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Mending broken wings

Injured pigeon sitting on cage with bandages on wing

Nonhuman animals have many of the same medical needs as humans. Animal hospitals and clinics treat patients for a variety of illnesses and injuries. Broken limbs are common in nonhuman animals just as they are in humans. Limbs include not only legs but, depending on the species, wings, flippers, and fins. Birds, bats, and flying insects are frequent patients at nonhuman animal clinics, where they go through the same procedures we are used to: diagnostics, x-rays, surgery, getting bandages and splints, and physical therapy.

The reasons for wing injuries are diverse. Young birds sometimes fall out of nests. Accidents can occur when birds collide with each other, from powerful winds, or from crash landings due to mistaking ice or wet pavement for water. Swans and other birds who can’t move well out of water sometimes get stuck on ice and, unable to propel themselves forward, beat their wings on the ice until they are badly injured.1 Attacks from cats and dogs and fights among birds can also cause injuries. Sometimes patients are suffering from gunshot or arrow wounds. Captive birds can get their wings caught in the wires of a cage.


Since animals can’t tell us anything and physical exams can be inconclusive, diagnostic tools such as x-rays and ultrasound are sometimes necessary in making a diagnosis. Birds with larger wings can have their wings spread by human hands during an x-ray. Smaller birds often have their wings (gently!) taped to the machine in order to get a full x-ray.

Here a trumpeter swan with a gunshot wound is having her wing x-rayed at a wild animal rehabilitation center. She was anesthetized during the x-ray so she would not have to suffer from the pain and stress of the procedure. She had a fractured ulna, which takes weeks to heal. Her wing was wrapped and she was given regular physical therapy to keep the muscles from atrophying.2

Wing fractures

Wing fractures are common, and are usually treated by bandaging the wing with a wing wrap. The area covered by the wrap depends on the extent of the injury.

This cockatiel got his wing caught in a cage. The injured area was large, so his entire wing had to be bandaged. “Distractors” are attached to the bandage to give the patient something to chew other than the wrap.3

Torn wings

Bats and winged insects can also suffer from broken or torn wings. Fractured wings need to be splinted in order to heal properly, but torn wings on bats can often heal on their own. Even a tear as deep as the one shown here can heal on its own if the bat has proper rest and nutrition. Bats with torn wings need care and safety while healing until they can fly again, but no medical treatment is needed.4

Insect wings can also tear and can often be fixed with glue and tiny splints. It’s important to make sure the splint is as small as possible because it adds extra weight that can make it difficult for the animal to fly.5

Seabird flippers

Penguins are non-flying seabirds with wing bones that extend into their flippers. They can suffer injuries to the wing bones due to strong waves, attacks from predators, or flipper bands used to monitor penguin populations6 which can impair their ability to swim and make them more vulnerable to predators.7 Broken bones in penguins are very serious since they don’t heal8 but other injuries can be treated.

You may not be very likely to run across an injured penguin, but if you find an injured wild animal, you can help by rescuing them and bringing them to a treatment center.

What to do if you find a sick or injured wild animal

To find out where to take a sick, injured, or orphaned wild animal, do a web search or look in the phone book for a wild animal hospital, wild animal rehabilitation center, or animal sanctuary near you. If you are unable to find one, call a local vet and ask for advice.

1 Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota, “Protecting swans’ wrists with…oodles of noodles”, Case Studies, Roseville.

2 Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota, “Rehabilitating a gunshot swan”, Case Studies, Roseville.

3 Patt, J. M. (2014) Little critters vet.

4 Wildlife Extra (2011) “How bat wings can heal themselves”, Wildlife News.

5 Live Monarch Butterfly Hospital (2015)

6 Sallaberry, A. M., & Valencia, D. (1985). “Wounds due to flipper bands on penguins”, Journal of Field Ornithology, 56, pp. 275-277.

7 Saraux, C. ; Le Bohec, C. ; Durant, J. M. ; Viblanc, V. A. ; Gauthier-Clerc, M. ; Beaune, D.; Park, Y.-H. ; Yoccoz, N. G. ; Stenseth, N. C. & Le Maho, Y. (2011) “Reliability of flipper-banded penguins as indicators of climate change”, Nature, 469, pp. 203-206.

8 Penguin Rescue, “Penguin Rescue Rehabilitation”, Penguin Rescue: Providing sanctuary for penguins, Otago.

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