Health Checks and Anatomy 101
Fall has finally arrived, and with it, a change in the activities here at Patuxent. This is the favorite time of year for many of the staff. The chicks have finished Flight School in Wisconsin and are now migrating south to Florida. The buildings and equipment are clean and in storage for the year. The days are filled with mowing, repairs and, yes, preparations for the next breeding season. Also, health checks are a big part of the activity in the fall.
Health checks are our chance to get up close and personal with all the cranes. Just like you go to see your doctor for a checkup or take your pet to a veterinarian, our cranes are checked every year from head to toe by our veterinarian, Dr. Olsen. He is looking for bright clear eyes, straight beaks and toes, nice smooth feathers, and an alert disposition. Dr. Olsen checks the mouth and feels along the neck, body and abdomen for any signs that would indicate a problem. Using a stethoscope, he listens to the heart and lungs. He checks the wings closely for proper function and feather condition. For most of the birds in pens without netting over the top, the feathers on the right wing are clipped. This keeps the birds off balance when they try to fly, preventing them from getting out of their pens. For those in netted pens, we make sure that there is no damage to the wings so that when breeding season comes around again, they will be able to be naturally fertile.
We weigh the birds and note their Body Condition Index (BCI). The BCI is a measurement of how much breast muscle a bird has. The weight and BCI are normally fairly constant for any individual bird. Monitoring these data gives us an indication of the individual's condition. Any sudden or drastic changes let us know that we need to investigate the situation further. During the examination, we note in the birds' medical records anything out of the ordinary, closely comparing new information to known preexisting conditions to determine if there have been any changes.
Finally, we collect blood and fecal samples and run them through a series of tests. The Red Blood Cell and White Blood Cell counts from the blood give a general indication of a bird's health. A chemistry test of the blood determines the levels of protein, calcium, glucose, and sodium. Examinations of the fecal samples determine if the bird is carrying any parasites. If any parasites are present, we administer appropriate medications to get rid of them. The whole health check process is not unlike the one you would get from your doctor, hopefully resulting in a healthy, happy, and productive bird for the upcoming season.
Anatomy 101: Lungs, Bones, & Feathers
Did you know that birds have special adaptations that help them fly?
The respiratory system of birds is more complex than ours. In addition to the lungs, there are many air sacs. Air sacs are storage units for air used by birds during their breathing process. The air sacs act as a kind of bellows system, blowing from one to the next, creating a constant flow of air through the lungs. Unlike our own lungs that are empty when we exhale, bird lungs are never empty. Because of this, there is a much better exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide with the blood. This brings more oxygen to the muscles, which helps during all that flying.
The bones of birds are hollow. They have a special construction of crisscrossing struts inside the bone that makes them surprisingly strong, yet incredibly light. They also have a lightweight beak instead of a heavy jaw and teeth. All of this saves on weight that they don't have to carry around when they fly.
Feathers are unique to birds. When a feather is growing, it is called a blood feather. It is filled with blood to nourish the growth of the feather. When the feather is fully formed, the blood drains and the feathers become very light. At this point, the feather is dead tissue, much like your fingernails or hair. The long strong flight feathers give birds the lift they need to fly, while the smaller body feathers and the fluffy down feathers keep them warm and dry.