People often like to hear success stories about the birds we take in, but in fact only 50% of the wildlife we take in is released again. It's not because we are incapable, but the reality is that most patients which arrive here are already on their way to bird heaven, or need to be euthanised due to horrendous injuries.
This story is about a ruru (morepork) that was caught in a parapara tree (pisonia brunoniana).
Parapara, also known as the bird catcher tree, is native to New Zealand. It typically grows on islands and coastal areas of the North Island, and is present in Auckland.
In spring and summer, parapara seeds develop a glue-like coating which is designed to help with seed dispersal. This coating remains sticky for months, and traps birds of various species. Fantails, waxeyes, grey warblers, and sparrows are frequent victims, likely attracted to bugs stuck in the seed pods. Kingfishers and ruru see these small birds as easy prey, and become entangled themselves.
Once trapped, birds struggle to fly as their feathers are glued together. As they struggle on the ground, they become covered in leaves and dirt. They are unable to find food, and they are vulnerable to predators. To survive, they need a specialized treatment at an experienced rehab center. We have successfully treated and saved many of these victims, but it takes a lot of time and care.
The poor ruru we admitted a couple of weeks ago was hardly recognisable as a bird when found on the ground by someone walking their dog. It was quickly put on the ferry to Whitianga and I collected it from there. My first thought was: oh dear, where to start. Because we don't know how long the bird has been stuck, stabilisation is the most important first task. Fluids and pain relief were administered straight away.
That night I removed some of the sticky pods so that the ruru's legs and wings were free. But I knew the task of removing all of the pods would have to be done under full anesthesia as it would be too painful and stressful to do so otherwise. (Imagine having chewing gum stuck in your hair...).
The job of removing the rest of the pods went ahead the next day at Whitianga Vets, where Sue (a Kuaotunu Bird Rescue Trust volunteer) and I carefully loosened well over 50 gluey pods, as well as leaves, branches and other rubbish. We used several special products, and cannot cut or pull any feathers as it will take too long for them to grow back.
We gave the ruru some much needed rest after that for a few days, and had chicken and crickets on the menu each night. He was doing really well, he also gained some weight and seemed so much better being able to move freely.
But more work was required as he was still looking a mess, and so he needed a wash to clean off the substances we used as well as the remaining glue. We had a team ready on day 4 with a nice warm bath and the hairdryer and incubator ready to use afterwards.
All went well (it's not easy holding a ruru in a bath as it has sharp bits at both ends). Each feather was carefully washed and rinsed, and after a drying session we left him alone warming up for the rest of the day.
In the following days he went from strength to strength, even having a little fly around the room, proving that he would be OK to go soon. We planned to release him, but decided to give him an opportunity to put some more weight on for another few more days.
Then suddenly I noticed a change, he looked oddly at me one morning and was unable to move away when I went inside the cage to refresh the food. I was very concerned, and an hour later he was dead. We were devastated, after all that work.
The moral of the story is that we underestimate the stress these birds go through when handled by us humans. After all, they perceive us as a potential predator and aren't used to the presence of humans in most cases.
We believe a cerebral stroke or related brain event was the cause of death. Stress can kill.