Sandy Neck’s remains were in very good hands today. Dr. Mark Pokras from Tuft’s famed wildlife health program in Boston performed the necropsy, and I wanted to share his findings — the interest in this bird and her loss has been tremendous.
The only injury of any sort Dr. Pokras found was a small bruise deep in the left pectoral (breast) muscle. Confirming the initial examination yesterday, Dr. Pokras found that Sandy Neck had great muscle mass and body fat, with no visibly significant parasites. There was no food in her stomach or gizzard, which would make sense if she died shortly after the storm hit last week.
Dr. Pokras also said he found no evidence of water in the trachea, lungs or air sacs. I asked if that meant our initial conclusion — that she’d been swamped by a wave and drowned — was wrong.
“I would not assume that a dry respiratory tract totally rules out drowning,” he said. “But if I had to guess, I suspect that she got into the water, got soaked, dragged herself up on the beach and died of hypothermia.” Given the cold and high wind following the storm, that might not have taken too long.
This isn’t the last word — he also took samples for toxicology, microbe and virology tests to see if she had any underlying problems that didn’t manifest themselves in the post-mortem. But it seems this was most likely a natural, storm-related death.
We’d like to thank Mark Pokras and the folks at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine for their help with Sandy Neck. Such necropsies and tissue samples have been done many times this winter on dead snowy owls, at facilities across the Northeast, and often on a pro bono basis.
For example, Dr. Erica Miller from New Jersey’s Dept. of Environmental Protection (who is also the consulting vet for Tri-State Bird Rescue), and Dr. Sherrill Davison from the Laboratory of Avian Medicine and Pathology at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, have together provided a number of necropsies and tests — including one on Philly, our previous tagged owl fatality.
Dr. Cindy Driscoll from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has coordinated much of this work across state lines. These post-mortems on owls found dead, or killed by plane and car collisions, allow us to gain the most information possible about the threats these birds face down here. This is especially true of lab tests for toxins, which should give us fresh insights into what kind of exposure snowy owls face from rodenticides and other contaminants.