See that gross bug on the Red-tailed Tropicbird?

It’s a hippoboscid, otherwise known as a flat fly.

I hate them. Even the most touchy-feely, circle-of-lifey, we’re-all-one-with-nature wildlife rehabilitators hate them. Flat flies and vulture vomit: either one can send an otherwise cheerful vet technician running from the room.

Why am I posting a photo of a hippoboscid on a Red-tailed Tropicbird, a bird I’ve never rehabbed? Because whenever I encounter one of these insects I’m either trying to avoid it or kill it, not take a picture of it, and this was the only uncopywrited photo I could find.

Also called louse flies, they’re squat little parasites that hide in the plumage of birds and suck their blood, especially sick or compromised ones. They hide until someone brings the bird to a rehabber, then they buzz out, furiously circle the rehabber’s head, and dive under the nearest gap in the rehabber’s clothing.

If you work with other people, one of you holds the newly-arrived bird and the other one cleans, bandages, splints, wraps, and, if need be, chases down and kills the flat flies that start abandoning ship once they suspect the Mite and Lice Spray is coming.

However, if you work alone and there are flat flies, you’re up a creek. Most solitary rehabbers have their own technique for simultaneously restraining, examining, and treating an uncooperative bird. We use towels and Velcro-covered strips of cloth; we and the bird balance against the table, the wall, and the floor; depending on the bird’s size, injury, and how homicidal/terrified he is, we occasionally achieve positions a yoga master would envy.

It is then, just when our patient is perfectly restrained and we are finally about to deal with the medical issue, that a flat fly will inevitably rocket out, slam against our heads, and start searching for that gap in our clothing.

It’s not good.


How could things be worse? I’ll tell you how. Last fall I had skin surgery, and paid the price for spending my teenage years lolling around outside with no sunscreen. I arrived home with a nice inch-long incision right between my eyebrows, and found a car parked in my driveway. Just what I wanted! Another Red-tailed Hawk, hit by a car. She didn’t appear to be seriously injured; actually, I looked worse than she did.

I was a little tired from having my face sliced up and sewn back together, so instead of taking her out to the clinic I took her into the bathroom. I had her wrapped in a towel and was giving her the once-over when … right! Flat flies! A horde of flat flies! Eleven flat flies. I’d never seen so many flat flies on one bird, and I had to hold the hawk, fend off the flat flies, then squish them – all while trying to remain completely expressionless, as during my first horrified grimace I felt my stitches start to pop.

Sort of like flat flies when you squish them.


Written by Suzie
Suzie Gilbert is a wild bird rehabilitator whose shameful secret is that on more than one occasion she has received a female LBJ, or a fledgling whatever, and has been completely unable to ID it. Luckily she has birder friends who will rush to her aid, although she must then suffer their mockery. She is the author of her bird-rehabbing memoir Flyaway (HarperCollins) and the children's book Hawk Hill (Chronicle Books). Her recent suspenseful, bird-filled adventure novel Unflappable (Perch Press) was selected by Audubon Magazine as one of their Three Best Summer Reads of 2020. She lives in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley and is always up for a good hike.