The Story of Amy, The Keel-Billed Toucan

Wildlife conflicts and the story of Amy the keel-billed toucan fledgling – Part 1. Close proximity often leads to conflict. I will soon write a „proper“ article on the notorious human-wildlife conflict, for Belizean newspapers and magazines and I might share it on this blog, as that, once again, is a whole big subject in itself.

As well as the discussion: when do we let nature take its course? And when do we intervene? Do we „rescue“ an animal from nature? No! Usually, we rescue animals who are damaged due to conflict with humans or the impact of our civilization (eg roads…try to think how many dead animals you see on the road, every time you look for them).

Sometimes we might receive an animal, like the baby howler monkey Spartacus, who was likely attacked by a predator but got away. He was too severely injured to survive without medical care. And then a human heard him whimpering in their backyard, called the primate program who arranged rescue and transport to me. When an animal is brought to me, I go by my interpretation of the medical oath, and I do what I can to: alleviate suffering, pain, and injury always keeping welfare in mind, as opposed to letting an animal die a slow but certain death. Which brings me to Amy.

On a busy weekend, in a very busy summer teaching students, while about to drive out of the reception area for the day: my phone rings! On the display, the name of a friend, Laine, who has maybe called me once or twice, if ever. I quickly stop, to let her know that I am 5 h away from home and currently unavailable. Laine found a toucan, in a backyard on the ground, appearing to be „ok“ – no injury obvious to the untrained eye from afar- yet is not flying and has „parents“ (bigger flying toucans) in the branches above. First, I try to establish a rough age estimate and when Laine says that the bird had some yet not all feathers fully developed, we know it is a fledgling. Those sometimes jump out a bit too early. Laine had not yet approached the baby bird. But she was concerned that any predator or bird would very easily eat this obviously not the flighted baby that had come too close to human civilization (our yards too often bring dogs and cats who will do damage to wildlife). On the phone, I try to coach Laine to see if the bird has no externally visible injury and if not to put her up in the tree. As simple as that! That might work. „And keep on watching. Parents will come and feed there. Sometimes it just takes a few days to learn to fly. And if it does not work, call Bird Rescue“.

And off we go our way to the primates. Surprise, surprise 5 minutes down the road, I still have phone reception and receive another call, Laine again! They could find no nest, or get the baby up into a tree and upon closer inspection, she did seem not quite right! I am far away and can not see for myself but I quickly pass on the phone number for the avian rescue center. I know they can pick up, assist, and stabilize the bird, or just take care of it, depending on how bad it is.

As I return to the phone reception 1.5 days later, I receive a text from the rescue center: asking me to let them bring the toucan by my house to see her on the way. Not even home after 3 weeks of non-stop working… of course I can not say no! I know Nicki would not „bug“ me Sunday evening if it were not urgent.

When I finally get this fledgling bird on the table I am amazed at the severity of her injuries. Nicky suspected broken bones in the wing, yet I find no brakes. What we do find, is jagged lacerations of the left-wing, under which we can see down to muscles, tendons, and bones of radius, ulna, and parts of the humerus. The wound is smelly already! This could have been a predator trying to grab the bird by the wing, leaving an infected jagged wound. Weirdly enough Nikki saw her claw at herself with her left leg, and she also has sores on her left hock, which indicates that she has been handicapped for longer than just a day and that her leg is not functioning as well as it should either. Her pupillary reflex appears slow, especially on the left side and she has diarrhea. She is off balance and has very little „spirit“ at that time.

First things first: we deal with the most severe injury and shock. Rehydration, a bit of Rescue Remedy (homeopathic remedy), and then we clean and flush her injury and wrap her so that her wing can heal without access from her clawing foot. We add vitamins and antibiotic treatment for the infection, and after a few days of recovery, a dewormer (despite a negative stool sample).

A week later, I inspect her and change the wing wrap. The wounds are slowly healing. Yet with her primary injury healing, it becomes more apparent that her body posture still seems „odd“. We add Vit B-complex in an attempt to alleviate nerve damage. She is given the name Amy mainly for the time of her rescue within days of Amy Winehouse’s untimely death, her yet unexplained „self-destructive behavior“ and some of her features and a beautiful voice (although that could be argued for toucans ;)).

Another week goes by and we remove the body wrap and then the wing wrap. We have to stop limiting her movement in that wing, which we generally do as short as possible and only when necessary for fractures. It is a struggle between protecting the wing and preventing it from becoming stiff and immobile, and we want to speed up the last bits of healing to occur with air contact. Within 30 minutes of the wrap being removed Amy claws herself again, and nearly rips her wing vein! She bleeds profusely, which we stop with a simple compression, and then we re-wrap the wing once again.

At this point, Nikki asks me to please take the bird so that I can ensure she does not bleed to death after one of her self mutilation attacks. I agree and take Amy home with me. In the following 2 days, I spend a lot of time around Amy, just observing her, weird, behavior. It becomes clear that her entire left side has limited function. While she can bear weight on the leg and pull the wing back to the body, she seems to have very little control over the leg or wing. Once the foot grabs something – including her own neck! – it will not let go. Nikki and I have to save her from self-strangulation more than once.

I tentatively reconstruct that she must have been either born that way or received a head/neurologic trauma at an earlier stage of her life, which lead to the beginning handicap, and some nerve damage in left-wing and leg (and then maybe a predator on top).

After we have in those past 2 weeks eliminated broken bones, parasites, and bacterial infection as causes for her repeated self-mutilation to her wing, I deduct it could be because she just does not have sensation. Or, worse, the tingling sensation of healing or returning innervation after injuries? Nor does she have proper coordination, and her foot just won’t let go once she grabs on to anything. In frustrating 2 days, I observe this uncoordinated and self-destructive seeming creature and my doubt will only increase that we can not „save“ this patient, which then means that I should euthanize her to end suffering. But at this point, she clearly demonstrates a strong will to survive and little to no fear or stress and has regained strength and cleared the infection. I get an idea of one last-ditch effort that we could try… it is not nice but it might work and ultimately save her. Do you want to know what it was? (of course, this took place in the past and I can tell you that while somewhat unconventional or surprising it did indeed work and Amy’s story still continues, as does Spartacus’). to be continued…

Looking forward to Questions and/or Comments?

Daniel Velasquez made a short video of Amy that you can see here: