CROW Case of the Week: Merlin (#18-4300)

The merlin (Falco columbarius) is a small yet powerful falcon that uses a surprise attack to wound and take down small songbirds and shorebirds. It spends long periods of time perched high above in trees in open areas to scan for prey. Once the prey is observed, the merlin will use quick wingbeats during a high-speed attack and typically catch its target in midair.

They are also known to team up to hunt large flocks of waxwings. History tells us that Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots, among other medieval European noblewomen, used merlins for sport to hunt skylarks. During the breeding season, merlins are highly territorial around the nest, chasing away other merlins and potential predators. Both sexes claim their territory by soaring high in the air near their nest. Outside of the breeding season, they are usually solitary. 

At CROW, an adult merlin was admitted to the clinic from Fort Myers. The small falcon was found on the ground in a person’s yard and unable to fly. Upon admission, the merlin was given an exam which revealed that it had swelling/inflammation of the left elbow. Radiographs did not show evidence of any fractures. It was given pain and anti-inflammatory medication, fluids and offered food. There are only theories as to what may have happened prior to intake.

“We suspect some kind of initial trauma caused an infection in the elbow joint, leading to the patient being unable to fly,” said Dr. Malka Spektor, CROW veterinary intern. “The elbow joint, along with the other joints of the wing, is crucial for flight. Once down, the merlin may have weakened due to an inability to obtain food and also developed aspergillosis.”

The merlin also reportedly had a small puncture wound on the pad of its foot that had been caused by its own talon. It was started on an antibiotic to treat/prevent infection, and the foot was bandaged to allow the puncture to heal.

“The merlin had some intermittent difficulty standing and, with the deficits in foot function, it stood with its toe pointed into the pad of the foot. Once weakened, it lost the ability to stand normally, and therefore punctured his foot,” said Dr. Spektor. “This is a common injury in stressed or neurologic raptors. Sometimes, when they grab at other things, they accidentally puncture themselves.” The puncture wound was not deemed to be too serious. 

“A puncture that size, assuming it does not get infected, only takes a couple days to heal,” said Dr. Spektor. “Its foot was bandaged to prevent the patient from stepping in feces and contaminating the wound.” 

After just over a week in CROW’s care, the merlin’s health took a turn for the worse. The report of its demise was revealed after the past weekend.

“Unfortunately, the patient has passed away. It was found non-responsive in its cage, and emergency treatments were started, however, it did not respond to treatment,” said Dr. Spektor. “A necropsy – an autopsy for animals – was performed, and found plaques on the air sacs. Those plaques are generally caused by aspergillosis, a fungal infection caused by an organism normally found in the environment. Birds are extra susceptible due to their delicate respiratory system, especially if they are down or immunosuppressed.” 


CROW Case of the Week stories are written by Bob Petcher and appear weekly in the Island Sun and River Weekly Newspapers.

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