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Eagle returns home for the holidays

by Alex Haseltine

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Click on the image above to watch an audio slideshow about the eagle’s release.
WARSAW—A rehabilitated bald eagle was released back into the wild last Thursday after six months of treatment by veterinarians and biologists.

The rescue and rehabilitation of the mature bird was a collaborative effort of several agencies, including the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro and the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Warsaw.

The bird was initially rescued May 6 by Frances Murphey of the refuge staff after she received a call from Farnham resident Mark Flessner. Flessner noticed the injured eagle was being taunted by crows in the brush near his home off Laurel Grove Road.

Flessner attempted to keep the circling crows from the eagle while he waited for wildlife personnel to arrive.

“I kept my hands up, like Moses and the Israelites, and it kept the crows away,” he said.

Despite a lack of formal training in biology or veterinary sciences, Murphey rushed to the aid of the bird immediately after receiving the call, according to Pam Hall, who assisted in the rescue effort.

“It is so typical of the Fish and Wildlife Service that an administrative person who is not a biologist will jump in their car and go save an animal. She [Murphey] is really amazing,” said Hall. “By the time we got out here, there were crows after it. It was emaciated and dehydrated.”

After spending the night at the local Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation refuge, the eagle was transferred to the custody of Dr. David McRuer, director of veterinary services for the Wildlife Center.

The bird underwent a physical exam, blood work and x-rays before being diagnosed with a coracoid fracture, which McRuer compared to a collarbone fracture in humans.

“This bone essentially is responsible for making sure that the bird can gain altitude. The eagles that I have seen before with this kind of fracture have usually been hit by a very large transfer truck or train,” said McRuer.

Coracoid fractures can’t effectively be repaired by surgery, so the bird received “supportive care” which included lots of fluids, food, antibiotics and pain medications. After the bone had healed, the staff began the arduous physical therapy process, re-teaching the bird to fly using its mended wing.

“We actually had to go and exercise the bird on a daily basis to try to build up its strength again, after sitting in a cage for several weeks,” said McRuer. “We have a very large 120-foot flight cage for eagles. We have staff members that essentially go into the cage and sort of push the bird back and forth from perch to perch. We have perches on either end. They go back and forth 15-20 times. At that point, if they are showing really good stamina, then they are ready for release.”

The bird also underwent a process called “imping” in which damaged flight feathers were replaced with donor feathers taken from another injured eagle that died in captivity. Using glue and slivers of bamboo the donor feathers were aligned and attached, eventually enabling the eagle to fly.

Eagles commonly establish a territory and stay in or around that area for their whole lives, according to Ed Clark, president and founder of the Wildlife Center, who made a special trip from Waynsboro to release the eagle where it was originally rescued.

“We are especially happy to send this bird home for the holidays,” said Clark.

posted 12.18.2008

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