Having Her Feathers Done: Israeli Stork May Fly Again Thanks to Ancient Technique

Shot down and left for dead, the bird was rushed by animal ambulance to a wildlife hospital which performed a feather implant technique known from falconry

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Imping a stork at the wildlife hospital in Ramat Gan.
Imping a stork at the wildlife hospital in Ramat Gan. Credit: Sagit Horowitz
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A stork that had been shot down and left for dead will shortly be returning to nature after receiving antibiotics, analgesics, a bath –and feather implants at the Israeli Wildlife Hospital.

Feather implants – “imping,” insiders call it – is a known technique, if not a common one. Invented by medieval falconers, the painstaking practice actually goes back a thousand years.

Note ye that it isn’t a transplant, it’s an implant – sort of like a hair weave. You could weave straw into your last lingering natural tresses without risk of rejection. Ditto implanting feathers. Theoretically you could put a chicken feather on an eagle and it would be fine, if mortified – but it might not be able to fly properly. Feathers are species-specific in weight, texture and so on.

The unhappy bird had been brought down by shotgun fire and was found muddied and bloodied in Kfar Ruppin in the Beit She’an Valley of northern Israel. She was brought to the wild-animal hospital in the Ramat Gan Safari park by Haibulance, the wildlife ambulance service run by the Nature and Parks Authority, in early November.

The doctors couldn’t remove the pellets from the bird but did give her chelation therapy to adsorb the lead and prevent poisoning. At least none of her bones were broken. But the mangled feathers in both wings would have doomed her, Safari park spokeswoman Sagit Horowitz explains to Haaretz.

Staff at the wildlife hospital in Ramat Gan perform the painstaking process of implanting feathers on the injured stork. Credit: Sagit Horowitz

Her? Given that her sex wasn’t germane to her treatment, they didn’t actually lift the bird’s skirt but think she’s female based on her size.

After a few days of restorative treatment, she had regained enough strength to walk around and presumably resist any attempts to care for her, and the doctors decided she could be safely sedated for the feather implantation. The painstaking procedure took a couple of hours.

Imping the stork involved cutting the broken feathers at their base, carefully leaving the end of the hollow shaft in the flesh. (If the feather has been ripped out shaft and all, imping is impossible.) Then one inserts a toothpick or similar – a thin stretch of inert wire, for instance – into that shaft base, and into the shaft of the replacement feather, and glues both ends. “The measurements have to be very precise,” Horowitz says. “Imping is an art.”

If so, it’s an art that goes back to at least the 1240s, according to the Audubon Society, noting that the practice appears in a book written by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, no less. The procedure may have been so well-known in the days of yore, among falconers we stress not chicken farmers, that even Shakespeare used the word – “Imp out our drooping country’s broken wing” in “The Life and Death of Richard the Second.”

StorkCredit: Tibor Jager

Meanwhile back at the safari clinic, imping the said stork involved isolating each feather like a hairdresser does hair frosting. Why? Because that glue is powerful. Anything it touches sticks, Horowitz explains. And although they could theoretically have used any vaguely similar feathers, they aspire to return the patient to nature, so they tapped their Feather Bank – yes, they have one – for feathers from a lady stork of about the same size and age. That way she can fly properly, without thinking overmuch about it.

“We have been doing it for years. Usually birds need a feather here or there, but in this case, she was missing a ton of feathers,” Horowitz says – meaning about 16 of them, which is critical for her flight ability.

Now, some days after the imping, she’s feeling perky, Horowitz reports. The plan is to try to return her to nature roughly where she was found. We can only hope the marksman isn’t local too.

Imping a stork: The procedure, invented by medieval falconers, goes back a thousand years.Credit: Sagit Horowitz
Some 20,000 migrating storks gather at Agmon Hahula in northern Israel in March, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

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