(Photos courtesy of Wildlife Repair Shop)
They eat constantly, fly in excess of 30 mph and weigh less than a nickel, and it's that combination which can make diagnosing and treating an injured ruby-throated hummingbird quite the gargantuan task.
Now, thanks to a team of veterinary medical professionals in Naperville who work together as the Wildlife Repair Shop, we have a better understanding of how much effort can go into one saving one of these tiny birds.
Earlier this week, they were tasked with examining multiple injured hummingbirds from the Fox Valley Wildlife Center. One of the best ways to diagnose a hummingbird's injury is by a careful physical examination while it's awake because the birds cannot be sedated and traditional X-rays result in poor images.
According to Dr. Nicki Rosenhagen from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois, those less-than-clear X-ray images mean doctors sometimes need "a great imagination to diagnose an injured bird with radiographs."
One of the birds in question from the Fox Valley Wildlife Center had a wing injury, and doctors utilized a high-speed dental X-ray unit to try to shed some light on it.
"The patient would need to hold still while on the radiographic plate to allow for an image to be transmitted," the group wrote on Facebook.
They were able to get some images, but Dr. Brian Peters said the X-rays were still difficult to interpret.
"Due to the miniature size of the hummingbird's wing, we were unable to determine the origin of the injury," he said. "We wanted to show how difficult it is to assess hummingbirds with X-rays, as their soft tissue and bones get very grainy on X-rays."
Any injury on a hummingbird can be difficult to treat, considering "surgery is essentially out of the question."
Wrapping a wing also isn't a viable option, because the wrap can weigh more than the bird, restrict movement and "lead to an inevitable face plant," according to the University of Illinois.
But it's not always a lost cause.
The doctors at the Wildlife Repair Shop said that if injured hummingbirds are fed to meet their metabolic demands and given time to heal, they often can do well in rehabilitation.
A Very Different Story On Larger Animals
Wildlife injuries come in all shapes and sizes, and X-rays play a crucial role in diagnosing and treating them. They also provide a unique look at the animals that most people don't ever get to see.
For example, an Eastern gray squirrel came in with a leg injury after being bitten by a dog. X-rays showed a transverse fracture of the tibia and fibula.
Doctors then made a custom splint that resulted in a very adorable photo.
There also was the case of the box turtle, which had a dislocated right tibia and fibula.
Unfortunately, sometimes the exams show injuries too severe for the animals to recover.
For example, a turkey vulture was brought in with a suspected right leg injury. An X-ray showed the bird had a broken right tibia and fibula, and a dislocated left leg. It also had been shot, as birdshot was found in its neck. Due to the severity of its injuries, it had to be euthanized.
Regardless of the outcome on each case, the group's Facebook page highlights work all wildlife rehabbers do and the importance of leaving any intervention up to the experts.
"We love educating the public about wildlife rehabilitation and medicine," Peters said.