 th. They stayed in tight
formation swimming, diving, and surfacing together as they disappeared
into the distance. A fifth grebe was released on February 3 rd. As he
swam slowly away, he looked excitedly in all directions as if in a
state of disbelief.
| Three Western Grebes released on January 28 th get their bearings.
final grebe’s release was especially gratifying. A week prior to
release she seemed to have all but given up. For two days she became
less active, stopped eating, and began to lose weight. Other grebes
that had exhibited similar behavior had continued to decline despite
tube feeding and other efforts. Fortunately, this bird did not follow
that pattern. As quickly as she had stopped eating, she began again.
She perked up and started putting on weight. By February 8 th she was
ready to go. As I carried her toward the water to release her, the
grebe stretched out her neck and paddled frantically at the air with
her feet. Once in the water, her feet found traction, and she quickly
moved away from shore and began diving. I wished her well and hoped
that if she ever found herself out of the water again she would either
be in flight, or sitting on a nest helping to ensure that her kind
continues to grace us with their presence.
Wild animals released between January 1st and February 10th, 2006:
- 1 Thayer's Gull
- 1 Glaucous-winged Gull
- 1 American Robin
- 1 Golden-crowned Kinglet
- 6 Western Grebes
- 1 Northern Saw-whet Owl
- 1 Rock Pigeon
- 1 Racoon
- 1 House Finch
- 1 Double-crested Cormorant
15 wild animals have been released since
the beginning of 2006.
Thanks to all of you for helping to make these
rights reserved. ©2006 Progressive Animal
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