Injured bald eagle is a mystery to Pennsylvania wildlife officials

Rich Schubert, director of the wildlife rehabilitation clinic at the center, begins an initial exam.
Rich Schubert, director of the wildlife rehabilitation clinic at the center, begins an initial exam. (Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education)
Posted: April 29, 2012

The bald eagle was lying on its back in a pool of blood in, of all places, a Broomall parking lot.

Joe Simmonds, the maintenance man at Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid, spotted its dark form as he emptied trash into a Dumpster.

He put a traffic cone by the huge bird so no one would run over it, and he called 911.

The bird was breathing. It was alive, just barely.

Wildlife officials trying to coax it back to health now think the male eagle was beset by a triple dose of misfortune.

It has lead poisoning. X-rays showed it has a BB or shotgun pellet lodged in his chest. And it likely had been hit by a car.

"We don't know if this bird is going to be OK," said Rick Schubert, director of wildlife rehabilitation at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, where the bird is being treated. "It still hangs in the balance."

Simmonds found the eagle nearly two weeks ago, on April 17. Jerry Czech, a wildlife conservation officer with the state Game Commission, got it to the clinic by 10:30 p.m.

Schubert was waiting, and he was horrified. "It could not stand up. It was thin. It had blood on its face, on its feathers, in its mouth and in its nose," he said. "It looked like it went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson."

He and assistant wildlife rehabilitator Michele Wellard felt for broken bones - none.

They made sure its airways were clear. They cleaned the wounds, leaving the blood on its feathers because that was the least of their concerns.

And they started the bird on fluids, painkillers, and anti-inflammatories.

"Basically we did what a paramedic would do if a human was hit by a car," Schubert said.

That night, they put the eagle in a cage of soft mesh so it wouldn't hurt itself if it panicked and began to bang against the side.

It was Case No. 0442 - they don't name the animals they take in.

The next day, they took the eagle to the Animal and Bird Health Care Center in Cherry Hill. The clinic often volunteers to help injured wildlife.

James Boutette and Ken Dazen were impressed with the work the Schuylkill rehabbers had done. But they hardly knew where to start. "It had obviously had suffered from some head trauma," Boutette said. "The big question was: Was it a simple accident, or was the bird ill before?"

The veterinarians gave the bird more fluids under its skin. They took samples of its droppings, to be tested for parasites. They took blood for a full work-up, including tests for lead and West Nile.

In case the eagle had eaten a poisoned rat - that could explain why the eagle had bled from its mouth and nose - the vets began to treat it with Vitamin K, which would counteract the clot-preventing effect of rat poison.

When the bird left, it was stable, but still in critical condition, Boutette said. "We were still very worried about it."

Meanwhile, the game officer, Czech, was trying to figure out where the bird came from. Southeastern Pennsylvania has 14 known eagle nests, one at the Springton Reservoir, not far from where the eagle was found.

If this was one of the Springton adults, the hatchlings might not be getting enough food. Volunteers nest-watchers had not seen both birds at once, but that was not unusual. One usually sits while the other hunts.

Officials also recently became aware of another nest - in the Navy Yard again.

In 2007, a pair built a nest in the Navy Yard not far from a site already marked for a produce market and a port expansion. It was the first known eagle nest in the city in two centuries. Plans were put on hold. Those eagles eventually abandoned the nest.

The new nest is near the shipyard, which amazes Czech because of all the noise generated there.

Then again, another nest is at Pennypack Park, near a firing range. For hours, there's the pop-pop of weapons.

Eagles were once an endangered species; in 1983, Pennsylvania had just three nests. Now, the population has recovered so well that birds are forced to find new territory, sometimes in urban areas. This also puts them at risk.

Annual eagle reports from New Jersey wildlife officials tell the grisly tale.

In five years from 2006 to 2010, officials recovered 30 dead or dying eagles. As far as could be determined, 11 were electrocuted after flying into power lines and five were hit by vehicles.

The Schuylkill rehabbers now know the bird they are treating is a four-year-old from Connecticut. They were able to scrape tar and gunk from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leg band it was wearing, and the agency confirmed it was banded in 2008.

So it is too young to be one of the Springton birds. They think it may be new to the area, scouting for a mate.

Last Monday, after days of being tube-fed and pumped full of fluids and medications, the injured eagle was improving. It was standing and getting powerful enough to fight its tenders.

They decided to move it to an outdoor "flight cage," about 50 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 20 feet high.

There, Case No. 0442 tried to fly, but was confused and uncoordinated.

The West Nile test came back negative, but the bird did have lead poisoning, probably from eating prey shot with lead ammunition.

Lead poisoning can cause neurological damage and affect vision, so they've begun treatment that will help the bird eliminate the lead, hoping it hasn't already done its damage.

As the eagle recovered, it still would not eat food placed in the cage. They have had to force feed it. But Friday, Sean Duffy, the center's director of land and facilities, brought in some fish he had caught. He held pieces in forceps, and the bird ate them.

"The difficult thing about wildlife rehab is that . . . we can't let it go if it's just reasonably healthy," Schubert said. "A human being can be released from the hospital at 90 percent. He has to be 100 percent."

"I want to make sure the animal is coordinated, that it can fly, that it can see, that it can land."

Whatever happens, Schubert feels he has to try to help the eagle.

"These animals are hurt because of what we do to them," he said. "The bird didn't deserve to get shot and lead poisoned and hit by a car. We don't interfere, we uninterfere. We put nature back the way it was supposed to be."


Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, "GreenSpace," at www.philly.com/greenspace

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