02/05/2015 11:40 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Big Ship, Little Bird: WildCare Rescues and Rehabilitates an Injured Seabird Aboard a Cruise Ship

WildCare's Wildlife Hospital treats nearly 4,000 ill, injured and orphaned wild animal patients from over 200 species every year. This is one patient's story.

Leach's Storm Petrel rescued aboard a cruise ship. Photo by Alison HermanceWhen you work for WildCare, animals are never far away. Even on vacation, WildCare staffers and volunteers frequently encounter animals, both injured and well.

This Leach's Storm Petrel was very lucky that WildCare personnel happened to be on board a cruise ship to Mexico the day he struck a window. He was even luckier that WildCare Ambassador Program Manager, Mary Pounder was walking the Promenade Deck at the time it happened.

A crewmember had already spotted the bird as Mary approached, and as she leaned down to investigate, the crewmember shouted "Don't touch it! It could make you sick!"

Mary, knowing that there is nothing at all a human can contract from touching the feathers of a bird, reassured the crewmember that she worked for WildCare, a licensed wildlife rescue center, and that she knew what she was doing.

Injured Leach's Storm Petrel huddled by the railing of the cruise ship. Photo by David Latour

Meanwhile Mary's husband David was calling the room of WildCare Director of Animal Care, Melanie Piazza, also on the cruise, to come do what she does best -- save a wild animal's life!

The ship's crew member had alerted the on-board Environmental Officer, who arrived at the scene at the same time Melanie did. Apparently it's not uncommon for birds to strike cruise ships -- towering skyscrapers traveling at 21 knots that they are! At a loss as to what to do for them, crew members will usually place these fish-eating unfortunates in a box with some bread (!) to hopefully recover on their own. Most outcomes are poor.

So this ship's Environmental Officer was thrilled to have actual wildlife medical experts on board. After clearing it with the ship's bridge, he gave permission to Melanie and Mary to take charge of the bird's care.

WildCare's Director of Animal Care examines the bird. Photo by David Latour

A window-struck bird will be in shock. He'll probably have head trauma, and possibly broken bones. Subcutaneous fluids are one of the first treatments for shock so, after gently tucking the bird into a bag, the Environmental Officer and rescuers walked to the Medical Bay where Melanie asked for and received syringes and saline hydrating solution.

Then they brought the bird to Mary's cabin, and turned up the heat to help warm him while Melanie performed a gentle exam.

Examining the Storm Petrel's wings in the cruise ship cabin. Photo by David Latour

Without a radiograph machine, determining if bones are broken on a bird the size of a robin is a real challenge, but Melanie is an expert. Mary held the bird while Melanie gently palpated the bones of the wings, spine and legs. To her relief, no fractures presented. They knew the bird had hit his head-- a small patch of feathers over his right eye was disrupted, and the eye was swollen shut. Such a head injury can be very serious, but with luck this bird could recover.

Melanie rehydrated the bird with subcutaneous fluids, and found an ingenious method to provide him with a heat source while he recovered. She borrowed two stones from the Hot Stone Massage room in the ship's luxurious spa! These stones are known to retain heat, so a few minutes in hot water kept them warm for a long time. Melanie tucked the stones into a wash cloth and placed them in the box with the bird. Now rehydrated and warm, the bird had a much better chance at recovering from his ordeal.

The ship's chef provided fish for the recovering bird. Photo by Alison HermanceMeanwhile, Melanie knew that the bird would be with them for a few days, and he'd need to eat during that time. A pelagic bird like a Storm Petrel isn't going to eat bread, obviously. He needed fish. A request for an interview with the ship's head chef quickly resulted in a fresh piece of raw fish from the kitchen. Cruise ships are astonishingly accommodating!

The bird in his box spent the night in the cabin bathroom, and the next day Melanie and Mary decided to reexamine him, try to feed him and offer him the chance to swim, preen and repair his waterproofing.

Giving the petrel swimming time in the cruise ship cabin's sink. Photo by David LatourBut here's a dilemma! How do you provide a bathing pool for a seabird in a cruise ship cabin? The sink, of course! Mary rigged a towel covering over the sink, in case the bird decided to try to fly, and filled the sink with filtered water (ship's water has a lot of chlorine, so filtered water was important). The bird paddled and preened a bit, and seemed reenergized by his bath. Melanie offered him a few small pieces of fish, which he refused. She gently pushed some pieces past his beak and into his crop, just to give him some calories.

Back into his box with the warmed stones he went. He hadn't yet recovered, but Mary and Melanie were pleased to see him more alert and responsive than he had been the day before.

Leach's Storm Petrel feeling much better. Photo by David Latour The next day, the petrel was even more bright and alert, and his swollen eye was now open and clear. They could hear him pecking at the box, trying to figure out how to escape. Melanie wanted to release him as soon as possible if he had actually recovered, but she needed to test his flight abilities before letting him go. Again, a dilemma! How do you test a bird's flight without an aviary? Loft him gently into the air inside the cabin, of course. Over the bed so, in the event he couldn't fly, he wouldn't hit the hard floor and reinjure himself.

On the second toss, this little bird flew beautifully within the cramped confines of the cruise ship cabin. With big smiles of relief, Melanie and Mary proclaimed him ready to be released.

After checking the wind speed across the decks, the group trooped down to the port side of the aft Promenade Deck. There was no possibility of the ship's being slowed down for the release, so they knew, between the winds and the ship's speed, the first few moments of the bird's flight could be fairly chaotic. The rear of the ship made the most sense for the release, and the port side offered the best protection from the wind.

Releasing the Storm Petrel back to the wild. Photo by David Latour As everyone crossed their fingers, Melanie faced the bird toward the wide ocean and then launched him into the air. As expected, the first few seconds of his flight sent him tumbling, and a gust pushed him back toward the ship's hull. But seconds later, the bird had cleared the ship and, as they watched, he flapped his wings and soared into the sky, free once more.

Watch the bird's release in the video below.

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