A rare sandhill crane injured at a Richmond golf course earlier this month is sporting a shiny new prosthetic leg thanks to the ingenuity of an Abbotsford veterinarian and several other kind-hearted humans.
The juvenile crane's leg was shattered by a flying golf ball at the Country Meadows Golf Course in Richmond at the beginning of March.
The bird struggled for several days at the golf course trailing its injured limb before a conservation officer called Myles Lamont, a wildlife biologist who has a keen interest in the species.
"I had my big long net and grain to lure him. He flew in right on cue," said Lamont. "The whole procedure went much easier than I expected. I was able to grab him by his neck."
To keep him calm, Lamont then fashioned a hood out of an old driver club cover to fit over its head, with a hole cut out for its beak.
Lamont called Abbotsford veterinarian Ken Macquisten, who has treated many wild animals through his career, including two grizzly cubs that lived for a while on Grouse Mountain.
He determined the leg could not be saved and amputated it at his Whatcom Road clinic.
Fitting a wading bird more than one metre tall with a fake leg has its challenges, said the vet.
"It's been fun trying to find something that will work," said Macquisten. "There really is no manual on this one. Any prosthetic we put on, we'll have to take into account that it should not get stuck in mud."
He's attached a temporary leg that looks something like an aluminum coat hanger bent in half, and is looking to zoos and other places that have created successful prosthesis for a more permanent solution.
The crane has been recuperating since March 9 in a quiet room at Elizabeth's Wildlife Center in Abbotsford, run by Elizabeth Melnick.
The year-old male is in good health and doesn't seem to be in pain, but for any other crane, the injury would have meant euthanasia.
"This is an unusually tame bird. He's pretty good natured. If he was a truly wild bird, we wouldn't even contemplate doing this," said Macquisten as he gingerly changed the dressing last Friday as Melnick carefully held the bird down.
"One thing that's he got going for him is that he's adapted so well to this situation."
After the temporary prosthetic was taped back on, the crane stumped around his enclosure, using it for support to take a step. For a wading bird, the long legs are crucial for his survival.
His bright eye, decorated with a wide band of crimson, surveyed the humans with interested curiosity. He fluffed up his grey feathers and let out a short churrrr.
After the crane gets a permanent prosthesis and he regains his strength on a diet of grain, cat food and blueberries, his caretakers hope to return him to his home territory at the golf course, which is adjacent to the Lulu Island wetlands area.
"It would unrealistic to release him into the wild, but if the 'wild' is the golf course, it would realistic to send him back there," said Macquisten.
However, his parents may soon be raising their next brood and may not want another adult bird in their territory, said Lamont.
The other option would be to send him to a sandhill crane breeding program at either the Hancock Wildlife Research Centre in Surrey, or the Mountain View Conservation and Breeding Centre in Fort Langley, where Lamont is an advisor through his company, TerraFauna Environmental Consulting.
While sandhill cranes are the most common species of crane in North America, they are relatively rare in the Lower Mainland where development and farming have reduced their natural wetlands habitats over the past century.
Lamont estimates there are up to six breeding pairs in the area, in Delta, Richmond, Pitt Meadows and other areas where wetlands remain. These are a tiny fraction of the thousands of cranes that used to live in the area.
Before the shallow 10,000-acre Sumas Lake in the central Fraser Valley was drained in the 1920s to become what is now Sumas Prairie, the skies were crowded with several waterfowl species, said Lamont. During the Fraser River spring floods, Sumas Lake would expand to 20,000 acres or more.
"It was a fantastic migratory stopover and also a nesting site for birds, and we think there were many sandhill cranes that nested there," said Lamont.
However, habitat destruction has taken its toll on the once magnificent flocks that made the Fraser Valley their home.
"The theory is the remaining breeding pairs are the remnants of that population," he said.
The crane's injury is another reminder of the impact humans have had on wild populations in the Lower Mainland, said Macquisten.
He praised Elizabeth's Wildlife Centre for giving injured wild animals a chance to return to the wild, and for educating the public about their predicament.
"As human beings we've found all kinds of unusual ways to have an impact on wildlife," he said.
He was optimistic the crane would be able to enjoy the outdoors again.
"It was a lousy start for this guy, but it will have a happy ending," said Macquisten.