Wounded Philly-area eagle enjoys “Rocky”-like recovery

At Ridley Creek State Park, the wounded eagle rests in a tree after release. “He looked pretty good,” said wildlife conservation officer Jerry Czech. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
At Ridley Creek State Park, the wounded eagle rests in a tree after release. “He looked pretty good,” said wildlife conservation officer Jerry Czech. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 09, 2012

Nearly three weeks ago, the young bald eagle was discovered on its back in a pool of blood in a Broomall parking lot.

Wildlife officials determined that the 4-year-old male had been shot at some point, suffered from lead poisoning, and, most recently, likely had been hit by a car.

Monday — cue the Rocky music — the eagle flew.

Wildlife officials carried it in a darkened box into a field at Ridley Creek State Park.

They unzipped the cover and the huge bird burst out, then took off. Gaining altitude, it landed a few hundred yards away in a pine tree.

Jerry Czech, a wildlife conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, was impressed.

“He looked pretty good,” Czech said of the eagle. “He went airborne right away, which is good. And he got some air under his wings, and now he’s free.”

The bird’s prognosis wasn’t as good just weeks earlier.

After a maintenance man found the bird on the pavement at Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid, it was brought to the clinic at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

There, wildlife rehabilitation director Rick Schubert was horrified at the bird’s condition. It couldn’t stand. It was thin. It had blood on its face, on its feathers, in its mouth, and in its nose.

He stabilized it with fluids and painkillers.

The next day, the bird was taken to the Animal and Bird Health Care Center in Cherry Hill, where James Boutette took blood samples for tests that later showed lead poisoning. X-rays revealed a BB or shotgun pellet in its chest.

Neither Boutette nor Schubert knew if the bird would survive. But they had to do what they could to help it.

For days, Schubert and his assistants gave the bird fluids and medications. To counter the lead poisoning, they started chelation therapy — daily injections for 11 days — in the hope that the metal had not already caused damage to the bird’s brain or other organs.

After about a week, they moved the bird into an outdoor “flight cage.”

It still couldn’t fly. But “every day he just got a little bit stronger, a little bit better,” Schubert said.

They still had to hand-feed it — for whatever reason, it didn’t associate food left in the cage with dinner — but they could tell that it wasn’t a vision problem caused by the lead.

“His eyes were clear,” Schubert said. “He was able to focus and see things well.”

Finally, the bird improved so much that “it was either release him, or he was going to bust out of the cage on his own, he was so strong.”

Schubert had considered giving the bird a test-fly at the end of a long tether first — so that if it couldn’t fly, he could recapture it — but then ruled it out.

“With wildlife, you weigh in the balance the animal getting well, and you also have to weigh in the balance the stress on the animal. As it was getting better, it was getting more and more stressed” in the cage, Schubert said.

Meanwhile, even in the cage, it was getting good lift and maneuverability and was landing well.

Czech chose Ridley Creek State Park for Monday’s release because it was close to where the bird was found and because the park has 2,600 acres of woodlands and meadows.

Nearby is Springton Reservoir, where the young eagle can fish.

Plus, there’s an outside chance the eagle is part of a pair nesting near the reservoir.

The pair has been there several years, but if the original male died last year, this one could have moved in.

The injured bird has a band — put on in Connecticut in 2008 — and while eagles don’t usually breed until they are 5, it’s possible.

When the released eagle landed in the tree, Schubert and Czech figured it just needed to get its bearings.

Alas, crows already had dibs on the spot, and they flew around the eagle, cawing raucously.

Schubert dismissed them as “not a very big threat.” The eagle looked relaxed and unconcerned.

As they watched, the eagle continued to sit.

They figured it might stay in the tree an hour or two, and then be off. To where, they’d likely never know.

“I wish him well,” said MicheleWellard, assistant wildlife rehabilitator at the Schuylkill Center.

“It was a privilege to take care of him. I just hope he doesn’t get into any more trouble. I hope he has a good long life.”

Overall, it was a relief, Schubert said. “It’s stressful to me to see them in a cage.”

“Now we get back to all the usual stuff we do — all the possums and squirrels and owls and ducks and geese and all the other animals we mend, that need just as much help as the bald eagle,” Schubert said. “The bald eagle is a celebrity bird, but to us these other animals mean as much as he does.”

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

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