Skin Grafts and Creancing Allow Great Horned Owl to be Released

Morro Bay, CA, September 1, 2014—Pacific Wildlife Care will be releasing this evening a Great Horned Owl found over a year ago in Arroyo Grande entangled in a barbed wire fence. The bird’s rescuer was able to cut the small section of fence around which the bird’s right wing was wrapped and bring the bird to the clinic. Known as 13-757, the bird sustained a significant injury to the wing web, while struggling to free himself. During this fight to escape, the owl’s wing web skin had become tightly wound around the barb, tearing the skin. This is a fairly common injury for birds of prey, especially great horned owls, presumably because they don’t see the wire or the barbs. When this occurs, the struggle cuts off the blood supply to the wing, and in most such cases, the bird does not survive.

Medications were added to Owl 13-757’s food, and daily dressings were applied to the open wound created by his struggle with the fence. Two weeks later, Dr. Shannon Riggs, the fulltime wildlife veterinarian for Pacific Wildlife Care, performed an artificial tissue graft. When this first product failed, another type of artificial tissue was attempted, and this did stimulate the growth of new blood vessels and healing. Scar tissue would have interfered with the full extension of his wings, prohibiting release to the wild. Luckily, the wound healed without scar tissue.

However, this was just the beginning of this owl’s journey toward release. There was still a significant degree of muscle and other soft tissue trauma that wasn’t readily apparent. There was also feather damage, both from the original entanglement in the barbed wire and from confinement in a small space during the healing process. The owl was able to fly short distances, but only with a great deal of effort and not with the silent, gliding flight that a great horned owl needs to be able to hunt prey in the dark.

Upgrades were made to our raptor holding aviaries to prevent further feather damage. Volunteers worked weekly to take the bird out for exercise on a “creance” line. This is a lightweight line attached to a leather strap around the bird’s leg, allowing him to exercise by flying longer distances than were possible in our small flight cages. The owl showed small improvement each time. It took months of patience and persistence, but his beautiful bird is finally able to return to his wild life.

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