Alpha the hawk undergoes surgery
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 15, 2022
It has been a busy week. Spring is usually that way. People and pets are starting to venture out of their houses and sometimes that means pets get sick or hurt.
Less people are sick with COVID-19, so they are catching up with vaccines that were missed. That is how it ended up that I was doing surgery on Friday night.
Alpha is a young Harris hawk and she took a serious squirrel bite to her right foot back in November. The toe got infected and was a persistent problem. Alpha continued to hunt, but it was obvious the problem was going to require surgery.
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Falconry season ends at the end of February in Kentucky, so it was a good time to get Alpha’s foot fixed. Her falconer is a friend of mine and I didn’t want to do it during office hours and take away from any potential staff bonus.
I’m not sure if Mike volunteered to help or if I voluntold him.
Regardless, he was up to help handle and monitor anesthesia. Even with help, I am totally and completely responsible. Therefore, I can monitor anesthesia by listening to the monitors, but an extra set of hands to record and help is best. Surgery after hours is much like surgery during the day.
Hawks are a little more dangerous than most pets. Theoretically, if you hood a falconry bird, they will be quiet and calm. The helmet-like leather hood goes over the head and covers the eyes.
A good hood will fit tightly on the beak so the bird can breathe, but not allow light in. A bird that can’t see is quiet and calm.
This is all good in theory, but Alpha doesn’t like to be hooded. At least, she doesn’t like for Mike or I to hood her. This usually means that she baits or flies off the glove.
When we give up, I catch her behind the head and Mike puts the hood on. Her master didn’t send her hood, so we use one of the clinic ones which isn’t a perfect fit. She still sees light and isn’t as calm as I would like. (Meaning she tries to foot my hand with her talons.)
After the hood is on, we put her into a casting jacket.
This is a piece of modern canvas with Velcro straps. This keeps her wings protected and the feet and talons away from us.
Unfortunately, I have to work on one of the feet. With the talons. Big talons.
In days of old, I’m sure this would have been all that was done to start working on the bird. However, I am grateful that anesthesia and pain medication are standard now for this type of thing. Alpha is masked down with isofluroane. The trouble with masking a bird down with a hood on, is that it is difficult to tell when they are asleep and when they are faking. Let’s just say the casting jacket came in handy.
After Alpha was finally asleep, it was safe(r) to work on the feet. Radiographs were the first order of business. The dental x-ray was perfect for the small toes of a hawk.
The portable machine made it easy to take multiple views. Alpha’s tendon was inflamed and calcified. The chance of fixing it was slim to nil.
I called Alpha’s owner and discussed the prognosis. We made the decision to amputate. That was probably best for the bird and the owner.
Feet are not a good place to do surgery. Birds stand in a lot of things including their poop. Instead of the usual three rounds of scrub and alcohol, I did at least six.
A sterile bag held the bird with only the single toe poking out. I don’t know what these surgery bags are meant for in human medicine, but they are handy for surgeries like this.
I opened the surgery pack, scalpel and suture and donned surgery gloves and gear.
Hawk feet skin is made to withstand the bite of gnawing rodents who are fighting for their lives.
It is tough. Once I was through the skin, I moved up the bone to take out the infected portions.
There was still some infected tendon, so I took even more bone out.
Closure is routine if the skin cuts are done correctly. A little more on top covers and protects the toe, but not too much so that the thicker skin protects the foot. A bandage protects everything.
We turned off anesthesia and I warned Mike to put his falconry glove back on. He looked at me as if to say ‘she’s still asleep’, but wisely did as I recommended. A few seconds later, Alpha blinked twice and stood up.
Mike and I scrambled to get the casting jacket all the way off and then she was sitting on his gloved fist.
Medicating a hawk is easy — if you put it inside a small quail and feed the quail to the hawk.
If the quail is small enough, the hawk will eat it whole. Within two minutes of waking up, she had eaten the quail and thus taken her second dose of pain medication. The metabolism of birds is vastly different than mammals, so sometimes it means different medications and sometimes it is a vastly different dose. That and the husbandry and handling differences are some of the reasons that many vets chose not to see exotics.
Alpha has to be medicated twice a day and gets her bandage changed often. It is always a two-person job and usually Mike stops by when it is time. Falconer friends make great hawk assistants. There is a lot of care that goes into Alpha.
It is one of the reasons that I have had a busy week. Alpha is doing well and I like busy, so it is all good.
MJ Wixsom, DVM MS is a best-selling Amazon author who practices at Guardian Animal Medical Center in Flatwoods, Ky. GuardianAnimal.com 606-928-6566