Bird Bones and the Injured Goose


Since spring there has been a sad sac Canada Goose waddling around the yard, dragging an injured right wing behind.  I plead guilty to chasing it away from the pool deck and dock where it likes to deposit its fruits of digestion.  When chased it obviously can’t fly away with its friends but instead does a fast waddle to the riverbank and tumbles over the rip rap to the safety of the water.  It seems to have no problem swimming.  My initial annoyance with the goose has slowly changed to toleration and even a little respect as it strives to survive.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

I don’t know the story of the “accident”, or even if this is a resident or migrating goose as it was first seen before the spring migration when both types of geese were here.  Most likely it was wounded during hunting season by a poorly aimed shotgun, but that is all conjecture.  When I first noticed the injured fowl I did not give it much of a chance for survival with its dragging wing and the abundance of Red Fox, Bald Eagles, Vultures, and Great Horned Owls in the neighborhood.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

But in May and June it was still here and even seemed to participate in the care of several broods of goslings hatched along the cove.  These, however, have matured and moved on.  The wounded bird is now usually seen alone, feeding on the lawn.  Who knows what awaits the bird this autumn and winter?

Great Horned Owls (juveniles), Bubo virginianus

Being a radiologist I would love to x-ray this bird’s wing and diagnose the exact problem.  Which bone is fractured or is it just dislocated?  Is there evidence of early healing?  And what is the prognosis for future flight?

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The avian wing, the equivalent of our arm, is a magnificent structure formed for maximum strength and efficiency, while maintaining lightness for flight.  The upper arm or humerus bone is relatively shorter and thicker than ours and bears the major torque of the flapping wing.  The more distal paired radius and ulna are the equivalent of the human forearm, and like ours can be rotated or twisted.  This allows fine tuning of the wing attitude during flight.  Small bumps along the trailing edge of the ulna are the attachment sites of the secondary feathers.

Rock Dove Left Wing, from “Manual of Ornithology” by Proctor and Lynch.

Its in the wrist and hand bone where one sees the most deviation from the human skeleton.  The bird has two small carpal bones while we have eight.  They have three fused metacarpals to our five.  Distally they have three digits or fingers while most of us have five.

Brant, Branta bernicla

The pectoral girdle or shoulder of the bird is also very different from ours.  Just think of function.  The demands of flight require a  stout bracing for the large flight muscles and a strong attachment of wing to body, whereas the human shoulder is designed for flexibility and finer movements.  The bird’s oversized sternum and coracoid are obvious flight adaptations.  The “wishbone” or furcula is felt to be a flexible bone the bends downward with each wing beat and then springs upwards, aiding the flapping motion of flight.

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens

Most bird bones are hollow and highly pneumatized with air sacs that actually communicate with the respiratory system.  Internal struts give the light, hollow bones added strength, but not enough to withstand the trauma of the shotgun pellets.

Canada Goose and goslings, Branta canadensis

Getting back to our injured goose, I’ve decided not to intervene.  I’m not going to sneak the bird into the hospital’s x-ray department at night for a wing film, or try to splint the ailing wing, nor will I consult the humane society.  Instead my goose’s fate will be up to nature, its survival skills, and/or some higher power. I must admit that I admire its dogged fight for life and am rooting for it as it faces the coming colder months.  You might even catch me scattering some corn when no one is looking.  We’ll see.

My injured goose

Book Review: Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman.

Published by Houghton Mifflin, copyright 1997, 320 pages.


Did you ever dream of dropping out of high school, travel the continent, meet interesting people, and bird till you dropped, but never quite had the nerve.  That’s exactly what Kenn Kaufman did, a birder since age 6, and coming of age in the early 1970’s.  “Kingbird Highway” is his first person account of a year of extreme birding, breaking the one year record for the most birds seen in North America, but also a story of an astute teenager’s self examination and road-wise education acquired in a spartan manner that few of us would attempt or survive.

White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus           (click on photos to zoom)

Kenn Kaufman not only survived, but thrived and is now one of our leading ornithologists, conservationists, and authors.  His dropping out of high school was not due to disillusionment; he was not running away but instead beginning a personal pilgrimage.  At the time he was student council president in Wichita, Kansas and his remarkably tolerant parents supported his quest, as long as he agreed not to hitchhike.  That promise only lasted until the first Greyhound bus trip.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

Armed with a notebook, mediocre binoculars, a small knapsack, and sustained by a meagre diet that sometimes consisted of cat food (it’s cheap), he crisscrossed the continent on a shoestring budget primarily by thumbing.  He eventually tired of explaining his birding goals to incredulous drivers and made up more mundane and believable excuses for being on the road.

Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana

He describes hours spent on Interstate on-ramps watching thousands of cars pass by his scruffy self until one finally stops.  The best long distance rides were with truckers who often stopped after midnight looking for conversation on their long hauls.  His finances were periodically replenished by odd jobs such as apple picking, and in dire circumstances he knew his centrally located Wichita home and a square meal were never more than three hungry hitching days away.

Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus

Kaufman describes happily meeting the subculture of like-minded obsessed birders along the way including his hero, Roger Tory Peterson and the prior record holder and similar aged Ted Parker, to whom the book is dedicated.  He often birded alone, but occasionally hooked up with local bird clubs on weekend birding excursions to prime sites.  Initial skepticism about this young, long-haired, hippie birder quickly changed to admiration as his advanced skills became evident.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Elanoides forficatus

Birders and non-birders alike will enjoy the many anecdotes shared in this book.  Like his honorary membership as an IDIOT (Incredible Distances In Ornithological Travel) bestowed by the Lancaster, PA Bird Club, or the young woman in the hot car that gave him a ride to a foul-smelling dump in south Texas, not really believing he was actually looking for a specific gull.

Verdin, Auriparus flaviceps

Or the story of the Christmas Bird Count in Freeport, TX where he was assigned to a jetty to search for off-shore pelagics but was swept into the gulf, scope and all, by the raging surf.  He barely survived, but did manage to see some great seabirds enhancing the local count.  There’s also the saga of hitchhiking the entire 1500 miles of the gravel Alaska-Canada Highway, and the incredible scene of a flock of Alcids in flight at sunset over the Bering Sea with the snow-capped Siberian mountains in the distance.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

Amazingly Kaufman broke the old record of 626 birds by July and was able to spend the second half of the year chasing rarities and mopping up some common birds missed on his earlier trips. The tone of the narration and I think the mindset of the author changed as the year progressed.  He seemed to tire, both physically and emotionally, and began to question the whole listing rat race.  In this period he seemed to revive his interest in bird observation and his relationship with fellow birders, placing listing in a secondary role.

Brewer’s Sparrow, Spizella breweri

By the end of the book, the year, and 80,000 miles later his count was a phenomenal 671 birds, but there was no climactic celebration.  Almost as an afterthought the reader learns that another birder, older and better financed, also had a big year in 1973 and surpassed Kaufman’s count by several birds.  Ken was non-plussed.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

The author fist drafted his book in 1974 but did not finally publish “Kingbird Highway” until 1997, thus allowing a retrospective assessment of the incredible year.  The book contains descriptions of a plethora of birding hotspots, some of which I have visited but not with the birding eyes or ears of the esteemed author.  These include the Dry Tortugas in Florida, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Santa Ana NWR, and Bentsen State Park in Texas, Cape May and Forsythe NWR in New Jersey, and Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and the Chiricahua NM in Arizona.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

This is a story that will never be repeated, even though the record has been broken many times since.  “Kingbird Highway” took place in the pre-internet and pre-eBird era when there were no instantaneous rare bird alerts.  Back then sightings were conveyed by telephone, newspaper, or snail mail, and often stale by the time the birder could respond.  In those days hitchhiking was safer and cheap travel more available.  Kaufman spent less than $1000 for the entire year with half of that used for two plane trips in Alaska.  I’ll wager you’ll have a hard time finding any birder, young or old, that would endure the challenges of the year that Kaufman so wonderfully describes in this book.

American Oystercatchers, Haematopus palliatus

I’ll end with two Kaufman quotes.  “The most significant thing we find may not be the thing we are seeking.  That is what redeems the crazy ambivalence of birding…  It gets us out there in the real world, paying attention, hopeful, and awake.”  “Any bird-listing attempt is limited by time–a Big Day, Big Year, even a Life List are reminders of mortality.  The day ends, the year will end, everything will end.  Time is short…make the most of it.”