AGAINST ALL ODDS
A Juvenile Bald Eagle Was In Bad Shape When Discovered But Thanks To Several Partners And Its Own Determination, It’s Making An Impressive Comeback
story by TREY ILES, LDWF Public Information
For those who rehabilitate wild animals, the satisfaction in the job is successfully returning them to their natural habitat. It can be a painstaking process with many hurdles to overcome. And sometimes it doesn’t end well as the animal will have to be euthanized.
Wildlife rehabbers know it’s better to keep your personal feelings in check. Don’t get attached personally because the outcome could be disappointing.
But for the many partners involved in the rehabilitation of an injured juvenile bald eagle found in central Louisiana, this case has been a bit different. This animal, with a badly injured wing and little hope of saving its life, has punched above its weight class. It has surprised its caretakers and, though the odds are still long, there is a slight chance it could return to the wild someday.
The eagle is currently being kept at Monroe’s Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo eagle enclosure, which has six birds that are considered non-releasable because of injuries. Zoo director Joe Clawson said the eagle, believed to be a female, has adapted well to her new surroundings.
“She’s socializing with the other birds,” Clawson said. “They’re chatting at her and she’s chatting at them. There’s no aggression. She’s done well thus far.”
The journey of this eagle provides an interesting glimpse of the wildlife rehabilitation process. LDWF biologist Melissa Collins, who oversees LDWF’s wildlife rehab operation, said coordination is a key component in making sure injured wildlife is cared for in the proper manner. That was certainly the case for this eagle.
THE LONG JOURNEY
The story begins at one of Louisiana’s historic sites, Forts Randolph and Buhlow State Historic Site in Pineville in June of last year. It was there the injured eagle was spotted and LDWF was contacted.
“The way it happened, and this is typical, the (LDWF) regional or enforcement office is contacted,” Collins said. “We confirm that it is an eagle and determine whether or not it needs intervention. Once that happens one of the regional biologists, myself or an enforcement agent will pick up the animal and deliver it to the nearest eagle rehabber.”
Collins said extreme caution must be taken in capturing the animal and it needs to be done by someone familiar with the protocol. A well-meaning person who intercedes may actually cause more harm than good.
“When you start intervening with these animals, it can go south rather fast,” Collins said. “Especially with birds. Capture myopathy is huge. So the handling by and the presence of humans is very stressful.”
LDWF Enforcement Agent Chuck Johnson took possession of the eagle then transported it to Dr. Gia Morgan, a veterinarian and wildlife rehabber in Shreveport. Morgan runs a non-profit organization called Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation of Louisiana, or WERLA. It works with LDWF, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local communities to rehab hundreds of wild animals in Louisiana each year on a 10-acre property used exclusively for that purpose.
Morgan is federally licensed to care for raptors, including bald eagles. Though eagles were taken off the Endangered Species List in 2007, they remain protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
When the eagle arrived at her facility, Morgan said it was in poor shape. The wing was fractured but there were other difficulties faced by the bird.
“It took us about a month to get its blood parameters to where we knew it could handle anesthesia and surgery,” Morgan said. “We took X-rays of the wing and sent blood work to Dr. (Javier) Nevarez (at LSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine). Then of course it had a complete splint and body wrap the entire time it was here because we didn’t want to cause any more injury and we wanted to stabilize the fracture. Finally, we got the blood parameters up and were able to transport it to the hospital.”
Dr. Nevarez said because of the nature of the fracture, which involved the humerus of the wing bone, there was nothing that could be done to repair it.
“Unfortunately, there were too many bony changes and soft tissue muscle changes that had occurred,” Morgan said. “Which is not uncommon because it is a young, fast growing bird. So the orthopedic surgeons said there wasn’t anything that could be done.”
So Nevarez and his staff placed the eagle in a flight cage at the LSU facility for holding purposes. He let Collins and Morgan know and the process began for them to find a facility in which non-releasable eagles could be housed to place the bird.
That’s when the eagle began to defy the odds, Nevarez said. He said one day the staff noticed the bird was flopping around and jumping, something they didn’t expect to see. The eagle had decreased extension of her wing when she arrived and it would go no more than 50 percent of its extension. But Nevarez noticed her wing was beginning to extend further and further.
“So we put her in a bigger flight cage and she started flying,” Nevarez said. “Basically, it was one of those cases where she rehabilitated herself. In addition to the bone damage, she had a lot of soft tissue and muscle damage. She was a very young bird. She was constantly jumping and moving. I think that stimulated her to stretch that wing and push it. She basically did her own physical rehab.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen that happen. She used all that patience to prove us wrong.”
SO WHAT’S NEXT?
The good news is the eagle is much improved from when it was found in June. Despite the improvement, though, a permanent place needed to be found for it. And it can’t be just any place. Permits to hold eagles are very specific on where they can be housed and the requirements for the enclosures.
LSU services about 12-15 injured eagles a year, Nevarez said. But the university also takes care of many other injured birds. The goal is to rehab them as quickly as possible. So it didn’t have room to keep this particular eagle even though it was showing signs of improvement.
Nevarez reached back out to Morgan and Collins and they worked to find a non-releasable facility for the bird. But first, they had to check with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Federal law requires that bald eagles that aren’t able to be released into the wild must be offered to Native American tribes first.
As the species was making its comeback from being endangered, Native American tribes would take in the injured birds. Now, however, and because bald eagles are flourishing nationally, there aren’t as many spots open with the Native American tribes as there once was.
And it’s difficult to find other refuges for them as well because there are so many of them. Take Louisiana for example. In the early 1970s, there were only five to seven active bald eagle nests recorded in Louisiana. Pesticides, specifically DDT, had decimated the populations.
But with the banning of DDT and other harmful pesticides and protection afforded under the Endangered Species Act, bald eagles began a robust comeback. An LDWF survey of bald eagle nests in 2017-18, revealed there are well over 350 active nests in the state and that is a conservative estimate. You can now see bald eagles throughout the state though the majority can be found in southeast Louisiana.
“All of the Native American tribes we contacted were full,” Morgan said. “It’s hard to find a place for them now. The zoos and refuges really want them but now everyone is full. That’s because of the comeback they’ve made.”
So Morgan, Collins along with federal partners began to beat the bushes looking for a place to house this eagle. Finally, they discovered the Louisiana Purchase Zoo had room.
“We talked with the director (Joe Clawson) and the curator (Lisa Taylor) and they said they’d love to have him,” Morgan said. “We certainly can’t say she’s releasable yet. But the Monroe zoo is a great place for her.”
The Louisiana Purchase Zoo has an outstanding eagle aviary, built above federal guidelines. Clawson said federal rules on housing bald eagles are very strict and the zoo works diligently to go above and beyond the minimum, making its eagle exhibit among the best.
Because she is still a juvenile, Clawson said the eagle sticks out compared to the rest of the population. For one, she’s bigger than the other birds. And she doesn’t yet have the look of what most people envision for a bald eagle.
“The other eagles are full adults with their nice white heads and tails,” Clawson said. “She’s pretty dark. She’s still in her juvenile colors. And one of the interesting things about juvenile eagles - and you really see this with her - is their peak size is actually just after they fledge. Once they get older they tend to lose a little bit of weight.”
A return to the wild may not be in the offing though there remains a chance. Returning to flight is only part of the equation. Injured eagles must demonstrate an ability to capture prey then rip it with their beak and hold it at the same time.
“There can be neurological injuries, which are common, where they’re not able to perform this particular function,” Collins said. “Their brain to foot connection isn’t happening. So their brain isn’t allowing them to put their foot on the prey and pull. I’ve seen that before. We want to make sure they can feed themselves.”
Even if this bird isn’t able to return to the wild, it has found a great home. And that’s good considering housing rehabbing bald eagles isn’t cheap.
“The food, the quantity and the items of prey that you need to feed them are a little costly,” Collins said. “Typically, vet costs are a little higher because their injuries are generally orthopedic injuries. And bald eagles require the largest cages. These cages can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Because of the rebound of bald eagle populations, most expect there to be more instances of eagle injuries. Nevarez said what’s sad is that about half of the eagles they receive in a year have been shot, something for which there are stiff federal and state penalties. But he’s also noticed an uptick in eagle-to-eagle injuries.
“One of the things we’re starting to see now is kind of specific injuries from the males fighting,” Nevarez said. “The males get into pretty aggressive fights. We’ve had multiple instances where people actually saw that. Someone in a neighborhood saw two males fighting and they landed right in the middle of the street of the neighborhood.
“The males are fighting for territory and mating. They’re becoming plentiful in the state, which is really good to see.”
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