Why So Blue?

by Sara Eisenhauer
Wildlife Services Manager

On June 18th, VINS’ Wildlife Services Department received its first baby Blue Jay of the season. Blue Jays have always been one of my favorite birds, so you can imagine my excitement when I heard of its arrival. However, this little jay wasn’t feeling so excited – it had been attacked by a dog and suffered neurological damage and a fracture to its left leg. We don’t encounter dog attack cases very often, but when we do, the patients usually come to us in very rough shape. 

Neurological damage and spinal trauma are very common injuries from dog attacks – the strong bite of a dog can damage many nerves in the bird’s body, including those in the spinal column. This little jay was unable to stabilize itself and held its head in a constant upside down position. We acted quickly and immediately gave the jay an anti-inflammatory medication for pain and swelling, an antibiotic to prevent infection, and a homeopathic medication for nerve damage. The next step was to splint his broken leg. 
Example of leg splint and boot
on an American Crow

As a wildlife rehabilitator, I have found that one of the most challenging procedures I have done is leg splints. Birds have very thin leg bones, and their legs are shaped in an entirely different way compared to those of mammals. The goal with leg splinting is not only to stabilize the fracture, but to prevent the entire leg from moving. On a small songbird, you can’t put their leg in a solid cast, so you have to be creative: we call it the Z-splint. Birds’ legs are shaped in a Z-formation, so we fashion a splint to replicate this.  The only way to do this successfully is to anesthetize the bird. Once the splint is secured, you then have to fashion a “shoe.” Even though the injured leg can no longer move within the splint, the bird’s foot and toes can still move.  This can be a problem – the movement of the foot causes muscles and tendons to pull on the fracture site. To prevent this, we make a little shoe that we tape to the bottom of the bird’s foot.  We like to call them “booties.”

Fledgling Blue Jay –
fully healed and growing strong!

With a secure splint, healing medications and a healthy Blue Jay diet, we hoped this youngster would be on his way to a full recovery. Birds’ bones heal very quickly, and the baby Blue Jay’s splint and shoe were ready to be removed after only one week. To our delight, the fracture had a firm callous on it, and it was healed!  The little jay’s neurological damage amazingly corrected itself, as well, and he was no longer upside down!  We now have him in a larger enclosure, where he’s practicing flying, eating like a champ, and growing into one of my favorite birds – a Blue Jay.

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