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The curious case of the ailing curassow

Hocco à pierre
  • Hocco à pierre
  • Le sou noir digéré
  • L'équipe de la Faculté de médecine vétérinaire de l’Université de Montréal
The curious case of the ailing curassow

The tall, proud northern helmeted curassow never fails to make an impression on visitors to the Biodôme. This bird, with its haughty demeanour and distinctive grey-blue casque, recently gave our veterinary team quite a scare! This is the story of its astonishing rescue...

The truly omnivorous northern helmeted curassow

The northern helmeted curassow spends its days foraging for fruits and seeds fallen from the trees, as well as buds, leaves, insects and even small mammals. It will eat just about anything... which sometimes gets it into trouble! As you may know, ducks occasionally swallow lead sinkers and lead shot (from fishing and hunting activities) after mistaking them for gravel, and then develop lead poisoning. Similarly, the Biodôme’s curassow has a natural tendency to ingest gravel to help break down food. In captivity, these birds can accidentally swallow man-made objects—that is, foreign bodies. And that’s what happened here. In early September 2013, the tropical bird keeper noticed that our curassow seemed weak. After an exam and X-rays, we soon realized that there was something unusual in its gizzard. We could see that it was probably metal and looked a bit like wire mesh—but what could it be? It was a mystery...

Curing the curassow

The next step in the bird’s diagnosis and treatment was to try to get the foreign object out by performing an endoscopy. As in human medicine, this means inserting a camera through the mouth to see the contents of the stomach. An endoscope is a specialized piece of equipment requiring the services of an expert from the Université de Montréal’s veterinary medicine faculty in Saint-Hyacinthe. Within 36 hours, we had an appointment and our curassow was anesthetized for the procedure. We successfully extracted the metal object: a half-digested penny! We also found a necklace bead, a piece of wood and other small objects. It really will eat anything!

A lucky escape

Thanks to the removal of the penny and treatment at the clinic, the curassow had a lucky escape. Blood analysis showed severe zinc poisoning that would have been fatal if left untreated. The penny was therefore produced between 1997 and 1999. If it had been made before or after this period, we would have been dealing with a case of copper poisoning. Many animals swallow foreign objects as they can’t distinguish between them and things that are natural to their environment with which they have evolved over thousands of years. Think of the sea turtles that die after mistaking plastic bags floating in the ocean for jellyfish, their staple diet. It becomes clear how something seemingly trivial to a human, like dropping a penny or letting a plastic bag blow away, can be a question of life or death for an animal.

The northern “helmeted” curassow?

Hearing the name for the first time brings to mind images of a creature that is all set to engage in battle or perhaps take part in some kind of extreme sport... Not quite! The northern helmeted curassow (Pauxi pauxi) owes its name to the handsome grey-blue casque (bulbous protuberance) it sports above its bill. A worthy representative of the order of galliformes—chickens and the like—the northern helmeted curassow’s plumage is almost entirely black, contrasting with its bright red bill and its pink legs. It weighs between 2.5 and 3.5 kg, with the male being larger than the female. It lives in the undergrowth of subtropical cloud forests, in the eastern Andes of Venezuela and Colombia. It prefers humid gorges 1,000–1,500 metres in altitude, where it spends its days foraging for food.

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