Wildfires cause mass mortality from smoke inhalation, hyperthermia and incineration. Birds which survive wildfires present with serious burns to the feet and beak, melted feathers, soft tissue burns to the oral cavity and respiratory system, respiratory distress, traumatic injuries from falls or predators, dehydration and starvation and other complications. Prognosis is very poor and humane euthanasia must be a first option.
What to Expect
Victims of wildfire need immediate and intensive veterinary treatment. Capture and transport as gently as possible. Soft towels or clean, soft used t-shirts can be used as bedding. Birds may have damaged corneas and impaired vision, and every effort should be made not to startle them. Water should be offered first on a voluntary-imbibing basis; gentle touching of the beak with the water surface may initiate a drinking response especially in injured or burnt patients. Never try forcing water. Juicy fruits can be offered for food. Home care of burns or other injuries should not be attempted without rigorous and appropriate training.
Emergency housing and care guidelines
Tissue damage from thermal burns may not be apparent for days or weeks. Treatment and recovery are prolonged, lasting months or even years.
Superficial burns to the feet may be treatable and compatible with release. Ocular and respiratory damage may require euthanasia as a first option. Singed feathers may require an entire molt cycle (possibly 2 years in some species) if imping is not available. Externally, local-appearing burns can be given a week to show whether there will be further deterioration, or no worsening.
Stress and respiratory damage can lead to serious and fatal pneumonia and secondary infections or recrudescence of primary chronic infections.
What to Do
Capture and contain injured birds
burned birds and those with respiratory distress are very fragile
assume all birds have suffered smoke inhalation
assume severe dehydration
handle very gently
keep them in a warm, dry, safe and secure environment
do not force water or food (ideally parenteral hydration should be started)
warm water can be gently dropped along the tomia (edges of upper and lower beak) to encourage normal licking and swallowing
once water is accepted, warm sugar water (1:4 sugar to warm water) can be alternated
do not offer free-access water until they are able to regain normal posture
offer food only after they are hydrated
contact appropriate rescue if/when possible ASAP
minimal handling and refrain from: "staring at them all the time"
visual or audible contact with other birds is desirable
gentle irrigation with sterile saline or artificial tears to clean the burns
silver sulfadiazine cream can be used over the burned areas BUT DO NOT APPLY ANY OTHER SUBSTANCE
burns require extensive and specialized medical management
true severity of burns may not appear for several weeks
respiratory damage is immediately life threatening and immediate intensive care in a veterinary situation is needed
severe burns and respiratory (smoke inhalation and burns) and hypothermia generally do not lead to good outcomes; euthanasia decisions should be made immediately where possible
many birds will have fatal injuries from falling after their flight feathers are damaged
near-drownings are possible as they seek respite or fly over large bodies of water and succumb to smoke toxicity
even if weather conditions are hot and dry, the burns may cause hypothermia
expect a high mortality rate on birds that are found down on the ground and docile
many birds may die of complications a week or even months later
long-term care and sanctuary should be planned in advance
habitat will be destroyed and water sources disrupted, so that starvation and thirst will afflict survivors
Assessment, Triage and Treatment of Bushfire Affected Wildlife
Remote feed and water stations can be set up in burnt areas to help wildfire survivors.
Remote feed and water stations
Decision Trees and Flowcharts