A leg for Leggy


Written by Jo Plumstead and Dr Bernice van Huyssteen

The speckled bird with his big, yellow eyes was found in the garden of an Edgemead resident, his leg dangling uselessly. Despite his injury, it took me some time to catch the Dikkop (also called the Spotted thick-knee) and, when I did, it was clear that there was nothing that could be done to save the leg.

The bone was protruding

After dropping everything and rushing to fetch him, then heading back home again, I could see the full damage of his injury: the poor little guy’s leg was hanging on a thread, literally. He was also not in a good way physically, being weak and dehydrated.

The wound was a clean break, with the break area dry and healed, and the broken-off part 100% dead. I cut the dangling part off as it was just hindering his movement and had no chance of recovery. On the stompie (stump), the bone was protruding badly. It was heartbreaking to think how long he had suffered with that serious injury.

I immediately made an emergency appointment with our avian vet, Dr Bernice van Hyssteen at the Bird and Exotic Clinic, who operated to remove the protruding bone. But what to do with a one-legged Dikkop? These birds live, nest and hunt for food on the ground; having both legs functioning is crucial to their survival.

Anyone who’s seen one of these speedy birds will know that they’re very fast on those long legs in getting away from danger, chasing food, and deterring predators. With a missing leg, Leggy’s chances of survival in the wild were, essentially, zero. But that didn’t mean it had to be the end of his life…

A new leg to stand on

Dr Van Hyssteen explained that she’d like to have a prosthetic leg made with a 3D printer and asked if we were up for the challenge of rehab. Of course I said, “absolutely!”

Before anything further could be done, the amputation wound had to heal completely, which took around two weeks. Then he would need to be measured and fitted for the prosthetic, and then get used to using it. It was a long process and Leggy was in my care for almost two months. Dikkoppe are fierce birds and he had the will to survive.

Leggy couldn’t go back into the “wild” because his disability would hinder him from feeding himself and staying safe from predators. We planned to make sure he would have a good life ahead of him in as natural an environment as possible.

Once we and Dr Bernice were 100% happy with Leggy’s ability to use his new leg, Wendy and I delivered him safely to Claire Louw at the World of Birds in Hout Bay, a bird sanctuary. Here he will get the best possible care and have friends of his own kind, in a humungous enclosure.

Dr Bernice van Huyssteen from the Bird and Exotic Clinic, shares…

We first met Leggy the Dikkop in February 2017 when he was brought into the clinic by Jo Plumstead and Wendy Goetze – the caring “Edgemead Bird Ladies”. As a wild Dikkop, he’d lost his right foot and part of his lower right leg. By the time he was found, the foot and lower leg had died off – it was black and dried up until just below the hock joint (“elbow”). He was also undernourished and dehydrated.

Despite his injuries he was bright and feisty – and not easy to handle. It was clear from the start that nothing could be done to save the leg and it would have to be amputated. Our decision for surgery was complicated by the fact that a Dikkop cannot function effectively with only one leg and we knew he could never have a normal life in the wild again.

But Leggy was so bright and strong that we wanted to give him a chance.

The leg was amputated below the hock to try and save as much as possible. He sailed through both the operation and the two weeks post-op like a champion, thanks to the dedicated care of his rehabilitators. When the wound on the stump had healed sufficiently, it was time to reconstruct a leg for Leggy.

With the help of Gary Jurgens and his 3D printer, we designed and printed a 3D prosthetic leg that was now ready for testing. The leg was designed with a “cup” to fit over the stump of the leg, and was measured to be equal in length to his other leg when standing. The stump was first padded with soft bandaging materials to prevent pressure sores. The cup was then slipped over the stump and bandaged in place on the leg. A rubber tip was made for the tip of the prosthesis to help prevent slipping. It took a few wobbly test runs for Leggy to figure out what to do, but he got the hang of the prosthetic leg rather quickly. Soon he was placing weight on it when walking, and could even run with it.

His rehabilitators used the next month to get him used to the leg. Initially, the prosthesis would be placed on only for an hour or two, but later on he could comfortably walk around on it for hours. While a prosthesis cannot replace his lost leg, it does allow him to live a more normal life.

Leggy was by now healthy and well and desperate to get on with life. Unfortunately, it is impossible to release a bird with a prosthesis back into the wild. He wouldn’t survive with only one leg and a prosthesis requires lifelong management and care – something he can only receive in captivity. The healthy leg will have to be monitored daily for the development of pressure sores and bumblefoot (a bacterial infection and inflammatory reaction).

Luckily, the team at World of Birds were keen to take Leggy on. They’ll continue to care for him and manage his prosthesis on a daily basis. We hope he gets to enjoy life for as long as possible at World of Birds.