Updated: Nov 30, 2020
When should you euthanise a wild bird? In wildlife rehabilitation it is a sad fact that many birds that come into care may not make a full recovery. Worldwide, rates of success for rehab lie somewhere in the ballpark of 40-50% survival to release. In some cases, it is easy to tell if a bird requires immediate euthanasia. The purpose is to ease their suffering when there is no hope at all – such as a bad trauma case with multiple fractures, badly broken beaks, leg amputations, etc.
The harder euthanasia decisions usually arise when the bird is able to recover to a degree, and may even be showing promising signs of recovery such as self-feeding, weight gain and wounds healing, but the extent of the injuries means it will never be able to fend for itself in the wild again. Such cases may include:
· Falcons and eagles with one eye damaged
· Flying birds with a broken wing that is fractured through the joint
· Penguins with one flipper or one foot
· Pelagic seabirds with skin damage that will affect feather growth
· Any bird with paralysis that does not resolve in 2-3 weeks
· A harrier or hawk with toe damage (especially the hallux or “thumb”)
· Flying birds with loss of wing tips (metacarpals/digits)
In all of the above cases, the extent of the injuries and the area it affects may meant the bird cannot hunt, feed or fly/swim effectively, will be unable to avoid predators, will be unable to breed or other limitations. It does depend on the species as some species can do very well with one eye (e.g., parrots) – so always consider the species and how it hunts/ feeds naturally.
Although the decision can be heart-breaking if you have already cared for the bird for days or weeks, remember the ultimate goal of wildlife rehabilitation is to release healthy birds back to the wild.
In my role at the NZ Department of Conservation I am currently collating and reviewing all published accounts of birds that have survived well in the wild with significant injuries, in order to clarify what can and can’t be released (in principle). For example, there are several cases of owls doing well with one eye in the wild. Initially this seemed surprising, but is probably due to their reliance of other senses for hunting at night. The results of the review I will share in due course.
In some countries, including New Zealand, for special cases there may sometimes be a placement in captivity for a breeding programme or for display in a wildlife park, and you should check with your local conservation contact person or office if you think that the species is a good candidate for captive placement. Do not get your hopes up too high as these placements are limited by space and species.
Methods of Euthanasia
One of the most common questions we get in our courses is about euthanasia methods. The main principles focus on ensuring the best welfare:
The method should be quick and as painless as possible
It should be irreversible
DO NOT inject anything into the abdomen (coelom) of a bird to euthanise, unless that bird is already unconscious (results in DROWNING and PAIN). This is a very outdated method and beware it is still advised in some documents and online!
You should have the skills and experience or equipment to do the job properly
If in doubt, seek experienced help e.g. take to a vet clinic
You should not be performing euthanasia on native, protected birds in NZ (check for rules in your own country) unless you have approval to do so from DOC, or for welfare reasons as directed by a vet. In some cases, a conservation employee may direct you to euthanise a bird but speak up if you are not comfortable to do so.
Appropriate euthanasia techniques for birds include the following. If in doubt, seek advice from an avian or wildlife veterinarian.
Overdose by gaseous anaesthetic (isoflurane preferred, but halothane or sevoflurane also options). Ideally with oxygen to ensure the bird is anesthetised slowly prior to overdose, but a chamber can also be used. This should be done by, or under the guidance of a vet.
Overdose by intravenous anesthesia with sodium pentobarbital. This should only be used in the veins if a bird is conscious. Alternatively gas anaesthesia followed by intravenous or intraosseous, intracardiac or liver (coelomic) pentobarbital (vet only).
Overdose of combination/ injectable anaesthetics (e.g. ketamine, xylazine, propofol) (vet only).
Decapitation (small birds only <200g)
Cervical dislocation - well used method for chickens and other game birds, or for small birds <200g. However, you need to be trained correctly in this technique by experienced personnel/ professionals. Do not attempt if you don't know how.
Blunt trauma to the head could be used in small birds with thin skulls but note it is messy and very unpleasant so this would only be used if alternatives cannot be found.
Suffocation, drowning, carbon monoxide or freezing are all inhumane methods and should not be used. Also note that chloroform is highly toxic and carcinogenic and thus is a health and safety risk.
If you would like to share your experience or have further questions please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Avian patient euthanasia (2017). New Zealand Veterinary Association policy document. Retrieved from: https://www.nzva.org.nz/resource/avian/euthanasia/
Written by Janelle Ward
Wildlife Veterinarian & Co-founder of Learn Bird Care Ltd.
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