PAWS Wild Again

 

February 15th, 2006   
Inspiring stories about the PAWS Wildlife Center and the animals we serve

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PAWS Mailing Address:
PO Box 1037
Lynnwood WA, 98046

PAWS Street Address:
15305 44th Ave W
Lynnwood, WA 98087

Kevin MackSpecialized Anatomy, Difficult Patients
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

 

They 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.

It’s 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.

Caring 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 side.

 

A grebe preens sand and debris from his feathers.

For 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.

Despite 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.

The 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 releases possible!

All rights reserved. 2006 Progressive Animal Welfare Society

A Northwest leader in protecting animals since 1967, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) shelters homeless animals, rehabilitates injured and orphaned wildlife, and empowers people to demonstrate compassion and respect for animals in their daily lives.