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The Journal Gazette

  • Dr. Patricia Funnell, left, and veterinarian assistant Logan Timberlin prepare to anesthetize a 4-year-old bald eagle Thursday in preparation of surgery on a broken humerus bone in the wing at Pine Valley Veterinary Clinic. (Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette)

Friday, March 02, 2018 1:00 am

Rescued bald eagle undergoes surgery

Broken bone fixed; prognosis called good


Dr. Patricia Funnell unlocks a brown plywood transport box to reveal some precious cargo –  a nearly fully grown bald eagle.

The eagle is quietly sitting up and seems very alert – despite having one wing folded to its body and secured with blue masking tape.

Funnell, a Fort Wayne veterinarian, gently lifts the 10-pound bundle of feathers onto a stainless steel surgical table. In a minute or two, the eagle will have a clear plastic mask strapped over its head and characteristic yellow beak –  and then soar off into whatever dreamland giant birds of prey go when they get anesthesia.

The eagle, who is and will remain unnamed, was rescued Sunday afternoon by Soarin' Hawk, a Fort Wayne raptor rehabilitation organization. The 2-foot-tall bird was found on the ground along Yohne Road near Fox Island County Park, said Pam Whitacre, a Soarin' Hawk volunteer.

“At first, I thought he was dead because he had his head down and one of his wings was sticking out at a funny angle,” she said. “When I approached him, he put his head up, and when I tried to secure him, he taloned me, so ... . He was injured, but all right.” 

Thursday, at Pine Valley Veterinary Clinic, the eagle underwent about two hours of surgery as Funnell repaired a broken humerus, a main bone in his right wing. 

And that makes the eagle a lucky one, his rescuers said. 

Whitacre said Soarin' Hawk rescues only one or two bald eagles a year. Of the half-dozen or so eagles Funnell said she has worked with recently, several had to be euthanized because their injuries were too far gone. One, she said, died from lead poisoning.

This bird, however, is likely to make a full recovery, and, if all goes well, it could be released into the wild by late April or early May, Funnell said.

That's good news for a member of a species that was on the federal endangered species list until 2007. By the mid-20th century, bald eagles had all but disappeared from the wild from a population crash fueled by habitat loss, hunting and poaching, and the use of the pesticide DDT.

DDT ultimately was banned because of its effects on bald eagles and other wildlife.

In Indiana, bald eagles had disappeared in the 1890s, according to state environmental officials. But the species has been growing in numbers since a re-establishment program in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, they remain a state species of special concern, said Marty Benson, an Indiana Department of Natural Resources spokesman. State officials in 2016 estimated there were 300 bald eagle nesting territories, or at least 600 birds, he said.

Bob Walton, a Soarin' Hawk volunteer, Thursday estimated there are only four to six nesting pairs and perhaps a half-dozen juvenile bald eagles in Allen County. One pair has been observed nesting at Eagle Marsh, and bald eagles also have been seen at Fox Island nearby, he said. 

Juvenile birds can be distinguished from adults because it takes five years for the plumage on a bald eagle's head to turn from brown to all white, Whitacre said. The injured bird was determined to be 4 years old because his head still has some brown plumage, she said. 

Walton said conservationists are becoming concerned because even though bald eagles have rebounded they now are frequently injured or killed by human activities. It's unclear how many succumb annually, he said.

Bald eagles are routinely reported as dying after flying into vehicles, towers and power lines, according to conservation organizations, and reports of poisonings are growing.

Kills along roads happen frequently because the birds, which typically catch and eat fish, are opportunistic feeders that also will eat small animals killed by vehicles. They also are likely to swoop down suddenly in front of vehicles in pursuit of prey, Walton said.

“Now they're on the way up, but populations can crash,” Walton said. “It wouldn't take much to change things.”

That's why it's important to save as many members of the species as possible, he said.

Because this bird is young and otherwise healthy – and it has demonstrated that it can survive through hunting by making it through its first three years of life – it's likely to be able to remain with the wild population, Walton said.

Perhaps as many as half of hatchlings die in their first year, he said.

Funnell said another reason the chance for recovery is good is that the bird suffered a clean break – the bone did penetrate the skin, but left only a small hole.

After plucking the bird's feathers to reveal the puncture, she was able to secure the pieces of bone with a three-sixteenths-inch metal pin that will be removed in three to four weeks, she said.

The eagle will get physical therapy three times a week as it recovers.

“It depends on how he heals,” Funnell said of the bird's prognosis. “There might be some soft tissue injuries we don't know about.” But “it looks good now,” she said.