Beakistry – The Art of Rebuilding a Bird's Beak

Nancy is a large laughing kookaburra. The laughing part of this species’ name is because of the raucous laughter-like sound they make as part of their vocal repertoire. Sometimes I can do my clumsy imitation of the kookaburra’s laugh and get Nancy to respond with her authentic call. Her laughing shouts are almost deafening!

Photo by Staff Photographer Heidi

Nancy laughing with me doesn’t mean Nancy likes me. In fact, she’s rather cranky except with her main caretaker Zookeeper Megan Torgerson. Nancy and Megan have bonded, most likely because Megan means food.

Megan also means regular pedicures, which for birds aren’t all that fun and relaxing, and regular beak trimming and buffing, a procedure that definitely is NOT on your local beauty salon’s list of services.

Bird beaks continually grow, just like our hair and fingernails. In the wild, birds are working for their food and using their beaks more vigorously than they do in captivity, so wild birds’ beaks stay in regular trim just because of the normal wear and tear of everyday life.

Food comes on a regular basis for birds in captivity. Keepers offer food in novel ways to provide mental and physical stimulation. Nancy’s meal worms are hidden in a paper bag and she has to tear open the bag to get at the worms. But a paper bag can’t compare to the hunting, stalking and foraging that birds do in the wild. Captive birds’ beaks don’t get a workout. so zoo birds need the help of their human keepers to keep their beaks at a normal size, shape and length. Part of Megan’s responsibilities for Nancy are to routinely “catch the bird up” and use a dremel tool to shorten and shape Nancy’s long beak.

(I’m glad Megan has taken on this task because Nancy likes to bite me when I trim her beak. She gives a painful pinch, and then is probably laughing silently to herself.)

Megan recently noticed that Nancy had developed a huge hole in the left side of her upper beak. Most likely, the bird had injured her beak by flying into something solid and sharply bending her beak in the middle, creating a crack that developed into a hole. Sort of how you develop a crack in the side of a fingernail when you hit it on something hard and it bends back sharply.

Lucky for Nancy, the ragged hole wasn’t painful. Like hair and fingernails, beaks are made of keratin and don’t have any sensation beyond the cere, the portion of the beak next to the bird’s face that is akin to the cuticle of your fingernail.

The problem was that the gaping hole in the side of Nancy’s beak made the beak weaker than normal, and if Nancy nose-dived into something and bent her beak again, she could break her beak off at the weakened point. On the up side, it would make it more difficult for Nancy to bite me. On the down side, it would make it difficult for her to grasp her favorite meals of mice. We had to figure out a way to fix Nancy.

Our first task was to help Nancy tolerate the work we needed to do. We wanted to decrease her anxiety about having us mess around with her face, and we wanted her a little groggy so she would be less likely to thrash and bite. Megan held Nancy gently while Veterinary Technician Amy Gallagher dribbled the drug midazolam into the bird’s nostrils where it was absorbed through her mucus membranes. Several minutes later, Nancy mellowed and we began our work.

Our goal was to patch the hole with a permanent fix that would stay on Nancy’s beak as it continued its natural growth, while at the same time allowing the bird to grasp her food and preen her feathers with a beak that looked as natural as possible.

As is often required when working with problems in wild animals, we had to think “outside the box.” Standard surgical tools and supplies would not do the job. Our tool kit contained a cordless drill with a tiny bit, small gauge wire, epoxy, pencils, tape and syringe cases.

We placed two wooden pencils crosswise through Nancy’s beak behind the gaping hole, and taped the pencils in place so they couldn’t slip. This allowed Nancy’s upper beak to be lifted above the lower beak so we could work on the upper beak without damaging the lower beak, and it also kept Nancy from biting us. Despite the effects of midazolam, she remembered how to bite.

Next, we drilled tiny holes through the beak, “fore and aft” of the traumatized site. Then, we threaded a section of thin, flexible wire through the holes to create a scaffolding across the empty space. This wire scaffold provided a support surface for a layer of gooey epoxy that filled in the hole and strengthened the damaged beak. We chose an attractive gray epoxy to match the color of Nancy’s beak so she wouldn’t be embarrassed about her patch job.

Quick-set epoxy would not have given us the time we needed to shape and sculpt the epoxy to match the contours of the bird’s beak, so we chose a longer-set product that we could gradually mold to the necessary contour. The choice of long-set epoxy meant that we needed to find a way to keep Nancy from deforming our sculpture before it hardened.

We strategically placed two 20-milliliter plastic syringe cases, shortened and shaped with scissors, over her lower and upper beaks to act as a “floating” protective splint over the upper beak as it dried. Nancy tolerated the contraption for several hours as her epoxy patch cured and hardened. Then the syringe cases, tape and pencils were removed, and Nancy got to go back to her exhibit space and have a snack.
Zookeeper Megan reported that when Nancy was taken back to her exhibit and offered a lunch of tasty meal worms, the bird deftly used her rebuilt beak to snarf down the worms without any hesitation. The newly reinforced beak also works great for mice and the other goodies Nancy gets from Megan. Best of all, Nancy still likes Megan.

When you visit Nancy in the Australia building, look closely to see if you can see her “beak” job. Then, you and Nancy can share a laugh.

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