By Karin Dates, Volunteer
You may have seen a duck or goose in a public park with the end of one, or both, wings sticking out at an odd angle. Angel wing syndrome, also known as airplane wing, slipped wing, crooked wing, or drooped wing, is a mostly painless cosmetic deformity found primarily in aquatic waterfowl. While the condition itself is not life threatening, birds suffering from angel wing cannot fly, leaving them unable to migrate and making it harder for them to escape predators.
Although information is limited, many in the veterinary community believe angel wing is likely caused by an unhealthy diet. However, many professional wildlife rehabilitators point to evidence that indicate angel wing is genetic or hereditary. Proponents of the dietary theory note that as young birds start to grow feathers, a high carb/caloric diet can cause the feathers to grow faster than normal. The increased weight of the feathers causes the underdeveloped carpal joint (wrist) to twist outward. Hold your hand out in front of you, thumb up, and rotate your wrist so the thumb is pointing away from your body -- that’s basically what the bird’s wing is doing. Those who believe angle wing is genetic cite examples of some, but not all, offspring developing angel wing despite being raised in a controlled environment where nutrition is properly managed. Either way, the result is that a bird's feathers will start to look ragged and dirty because they are not lying flat against their body like they are designed to be, and the increased exposure to the elements takes its toll.
For adult birds like Phoenix (pictured above with "double angle wing"), not much can be done. West Place has a group of eight wild Canada Geese, many with angel wing, that live at the sanctuary permanently, though they are not considered rescues. They enjoy the safety that our farm and our pond provide to them, and they are perfectly happy and capable of sustaining themselves alongside our rescue birds who require human care.
If signs of angel wing are caught early enough, while the bird is still young and their bones are still flexible, treatment can be attempted through an immediate change of diet and wrapping the wing against the body to keep it untwisted until the bones strengthen. While most wild birds are not observed with the angel wing until it is too late, West Place has successfully rehabilitated goslings and ducklings and given them opportunities to live long, healthy, successful lives in the wild.
As the video above shows, wing wraps are one way we try to correct angel wing (and in this case it was a success). With smaller birds like ducklings, wing wraps aren't always feasible or practical so we've come up with some alternative solutions. Cutting the feet off of tube socks creates "duck sleeves" that can be slipped over a bird's head to create a compression effect. This is especially helpful when we suspect that both wings might be affected.
It is so rewarding for us to to see young birds overcome angel wing and grow and mature into healthy adults, but our remedies are not 100% effective. As with most things, the best way to combat angel wing is prevention.
While there is nothing wrong with observing ducks and geese at a public park or waterway, these birds are perfectly capable of providing for themselves and should not be fed by humans. Bread and other processed foods are the likely culprits behind most cases of angel wing.
Part of nature's beauty is the way that all flora and fauna have exactly what they need to survive and thrive without human intervention. West Place exists to care for animals in need, but we can all do our part to ensure we are not creating situations that are easily avoidable.
Every year, West Place rehabilitates dozens of sick, injured, and orphaned wildlife -- sometimes as many as 200! You can sponsor our wildlife rehabilitation efforts with a monthly donation that helps provide food, medical attention, and other resources needed to return animals to full health and their natural habitats. You'll also provide budget relief that allows us to continue helping animals in need.