Tracking Mottled Ducks in South Texas

by Dr. Scott Ford

I’m on location in Kingsville, Texas right now to assist biologist Jay VonBank of USGS in a study of the movement of mottled ducks. Mottled ducks are close in appearance to both female mallards and black ducks and can interbreed with those species and produce fertile hybrids. Their range spreads across the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas although there are two subspecies recognized: The Florida mottled duck (Anas fulvigula fulvigula) and the Gulf Coast mottled duck (A. f. maculosa).

Hen mottled duck
A hen mottled duck. Note the orange bill and dark, dull wing speculum. Mottled ducks have a higher degree of light edge lacing to the feathers, as compared to mallards.

They inhabit near-coastal wetlands and are surface feeding, or dabbling, ducks, very similar to mallards and black ducks in their habits and habitat. They are not broadly considered to be a conservation concern but because they are a game species, there is interest in more completely understanding their movements, habitat requirements, and the dynamics of their genetics. Also, because some pockets of mottled ducks are found further inland, biologists would like to know if their populations are in any way connected with those closer to the coast and what may drive the ducks to move further inland. Having more complete information in these regards will help biologists and stakeholders in their management of the population and habitat.

The trackers we will be using, produced by Ornitella, UAB in Lithuania, utilize cellphone technology in combination with an onboard GPS. Some of you may recall that I previously implanted these particular transmitters in mallards in North and South Dakota. They record location to a fine enough degree to pinpoint specific portions of ponds and lakes, and even nest locations. The information is logged in the unit and then uploaded periodically to cell towers and biologists can collect the information from a secure website. The units only have internal power since the only exposed part of the transmitter is a short antenna that protrudes by the tail. This is typical of transmitters in water birds because they do not normally tolerate external harnesses or other appliances.

Drake mottled duck with transmitter antenna visible
A drake mottled duck with the tracker antenna visible by the tail. Although the body and head are colored similar to the hen, the wing speculum is bolder and the bill is green.

However, there is a newer technology that will be tried on a small number of birds this year. It involves the use of a novel subcutaneous anchor system and a transmitter mounted on the back with an exposed solar panel. This allows the unit to be smaller, lighter, and last longer. Subcutaneous anchors have previously been attempted and generally slough off after a few weeks or months. However, these are using a newer type of anchor that may be rejected and shed more slowly. Part of the project this year will be to see how well this works. If it works well enough for the purposes of tracking surface ducks then it could be used more widely and avoid the need for invasive surgical implantation.

I’m excited to assist in this research and particularly curious to see how well the external transmitters remain attached. I will try to post updates, and photos, of our work as it progresses. Please feel free to ask questions below!

Blog Projects Research Wildlife

Dr. Ford Interviewed by Local News Stations Regarding Avian Influenza Outbreak

By Dr. Scott Ford

A highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) strain was isolated from chickens in the UK last November. This strain rather quickly escaped efforts to contain it and passed on to the Middle East in late December, where it resulted in the deaths of over 5,000 cranes in Israel and the culling of half a million production poultry. Not long later, it made landfall in the US and has gradually spread to about half the country. Our first case occurred in Wisconsin in a production poultry flock in Jefferson County in mid-March and resulted in the culling of 2.7 million chickens and has since hit a handful of backyard flocks and production farms since.

HPAI has also affected wildlife and a recent case of a bald eagle that developed neurologic symptoms caught the public’s attention recently. The stricken eagle was found in Bay View, a suburb of Milwaukee, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources responded and retrieved it. Because of the potential for HPAI to infect other birds in wildlife facilities or at least disrupt activities due to quarantines, wildlife centers are limiting the intake of wild birds, especially those that exhibit neurologic symptoms such as stumbling, convulsions, or incoordination. The eagle had such symptoms and was euthanized the next day. Test results for avian influenza are still pending. It’s worth noting that eagles often suffer neurologic impairment as a result of collisions or lead intoxication. I have not been in direct contact with Wisconsin Humane Society, which is where the eagle was taken, but I’m assuming that they performed an in-house lead screening and radiographs to check for lead in the GI tract or signs of trauma. They probably also performed an ophthalmologic exam to check for secondary signs of head trauma.

I was contacted by two different news stations and interviewed regarding eagles and avian influenza (see links above). The pieces are great but you may have additional questions. First of all, I’d like to remind everyone not to panic. The strain that is circulating is not likely to infect people under normal circumstances. However, if an affected bird bit or scratched you, the potential is increased so keep your distance from any dead birds or those exhibiting unusual behavior. Per the DNR’s website, you can contact the DNR Wildlife Hotline by emailing or by leaving a voicemail message for a return phone call at 608-267-0866.

Avian influenza is extremely common in the environment and circulates all over the world via migratory birds, especially waterfowl, gulls, and other sea and shore birds. Most strains are of low pathogenicity and may not cause any noticeable symptoms. But when a highly pathogenic strain spreads, it becomes a serious danger to endangered populations of wild birds and to our own food chain. Do your part to limit the spread by keeping your chickens contained until the current epornitic (a fancy word for a bird epidemic) is over. If you feed wild birds, consider stopping for a while, particularly if you have pet chickens, ducks, or other birds of your own. My own chickens are not happy about being contained in their pen, despite the fact that it’s pretty spacious, but hopefully they’ll be out soon and enjoying the summer.

I’m including some resources below you may want to check out. I’d also love it if you post comments or questions below and I’ll do my best to answer. Stay safe!

Blog Medical Wildlife

Awarded Adjunct Faculty Position at University of Wisconsin-Madison

By Dr. Scott Ford

I’m pleased to announce that as of a couple of months ago, I was awarded an official Adjunct Assistant Professor position in the Department of Surgical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I’ve been working with the veterinary school since about 2014, offering lectures at their annual exotics conference and as a guest lecturer to the veterinary students each spring. In the past couple of years, I’ve also instructed surgery labs with residents and interns that have interests in avian medicine. Topics have included anesthesia, soft-tissue surgery, backyard poultry, and orthopedics and we have more courses planned for the coming year. It’s been a great relationship and I’ve enjoyed working with the veterinary school and its students and faculty. I feel I learn new things each time I am called upon to share my knowledge and experience.

The adjunct position provides additional tools that will help me with my ongoing bird work and research support. Most notable is access to online journals through the university library system.

Special thanks to Drs. Christoph Mans and Grayson Doss for their invitations and the support in getting the position approved. I’m looking forward to what we can do together!

Participants in the 2020 orthopedic surgery lab for residents and interns at UWM School of Vet Med


Helping A Wild Bird

By Dr. Scott Ford

I applaud anyone who is willing to stop and show compassion for wildlife. Handling and treating wildlife can be dangerous, both to you and for the patient. In the United States, it also requires state and federal permits to be conducted legally. Here are some steps to follow when you find an injured or sick wild bird:

  1. Your welfare comes first. If you don’t feel comfortable getting close to an animal, don’t do anything. Contact one of the organizations below or your local animal control or police.
  2. If the bird is in immediate danger from weather, predators, vehicles, or other hazards, please move it out of danger, if there is minimal risk to yourself. With raptors it’s best to wear gloves or use a coat or blanket to put over the bird before attempting to pick it up. Birds of prey calm down when they cannot see so keeping the head covered is most important. Be aware of the talons and either hold the legs or just keep them wrapped up snugly so the feet don’t have room to strike.
  3. Contact a local rehabilitator using the links below.
  4. If you cannot get the bird to a rehabilitator in a timely manner, place it in a cardboard box or pet carrier in a warm, quiet, dimly lit space. Water can be offered but no food should be given. It’s important to keep voices low and viewing to a minimum.

Local Wild Bird Care Facilities (Greater Milwaukee, WI area)

Outside of Milwaukee Area

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association- Helpful Tips and Lookup Tool

Wild Baby Birds

The most common baby birds people find are songbirds (passerines). They stick pretty tight to their nests until they have enough coordination to leap from branch to branch and enough feathers to regulate their own body temperature. This stage is called a “brancher” and is usually achieved when just a week or so old. The babies can’t even fly yet and are still dependent on their parents for food, and they are usually not far away. Baby birds are often fed every 10-15 minutes by their doting parents and they locate each other by calls and remembering where the babies were last perching. For these reasons, if you find a baby bird, don’t move them or hang around or you will make it difficult for their parents to find and feed them. There are exceptions such as if the bird is in immediate danger or you find it with a fallen nest. In those cases, move the baby and/or the nest to a safe place with some concealment. Usually a bush or low branch in a tree will suffice. Watch for a distance for a while to make sure the parents find them again. If a baby bird is injured or looks sick then you will need to deliver it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator (see above).

Baby bird response flowchart
Art ©2018 by Rosemary Mosco, posted with permission. She has lots of adorable and instructive bird art. See more at

Veterinarians Receiving Injured Wild Birds

This video was made by a friend and veterinary colleague, Dr. Laura Johnson, to illustrate how small animal veterinary clinics should ideally receive and initially care for injured birds of prey.

Quick Help Resources Wildlife

Finding a Pet Bird Veterinarian

By Dr. Scott Ford

Seeing Dr. Ford

If you are looking for an in-person or remote veterinary consultation with Dr. Ford, please visit this page.

Other Avian Veterinarians Around Milwaukee

These are local veterinarians who demonstrate interest in seeing avian patients and who refer patients to me from time to time. It is not necessarily an endorsement as I have not been able to work closely with all of them. If you know an avian veterinarian in or near Wisconsin that you’d like listed, please comment below.

Outside of Milwaukee

There are two excellent search tools available to you. Bear in mind that sometimes information can get a little out of date if a clinician moves, retires, etc. so be sure to call and make an appointment before showing up.

Member search for the Association of Avian Veterinarians (an international association for avian-interested veterinarians)

Search for Board-Certified Avian Veterinarians at the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners

Medical Pet Bird Care Quick Help Resources

Mottled Duck Trackers Update

Live oak reaching out over a water hole

By Dr. Scott Ford

September 3, 2022

This is an update on the research described in Tracking Mottled Ducks in South Texas.

We successfully deployed six transmittered ducks on August 22nd near Kingsville, Texas, and they are all functioning well as of today. Shortly after that deployment, we moved near Los Angeles, TX and the crew has been busy securing permission from ranchers to enter their properties to look for and potentially trap ducks. Ranch access is a big deal as 97% of Texas is privately owned. Although Texans are friendly, there’s a general distrust of outsiders entering their properties, oftentimes for good reason as the ranches are large, have many dangers, and there’s been a number of illegal activities perpetrated by outsiders on private land over the years (poaching and human trafficking to name a few). The weather has also been a big challenge as it has rained far more this summer than usual for the brush country of south Texas. We even had an alligator eat a group of ducks before they could be caught! It may be that in the future we switch over to capturing mottled ducks in this region in wintertime and capture those closer to the coast in summertime.

We have one more week to attempt captures and the crew is optimistic now that we have enough ranch access that we’ll be able to get some more ducks in the days ahead.

In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying Texas hospitality and seeing some new bird species for my life list. A local ranch hosted us last week and Henry, the ranch manager, was very helpful. He gave me a tour of the property and I played ranch hand for a day, helping to distribute deer feed. Contrary to what I had thought, many Texas ranches are not focused just on cattle or oil these days. Instead, they promote wildlife for purposes of guided hunting or wildlife and birding tourism. After a tour of the ranch and living out there for a week, I can see what a big commitment that is. At least in the case of this ranch, Henry is doing a great job promoting a diverse environment, not only of benefit for big game but also all the other wildlife that make up a healthy ecosystem.

Texas Tortoise crossing a road
Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri) crossing a dirt road on the ranch

Henry has also been a great educator, identifying plant species for me and telling me about their benefits for wildlife and how he manages them. Previously, I had the simple impression that this area of Texas would be tumbleweeds and cacti, cattle and oil wells, and little else. Instead, I’ve learned it’s a vast, ancient flood plain thick with tree-sized brush and interlocked thickets of thorny bushes and prickly pear cacti. It is teeming with colorful songbirds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians in addition to the more obvious rabbits, deer, roadrunners, and raptors. Texas rocks for wildlife diversity.

That’s it for now. I’ll give another update later next week!

Sweeping plain of tall brushland
South Texas Brush Country. This “Brush” is well over your head (3-4 meters high) and composed of many species.

Blog Research Wildlife

Monitoring the Health of Avian Scavengers on the Pacific Coast

By Dr. Scott Ford

Cover photo by Rich Van Buskirk

Citation: Varland D, Ford S, Johnson G, Hamer T. Monitoring the Health of Avian Scavengers on the Pacific Coast – 2012 Report. Report to the USFWS, 2012. 57pp.

Summary: In 2012 I worked with Dan Varland of the nonprofit organization, Coastal Raptors, in the conduct of a broad health assessment of three marine-orientated avian scavenger species: bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), common ravens (Corvus corax), and turkey vultures (Cathartes aura). We captures free-living birds using ballistic net traps, procured samples, applied bands (or wingtags in the case of turkey vultures) and released them. The samples allowed us to check for a variety of specific pathogens as well as conduct a survey of GI flora, parasites, and various blood parameters from apparently healthy individuals. This report includes our results up to that time. In subsequent years, more data was collected and we are currently working on publishing a manuscript that includes the sum of all the data.

Research Resources

Emperor Geese in Alaska

Emperor geese are an amazing and unique species. They are almost exclusively marine and never leave the arctic/subarctic latitudes, braving even in the cold of winter in locations such as the Kodiak Islands, Alaska Peninsula, and Aleutian Islands. I’ve been working with Alaska Department of Fish and Game the past few years to implant satellite transmitters in these birds so that their research biologists can understand their movements, predict their population size, and learn more about their life history. It’s important because they are so dependent upon healthy ocean ecosystems and they are also an important food source for native peoples.

In June, 2021, I’ll be out in western Alaska in a remote camp implanting 22 more transmitters in adult geese. The transmitters relay information via satellite for up to 2 years. I’ll also be assisting with local nesting surveys. I’ll be posting updates via satellite (text-only I’m afraid) to my social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter, so subscribe to those accounts if you’d like to learn our progress.

We’ve already performed similar implant trips in Kodiak and in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta region in 2019-2020. You can learn more about emperor geese on the Alaska Dept of Fish and Game website.


Poultry Raising Manual

Posted by Dr. Scott Ford

Citation: Cox, Bill, ed. Small Flock Poultry Health. BC Ministry of Agriculture, Abbotsford, BC. 2011. 251 pp.

“This manual covers all the elements of poultry production with the goal of helping the
small flock owner keep their birds as healthy as possible. It covers areas including housing
and management, basics of poultry diseases, disease prevention and control, and food safety.
While not a complete encyclopaedia of poultry health and management it will help to guide
owners in the care of their flocks. For those wishing to explore more detail in some areas,
references are provided.”

I’m sharing this book as a guide for new chicken owners to learn the basics of coop design and general care of their backyard flock. Please let me know in the comments below if it proves helpful to you!

Blog Resources

Raptor Research Foundation Hosts Virtual Conference

The Raptor Research Foundation is hosting a virtual conference next week. It’s free to members (good excuse to join!) or $20 for non-members. It sounds like they have a good assortment of research presentations as well as techniques seminars. Learn more at

Here’s the official announcement:

RRF is thrilled to invite you to participate in the first-ever RRF Virtual Event scheduled for Tuesday, December 8, and Wednesday, December 9, 2020! We have designed the 2020 Virtual Event to be an informative and engaging learning experience for RRF members and all others with an interest in raptors. We are especially interested in engaging what we at RRF affectionately refer to as Early Career Raptor Researchers (ECRRs: students and early professionals within three years of receiving a college/university
degree). Detailed event information is available on the RRF website.

The format of the 2020 RRF Virtual Event will allow for the maximum convenience and flexibility by enabling you to attend selected sessions of interest. To facilitate active engagement and participation, the
sessions will include a live Question and Answer period open to all participants.

RRF members register at no cost. The cost to non-members is $20 US (and $10 for non-member ECRRs). To find out about becoming a member of RRF or to join, click here. Deadline for registration for the Mentor Sessions is November 30, 2020 (Register here).

The program will include two sessions beginning at 10:00 AM Eastern Time (UTC-5) and extending for about six hours each day. Day 1 starts with a welcome by President Libby Mojica. Next is a Plenary Presentation by Dr. Lucia Liu Severinghaus, who will speak on the Oriental Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus orientalis), a migratory species in Taiwan. Day 1 continues with a member meeting, an awards presentation, and mentor sessions for students and early career professionals. Day 2 features
three workshops:

  • Field and In-hand Raptor Identification
  • Techniques for Handling, Auxiliary Marking and Measuring Raptors After Capture
  • Writing and Peer Review

We hope you can join us in December. Stay safe!


Owl Update

By Dr. Scott Ford

I went to Pine View Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center a couple of days ago and checked out the great horned owl I helped with a broken wing in March. The staff took great care of her and she had graduated to a large flight cage. But in recent weeks her flight performance plateaued and she couldn’t sustain flight long enough to make her a good release candidate.

My evaluation found that her left wing had some mild limitation of extension but the joints seemed healthy. The bones were solidly healed (and this was confirmed in recent x-ray images as well). The problem is most likely stemming from badly shredded muscles in the forewing.

For weight economy, birds have very little muscle and soft tissue in their wings, particularly past the elbow. It’s a plus for flying but when bones break, the fragments become knives that shred up the sparse covering of muscle and skin. This not as much of a problem in mammals but in birds it often leads to exposed bone ends that quickly dry out and become impossible to fix. We were fortunate in this case that Pine View and the staff at Best Friends Veterinary Center kept the bones clean and moist so we were able to fix the fracture. However, muscle damage was severe and there wasn’t much, beyond splinting, that could be done about that until surgery. And most of that damage was likely done at the moment of injury (in this case, probably hit by a vehicle). Still, it’s usually worth it to try the repair and oftentimes, with physical therapy, the muscles can recover.

Unfortunately, in this case, the damage was too severe and has resulted in just a little too much loss of performance. The bird will either be placed in an education facility or, if that’s not possible, humanely euthanized. It’s a sad outcome (and a very common one with wildlife) but I always have to remind myself that without help, the bird would have never had any chance.

Thank you to the people out there that support wildlife rehabilitators through their hands-on volunteer service and their financial support. Also to those that take time to stop along the road and help birds in need. This bird would not have had a chance without your compassion!


Picking Up Chicks & Helping a Baby Bald Eagle

By Dr. Scott Ford

Yesterday my husband and I went for our first long drive this year to go pick up some chicken chicks from our friend, Foxfeather Zenkova. Although the pandemic is far from over, we were forced to make this trip now or never due to the timing of the hatch. We took precautions of wearing masks when we went into public spaces, which was very little anyway.

It’s always a fun visit as the Zenkovas live in a world of birds. Emus, ducks, chickens, turkeys, peacocks, parrots, and some really unique education birds including a kestrel and a vulture! She is legally permitted to have and train these birds as well as to act as a way station for several species of wild birds.

As luck would have it, she had just rescued a baby bald eagle and I was only too happy to check it out. She works in cooperation with The Raptor Center (TRC) at the University of Minnesota, which is considered to be the premier raptor center in the entire US. I’m happy to say that the eagle checked out fine. We considered shipping on for x-rays and blood work, just to be extra sure, but that always has to be weighed carefully against the benefits of just getting it back with its parents for rearing. After conferring with TRC, it was decided to place the bird back into a lower part of the same nest tree and monitor for the parents to take over caring for it.

Foxfeather has her own non-profit that seeks to help treat wild birds and educate the public about birds of prey. Her special species of interest are vultures. She keeps up a lively Twitter account about her vulture and bird adventures. And, she’s also a talented artist! Check out her store ( or her Patreon and support her work while getting something fun and birdy for yourself!


Free Lafeber Webinar About Flight in Pet Birds

LafeberVet will be hosting an online, RACE-Approved seminar for veterinarians and support staff about the ethical and medical concerns regarding flight in companion parrots.

Title: Flight Mechanics & Ethical Concerns
Instructor: Todd Driggers, DVM
Date: Sunday, May 31, 2020 at 3 pm Eastern Time
Duration: 1-hour
CE: RACE-approved for 1 hour of continuing education

Flight in Companion Parrots – The Conflict:  Freedom vs Safety

Abstract: Feather trimming birds in captivity has been a common practice performed for many reasons, including fear of loss, safety, and the ability to control and tame.  If the gold standard for animal welfare is freedom and feather destructive behavior is a reliable indicator of scientifically studied animal welfare, feather trimming impacts how the animal feels, functions, and prohibits natural responses to positive or aversive stimuli.  Perhaps it is time to reflect on the benefits and risks of feather trims through the lens of animal welfare. At a minimum, the degrees of severity of the current techniques need redressing when we consider the experience of the bird.

Blog Resources

Teaching/Equipping Local Vets to Treat Wildlife

By Dr. Scott Ford

In recent months, I’ve been helping Pine View Wildlife and Best Friends Vet with a few owl cases. It’s been fun and I’m happy to be helping other veterinarians grow their skills and do great things for wildlife.

I started my professional career by treating wildlife. For those that cherish wild birds, no matter their experience level or background, it’s a great way to see amazing birds up close, learn more about them, and, best yet, relieve their suffering and contribute to their conservation. Over the years, I’ve gotten busier and I’ve relocated to areas where having a direct, daily connection with bird treatment is difficult. I miss it, which is why when local veterinarians contact me for help, especially my surgical expertise, I’m usually happy to run off and do what I consider one of the most fun parts of treating wildlife.

But I can’t do it every time. Which is why I love it when local veterinarians, like Dr. Nan Boss at Best Friends Veterinary Center, show a bona fide interest in doing what’s necessary for sick and injured wildlife. She is one of the veterinarians on record for Pine View Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center. Every wildlife center is required to have a veterinarian pledged to provide support and usually that support is completely pro bono, so it’s a serious commitment.

Dr. Nan Boss takes it seriously too. You may recall that I assisted her last fall with orthopedic surgery on an owl at Best Friends. Well, I was recently called on to help again. Nan worked alongside me to repair a combination ulna/radial fracture in a great horned owl. Fractures of both bones simultaneously are challenging but I’m happy to say that surgery was successful.

The left radius and ulna were fractured mid-shaft

We placed intramedullary (IM) pins into the ulna and radius separately. These are pins that run down the center of the bone. The centers of the bones are hollow although these particular bones contain marrow instead of the air we encounter in the humerus or femur (first bones in the wings and legs, respectively). The pins exited at the wrist (for the radius) and elbow (for the ulna) and were bent around to the upper side of the wing. Then we placed cross pins, bent them so that they overlapped the external portion of the IM pins, and bonded it all together with epoxy putty in a slim bar.

After such surgeries, patients have a wing wrap and receive pain medications, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory drugs for about a week. Then they enter a phase of light physical therapy and gradually increase use of their wings until they are flying again. After 3-4 weeks, hardware is completely removed, usually in a staged process, and the birds enter a period of heavier physical conditioning, leading up to release at 8-12 weeks post-op if all goes well.

Because of the COVID-19 partial shutdown (Best Friend’s is open for essential services only), Dr. Boss and her staff were more available to fully participate in the surgery and aftercare. You can read about orthopedic surgery but in my experience, it’s a lot better to learn on a case alongside an experienced surgeon. It was the strongest part of how I learned– attending externships with Dr. Pat Redig at The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, among other opportunities.

As a testament to how well this process works, I’d like to mention that Dr. Boss took on another owl case, this time a young barred owl, with a similar fracture. I was unable to join her this time so she had to fly solo. But I provided encouragement and advice remotely and from what I see, she did a wonderful job! With ongoing care by Pine View, I expect the bird to gain flight and be releasable.

It feels good to see birds get the care they deserve and to know that I’m contributing to the future of their care. Thank you to Dr. Boss and Pine View for the opportunity. I also appreciate how Dr. Boss has used the recent lockdown as an opportunity for her and her staff to grow professionally.

If you have a positive wildlife and COVID-19 story to share, please let me know in the comments below. It’s a challenging time for wildlife rehabilitation and some centers are really struggling for personnel and financial support. We hear every day about human health professionals responding (and their contributions cannot be undersung), but I’d love to hear more about wildlife care professionals and volunteers too.

2-weeks post-op. You can see bridging bulges of healing bone tissue. The wires and dense irregular shape in the lower left are the hardware and epoxy putty applied during surgery.

In closing, I want to thank Dr. Boss and Pine View for the opportunity to help and to teach. And to everyone else, stay safe. We’ll get through this soon.

Blog Medical Wildlife

Cute Informative Video About Bald Eagle Recovery

A friend of mine created this fun video about the amazing recovery of the population of the bald eagle. You could say he’s a little shy so he’s wearing a bird suit. But he’s got an important message to share. I love seeing all the creative ways of telling the stories of conservation and making it relatable for everyone. I enjoyed it enough that I wanted to share it with everyone.

Due to DDT, habitat loss, and direct killing of eagles, by the 50s and 60s, eagles were noticeably scarce in North America. They were among the first bird species protected under the Endangered Species Act created in 1973. By 2007, they had recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered species list. On a personal note, I grew up in the Puget Sound, a paradise of water and land for eagles to live and breed. But as a child in the 70s and 80s, I rarely saw them despite being an avid bird watcher. Only 20 years later, though, while volunteering with Washington Fish & Wildlife’s eagle monitoring programs, there were so many that new nests were popping up adjacent to homes, in cities, and within a mile of neighboring territories in many cases.

I think that it’s worth mentioning that the recovery of bald eagles was not spontaneous. Nor was it only accomplished by just the “egghead set.” And it wasn’t any one thing that did it either. Indeed, it’s hard to list all the different programs that likely contributed and the countless volunteers (of all ages), biologists, veterinarians, and researchers that helped make it happen. During my career, much of it dedicated to helping eagles, I worked alongside some very interesting and amazing people.

A concerned bald eagle looks on while I examine it with students

There were concerned birdwatchers, supplying their keen observations and monitoring nests (in the days before online nest cams!). There were graduate students, such as Mark Stalmaster, carefully documenting disturbance pressures on wintering and nesting eagles. There were captive breeding programs, such as Dollywood or the efforts of the San Francisco Zoo and the Peregrine Fund. There were veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitators caring for the sick and injured and documenting the anthropomorphic pressures to the birds (not to mention the many volunteers that fed and cleaned up after them in captivity). Government biologists monitored nests and enforced protections to give the birds a better chance at breeding successfully. Others attached tracking devices to follow their movements and identify important habitat to preserve. Pathologists documented their diseases including the connection between pesticides and decreased reproductive success. And many, many concerned citizens lent a hand or gave their money and materials to see it through.

In 2011 I led a conservation medicine externship for veterinary students in Alaska. Here we are counting eagles for a local census on the Chilkat River.

I think it’s really important to remember that we all had a stake in it. And, as big as an accomplishment as the recovery of bald eagles and peregrine falcons has been, there are still greater conservation challenges to tackle now. I hope we can keep all coming together to resolve them.

Enjoy the video and please comment there and below!


Dr. Ford Authors New Chapter on Wild Bird Flight Conditioning

By Scott Ford

A few years ago I wrote a chapter on flight conditioning of wild birds. It’s part of a new book, published by Wiley Blackwell, that hit the shelves this year and promises to be a comprehensive reference for veterinarians that see wild birds and mammals in their practices. It’s called Medical Management of Wildlife Species: A Guide for Practitioners.

The book is the work of 37 authors and spans topics involving wild birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. Dr. Ford co-authored the chapter on pre-release conditioning, focusing exclusively on the avian side of the topic while Dr. Kristen Dubé covered mammals. The book is 482 pages. It’s available in hardcopy, downloadable e-book, or as an online-only copy through Blackwell.

Dr. Ford’s contribution describes physical therapy, flight conditioning, and criteria for release. It includes suggestions for restraint of large birds of prey, application of flight conditioning equipment, and suggestions for record-keeping. There are figures to supplement the text.

If you have this book and, more specifically, read my chapter, I’d love to hear back. Leave a comment below!

Blog Resources

Neil Rettig’s ‘Bird of Prey’ Stirs Action for Rare Philippine Eagles

By Scott Ford

You can see the film, ‘Bird of Prey,’ at local charity showings, streaming through Amazon Prime, or buy your own DVD. See for more details.

You have probably seen Neil’s work without knowing it. Amazing flying shots of rare birds in their natural habitat and intimate close-ups of birds and other animals from all over the world. He takes you so deep into the world of those animals that you forget there’s even a camera there. He’s been a heavy contributor to the world of wildlife cinematography for going on five decades. His work has been featured on many networks and nature documentaries. But unless you look at the fine print or have an avid interest in wildlife photography, you might have missed knowing his name.

Such is the case with me. I learned of Neil after being consulted about a sick harpy eagle being seen by colleagues at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine a few years back. As it turned out, the eagle was one of Neil’s birds and I was soon in contact with Laura Johnson, Neil’s wife. She welcomed my husband, Colin, and I out to their farm one cold and snowy February. We had a lovely visit, getting to see the magnificent bird up close as well as their many other trained birds of prey. Laura was the perfect host since she is also a veterinarian and we were able to trade information about the medical aspects of the birds.

I had hoped to meet Neil also but he wasn’t there. Why? He was off in the Philippines finishing up his latest movie “Bird of Prey.” Actually, Laura had spent a lot of time there helping also but, lucky for us, she happened to be home. After a chilly tour around the farm we sipped tea indoors around a roaring fire and Laura showed us a trailer for “Bird of Prey.”

One of the parents featured in Bird of Prey. Photo by Kike Arnal.

I was immediately touched by what I saw. If you ever seen old film footage of Philippine eagles, they’re probably Neil’s images. He was the first, and only, person to ever capture details of their nest life. The rarity of these images are due first to the rarity of the eagles. It’s estimated that there may be as few as 150 of them left in the wild. Also, as they soon learned, the birds only nest every two years and lay a single egg so finding a nest that was active was even more of a feat. Secondly, it’s extremely difficult to film them, particularly if you are trying your best not to disrupt them. Even this most recent film, with the latest technology and the assistance of local conservation groups, took years of careful work to complete. It came down to sheer determination– a passion to share this bird with the world before they disappear forever. It grew from a palpable need to tap into the overwhelmed, often apathetic, social consciousness and turn things around before these amazing birds disappear forever.

Now those grainy, but beautiful, older images were being supplemented by crystal clear digital imagery and he was piecing together a story with old and new footage that added another dimension to the story. I knew that the film was going to be a great inspiration to many. But it takes more than just feeling the need for action. At some point people need to actually take action. That trailer was contagious. I was inspired and I felt the need to act.

After our visit, Colin and I went on to photograph bald eagles wintering on the Mississippi. And all the way home, I dreamed up ways to get involved with helping Philippine eagles. Art fundraisers maybe? Or offering my medical expertise? Gathering and donating medical supplies and equipment? Or maybe financial contributions? Colin and I discussed it all the way home.

It turns out that I didn’t have to wait long to discover my most useful means of contribution. Laura contacted me a couple of weeks later and put me in touch with the Philippine Eagle Foundation, a locally-based group that has been working since the 1980s to conserve the rare bird. Their approach has included educating the public, advocating politically for the Philippine eagles and their ecosystem, treating the injured, and breeding more of them in captivity. I was consulted regarding several medical cases but one in particular stands out for reasons you will see later. The bird had survived gunshot injuries, a startlingly common problem despite the fact that the birds pose little danger to humans or livestock. I reviewed x-ray images and provided my input for medical care. I do a lot of online consulting for many different veterinarians around the world and it feels good to share my experience to help birds in far-flung places. It felt particularly amazing in this case since there are so few of these birds left in the world.

A scene from Bird of Prey where a doctor reviews x-ray images of Philippine eagles with gunshot fragments. Source:

Two years later, I was pleased to see the film completed. It would still be another couple of years before the movie was released on Amazon (May of this year) and I was able to see the whole thing. Yeah, being the bird sap that I am, I pretty much cried through the whole movie. But who can’t be moved by such an awesome creature? Neil doesn’t just tell you about the Philippine eagle, he connects you to them.

The film starts by telling the story of Neil’s passion, beginning in the 1970s, to share Philippine eagles with the world. Then we’re taken to present day to show that same spark in the eye of the same man, decades later, preparing to go and film the birds again. As the story unfolds, we follow the trials of finding a nest and getting close enough to film the birds. Then we see follow the life of two pairs of Philippine eagles from two different times, building their nest and raising their chicks. Although the scenes flip back and forth between the 1970s and the 2010s, you see the same story unfolding: A man struggling to tell the story of devoted eagle parents doing the same things they’ve done for millions of years in world that, unbeknownst to them, is rapidly closing around them. Both man and bird are up against time pressures, monumental difficulties, but they only see forward. There’s no pause to get depressed or give up despite heartbreaking setbacks. They keep going despite the odds.

The movie explains that some 80% of the forest is gone from the Philippines, most of it harvested during the 70s and 80s. The pressure for this harvesting came from the worldwide market demanding tropical hardwoods for veneers and furniture. So, you see, we all share the blame. The pockets of forest that remain are under constant pressure of expanding human population and little of the harvested areas are replanted and nurtured back into forest. I posed the question as to whether there were signs that the forest can recover. Thankfully, Laura responded that, yes, indeed there are areas recovering but it could take up to a century for the forests to begin to resemble their former ecological diversity. Neil added that biological diversity and interconnectivity of the forest “islands” that are left is key for supporting strong and renewing population of eagles.

Neil, being optimistic but also pragmatic and very modest, says that his efforts at raising public awareness are only a stopgap. When he exposed the world to Philippine eagles in the 80s, he was pleased to see things gradually change for the better. That change has “bought time” and given the birds a little more room to breathe. He hopes that likewise this current movie will provide space for others to do the direct work that changes laws, heals the land, and preserves the eagles that are left. He hopes it eventually leads to lasting change so that the eagles will be around hundreds of years from now.

On a recent Saturday evening, Colin and I met up with a couple of friends near Chicago. Like us, they love birds. We had a pleasant dinner together and then went to a local screening of Bird of Prey, hosted by the Wildlife Discovery Center of Lake Forest, Illinois. Colin and I had already watched the movie but we wanted to share it with others and have someone else to discuss it with. Also, it was a fundraising opportunity with all proceeds going directly back to the Philippine Eagle Foundation. Of course, our friends loved the movie. More than that, they too looked for ways that they could help, even if it was just financial contributions to support the work already underway.

In this scene from Bird of Prey, Matatag, an injured Philippine eagle that has mended successfully from gunshot wounds, is released back to the wild. Source:

At the end of the film I found myself crying at a moment that I will never forget. Sorry, this is a mild spoiler, but it’s important to tell this story. Towards the end, Matatag (the eagle I was consulted about) is shown being cared for. I sometimes hear back from the myriads of doctors that consult with me but I almost never see images of the results. But in the film, there’s that beautiful bird, its massive brown wings and flared mop of head feathers, its wildness flashing in its stunning sapphire eyes. They capture it from its care enclosure, put a hood over its head to keep it calm, and take it on a long trip up into the mountain forest in the arms of a caretaker. At last they gather with other people on the rim of a forested canyon. The hood is removed and the bird launches into space, flapping out over massive sun-splashed trees.

Matatag flies free over the rainforest but with ever-shrinking habitat, his future is uncertain. Source:

The message to me was clear and made my heart soar like the freed eagle: There is hope. We all have a part to play. My contribution was simple– I sat in my cushy office and handed out advice via the Internet. But that modest contribution helped made a difference. It’s easy to become apathetic in our daily lives as we are barraged by news of the deteriorating condition of our planet and the failure of our leadership to act. But don’t forget that only 40 years ago bald eagles, California condors, and peregrine falcons balanced on the edge of oblivion. Thousands of scientists and concerned citizens brought two of those three species back and condors are slowly getting there. Habitat recovery on the scale of the Philippines will take a long, long time. And Philippine eagles have a slow reproductive cycle. And there are serious socioeconomic challenges to navigate in this rapidly developing country. So the problem is more complex and will take longer to resolve than the species conservation efforts I mentioned above. But we cannot lose hope. We can save this bird. We have to save the Philippine eagle.

If you would like to help, there are several options:

  • The Philippine Eagle Foundation. Unfortunately it cannot be a tax-deductible donation since the foundation is in a foreign country. However, 100% of your much-needed donation goes to this proven successful grassroots effort. There are also options for volunteering– see website for details.
  • Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. A donation here goes to the general fund for avian conservation. The Lab of Ornithology is doing awesome work for a variety of avian conservation efforts so your donations are extremely useful but not specifically targeted at helping Philippine eagles. Donations are tax-deductible in the US.
  • The Peregrine Fund. The Peregrine Fund has worked for decades to save a number of endangered bird species. They have a proven track record, particularly with the recovery of the peregrine falcon. At the top of their online donation form, specify “Philippine Eagles” to ensure all of your donation goes to their Philippine eagle program. Donations here are tax-deductible in the US.
  • Watch the film and share it with others! Go to to see the options for purchase and streaming. Amazon gives back 100% of the proceeds to the foundation! After you watch it, leave your feedback and share the experience on your social media. Put your own personal touch on it to make it real. You can also attend local screenings with your friends and meet the Rettigs. I guarantee that you will be inspired!
  • Share this post. Click on the share buttons below and, again, add your personalized touch to reach your friends.
  • Most of all, don’t lose hope and never give up!


Raptor Gastroenterology

By Dr. Scott Ford

Citation: Ford S. Raptor Gastroenterology. J Exotic Pet Med, 19:2 (April), 2010: pp 140-150.

Abstract: Birds of prey have developed talons, a hooked beak, and a tongue and oral cavity replete with pronounced hooks and papillae for prehending large boluses of food. The size of the proventriculus in relation to the ventriculus and weak musculature of the ventriculus, combined with an extremely acidic luminal pH, are consistent with a gastric digestive physiology maximized for protein digestion. The pyloric sphincter retains indigestible matter in the stomach, which is later compressed into a pellet and egested. The ventriculus, pylorus, pancreas, and an elongated duodenum coordinate to maximize neutralization of acidic peptic juices and increase the efficiency of digestion and absorption. Raptors are susceptible to a variety of infectious and noninfectious diseases that affect the digestive tract. Diagnostic testing and treatment recommendations for raptor intestinal disease conditions are discussed in this article.

I wrote this review article in 2010 and supplemented it with some presentations at national conferences. I’ve had several requests for so here it is in its entirety.


2003 Raptor Care Manual

By Dr. Scott Ford

I wrote this protocol manual for training volunteers at the Alaska Raptor Center. I last updated it in 2003 (which is when I left that job) so some of the information is a bit dated, but the basics are still good.

It contains sections on anatomy/physiology, capture, restraint, physical exam, phlebotomy (drawing blood), bandaging, IV/SQ fluid administration, tube feeding, and other critical care treatments.

Please feel free to ask questions below or let me know if it proves useful for you.


An Interesting Owl Case

One thing’s for sure about being an independent avian veterinarian: No two weeks are ever the same. In fact, there’s hardly a day where I don’t learn or see something new. This week’s unique case involves a great horned owl that was rescued by Pine View Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center.

The bird was found injured about a month ago. It was probably hit by a car– a very common occurrence at night as owls cruise roadways for rodents in the grassy edges and those that attempt to cross open lanes. Initial x-ray images demonstrated a fracture of left ulna, just past the elbow. Normally such fractures can be addressed by limiting use of the wing for a couple of weeks in conjunction with some physical therapy and a period of a few more weeks flying and gaining strength in a flight enclosure. The staff did just that although the owl protested to wearing any splints (chewed them to shreds) so they compromised by confining the bird in a small enclosure that would not require any flight. However, when repeat x-rays were taken more recently, it was found that the fracture site was not healing. So I was called in to examine the bird and help re-assess the fracture and see if surgery might be appropriate. Dr. Boss at Best Friends Veterinary Center provided x-rays and staff, free of charge, to Pine View to help with the case. I love it when local veterinarians pull together with rehabilitators to help wildlife.

The first thing I did was examine the bird and I found it to be in pretty good shape. There was a noticeable enlargement over the area just past the left elbow and it was sensitive when pressed with my fingers. But the wing had pretty good extension without expression of discomfort. I instructed the staff on taking a view new to them known as an AP (anterior-posterior) view. Imagine a bird flying straight at you with wings outstretched. That edge-on view is what I was looking for to fully assess the elbow joint. It’s an often overlooked view because it’s a bit strange to take– you have to stretch the wing across the vertical x-ray beam. The other thing we did is took the traditional VD (ventrodorsal) view and we threw in shots of the good wing for comparison.

The images confirmed that there is calcification taking place but not between the fragments of the ulna. This often occurs due to devitalization (death) of bone at the fracture site, possibly due to temporary exposure to air but also can be just a result of severe trauma. You can also see that one of the fragments may be healing to the radius, which could limit spreading of the wing in the future. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the elbow joint had been damaged– the radius had moved out of its usual position against the humerus. This signifies that there are torn tendons, possibly joint capsule damage, and these are things that are practically impossible to repair, at least in a chronic state, to a point of full flight capability.

I couldn’t recommend surgery as the chances were extremely remote that I’d restore the bird to full flight. But the bird does seem to have good potential to be functional enough for a comfortable captive life. Pine View will allow the bird to heal up a while and then begin assessing its potential as a wildlife ambassador for educational programs. Some birds that can’t be released also make great foster parents to raise orphaned owls.

If you are interested in learning more about Pine View and what they do for wildlife, please visit their website at

As a thank you, the staff of Best Friends gave me this tasty home-grown tomato! Thanks!


80 Trackers Implanted in Mallards in the Dakotas

It was a long trip but it’s successfully completed! After six weeks of traveling around the Dakotas following teams of biologists and technicians, we were able to implant trackers in 62 ducks. An additional 18 were implanted by a veterinarian I trained. The study’s primary investigator, Cynthia Anchor, is a graduate student at South Dakota State University.

It was Cindy’s second (and final) year of field work for her master’s thesis study. After she gets all the mud out of her hair and field gear (duck work is very dirty business), she’ll be spending the fall and winter analyzing the data from both years and preparing her thesis.

Cindy Anchor preparing to release a mallard after tracker implantation. You can see the antenna protruding near the tail to the left.

The study focused on young, hatch-year ducks and it’s the first major migration study to focus on young mallards exclusively. The hope is to learn more about where they prefer to go, places they avoid, and their tendency to return to their natal (hatching) areas the next year. In essence, it will teach us what they need so that scientists and managers can maximize their survival and maintain a healthy duck population.

Although economics are not the driving force for this research, it’s no secret that waterfowl are a very important resource in the Dakotas– whether you’re a hunter, a photographer, a nature-lover, or a businessperson that sells the things that duck-aficionados need. A report released earlier this year indicates that hunting alone (of which waterfowl hunting is a major part) generates approximately $2.1 billion for the economy of North Dakota, $576 million of which goes directly to rural areas, which often sorely need it. So, in other words, ducks are an important part of the Dakota economy so there is a lot of interest in knowing everything there is to know about them to ensure healthy populations for generations to come.

I was contracted to provide veterinary services for the project including performing the surgeries and training a veterinarian to augment the implantation efforts in North Dakota. I also prepared all of the transmitters prior to the project, a process involving attachment of surgical mesh and antenna anchors, packaging, and sterilizing. I was just a small cog in the machine though as dozens of people were involved in pulling the project off.

Alex recovers a Swainson’s hawk after treatment. This bird was not part of the duck work but was found injured so we assisted Dakota Zoo by providing treatment and surgery.

A special thanks to Cindy for having me along on this project. Her crew, John McKinney and Matthew McBride, were tireless in their efforts to catch the ducks. I was accompanied by Alex Carrillo, a biologist (and a good friend) who acted as my anesthetist. His help was excellent and hopefully you’ll see more of him in my future trips.

From left to right: Dr. Ford, Jonathan, Matthew, Alex, and Cindy & duck #62 in the front

I’ll share more on the results of this project in the future. If you have any questions, please ask below– I’d love to hear your feedback!


Raptor Research Foundation Publications

The Raptor Research Foundation is an excellent source for the latest information on birds of prey. As their name suggests, they are dedicated to research of birds of prey. This primarily focuses on population topics, such as ecology and biology, but also touches on areas of individual health and welfare. Of particular use is their journal and the free resources they provide on their website. The foundation even offers a techniques manual covering a wide breadth of topics pertinent to avian biologists or veterinarians. Check out their resource page at

Or go straight to the techniques manual: Raptor Research and Management Techniques Manual

Blog Resources