Was this Red-tailed Hawk abducted by aliens? You might think so, seeing the gory things poking out of her chest. Everyone who saw this bird in the Wildlife Hospital immediately thought of the 1979 Ridley Scott movie Alien.
Fortunately, aliens aren't involved in this case! This bird was likely hit by a car, and the force of the impact ruptured her crop, the part of the bird's anatomy that stores food for later digestion.
The things sticking out of her chest are the tail and other parts of the rat she had eaten recently!
Watch the video below to see the sedated and hooded hawk's initial exam in the Wildlife Hospital. Warning: The injury is somewhat bloody and this video may be slightly disturbing to sensitive viewers.
In the video, Medical Staff is determining how to safely hold the wound closed until surgery can be performed the next day. You'll see Director of Animal Care, Melanie Piazza use medical scissors to snip the bones of the partially-digested rat's tail.
Although it may look like it, don't worry! She's not snipping away parts of the hawk's anatomy! The bird's crop is a pouch, actually part of the esophagus. It's muscular, and it's where digestion begins. In some ways it's not dissimilar to the inside of your cheek, so while you're watching the video, keep in mind that you're seeing into a cheek-like pouch, not directly into the hawk's throat or abdominal cavity.
After snipping away the parts projecting from the crop, Melanie used medical tape to keep the wound safely closed for the night. She gave the hawk medications for pain, and then let her rest.
During the hawk's initial exam, the team took radiographs (x-rays) which revealed yet another mystery!
Unlike owls, which generally swallow their prey whole, hawks tear up their prey and swallow it in chunks. An x-ray of the contents of a hawk's crop and stomach will usually show a jumble of bones from prey being digested.
This hawk's x-ray, however, shows an almost completely-intact skeleton of a rat. You can see the tail and spinal cord highlighted in yellow in the image to the left. Click here to see a full-size image of the x-ray.
This struck our team as unusual, and the other raptor experts to whom we reached out said the same. A lively email discussion between several raptor experts, all with different experiences observing these amazing birds, concluded that, while none of them have seen a Red-tailed Hawk swallow a large rat whole, they have seen these birds swallow smaller prey this way. It was noted that hawks are more likely to scarf their food when another raptor is nearby who could potentially steal the prey item.
The consensus is that this bird may have adapted her hunting strategy to include swallowing larger prey whole. Other than the ruptured crop, the bird is well-fleshed and healthy, so whatever she's doing appears to be working well for her.
This hawk patient obviously couldn't eat anything with the ruptured crop, so Medical Staff didn't need to worry about fasting her in preparation for surgery.
The next morning, they anesthetized and intubated the bird, and then began the lengthy process of cleaning the ruptured crop and suturing it back together. They used absorbable sutures to close the wound in a "horizontal mattress pattern" to avoid ingrown feathers during the healing process.
The surgery notes say that the hawk awoke without complication.
Watch the time-lapse video of the surgery below!
As of this writing, the hawk continues to recover from surgery and is doing very well!
Because the crop is part of the esophagus, it's not a sterile environment, so infection can occur that can require additional surgical intervention
This is a risk with this bird, but overall she is doing very well, and we should be able to release her back to the wild where she belongs in the next few weeks!