All About Buddy

The story of one of the most beloved eagles

A close up of Buddy the Bald Eagle, who has white head feathers and a yellow beak. The beak deviates to one side.

On April 27, 2008, a Bald Eagle hatched in a nest at the Norfolk Botanical Garden. Thousands of people around the world followed his life through a live-streaming “EagleCam” and soon noticed a lump developing on the side of the young eaglet’s beak. Just weeks after he hatched, the eaglet was taken from his nest and admitted as a patient at the Wildlife Center. Lab tests revealed that the lesion on his beak was Avian Pox. Despite an all-out effort by Center veterinarians, the pox lesion caused a permanent misalignment in the bird’s beak, which needs to be trimmed regularly. The young bird was declared non-releasable in 2009 and officially joined the education team as “Buddy” in April 2010. Buddy is one of the Center's most famous education ambassadors and regularly greets open-house visitors and other on-site guests from his large enclosure. He can also be seen on Critter Cam!

Continue reading for a summary of Buddy’s life at the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

2008

A gray, fluffy eaglet against a blue backdrop. The bird has a lesion on the left side of his beak.Buddy was first admitted to the Center as a patient in May 2008. Known to the Wildlife Center staff as #08-0887, the young eagle had a large mass on the side of his beak, which was later confirmed to be avian pox—a widespread viral disease in birds that is often transmitted by mosquitoes.

After admission, the veterinary team applied several diagnostic tools to better evaluate the extent and invasiveness of the mass. Radiographs, as well as an MRI performed at a local medical facility, showed that the mass did not affect the young bird’s sinus cavities, but was starting to affect the underlying bone of the beak. Early treatment involved anti-inflammatories, pain medications, antifungals, and supportive care – ensuring the young bird was receiving adequate fluids and nutrition as he was quickly developing.

By late May 2008, the eaglet’s beak was starting to deviate to one side as a result of the growing lesion. The staff often had to force-feed the young bird, as the lesion grew and likely caused discomfort.

Fortunately, by June, the mass started shrinking, and the veterinary team scheduled surgery to debride the bulk of the lesion on the beak. Dr. Avery Bennett, a board-certified veterinary surgeon who specializes in birds and exotic animals, volunteered his time to fly in and perform the surgery. However, right before Dr. Bennett flew to Virginia, the lesion on the eagle’s beak fell off! In mid-July, Dr. Bennett was able to perform a different type of surgery to attempt to create a brace for the bird’s rapidly deviating beak.

While surgery generally went well, the eaglet had post-operative complications with significant bleeding, followed by another difficult phase of getting the eaglet to eat enough food. Fortunately, by late July, the young bird was stable and was finally moved to an outdoor enclosure. The staff periodically offered beak trims for the remainder of the year, in hopes of trimming the damaged, curved part of the bird’s beak and slowly correcting the malalignment. 

2009

A close-up of Buddy's curved beak. Throughout the first half of 2009, the veterinary staff trimmed #08-0887’s beak every two to four weeks. Unfortunately, by late summer, the staff decided that the beak was permanently damaged from the pox lesion, making the young bird non-releasable. In August 2009, Veterinary Director Dr. Dave McRuer noted that the eagle’s beak “has not straightened as we would have hoped. At this point, it appears that, despite our best attempts, the germinal cells of the left side of the upper beak have been permanently altered. It is our professional opinion that, due to these permanent changes to the beak, lifelong management will be necessary in order for this eagle to thrive. If the bird were to be released, the beak would continue to grow until he could no longer open or close the mouth. This undoubtedly would result in the eagle’s eventual starvation and death.”     

On September 19, 2009, the Wildlife Center hosted a day-long open house for members of the Norfolk Eagle Support Team International, an online community comprised of individuals who regularly watched the Norfolk Botanic Garden's "Eagle Cam" and who generously supported Buddy’s medical care at the Center. 

2010

Buddy sits in his water tub, with his brown feathers hanging out over the edge. In early 2010, Center staff fitted #08-0887 with anklets and jesses, which would allow them to start working with the eagle to train him as an education bird.

In April 2010, eaglet #08-0887 officially became "Buddy" -- a name already familiar to many of his loyal fans. The Wildlife Center also announced that Buddy would become a permanent member of the Center’s corps of non-releasable education animals. In addition to being seen by visitors to the Wildlife Center, many education ambassador animals travel with Center staff and take part in education programs in elementary school classrooms, auditoriums, public libraries, county fairs, and other venues.

On October 16, the Wildlife Center hosted “Buddy Day”,  where Buddy fans were able to come and see Buddy, learn about his medical history, hear insights on training methods, and learn more about the Center’s education and outreach efforts.

The veterinary staff continued to trim Buddy’s beak and were able to settle into a routine of quickly dremmeling the overgrown beak every five to six weeks. 

2011

A headshot of Buddy; his head feathers are mottled brown and white as he  matures. His top beak crosses prominently to the left. When the Wildlife Center announced that Buddy would become an education ambassador, many "Buddy fans" began asking about a new enclosure for him -- one that would be more fitting for such a famous and well-loved bird. As devoted Wildlife Center supporter Debbi Skluzak orchestrated the 2011 Garden of Eagles calendar fundraiser for the Center, Buddy fans decided that the proceeds from the sale of the calendar should be earmarked for the construction of a new permanent home for Buddy. After much planning and discussion, construction work began in August, and by September, the enclosure was ready for Buddy’s big move!

In the meantime, Buddy worked with several different staff trainers on basic training goals – stepping up onto his handler’s gloved hand, allowing a swivel and leash to be placed on his jesses, and then leaving his enclosure. Center staff sought the guidance of a local falconer to achieve these behaviors using operant conditioning.  Buddy often displayed signs of being nervous, and trainers worked toward keeping Buddy comfortable and calm while he was on the glove.

Regular dremeling sessions continued, about every six weeks to keep Buddy’s beak from getting too overgrown. Buddy turned three years old in 2011 and Buddy fans noted the changes seen in his plumage as he started to grow in his white head feathers. 

2012

Buddy tilts his head toward the camera. His crooked beak can be seen curving to the leftAs regular training sessions with Buddy continued to show progress, staff began to consider the possibility of his readiness for being featured during an off-site educational program. Buddy traveled off-site for the first time in May to the Norfolk Botanical Garden Eagle Fest. Buddy was fairly nervous during these large programs; this was a very large “ask” of him to travel so far and appear at two programs with sizeable audiences.

Progress on training was slow; Buddy’s handlers introduced crate training into the list of behaviors that Buddy should achieve, with inconsistent results. One enormous challenge was – and still is – that Buddy’s beak required regular maintenance. While Buddy does easily differentiate between staff – he readily recognizes the outreach staff who feed him, and reacts quite differently when the veterinary staff walks by his enclosure – the catching and dremeling every six weeks does have an impact on the relationship of trust he has with his handlers, which in turn, often causes setbacks in training. This type of routine, invasive medical management can be quite challenging for both an education animal and the trainers.

Buddy turned four years old in 2012, his white head feathers increasingly prominent. 

2013

A very close shot of Buddy's head, which mostly has white feathers, though still some light brown feathers mixed in. His beak is mostly yellow and his eyes are brown.Buddy appeared in a few public programs in 2013, including a special introduction and reception at a Jack Hanna show at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, the local Riverfest celebration, a special program at Wild Birds Unlimited in Chesapeake, and the Center’s annual Gala.

Buddy had new trainers in 2013 as former Buddy trainers left the Center; veterinary Dr. Dave and outreach coordinator Raina worked with Buddy regularly in 2013 using falconry techniques in daily training, and regularly assessing what seemed to be working for Buddy. As Buddy reached full maturity – turning five years old in April 2023 – he more regularly exhibited territorial behavior in his enclosure, which presented some safety challenges for staff and setbacks in training. Dr. Dave and Raina decided to implement a tethering system for Buddy, to more safely manage all interactions within Buddy’s enclosure. Tethering is an accepted method of training for some raptors, as long as the tethering line and perch placements are set up safely.

The tethering system enabled Dr. Dave and Raina to retrieve Buddy from his enclosure, and they were able to regularly work with him using this system. Buddy often showed some nervous behavior when outside of his enclosure on the glove – he would regularly “bate” and attempt to fly off of the glove – when outside and perched on his handlers’ gloves. 

2014

A head and shoulder view of Buddy. He has white head feathers and a yellow beak. His eyes are still dark brown.Buddy once again appeared at the local Riverfest celebration in the spring, right around his sixth hatchday. The tethering system remained in place, which helped Dr. Dave and Raina with training sessions, as well as offered safety for staff when feeding Buddy and cleaning his enclosure.

On average, Buddy’s beak trims took place every six weeks, which was frequent enough to keep the dremel sessions short, but spaced out enough to allow Buddy’s trainers to build some trust for training between sessions. 

2015

A headshot of Buddy in 2015. His head is fully white, his beak is yellow and still curved, and his eyes are still dark brown.In early 2015, there was an issue with Buddy’s tether system, and Buddy briefly became snagged on the tether line. While the situation was quickly resolved, the tether line was cut and staff decided to let Buddy remain untethered for a while.

In the following month, Buddy became increasingly territorial and flew at people who entered his enclosure to feed, clean, or change his water. He was moved to a separate enclosure for a few weeks while staff worked on reinforcing some basic behaviors and also modified his enclosure space. The overall goal was to create a better “shifting” system for Buddy so that he could be enclosed in his vestibule, which would allow staff to safely enter the main enclosure space for maintenance and cleaning.

Once back in his regular space, staff started working on training a new behavior – asking Buddy to walk into his travel crate when cued. The crate door could then be shut remotely, allowing Buddy – safely housed in his crate – to be removed from the enclosure for more glove training. This was a process that took some time, but overall showed some promise as a way to give Buddy choice and control over leaving his territory for additional training work. 

2016–2017

Buddy perches in his enclosure.Buddy training did not change much during the next couple of years; the two primary training goals were refining and reinforcing the self-crating behavior, as well as working on Buddy’s comfortability being on the glove in new situations. While Buddy showed good progress at times, he also had setbacks and showed reluctance to enter his crate, typically after programs or other situations when he had to spend a longer period enclosed in the crate. 

Buddy continued to enjoy annual hatch-day celebrations (complete with fish for Buddy and cake for humans!), and also still regularly had his beak trimmed about every six weeks. 

2018

Buddy turned 10 years old in 2018! The Wildlife Center had a big celebration with a special on-site Buddy open house to help mark this special occasion. 

The Story of a Bald Eagle Named Buddy: A Journey of Hope

2019 – Present Day

A headshot of Buddy in 2021. His head is white and he has retained his dark brown eyes. His crooked yellow beak curves to the left.Since 2019, Buddy’s participation in programs has either taken place online or on-site at the Wildlife Center. A change in trainers in 2019 caused the outreach staff to take a few steps back with training; primary trainers put in a lot of time and effort into establishing relationships of trust; many animals can perform trained behaviors with new handlers, though like any new relationship, time must be put in to establish a good relationship.

The COVID-19 pandemic, followed by an outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, also shifted priorities for the outreach staff; there wasn’t as high of a priority to keep pushing Buddy for off-site programs when off-site bird programs were on hiatus for more than two years.

Buddy’s beak is still trimmed by the veterinary team about every six weeks. In 2023, Buddy fractured a significant portion of his beak, which broke off a large chunk of keratin, revealing underlying bone. The veterinary team was able to successfully treat the injury.

Buddy still regularly participates in daily maintenance behaviors – shifting to his vestibule, stepping onto a scale for a weekly weight, and self-crating. At this point, Buddy’s primary function in outreach programs includes on on-site open houses and other tours, as well as online streaming programs. And of course, Buddy’s fans can nearly always catch a glimpse of this beloved eagle on our Critter Cams!