BILLINGS – The images are almost worthy of a modern art display – bright white bird bones appear suspended in mid-air against a black backdrop with faint outlines of wing and tail feathers barely visible.
The images are X-rays taken at the Bozeman-based Montana Raptor Conservation Center using its newly acquired digital machine, the only one of its kind at a raptor center in the state. Revealed in the clear photos are fractured wing bones and injured shoulders.
“The images produced by digital X-ray are far superior to those produced on traditional film, which allows us to really target our efforts,” said Beck Kean, director of the center, in a press release.
In a conversation this week, Kean had just returned from picking up an injured red-tailed hawk captured near Laurel. About 40 percent of the raptors the center handles have been injured by collisions with automobiles.
“A 2-pound bird hit by a vehicle going 80, it’s amazing they survive,” she said. “They tend to shatter the bones because they’re hollow. We usually see a lot of head trauma, too.”
The $18,000 machine was purchased with money raised partly through a countywide effort, Give Big Gallatin Valley. Overall, the one-day community event gathered $235,000 for 100 area nonprofits.
“The increased awareness from that day gave us the momentum we needed to meet our goal,” said Rick Sanders, MRCC board president.
Additional funds came from matching funds, individual donors and Sacajawea Audubon.
In addition to providing clearer photos of bird injuries, the new machine also means the center no longer has to purchase chemicals to develop X-rays. It also reduces the amount of radiation the center’s workers are exposed to by about 75 percent. And the center can now quickly email the images to its cooperating veterinarians who perform surgeries for the raptors.
“There are not a lot of veterinarians with expertise in exotics,” Kean said. “You can’t put casts on birds, so they put pins in them.”
Unfortunately for the center, not every injured raptor is a candidate for surgery and reintroduction to the wild. About 40 percent of the birds brought in are healed and released; the rest are euthanized.
“That doesn’t sound that great, but that’s pretty phenomenal for small guys like us who don’t even have a veterinarian on site,” she said.
The decision to try and save a bird is made by Kean and the veterinarian. Since raptors are protected species, the federal government also has a say, and won’t allow any amputations above the elbow.
Some birds are kept for educational purposes, but that choice isn’t made lightly. Kean said a caged bald eagle may live 50 years. One of their red-tailed hawks is 22.
A golden eagle with a shoulder fracture was one of the first patients to be diagnosed using the new X-ray technology.
“We were able to see through the scapula and coracoid (part of the shoulder) into the joint to identify the damage – the detail was impressive,” Kean said. “Having that visual really helped us set the joint and give the eagle a better chance at recovery and release.”
Taking a bird’s X-ray isn’t easy. Hoods over the birds’ eyes help calm them. Then they’re held down with masking tape.
“You have to be fast,” Kean said.
Understanding the extent of the bird’s injuries is key to rehabilitating wounded wildlife. When an injured raptor is admitted, MRCC staff stabilize it and perform an initial assessment, which most often involves an X-ray.
“With this technology, we can see the fine detail and determine a plan of attack,” Kean said.
The plan could involve setting the bone with splints and tape or surgically with pins.
“In the past, we’d have to develop film and drive it to the vet for analysis,” said Jordan Spyke, MRCC assistant director. “Now, we can email a digital image in less than half the time. That shortens the entire diagnostic process and gives us more time to tend to the birds.”
The new X-ray machine couldn’t have come at a better time, since MRCC is seeing more injured raptors than at any time since it was founded in 1988.
Last year the group treated 230 birds, up about 25 percent over 2014. Kean could only speculate about possible reasons for the increase. It could be more raptors thanks to a good hatch, or maybe more people are aware of the services the center offers.
“It’s a pretty amazing little organization,” Kean said.