We got the first confusing calls from the caring staff at Lake Hogan asking when we were going to get there to pick up the eagle. The problem was that we had not gotten a call and they did not remember the name of the person they had called. They were concerned that time was of the essence for this very weak eagle.
When Michael Gillespie arrived to pick up the eagle, we knew staff had called for transport from an old list and we were excited that Michael could volunteer again. Picking up a bird this big takes time and preparation. A large crate, towel to line it, sheet to cover it and a good pair of gloves are all needed.
We are always excited to get in an eagle and are in awe of them. These are large and powerful birds, but this bird had neither of these qualities. We immediately went to work to get this bird warm and hydrated. Her mouth was stringy and pale and her keel was rail thin telling us that she was starving.
We wrap the claws on the talons of these powerful birds which are the size of a woman’s hands. We cover the head to calm the bird and protect volunteers from bites from a strong, sharp beak. Next we rehydrate the bird with warmed fluids because a bird’s temperature is much higher than ours.
We had alerted Dr. Alison Pillsbury who came and drew blood and swabbed this bird. Then she went next door to Acorn Hills Animal Center for more testing and treatment. Extensive testing was begun to try to rule out what was not wrong with this bird and to try to determine how to make her well again. We consulted with Avian Veterinarian, Dr. Jeannie Smith, and wildlife biologists with California Fish and Wildlife to assist us with what tests could be done by what businesses and agencies.
First ruled out was lead poisoning. This is a common cause of death for these majestic birds. As they ingest more and more lead from the environment from objects such as fishing weights and bullets, the lead level becomes toxic and eventually kills them. In one year 69,000 tons of lead has been used to make munitions. In 5 lakes an average of 320 pounds of lead fishing weights were found. All of this leads to lead toxicity for birds of prey, waterfowl and ground feeding birds such as doves, bobwhites and pheasants.
Next ruled out was West Nile Virus. It is hard to believe that something as tiny as a mosquito can take down a bird as large and powerful as an eagle, but it can. Our Avian Veterinarian, Dr. Smith told us that West Nile takes birds down hard and fast. We were so happy to learn that the blood test on this bird came back negative.
Zinc was also ruled out with x-rays and a deep throat swab was done. Each test done under anesthesia had to be measured with the benefit versus the risk because this bird was so thin and so depressed. For many days this eagle would be coaxed to eat and then just hang its head, clearly ill. Dr. Alison tried all of the typical drugs to bring this bird around, but she went back and forth refusing to eat and making her consider euthanasia.
I think every person has a super power and Dr. Alison has dogged determination to heal her patients and a great love and respect for wildlife. Her eyes would tear up when she spoke of her treatment of this bird and her resolve to heal her remained resolute as time wore on. The throat swab came back with two nasty antibiotic resistant bacteria so treatment with different antibiotics began.
Slowly but surely this bird began to respond and to eat more and to behave more like the regal bird that she was. I received the happy call telling me, “the eagle has arrived.” Finally this bird was eating fish and rodents and becoming more difficult to handle and signaling that she would not tolerate confinement. Dr. Alison let me know it was time for this bird to go to a flight cage.
Lee Lockhart of Lake Amador Resort began helping us with Wally Gallagher to supply live fish for this bird. It takes many people to work together to get Wildlife healthy. Larry Jones and Janet White supplied rodents for food and Dr. Timothy Perano supplied Selenium when we believed that this bird was deficient.
Another amazing thing was the trust that Dr. Alison developed with this magnificent bird. She developed a method to move her from space to space by gently guiding her rather than catching her up which is what must customarily be done. At the time she would be transferred to the flight cage, she said she thought she could get her to walk into a crate.
This is just unheard of because birds of prey do not want to step up and do not want to enter small spaces. I was surprised to hear that Dr. Alison had guided this Bald Eagle into a transport crate. Birds are far more intelligent than we ever give them credit for being. This bird had spent enough time being doctored, fed and moved by Dr. Alison to develop a deep trust and she acknowledged that this was the chance of a lifetime to treat and know such a magnificent bird that is the symbol of our great nation.
Initially we believed this bird was a Golden Eagle, but we were corrected by a friend on Facebook who told us we had a 3 year old Juvenile Bald Eagle. These birds look similar as juveniles, but our bird had an excessive amount of white as she was getting adult plumage. Golden Eagles also have feathers that reach to their ankles and this bird did not have feathers that far down her legs. A typical Bald Eagle weighs 10-14 pounds and this bird came in weighing only 8 pounds. She was face down on the ground when kayakers discovered her and alerted rangers. We were thrilled at the opportunity to take this bird home to them.
Next this bird went to Pat Benik and a large flight cage. She immediately ran from us and began flapping her wings trying to fly. Much more quickly than expected, she was able to take flight across the cage, but as with any creature who had been confined, she needed time to develop strength and stamina again. It took many weeks before Pat was comfortable that she was eating and flying and landing well enough to be released.
Preparation began for the big day to release this bird back into the wild. Rangers, Sheriff, Wildlife rehabilitators, Dr. Alison and Acorn Hills Animal Center staff all wanted to see this eagle released after such a long and difficult recovery. We gathered on a hill above New Hogan Lake and then followed a ranger to a better release location without many people.
Pat, Sheriff Joe and Ranger Shaylene did the honors lifting the big bird from the car and moving it to a rock where the gate to the crate could be opened. As expected, this eagle shot out of the crate without ever looking back climbing higher and higher as she moved away from us and towards the lake. Everyone remained still and quiet until she was out of sight and then you could hears joyful shouts all around.
We posed for pictures and shared the special moments leading up to this release and about 30 minutes later we were thrilled to see her rise up from her resting point on the other side of the hill as she got her bearings and she soared upwards. We believe she knew she was home with a second chance at life and freedom. We know her rangers will watch out for her as she resumes her life and growth from a 3 year old to an adult Bald Eagle.
Tri County Wildlife Care is a non profit organization formed in 1975 and dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of local injured, ill and orphaned Wildlife. We work with the public to promote living in balance with nature and believe in a world where people and wildlife can thrive together. For more information or answers to question, please call (209) 283-3245 or visit www.pawspartners.org.