You’ll never ignore a sore throat again

Let’s say you have a sore throat, so you decide to step into the bathroom, turn on all the bright lights around the sink, and look deep in your gullet to see if you can identify anything of concern, like swollen lymph nodes or raw mucosa.  But instead of the usual suspects, you see this:

A close-up of avian biting lice (a.k.a. pouch lice; Piagetiella peralis) in the mouth of an American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) (2009_07_04_025808_c)

Hordes of biting lice of varying ages, from newborn nymphs to bloated adults.  They’ve chewed your mucous membranes until they’ve become raw and inflamed.

If you were to see such a thing, you’d have to be a pelican or a cormorant, for these dastardly little critters are avian biting lice (a.k.a. pouch lice; Piagetiella peralis).  They don’t only live on the outsides of birds, though; they have no qualms moving inside where they can chew on soft flesh without all those feathers getting in the way.

That horrific scene happens to be from an American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).  Here’s the full view whence the above image was cropped.

A serious infestation of avian biting lice (a.k.a. pouch lice; Piagetiella peralis) in the mouth of an American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) (2009_07_04_025808)

While volunteering at Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, I participated in lice removal from several pelicans who were at the center due to various wounds and ailments (none having to do with lice, mind you).

The original handful of birds proved free of lice when they arrived.  But a single bird was brought in later who did have lice.  Its infestation was small and the ectoparasites went unnoticed for a few days.  And that’s all the time a few lice needed to reproduce in large numbers and to infest the other pelicans.  Thankfully the above pelican (the original host) had the worst problem while the other birds had significantly smaller crowds of the critters.

A minor infestation of avian biting lice (a.k.a. pouch lice; Piagetiella peralis) in the mouth of an American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) (2009_07_04_025800)

Avian lice such as this species have little interest in humans.  That’s because the insects are specialized for hiding, breeding and feeding within a feathered environment.  Lacking feathers, people don’t offer the creepy crawlies anything of interest.

So what happens to a louse when it’s removed from its host?

Avian biting lice (a.k.a. pouch lice; Piagetiella peralis) dying in a tub of Sevin dust (2009_07_04_025809)

It gets dropped into a tub with a shallow layer of Sevin dust.  There, each louse writhes in the poison just long enough to become completely covered with it, then a stillness falls over it and it becomes but one more dark speck in a growing sea of dark specks.

Unfortunately for the pelicans who find the removal and manhandling rather disagreeable, the process had to be done to ensure their health while they are cared for in preparation for release back to the wild.  The lice can only make the birds’ recovery more difficult, so it behooves the caregivers to keep them clean and to remove the little nibblers before they cause complications.

11 thoughts on “You’ll never ignore a sore throat again”

    1. Oh, Jain, you should have seen them wriggling and squirming–then trying to escape once we started reaching in and plucking them out. Gave a whole new meaning to involuntary gag reflex…

  1. Jason, I only stopped by for a quick visit, not intending to leave a comment due to the hour. When I saw the title of your post, I had to look, because I am still recovering from a nasty cold I picked up while out of town – which started with a bad sore throat. I DID look at my throat in the mirror…but I think I’ll just go double-check. šŸ™‚

    1. “Ew!” is the right response, Xenobiologista. This was the first time I’d ever seen these critters in such an up close and personal way. Staring down the throat of a pelican and watching these lice scamper about trying to hide was pretty much as disgusting a scene as I’d ever witnessed. But then came reaching into the bird’s mouth to pluck the nasty little critters out one by one. They’re large enough to capture by hand–which is both useful and frightening at the same time!

  2. Jason! Thanks so much for these pictures and explaination. I had an up close and personal experience with these buggers in the last 12 hours. Not fun.

    We live on a lake in MN. Yesterday was a gorgeous day and while my children were out playing they noticed a pelican with a large fishing lure attached to its face and wing, majorly restricting its movement. Our compassion overwhelmed us and we got in our boat and went after it. We were able to capture it and remove the hook from the wing but the other 3 pronged hook was stuck in the poor thing’s eye. While my hubby was trying to loosen the ring attaching the hook to the lure, small bugs started to crawl up my arms by the droves. My oldest son was there to pick them off my face but when all was said and done, the lure removed (we ended up having to leave the hook due to its embeddedness), and the bird swimming away in relief, everything was crawling with these varmints.

    I was relieved to know they do not infect humans, nevertheless, here I am at 3 am too overwhelmed with thoughts of creepy crawlies in my hair to sleep. Yuck.

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