The Rescue of Bald Eagle #24-0211

The Wildlife Center of Virginia very rarely sends out staff members to rescue injured wildlife in the field. With our hospital staff providing care to about 200 active patients at any given time and our front-desk team fielding thousands of wildlife emergencies, time and resources to send out trained staff members into the field are nearly non-existent. The severe lack of resources in wildlife rescue often forces us to prioritize our resources for the patients in care, while relying on kind-hearted members of the public to safely contain and transport injured and orphaned wildlife.

This is all to say: it takes a village to rescue debilitated wildlife. The case of Bald Eagle #24-0211 was no different.

We received our first call about this eagle on February 6. The grounded eagle was spotted near the Keswick Post Office in Albemarle County, but the caller was unable to keep eyes on the bird and it was still capable of short-distance flight. For the next three weeks, we continued to receive calls about this animal, and multiple attempts were made to contain him, with no success. The eagle was still able to travel fairly well on foot, despite his flight capabilities slowly declining, and he very rarely seemed to stay in one place for very long.

Grounded Bald Eagle before rescue Unfortunately, a majority of calls about this eagle were from individuals who were no longer on the scene or unable to keep eyes on the bird until help arrived. As I am sure you can imagine, trying to contain a potentially flighted bird without an exact location is not only difficult but virtually impossible. However, the countless calls from the people of Keswick did allow us to receive updates on the bird’s condition and his movements.

Finally, on March 3, an opportune moment had struck. In the late afternoon, a call came in from a gentleman named Mike, who had found the eagle and was able to get close without the bird flying off. Since it was so close to the end of my work day, I was able to gather supplies while Mike stayed on the scene, closely following the bird to ensure he didn’t make it out of sight. As soon as my shift ended at 5:00 pm, I was in my car with a crate and gloves, heading that way.

When I arrived, a small group of people had joined Mike, including my parents and a falconer who had previous experience working with large raptors. Each individual was very willing to help contain this eagle, despite the bird’s intimidating face eyeing us just 30 yards away.

We made a plan to contain the bird and passed out large sheets; everyone was to fan out around the bird, blocking his access to the muddy field, in hopes of catching him if he attempted to walk through the fence line. As everyone began to close in on the eagle, he quickly turned and started to stumble under the fence. The falconer and I had the same idea at the same time and took off running toward the eagle. The eagle had just made it under the fence when the falconer threw his sheet over the bird and fell to the ground next to him. The bird, obviously weak and disoriented, flattened himself into the grass, while I hopped the fence. My knees landed straight into the wet mud, but my net landed right over top of the eagle. With all three of us splashing in a healthy mixture of mud and horse manure, I was able to grab the eagle with gloved hands while the stranger I had met just minutes before held down the net.

With the Bald Eagle making every attempt to nip at my face, we began the short walk through the mud back to our vehicles. The bird was placed into a crate in the back of my car and I did my best to catch my breath and thank everyone there. Rescuing this eagle was rewarding, but my efforts didn’t compare to the willingness of these kind strangers to grab a sheet and join me in the mud, ready to help get this bird the care he needed.

With such a fulfilling rescue story, I had sincerely wished I would be able to write about this eagle’s miraculous recovery and eventual release, but this patient did not survive. Upon returning to the Center after-hours, veterinary intern Dr. Natalie and Licensed Veterinary Technician Rachel, performed a physical exam. The findings included an extremely poor body condition, dehydration, dull mentation, anemia, and clinical lead toxicosis. Like most of our eagles with high lead levels, it is suspected that this patient scavenged upon a carcass that was shot with lead ammunition. Lead shot tends to fragment on impact, allowing it to be easily consumed by wild scavengers if left in the field. This condition explains this eagle’s dull mentation and his progressively worsened state. That evening, supplemental fluids and chelation therapy were initiated to begin removing the toxic metal from his system.

Bald Eagle patient closeup
Bald Eagle patient undergoing treatment

While we were hopeful that the eagle would begin improving, his condition only declined in the days following admission. Supportive care in the form of anti-inflammatories, more fluids with vitamins, and pain relievers was continued and our team began tease-feeding the bird to encourage him to eat. Unfortunately, on the evening of March 5, this bird was minimally responsive throughout treatments. A catheter was placed to provide supportive care overnight, but Bald Eagle #24-0211 was found deceased the following morning, ultimately succumbing to the poor prognosis his condition carried.

I spent a lot of time coming to terms with this animal’s passing and reminding myself that our efforts that evening were not in vain. This eagle’s death does not negate the compassionate response of every caller in the Keswick area reporting the grounded bird or the dedication of every individual who stepped into the field with me that day. His rescue highlights the monumental impact everyday people, like you and I, have on the lives of wildlife in need.

I think it’s easy to believe you can’t be of assistance when an injured or orphaned wild animal is encountered. I would have thought the same thing four years ago, but handling experience does not distinguish a wildlife rescuer or conservation steward. It takes minimal experience to get eyes on a wild animal and contact someone to help, to live-trap a sick fox and transport it to the closest wildlife rehabilitation facility, or even to paddle into a lake to free a trapped Ring-billed Gull. Every day, dozens of members of the public, most of whom had never even seen a wild animal up close before, heroically rescue a wide variety of wildlife, from large raptors and adult mammals to infant mice smaller than my pinky finger. In my time here at the Center, I’ve quickly found that the only thing separating a wildlife rescuer and the rest of the general public is the fierce and genuine desire to help.

— Lilly Farmer, Front-desk Coordinator