On September 24, 2011, American Crow #11-2432 was admitted to the Wildlife Center of Virginia. The bird, estimated to have hatched earlier this year, was rescued on the ground near Pulaski, Virginia. While performing the initial examination, the Center’s doctors noted that almost all of the crow’s primary, secondary, and tail feathers were either broken or missing. The crow was also missing feathers from its head and body. Due to the nature of the damage to its feathers, Dr. Dave McRuer and Dr. Miranda Sadar think that the crow was suffering from malnutrition and had been on the ground for quite some time before it was rescued.
The crow spent the first six weeks at the Wildlife Center gaining weight and growing some of its missing feathers -- mainly on its head and body. Because the crow was hatched this spring, the Center’s vets do not expect it to replace its broken and damaged flight and tail feathers until next spring when it should start its annual molt. Normally this would mean that the crow would spend the next few months of its life without primary, secondary, or tail feathers; however, the Wildlife Center of Virginia has just completed a complicated and lengthy procedure known as “imping” in an attempt to restore flight capability to American Crow #11-2432.
American Crow 2432 is anesthetized before the lengthy imping procedure. The extent of the damage to its feathers can be seen as Dr. Miranda Sadar holds what remains of its tail between her fingers.
Imping is the process of transplanting intact feathers from a donor bird of the same species to a recipient in need of new feathers. This is done by fitting and gluing new, transplant feathers into the trimmed original bases of the broken or missing feathers on the recipient bird. Although the technique has improved over the years, it was first developed by falconers centuries ago. In the case of American Crow #11-2432, the Wildlife Center admitted an adult crow in early December who, unfortunately, did not live very long after arriving for treatment. As unfortunate as its demise was, the crow passed away with all of its primary, secondary, and tail feathers intact and the Center’s vets decided that they would make good candidates for imping.
Dr. Miranda Sadar and Frederick Minazzoli, a veterinary extern from The College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, removed the transplant feathers from the deceased crow and prepared them for imping by cutting their bases and laying them out in order on pieces of medical tape—one piece of tape for each wing and another for the tail.
Feathers from the donor crow's left wing await imping.
On the afternoon of Monday, December 12, Dr. Miranda and Fred began the arduous task of replacing American Crow #11-2432’s primary flight feather and tail feathers. The crow was anesthetized for the duration of the procedure. While Dr. Miranda carefully lined up each of the donor feathers with the corresponding feather shaft on crow #11-2432, Fred whittled slim pieces of bamboo to insert into the hollow shaft of the crow’s broken feather and the hollow shaft of the donor feather. Once the whittling was complete, Dr. Miranda used epoxy to glue the bamboo pieces into the ends of the two feathers—securing the transplant feather to its new base.
Dr. Miranada lines up a tail feather to be fitted during the imping procedure.
Dr. Miranda fits the new tail feather into the old feather's shaft.
The entire procedure took more than two hours, and although imping is sometimes used to replace broken feathers in the wings and tails of birds, it is rare that all of the feathers need to be replaced. However, once Dr. Miranda and Fred finished their work, American Crow #11-2432 looked like a new bird! Instead of broken shafts, the crow’s wings and tail were now fitted with long replacement feathers. Once it was awake and returned to its enclosure, the crow flew almost the entire length of the enclosure before landing on the ground. Since Monday, the Center’s rehabilitation team has observed the crow in flight several times, and at the moment, the crow’s “new” feathers are all still intact.
Dr. Miranda and Fred imping #11-2432's wing feathers.
The final feathers are fitted into place.
The Center’s team will continue to monitor the crow over the coming weeks to see if the feathers remain unbroken and in place.