A bad mistake.
I made an awful bad mistake the other day. I put the birds out on the lawn to weather, this means to get them out of their night quarters, let them get some sun, fresh air, and to take a bath or a drink if they need it. It was a beautiful sunny day and on days like that I like to get them out early so they have all day to enjoy the weather, while obviously making sure they don’t overheat. But this is Ireland and they spend far too many days indoors waiting for the rain to stop.
On this particular day I was glad to get them all out early as I had a busy enough day ahead of me doing other stuff, while making time to feed my birds and walk down the field to fly my Gyr falcon hybrid.
The food on this day was quail. It had been in the fridge for two days as I had miscalculated and took out too much in one go. The quail this day were the ex-layers; birds that had grown to full size and had past their prime egg-production stage and therefore not lay as many eggs as a younger bird. This type of quail carries more fat on its body than a normal six-week old or prime quail, but once these fat quail are not used too often they are perfect for feeding to hawks and falcons.
This is where I made the mistake; As the Gyr hybrid was the only bird I needed to fly that day, I got him flown early, fed him up with quail and gave all the others a full crop of quail too. I love my birds and I hate to see a hawk with too much of an appetite if there is no need for it.
And the sun continued to shine, and I got done what I needed to do. And come dark I put the hawks and falcons back into their night quarters.
The next day dawned bright and early again. I hate rain more than anything so I never complain when the sun shines down and temperature reaches the high twenties. I like it so much that at least once a year I spend too much time outdoors and my skin peels off me in lizard-like fashion.
All the birds were set out to weather again and all the baths were refilled with fresh cold water to ensure against over-heating, as obviously birds can’t sweat like we can, so will jump down off their perch and wash in the water to cool down.
While putting out the birds I noticed that a little falcon; a peregrine x merlin hybrid still had food in its crop from the day before. This should have set alarm bells ringing straight away, but as he seemed in good form I continued on and set a little reminder in my head to keep an eye on him.
A few hours passed and I was getting on with the day when I noticed that he did not look as perky as he should have. He then hopped down off his perch and took a drink of fresh water. It is not at all unusual to see falcons drinking, even though they get most of the moisture they need directly from their food. But this, added to the fact that he still had food in his crop was a bad sign, so I walked over to take him up on the glove and that’s when I noticed the smell. If I could have given myself a swift kick in the arse that is the moment I would have. I knew instantly what was wrong; he was suffering from what is known to falconers as sour-crop; the meat that was still in his crop had literally gone sour and as I put my face near him I could smell it.
I had a fair idea what to do; obviously the meat had to be removed and quickly. But by then some of it had passed down to its stomach and was already poisoning the bird. There are two ways to remove the offending meat; to push it back up the way it came or to surgically open the crop, which is just a bag, and physically remove it. But this then requires surgery and stitching back up when you know the crop is cleansed. This is a job for a vet, not your average cow and sheep country vet, but a specialised raptor vet, of which there are none in this country.
So I went with option one. As my daughter held the falcon wrapped in a towel, I proceeded to gently push the food back up and out its beak, as if it was vomiting.
I have smelled some bad smells in my time, from bad stomach-churning methane gas on a landfill site, month old exploding rotten goose eggs that exploded all over me, to the stench of a wild stoat that I caught with my hands emptying his musk gland in my direction (this might not sound bad but stoats are cousins of the infamous skunk and believe me this is not a smell that washes off easily). But a smell I will never forget for as long as I live was the stench of putrid meat coming out of that bird’s crop, to say it stank to high heaven doesn’t come close to a description.
As I massaged the warm rancid meat up and gently took it out with a tweezers, my stomach heaved and I dry retched, how I didn’t throw up all over the bird and my daughter I will never know. How my daughter didn’t vomit all over me will also remain a mystery. But we both felt so sorry for the bird and I felt guilty as hell that I had not noticed sooner that something was wrong.
After cleaning out what food was in there, I cropped-tubed a small amount of saline into the crop as my raptor veterinarian research said to do, and sat him back up on his indoor perch in the shade.
Two hours later the poor little guy was dead.
I reckon the quail I had fed, which was ex-layer and carried a high fat content was the reason. That and the few hours in the sunshine combined was a lethal mix. But the real culprit was me for not seeing that this could happen before it did. Fault lies squarely and firmly at my door as I was supposed to look after the little chap. I just hope it lodges in my memory for many years to come and hopefully divert any similar disaster in the future.
I have taken to feeding the birds later in the evening as the hot spell continues, so no bird has to sit out in the sun with food in its crop, and if I fly a bird early it goes into the shade for the rest of the day.
Some people say it is good to learn by your mistakes. But after making as many blunders as I have in my life, believe me when I say it is much better to learn from the mistakes of others.