Saving an injured eagle on the lakeshore

By Peggy Farr, originally run in the Duluth Budgeteer

At Wildwoods, stories of people going out of their way to rescue animals in trouble unfold before us almost every day. Such stories fill us with astonished gratitude, reminding us that we are part of a community that cares not only about human beings, but also about our environment and the animals with whom we share this world. We are all part of a larger community where everything is interconnected.

Recently, Kerrie Burns, Pam Weber and Kerrie’s dog, Kenai, were walking on the shore near where the Sucker River flows into Lake Superior. Kenai became focused on something down the beach. When Kerrie and Pam looked to see what captured Kenai’s attention, they saw an adult eagle in the brush near the shore. As the three of them cautiously approached the eagle, he hopped away from them toward the water but did not fly. Something seemed amiss.

It was dusk and Kerrie and Pam could not attempt a rescue. They resolved to return the next morning to find the eagle and see how they might help.

The next day, they couldn’t find the eagle at first. They found his tracks in the snow and followed them, locating him at last. After they called the Department of Natural Resources for assistance, DNR staff Nancy Hansen and Bailey Petersen arrived with a kennel and a tarp.

Kerrie, Pam, Nancy and Bailey worked in teams of two, attempting to corner the eagle, then grab him. It wasn’t easy. The shore was steep and icy and the eagle was fast. He hopped away and eluded them. At one point he flew a short distance, crossing over the river to the other bank. However, one wing was hurting and he landed quickly. In his attempts to evade them, he even plunged into the lake a few times, returning to shore only after they turned their backs on him and moved a short distance away.

At last, Nancy managed to grab the eagle. After Bailey helped wrap him in the tarp, Nancy carried him under her arm, half-sliding, half-crawling down the slippery slope back to the dog kennel. Kerrie and Pam offered to drive him to Wildwoods and the busy DNR folk gratefully accepted.

The exam at Wildwoods showed a mature male bald eagle who was thin but not emaciated. He was very cold and the undersurface of his body was coated with ice. One of his shoulders was swollen, but no fractures were evident.

He was feisty and active with no definite signs of lead poisoning, though we always suspect underlying lead poisoning during and after deer hunting season. Eagles eat gut piles of field-dressed deer and deer who are wounded and later die. If these deer were shot with lead ammunition, an eagle can easily ingest a small bullet fragment in the meat and become poisoned.

Though lead affects many organs, it primarily attacks the brain and nervous system, making affected eagles slower and clumsier. Eagles with mild lead poisoning are more likely to misjudge a landing or get hit by a car while eating roadkill. Therefore, though they may present with an injury, the underlying issue is often lead poisoning.

Wildwoods staff warmed and de-iced the bird, then gave him fluids and pain meds. Kerrie and Pam asked what would happen next with the eagle. When they learned we’d be looking for a ride to get the eagle to the Raptor Center in St. Paul for further treatment, they offered to take him that same day.

The Raptor Center exam showed a soft-tissue injury to the wing as well as underlying lead poisoning. The eagle is undergoing treatment for both issues and there is a good chance that he will make a full recovery and be released back to the wild. Many lead-poisoned eagles die or require euthanasia due to organ damage, so this was welcome news. Wildwoods staff and the eagle’s rescuers were elated.

Helping wildlife is always a choice. At Wildwoods, we celebrate people like Kerrie, Pam, Nancy and Bailey, who go far out of their way to help animals in need. It’s also important to realize that we can all be wildlife heroes with other choices. Choosing non-lead ammunition and encouraging friends and family who hunt deer to consider a similar choice will help save eagles from a slow, painful death, while choosing non-lead fishing tackle will save many trumpeter swans and loons from a similar fate. Visit here to learn more about lead-free ammunition.

Peggy Farr is a volunteer and board member of Wildwoods and works in human health care.

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