Dentist aids National Aviary in quest for better fix for broken beaks
For birds, a beak injury can be catastrophic.
The pointed, hard structures are essential for tasks large and small, such as eating, catching food and grooming feathers. In many ways, a beak is another limb.
“They use their beaks for everything,” said Pilar Fish, director of veterinary medicine at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh's North Side. “Beaks are their teeth, their hands, and they help birds get their feathers in place to fly. It's devastating to see a fractured beak and to know it could pop off at any moment.”
Fish described the injuries — and the challenges of beak and talon repair — to Dr. Mark Pechersky, a pediatric dentist, when he toured the aviary a few months ago with his wife, Debbie. The aviary reports about five such injuries annually.
Fish lamented how she couldn't find a quality adhesive agent to fix fractured beaks and talons. She was using horse hoof acrylics that gave off a nasty smell and took a long time to dry.
Pechersky, 69, wanted to help.
He hadn't visited the aviary since he was 9 or 10 years old and came away from the visit thoroughly impressed with the aviary and its 500 birds from 150 species.
Pechersky offered up a potential solution: pediatric dental bonding materials that dry in less than three minutes, are clear and don't smell.
First, they'd have to test out his theory.
Birds' beaks are mainly composed of keratin, a protein that provides structure and strength. Pechersky and Fish wanted to learn whether Pechersky's dental materials would secure damaged beaks as they do with kids' teeth.
“What we learned together is that, even though beaks are smooth and hard, the dental materials work very well,” Fish said. “That was the most exciting discovery for us. It's nice to have all these different levels of technique available for the birds.”
Pechersky followed up by donating dental tools and training Fish on how to make the fixes.
Last week, he traveled to the aviary for a fourth time to work with Fish on an old skull of a red-tailed hawk. He instructed how to drill, bond and use light-activated dental resins, which dry quickly under the bright blue light of tiny flashlight devices. Fish intentionally broke the beak and then adhered it with dental materials.
“This is wonderful,” she said. “If you don't repair a beak well enough then, basically, it can't eat and it may not heal at all.”
Fish, who trained as a zoo veterinarian and developed a specialty in birds, has worked with everything from sharks to elephants.
“The fragility, the beauty of birds is astonishing along with the diversity of them,” she said. “They are the most fragile patients. To work solely in avian medicine, you have these challenges similar to pediatrics with them being so fragile. Collaborating with the professional community to customize these new procedures is the only way we are going to advance avian medicine.”
She always tries to avoid anesthesia with birds unless they are undergoing surgery.
“When we only had horse hoof acrylics, they can take 15 minutes to adhere,” Fish said. “You have that bird, and the smell is worse than paint fumes. The fact that this is under three minutes to adhere means we can hold the birds and there is no anesthesia and no pain to get the beaks fixed.”
Pechersky, who has been a pediatric dentist for 42 years, happily volunteered his time and services.
The next step will be a live beak repair when the opportunity arises.
“These dental materials continue to get better and faster and less toxic,” said Pechersky, whose office is in Monroeville. “The new generations of materials don't have fumes and are made for children's mouths. They bond hundreds of times better than the older materials.”
Fish has Pechersky on speed-dial for the next emergency. He'll be ready.
“This place is incredible; I'm amazed at all the changes from my visit as a child,” he said. “I'm not sure the general public is aware of what a local treasure this is.”
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or email@example.com.