On the Monday morning of March 5th, John was walking behind his house in Keedysville, MD when he noticed something strange on his back deck, unmoving. As he approached he realized it was an adult bald eagle, and by all appearances it was dead. But when John got closer he could see it was breathing. He went back inside and called Owl Moon Raptor Center. We were able to admit the eagle for care, but had no one available to conduct a field rescue. We contacted MD Natural Resources Police (NRP) to request assistance. NRP Officer Tanner Brown was able to capture the eagle by laying a large quilt over it. He transferred the bird to NRP Wildlife Technician Samatha Hopkins, who transported him (an adult male) to Owl Moon. During transport the eagle thrashed around, but was unable to stand.
When the eagle arrived at Owl Moon he was lying flat in the box, unmoving, much as John had observed. His body was limp, his head flopped, and his eyes were glazed and sunken, indicating severe dehydration. There were no signs of trauma, and his condition suggested poisoning. We injected a large dose of fluids under the eagle’s skin, which would help him recover from dehydration and, if we could keep him alive, begin to flush the toxin through his system. We drew blood for testing. The first toxin that comes to mind in the case of scavengers such as eagles and vultures is lead, but our in-house blood lead test proved negative, so we sent the blood to a lab for further testing. We were not hopeful we could save him.
But later that day the eagle was up on his feet. By evening his eyes were noticeably less sunken, and his muscles stronger. We continued fluid therapy, and on Day Two the eagle began to perch, his eyes looked brighter, and he took several bites of food from us. We were becoming more optimistic as we awaited his blood test results.
We received the blood test results on Day Three. Results were inconclusive. However, by this time our research suggested that the eagle may have ingested a near lethal dose of phenobarbital, the chemical used to euthanize animals (Phenobarbitol testing was not a part of lab work). It is possible that a livestock animal had been euthanized and the carcass left in the field where scavengers who fed on it would be secondarily poisoned. This is illegal, but it happens. We reported our suspicions to MD Natural Resources Police so that they could investigate the possibility. Meanwhile, fluid therapy was clearly helping the eagle recover, so we continued administering fluids even as he began to eat a normal diet on his own. By Thursday, Day Four, the eagle was bright and alert, and rambunctious in his indoor housing. It was time to take him outdoors and see if he was capable of flight by testing him on a creance line.
He was! He flew so well that we made the decision to release him as soon as possible so that he could quickly return to his (presumed) mate and maybe their nest could be saved. But one more step was required. The eagle’s feathers were so tattered from his ordeal that many of them needed replacing before he could meet the challenges of life in the wild. We replace damaged feathers with healthy intact feathers by a process called “imping.” Imping is an ancient procedure developed by falconers. It uses a peg or “pin” inserted into the hollow shaft of the trimmed off damaged feather to replace it with the same, healthy feather of a “donor” bird. In our case, the donor is a bird of the same species and size, who sadly died or required humane euthanasia due to its injuries. We see this as a way of saving one bird with a part of another, less fortunate one, allowing both birds to fly free again in spirit.
The eagle’s damaged feathers were imped on Friday, Day 5, and early on Saturday, March 10th, Amy and her family, along with John, released him back to the wild in his home territory. He flew off fast and purposefully and we hope reunited with a mate!
The very next day, March 11, we received another eagle call…
Stay tuned for March is Bald Eagle Month Part II!