Ice Pick in the Stomach of a White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)
IAAAM 1988
Tom E. Mattis, PhD; Thomas L. Deardorff, PhD

A male, white pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhyncos was presented for evaluation with symptoms indicative of poisoning. On clinical examination we noticed that the pelican rarely stood upright, remaining instead in a squatting position with his neck contracted, and listing slightly to its right side. Wing movements were coordinated; however, movement of the right wing was noticeably limited and the wing was never fully extended. The pelican was weak, but alert. No external abnormalities were found. Previous attempts by others to force feed fish to the pelican, which exhibited a passive tolerance to strangers, usually resulted in regurgitation.

Radiological examination of the abdominal region revealed the presence of the metallic shaft of a wooden-handled ice pick (Figures 1, 2). The anteroventrally-directed point of the ice pick appears to have been lodged in the thoracic spine. Sclerosis in the vertebral bodies surrounding the tip of the ice pick is evident in both films. In a human, this could either be because of a reaction to the foreign body itself or a low grade osteomyelitis. It indicates that the ice pick may have been lodged in the bone for some time. The bird's symptoms may have been because of a systemic infection or involvement of the spinal cord by surrounding inflammatory reaction. This may explain the squatting posture.

The course of the blade suggests that it perforated the distal esophagus, just proximal to the diaphragm, possibly as the bird attempted to regurgitate the ice pick. From there, it passes through the dorsal mediastinum along an anterodorsal course to the thoracic spine. The esophagus is faintly outlined against the lung in Figure 2.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Radiograph of the abdomen of a white pelican showing metal shaft and shank of ice pick (arrows) in the stomach; frontal view. Note: wooden handle of ice pick not visible.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Radiograph of the abdomen of a white pelican showing metal shaft and shank of ice pick (arrows) in stomach; lateral view. Note sclerosis in vertebral bodies (large arrow).

To anesthetize the animal, a large plastic trash bag was placed over his head, gathered around the neck, and filled with Halothane gas. A wet, ungloved hand was extended down the throat and into the upper end of the stomach of the anesthetized bird. Continuity of the airway was maintained by holding the animal upright and stretching the neck slightly. Although access into the stomach was somewhat restricted, the pointed end of the ice pick was grasped, dislodged, and withdrawn. The ice pick was 22 cm in total length, had a metal shaft 12 cm long, and weighed 39 grams. This procedure required five minutes following which the pelican quickly regained consciousness.

The bird's recovery was rapid and uneventful. Feeding resumed the next day. Normal posture and wing movement gradually returned within 3 days. No antibiotics were administered and the bird was not examined further. The rapid recovery indicates that the spinal cord was probably not directly involved.

Accurate diagnosis of non-food objects in the digestive tract of birds is difficult. Avian subjects are typically poor surgical risks and the presence of foreign objects are frequently confirmed only at necropsy. However, pelicans are somewhat unique in their size, the elasticity of the esophagus, and in the location of the trachea which opens at the base of the lower bill rather than in the throat. These anatomic characteristics, which allow for large fish to easily pass through the esophagus without obstructing the airway, also permit access to the stomach during a medical emergency.

Ironically, this was not the first time that this pelican found itself in a life threatening situation because of humans. Originally, it was found floating in the Gulf of Mexico, covered with oil and near death. The pelican was taken to a home, cleaned, fed, and released nearby about 1 week later. The pelican never left the home on the Gulf coast and adjusted to eating fresh fish thrown on the ground for it to eat. We suspect that when he eventually encountered the ice pick on the ground, he mistook it for a fish, and ingested it "head-first." The innate behavior of pelicans to eat fish "large-end-first" probably saved this bird's life. By consuming the handle of the ice pick first, the bird certainly spared itself from more significant abdominal damage.

After convalescence following removal of the ice pick, Federal Wildlife officers released the pelican into the environment.

Speaker Information
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Thomas L. Deardorff, PhD

Tom E. Mattis, PhD