A flying visit
A few days ago the Munich Fire Brigade was called out to rescue a peregrine falcon entangled in a net high up on one of the towers of the Frauenkirche. The young female patient was taken to LMU’s Bird Hospital – and was soon back in action.
“The peregrine falcon is a typical synanthropic species. These birds are often found in the vicinity of human settlements,” says veterinarian Professor Rüdiger Korbel. And this one chose a particularly notable site in which to settle down: it makes its home high up in one of the towers of Munich’s famous Frauenkirche. It is a temporary guest in Prof. Korbel’s Clinic because it had the misfortune to blunder into a net at a most inopportune time – right in the middle of the courtship season – and the good fortune to be rescued from its plight. “Now is a good time to observe how the peregrines around the Frauenkirche pair up,” says Korbel “These falcons perform a characteristic courtship flight, which consists of abrupt swoops and spirals followed by a steep dive. And in order not to interrupt the process of pair bonding, it is important that this little lady be released as quickly as possible.”
High season for young falcons
“Large numbers of young birds are always brought in to us in the spring,” says Korbel, the Director of LMU’s Clinic for Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians and Ornamental Fish. “Each year we treat about 1300 wild birds, and we get everything from sparrows to pigeons to rare birds of prey. All are treated with the same care, regardless of how familiar or uncommon they may be. For the veterinarian, only one thing matters: If an animal is ill or injured, it must receive the appropriate care. That is the cardinal rule of the profession. In the case of wild animals, the costs – which can be quite considerable – are borne by the Clinic. In the case of birds suffering from physical trauma, for instance, the therapeutic measures usually include an X-ray and a close look at the eyes, in addition to a physical check-up. “Ophthalmology is my particular passion,” Korbel remarks. “The ability to see through the pupil and observe the inner surface of the eye gives one a window into a very special microcosmos. No other organ offers such a fascinating diversity of form and color in such a small space as the interior of the eye.”
Of course, not every animal takes kindly to being handled, even by someone who has its own best interests at heart. With birds of prey, it is usually advisable to wear leather gloves, says Korbel, who is himself a trained falconer. But above all, he adds, different species vary greatly in their biology and in their pathology – and hence in the demands they make upon the veterinarian. After all, the patients that Körbel attends to range in size from humming-birds weighing a few grams to ostriches that may tip the scales at around 170 kg. “There is no such thing as the ‘typical’ bird,” he says. “Instead, we have no less than 8800 species and 28,000 subspecies representing an enormous spectrum of zoological, anatomical and physiological features, and presenting an equally wide range of medical challenges. Avian medicine is therefore highly specialized.” And, of course, the Clinic is responsible for looking after the medical needs not only of birds, but also reptiles, amphibians and ornamental fish species. “And in future, we will also be dealing with domestic pets, such as guinea pigs.”
From farmyard fowl to exotic fauna
Professor Rüdiger Korbel refers to the animal hospital in his charge as “a multifaceted menagerie” with all sorts of exotic species. Indeed, he has fond memories of many of his patients, such as the parrot that was long a fixture of the inventory in the office at Käfer’s Specialty Foods. The bird was more than 110 years old, was no longer in the best of shape and had to be put to sleep. “It is hardly surprising in the case of such long-lived specimens that, over the years, very close and idiosyncratic relationships can develop between owner and bird,” Korbel remarks. The birds learn to imitate certain behavioral patterns or mimic sounds that are characteristic of their owners. He particularly recalls one rather macabre case from the course of his long career. As it happens, it also concerned a parrot. This particular bird had learned to mimic its owner’s smoker’s cough. When the latter died, his house – complete with parrot – passed into the possession of a close relative. And the dwelling continued to echo with the parrot’s rendition of the deceased’s cough …
The history of Avian Clinical Medicine at LMU began in 1965 with the founding of the Institute for the Pathology of Domestic, Ornamental and Wild Birds on a site that had previously served as a poultry farm. In 1990 the Institute was the first section of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine to be relocated to Oberschleissheim. In 2003, under the leadership Professor Korbel, it was converted into a “bird clinic”, specializing in Avian Medicine, which is now the largest institution of its kind in Germany. All veterinary students do part of their clinical rotation there. In the well-equipped clinical departments, and in the Laboratory for Emergency Veterinary Medicine, they are given a through grounding in all elements of Avian, Reptile and Piscine Medicine.
The young female falcon underwent an exhaustive examination during her 4-hour stay at the Clinic. Now free of the net in which she had become entangled, she was ready to set off on her flight home. Once back in the familiar environs of the Frauenkirche, she immediately climbed to loftier heights – as falcons will – in search of a mate. With a little luck, sometime next month, she should be able to tell her offspring the story of her flying visit to the exotic world of the Bird Clinic in Oberschleissheim.