Radio-controlled grebes

Okay, not really.  But I think I have an idea for the next big toy craze.

Western grebes proudly showing off their antennas.

Anyway, if you’ve been following along with the blog, you’ve read a little bit about our Western grebe project.  It’s been great fun and a GREAT learning experience in many ways.  Not only did we get trained in some capture techniques (thanks Washington Fish & Game guys!!), but we learned a modified protocol for surgical implantation of satellite transmitters for grebes.  Presumably due to their unique shape and anatomy, grebes have not tolerated implanted transmitters in previous attempts.  Dr. Dan Mulcahy, a wildlife veterinarian with USGS in Alaska, has more experience implanting birds than anyone else in the world.  He and Joe (who you met in the last post) and Dr. Greg Massey evaluated past attempts, and developed some modifications to the standard bird implantation protocol.  They performed a pilot study a couple of years ago, and the modifications seemed to work.  The goal of last week’s project was to test the protocol “for real,” implanting birds and then releasing them.  Dr. Mulcahy flew in, and Dr. Scott Larsen, who has implanted hundreds of other birds but not grebes, helped us out.

Western grebe number 6 being prepared for anesthesia.

In two intense days of surgery, Dan trained Joe, Scott, and me on the technique, with Scott acting as both teacher and student.  I was the biggest neophyte of the group, because although I’ve implanted transmitters in snakes, tortoises, lizards, and armadillos, I had never implanted a bird.  Fortunately, Dan is an accomplished (and patient!) teacher, and all three of us successfully implanted at least two birds each.  The grebes also cooperated; they ate their fish, kept up their preening, and rapidly regained waterproofing after surgery.

Dan (in the purple) demonstrating the new surgical protocol.

Emily also learned a lot — she had plenty of previous experience with anesthesia in mammals, but not much with birds.  Avian anesthesia is a whole new kettle of fish in many ways, with many details to remember and everything happening at a breakneck pace.   Somehow she managed to keep all the birds alive during their anesthesia AND keep her sanity, despite the fact that she had four veterinarians telling her what to do!

Emily the expert avian anesthetist.

Becky not only helped in the field, but she assisted with post-capture care, which is analogous to stabilization in an oil spill (Here she is giving some fluids to a grebe before transport to Davis).  She also took most of the photos, and she and Kyra helped with the animal care before and after surgery.  They also helped keep the surgeons and anesthetists well fed by getting us lunch (and reminding us to eat)!

Becky honing her stabilization skills.

At the end of the week, we had nine Western grebes swimming in our pools with antennas sticking up out of their backs.  We kept them for a couple of days to provide pain medication and an easy meal, and then Kyra and I released them in the Bay on Sunday morning.  I’m hoping that the other grebes aren’t making fun of their antennas . . . . personally I think they look cute, but I suspect the other grebes assume they were victims of an alien abduction!

So far, all of our implanted grebes are alive and well.  It’s a little too early to declare the new surgical protocol a success, but we’re all optimistic.  If it works, it will be the first time Western grebes have been successfully implanted and tracked.  Kyra will be checking the locations of the grebes daily, so keep an eye out for her posts to monitor how they are doing.

This is my last post of the year, so I’d like to say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all, and here’s hoping for an oil spill-free New Year!!!


3 thoughts on “Radio-controlled grebes

  1. I think this post is horrible – the making fun of these poor birds and calling them cute. There is nothing cute or funny about what just happened to them. I am quite sure if an alien abducted you and surgically implanted a tracking device that you’d not think it amusing. I wish OWCN would stop funding invasive research projects or those that pose significant risks to otherwise heathy wildlife.

  2. I have always held a lot of respect for OWCN because of the amazing work they do to help animals… After reading this blog and seeing their involvement in very invasive animal research, I’m not sure what to think now, other than being very saddened and disappointed. I hope you will re-think a decision to be part of a project like this if it comes up again and maintain non-invasive research studies instead, for the animals benefit, not the researchers. Keep up the GOOD work you do, and please don’t do any more unnecessary invasive research.

  3. Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry that you are disappointed in us. Everyone has different ideas about what is invasive, and what is necessary, and what information is worthwhile. It is challenging to decide where to put our resources. For instance, we all heard people on the news during the Gulf spill saying that it wasn’t worth saving individual animals, and that it would be better to put the effort we put into rehabilitating individual birds into restoring the ecosystem. For people who believe that, the individual bird is not worth much; the population and ecosystem is worth everything. That is one extreme, and it is a valid viewpoint. We just happen to disagree with it here at the OWCN. Others take the other extreme, that it is never okay to compromise an individual animal’s well-being for the sake of the population. This is also a valid opinion, but also one that we do not agree with. Our goal is to help as many animals as best we can during a spill, and sometimes with this goal in mind, we choose to perform research projects that could potentially cause harm. We do not do these projects for any benefit to ourselves, believe me! They are done after carefully considering what information is vital for us to know in order to help the most animals during a spill. In this case, we know that grebes do not do well after rehabilitation, but we don’t know why. Because grebes are commonly affected by oil spills, we felt that this study will help us learn how to care for them better during a spill situation. I know that we won’t make everyone happy with what we do. There will be those who think we do research that is too invasive, and there will be those who don’t think we do enough research. When you disagree with us, please give us the benefit of the doubt and believe that we think about these issues carefully and try to walk a line that maximizes animal well-being in the short and long term, and for the individual and the population.

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