PAWS Magazine

Issue 41, Spring 1999

Given to fly - a golden eagle gets a second chance thanks to PAWS Wildlife Center

By Sharon Snedden / PAWS Volunteer

The sight of a golden eagle soaring on the thermals, sunlight glistening on the reddish-brown feathers, is a rare thrill for those of us living on the west side of the Cascades. With a wing span of 80 to 88 inches, this magnificent raptor is our largest bird of prey. They are more common in eastern Washington where acres of arid open fields provide a smorgasbord of rabbits, squirrels, rats, snakes, small birds and other dining delicacies such as carrion.

Like parents everywhere, adult golden eagles try to instill in their feathery offspring healthy eating habits. But when juveniles strike out on their own they are eager to try new things and, sometimes, they make poor choices.

Such was the fate of the golden eagle admitted to the PAWS Wildlife Center early last December. "Some people in Darrington found this emaciated golden eagle on their property with its feet full of porcupine quills," explains Keston Woodyatt, Operations Manager of the Wildlife Center. Woodyatt has been at PAWS for a year since he moved from Chicago.

"Because there is no sexual dimorphism in eagles, it’s difficult to determine their sex or age, but I would guess this one was probably two or three years old," comments Woodyatt. "At the age of five or six, it would be an adult. It may have been a female; we don’t know for sure. It must have tried to take a porcupine."

When it arrived at the Wildlife Center, the eagle was examined by PAWS wildlife veterinarians Darlene DeGhetto and John Huckabee. When DeGhetto recently took some time off from her position as fulltime wildlife veterinarian, Huckabee was hired. At the Wildlife Center about a year, Huckabee is from Houston, Texas, where he established and operated a wildlife care center just outside Houston.

"I would estimate there were somewhere between 30 to 50 fragments of quills in the feet, which were severely infected due to the penetrating wounds," recalls Huckabee.

"I took cultures of the infection to identify the bacteria that was causing the infection and what antibiotics would be effective against those bacteria." He assisted DeGhetto in the three surgeries necessary to remove the quills’ fragments. Some of the quills were imbedded in the skin and others had worked their way deeper into the foot so that the wound had healed over the imbedded quill.

There are always risks when anesthetizing an animal, particularly when it is in such a weak condition. "The anesthetic we use is a very safe one," says Huckabee. "It’s a gas anesthetic, so we can monitor and change the level."

The primary plan was to get the infection under control and remove the porcupine quills from the feet so that the feet could function normally. "Golden eagles rely on their feet and talons to catch and kill prey," he continues. "This bird was very, very weak and had obviously not been able to hunt for some time. It would have died if it had been left, without intervention."

Deb Dyson, rehabilitation manager, played a key role in the eagle’s recovery. Dyson came to the PAWS Wildlife Center three years ago from Melbourne, Australia. In addition to assisting with the surgeries, Dyson put the eagle on a regimen to slowly build up its food intake. When it first arrived, the eagle was put on a rehydration diet. Fluids were initially fed by injection, both intravenously and subcutaneously. As it improved, it was then fed a slurry through a tube placed down the throat into its stomach. Later it was able to eat dead mice and rats. "We monitored its weight daily," notes Dyson. "We would wrap it in a sheet before putting it on the scales. The eagle would respond differently to someone going into the cage with food than to someone going in with a sheet. When we came at it with a sheet, it leaned back and put up its talons in a defense position."

The staff at PAWS Wildlife Center are well aware of the issues that need to be addressed when caring for a wild animal. Putting the psychological as well as the physical needs of the animal first is crucial to its recovery. That means as quiet, stress-free an environment as possible—away from the noise and the traffic of the Wildlife Center. Staff avoid forming bonds with the wild animals, in order to keep them wild, and wary of people.

Huckabee explains, "Successful rehabilitation often depends on reducing the stress that the animals are in while they are in captivity. Stress is the number one killer of wild animals in captivity. That’s one of the primary reasons we don’t allow tours to come through to see the animals while they’re in rehabilitation. Just a direct gaze can be very stressful for them. They feel that they’ve been spotted by a predator."

When the animal or bird is first captured, it’s head is covered with a sheet or blanket. According to Huckabee, a wild animal will not struggle as much when it can’t see. Making sure to control the feet is important, since the feet are the eagle’s primary weapon. After covering the head, the handler pulls the bird’s back against their own body as each gloved hand firmly grasps one leg while using their arms to gather the wings together. Sort of a bird straitjacket.

During its initial three-month rehabilitation period at PAWS, the golden eagle was kept in a small raptor enclosure to aid its healing. "It had to be restrained for any handling," comments Huckabee. "For it to be medicated, it had to be handled twice a day. We tried to combine things like feeding, medicating or treating the feet so that it didn’t need to be handled more than twice a day."

Once the feet were healed, physical conditioning was the next step prior to release. "A wild bird like an eagle has to have the physical stamina of an athlete," Huckabee continues. "It has to have a great deal of endurance in order to ensure that it will have a good chance of survival after release." Part of the rehabilitation process included placing the eagle in the large flight cage and causing it to fly from the perch at one end of the cage to the perch at the opposite end.

Tracy Akers, a volunteer at the wildlife center for two years, assisted with the flight rehabilitation. "One or two people at a time would enter the flight cage and coax the eagle off its perch with a net on a pole. We were careful to avoid eye contact with the eagle, but it was watching us all the time. You could tell it had a fear of humans," says Akers. "I felt so privileged to have the opportunity to work with this gorgeous bird. It was an opportunity not many people ever get."

The present flight cage is about 18 feet tall, "L" shaped and 70 to 80 feet in length. PAWS is planning a new remote facility near the Skagit River. The facility would include a larger flight cage, possibly shortening the time necessary to build up flight muscles and stamina. Because the new facility will be located in an environment more rural than Lynnwood, it will also offer quieter, less stressful rehabilitation quarters.

How did they determine when the eagle was ready for release? Huckabee explains, "While it was in the exercise program we continued checking the blood to be sure it wasn’t anemic and checking the white blood count to be sure all the infection was gone. We made sure it was eating on it’s own. We watched the bird fly in the flight cage to be sure the wings were even so we were confident there was no lameness. We watched to see if it got winded easily."

The big day arrived on March 26 when the eagle was loaded into a carrier, then driven and ferried up to San Juan Island. Operations Manager Woodyatt has the task of obtaining necessary permits from agencies for releases and researching possible release sites. Some of the released wildlife is banded or fitted with a radio collar to enable tracking, but this eagle was not. After learning from authorities on golden eagles in Washington state that there is a small population of the eagles on San Juan Island, Woodyatt felt that it was highly likely that the eagle originated from that location and therefore it was the best release site.

At the PAWS Wild Night auction March 6 Jan Robbins bid for the honor of opening the carrier door to release the eagle. "The eagle walked out, looked around, then took off over the heads of a few of us who stood with cameras poised to record the event," states Woodyatt. "Hunting is an instinctive behavior so it should still be able to catch it’s own food. Hopefully, it won’t find another porcupine!"



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