Injured birds of prey are getting a second chance at a healthy life thanks to the work of a dedicated raptor expert who spent years honing her skills in the delicate art of feather repair.
Raptor expert Melanie Barsony calls Australia home, but to learn imping, an ancient method of repairing damaged or broken feathers, she traveled halfway around the world – all the way to the Middle East. Injured feathers are often a death sentence for a bird of prey. If they can’t fly, they can’t hunt, and will eventually starve to death.
Imping, however, allows raptor experts such as Barsony to repair damaged flight feathers, thus saving them from an early grave. “Birds of prey need their feathers in absolutely perfect condition to be able to fly and maneuver and hunt,” Barsony explained to ABC. “As a feather becomes broken or damaged, they are at a disadvantage.”
Imping is a centuries-old technique originating in the Middle East, so Barsony knew that’s where she needed to journey in order to learn from the best. In 2013 and 2014, she spent six weeks learning at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the world’s largest facility of its kind.
There, she learned how to join donor feathers to the shafts of broken feathers using wooden dowels and glue. “It is definitely a fine art and you have to make sure that not only are the feathers the correct length and the correct match of the specific feather but also that the alignment is perfect,” Barsony explained.
How Imping Works in Restoring Flight to Injured Birds
Like any medical procedure, imping is a difficult task requiring a painstaking level of accuracy. To ensure a perfect fit, the wildlife expert must first choose a feather from the exact same species, of course. However, the feather must also come from a bird of similar weight and the same sex to adequately repair the injured wing.
Once the ideal feather is chosen, it must be meticulously attached to the existing shaft. Even the slightest misalignment can result in disaster for the injured bird.
“You can imagine if a feather is slightly twisted, that’s just going to cause the bird all kinds of problems when it’s trying to fly,” Barsony said. “A little bit like having your car wheels out of alignment, it’s going to affect maneuverability.”
Sadly, the donor feathers used in imping don’t appear out of thin air. Wildlife experts collect them from birds that did not survive similar injuries or faced euthanasia for another extreme illness or injury.
As such, it’s all the more important to get the procedure right. That way, the deceased bird didn’t die in vain. “Unfortunately, not all wildlife survive,” Barsony lamented. “So we keep their wings and tails and then they can go on to help other birds.”
One of Barsony’s latest imping procedures resulted in the successful rehabilitation of an injured owl after the bird suffered a car accident. She attached six flight feathers to the owl, which is now on its way to returning to the wild. “It’s just the absolute best feeling to know that you’ve given at least one bird a second chance out there,” Barsony said.