While our hospital will see 2,000 wild birds and mammals this year, it is the 'big' birds, especially Bald eagles, that capture people's attention. When the eagle is one that is from the community where we are located, it really creates interest in the bird's admitting injury and rehabilitation.
"Fontana," was reported to us after he was found sitting in a yard in the village of Fontana, which is on Geneva lake.
Just because a bird is sitting in a yard doesn't necessary mean it's sick or injured, so we asked for photos first and got information about how the bird was behaving. The eagle was not moving, looked dull, and was having trouble breathing, so Jess and I headed out and were at the location in under 10 minutes.
The bird was easily captured and Jess cradled him in a blanket before putting him into the kennel cab for the trip back to hospital.
It was obvious he had suffered impact of some kind--most likely a car, as he was having difficulty breathing and held his wings out from his body as if he were terribly bruised. He also had blood in his mouth.
Back at the hospital, we quickly took x-rays and then drew blood for laboratory tests. We could tell he had blood in his lungs and was bruised, but we didn't know if there was a reason that he had been hit by a vehicle.
X-rays showed no lead, which was a relief, and no fractures, but only the blood tests would tell us the whole story. When an eagle has lead poisoning, it is not because the bird was shot, but because the bird has ingested lead accidentally while feeding on a fish with a lead sinker in the gut, or on the remains of a deer that was killed with lead shot.
At first, Fontana could hardly stand, and we housed him in our raptor preflight, an indoor room with a carpeted floor, low soft perch, and with supplemental heat and low light. He was in good weight when he arrived, about 8 pounds, which is why we identified him as a male. Females are much larger than males. The largest female eagle we have ever had in care was 14 pounds.
We were fortunate in that the eagle was in good condition before his injury. A bird that is underweight, has a heavy parasite load, or other condition is fighting trauma at a real disadvantage.
He drank water, so we brought him small live minnows and he ate them slowly, and carefully, as he was having trouble breathing. We thought perhaps fresh cubed salmon or meat would be easier for him, and he did eagerly take some of what we offered him by hand, but would not eat the meat or fish that we left in with him.
It was only a few days before we could see Fontana was healing from the trauma, but he still wasn't 'right;' he didn't react to stimuli like a healthy bird would, and he was more comfortable lying on his belly than perching upright.
When the blood tests came back, they showed that he was suffering from a very high level of lead poisoning: 22 parts per million (ppm) where an 'acceptable' level for an eagle is .3 or less. This made sense, as the eagle had acute lead poisoning (meaning he hadn't been suffering with lead poisoning for very long. If he had, he would have been underweight, even emaciated.)
We started chelation treatment immediately once the results came back. Chelation is the use of a drug that is injected into the body, then taken up into the blood. As the drug circulates in the blood, it binds to heavy metals like lead, and the bird excretes the toxin when it defecates. Lead is hard on kidneys, and so is treatment, so we had to balance our protocol to keep this in mind.
Once the chelation therapy started, Fontana started eating hungrily--first small minnows, then medium chubs, finally eating whole trout at a time!
The eagle had several series of shots of chelating agent; each time Jess would gently pick him up using a blanket--and he accepted this indignity without protest as he was so sick. Days of shots were followed by days of rest, and after the last series of shots, he let us know we were not going to pick him up so easily again.
It was time to move outside!
Before we moved Fontana to our large eagle flight, which is 108 feet long, 20 feet wide and 20 feet high--we took blood again so that we would know if we needed to bring him back inside for treatment.
It was several days before Fontana could move about normally in the large space, but in less than a week he was flying! Clumsily, with lots of flapping--yes, but he was starting to regain the muscle and strength he lost when he was in critical care.
6 weeks and 2 days after he came to us, we took him home to Fontana, where he wasted no time leaving the kennel cab and flying to a high perch overlooking the lake.
'Big' birds like Fontana often get more attention than a songbird or duck or squirrel, but that's ok, as it gives us the chance to advocate for all the wild ones who need our care.
Thank you for being a part of the work that helps eagles and sparrows, beaver and mice, and all inbetween.
Hurting from the trauma
Ready for release