Bald Eagle #19-0031

January 15, 2019
Rescue Location
Newport News, Virginia
Cause of Admission/Condition
Hit by car
Former Patient
Patient photo

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On January 15, an adult female Bald Eagle was rescued by a Newport News Parks and Recreation ranger after the bird was hit by a car. After a veterinary clinic in Yorktown assessed and stabilized the eagle, a volunteer transported the bird to the Wildlife Center.

During the initial examination, Bald Eagle #19-0031 was in decent body condition and appeared bright and alert. Some of the eagle’s primary and tail feathers were dirty and tattered, and the vet team observed feather lice on the bird’s body feathers. There were superficial scrapes on both feet, as well as some mildly blunted talons; the eagle was unable to flex one of the digits on the right foot.

The eagle had an obviously injured left wing; the veterinary clinic that initially assessed the eagle had wrapped the left wing to stabilize two ulnar fractures. Additional radiographs performed at the Center revealed a fracture of the left ulna.

The eagle’s left carpal bone (wrist bone) also appeared abnormal on radiographs. It’s possible that this abnormal finding is due to positioning during the radiograph procedure; the eagle’s ulnar injuries prevented the wing from positioning appropriately for imaging. The eagle’s pubic bones also appeared asymmetrical, though no injury to the pelvis could be identified; it’s possible this was a result from a previous, healed injury. Repeated radiographs in the coming weeks will give more information.

Radiographs also showed a large fishing hook with a metal sinker, along with some partially digested bone material, in the eagle’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract.


An eye examination was unremarkable, and blood work was within normal limits, aside from low lead levels that do not require treatment at this time. Blood work will be repeated at the end of the week to ensure that this bird isn’t actively absorbing any lead from the hook within the GI tract.

On January 16, the Drs. Ernesto and Peach used an endoscope to evaluate the position of the fish hook and the ability to extract the hook endoscopically. Unfortunately, the hook could not be removed with an endoscope and will therefore require surgical removal.

On January 17, the veterinary team will perform surgery on the eagle to repair the left ulna fractures; while the eagle is anesthetized, they will also go in through the coelom (abdomen) and remove the hook.

Prognosis for this patient’s survival and recovery is poor, though the veterinary team will have a clearer perspective following surgery. If time reveals a confirmed injury to the left carpus via radiographs, palpation, or patient mobility, the prognosis will worsen, as joint issues are problematic for wild birds.

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Patient Updates

During the last week of June, Dr. Ernesto creanced Bald Eagle #19-0031 – the bird was flown in an open area, attached to a long line of rope, allowing the veterinary staff to assess the bird’s flight in a less restricted space. Dr. Ernesto was not impressed with the bird’s flight capabilities in this setting, which more closely resembles how the bird would be expected to fly in the wild. After considering the options for the eagle, the team determined that release was not an option and life in captivity would not be appropriate for this bird; humane euthanasia was performed on the morning of July 3.

During the month of May, Bald Eagle #19-0031 remained static during daily exercise. The bird continued to have a significant left wing droop during and after flight. In addition, the eagle had become somewhat stubborn and less willing to fly during the sessions. Radiographs performed on May 6 showed no changes to the healed fracture, giving no further indications about what could be causing the chronic wing droop. The staff continues to assess the eagle’s flight for improvement.

During the past several weeks, Bald Eagle #19-0031 has made marked improvement during exercise. The eagle has more stamina and has improved quality of flight; this is likely because the eagle has been on medication to reduce pain and inflammation. Unfortunately, the eagle has a pronounced wing droop immediately following exercise, which could indicate that there is still discomfort or pain in that wing.

Dr. Peach examined the eagle on April 22 and identified crepitus [a crackling sound] in the eagle’s left elbow joint, however radiographs showed no changes to the joint.

Additional radiographs are scheduled for May 6. If radiographs appear static, the veterinary team will stop administering the eagle’s daily medication to see if the bird can maintain its progress without the aid of pain medication. If the bird continues to improve, the rehabilitation staff will continue conditioning the eagle for release. If the bird’s wing droop does not resolve, or if the stamina decreases, eagle #19-0031 will be non-releasable.

In the weeks after moving to a larger flight pen, Bald Eagle #19-0031 did not show improvement during daily exercise. During some sessions, the bird would refuse to fly and would instead run along the ground. The rehabilitation team also identified a left-wing droop periodically when the bird was at rest.

The veterinary team performed radiographs on March 25; the healed fracture of the left ulna showed significant callusing and signs of remodeling. These bony changes could be cause for discomfort for the eagle and could contribute to the birds inability and unwillingness to fly.

The staff discontinued daily exercise for the bird and started her on a joint supplement and an anti-inflammatory see if the medications will make the bird more comfortable. However, the prognosis for this eagle is now considered poor, and release is unlikely unless there is significant improvement.

On March 8, Bald Eagle #19-0031 was moved to a larger flight pen [A1] to begin flight conditioning. During the first few days of daily exercise, the eagle was not flying very high and it had a slight left wing droop while resting between passes; by the end of the week, the bird’s flight quality had improved slightly. If the eagle continues to improve, the rehabilitation staff will increase the number of passes the bird needs to make during exercise. Flight conditioning will take several weeks, and the eagle will need to reach optimal levels before the staff can consider release.

Bald Eagle #19-0031 responded well to daily physical therapy sessions during the past two weeks and has been showing an increased range of motion in her left wing after nearly every session.

By February 21, radiographs and a physical examination showed that the eagle’s fractured wing was stable enough for the veterinary team to remove the hardware supporting the fracture.

The eagle was moved to a small outdoor enclosure [C-pen]; this space will allow the eagle to slowly increase the use of her left wing. The eagle’s appetite remains strong, and the veterinary staff will monitor the eagle during bi-weekly feet and feather checks.

Bald Eagle #19-0031 has made improvements during the three weeks following surgery. Although the bird was initially not eating well, her appetite has improved tremendously; the veterinary staff say she is now “ravenous” and readily eats the whole rat and fish that are offered to her each day. The bird’s fungal and yeast infections (likely caused by post-surgical antibiotics) have now cleared.

On February 7, the veterinary staff removed the bandage that was supporting the eagle’s fractured left wing following surgery. The eagle will have daily physical therapy sessions (repeatedly extending and contracting the wing) for at least the next two weeks. Radiographs are also scheduled once a week for the next two weeks.

If the eagle responds well to the physical therapy, and if all looks appropriate on radiographs, the bird may be able to move to an outdoor flight pen toward the end of February.

Bald Eagle #19-0031’s surgical site has been healing well during the past ten days. Following surgery, the veterinary team gavage-fed the eagle to limit the stress put on the patient’s digestive tract; gavage-feeding involves inserting a tube down the bird’s throat and feeding a liquid diet.

After several days, they began offering small pieces of rat meat, with no bones or fur that could be problematic during digestion. The eagle was not eating any of the offered meal on her own, so the veterinary team began force-feeding pieces of rat; however, the eagle would often regurgitate the food pieces after she returned to her crate. The veterinary team switched from force-feeding back to gavage-feeding, which the eagle is tolerating well.

It’s preferable that the eagle start eating on her own soon; she has been losing weight, and that has become a primary concern for her recovery.

The eagle had obvious symptoms of fungal and yeast infections, which could be impacting her appetite and attitude. These fungal and yeast overgrowths could be a response to the antibiotics administered following surgery. The infections are being treated with appropriate medications, and the staff will move the bird’s crate outdoors for part of each day to see if a change in scenery – away from humans – will stimulate her appetite.

Bald Eagle #19-0031 has been doing well in the days following her surgery. The bird has been bright and alert, and Dr. Karra notes that the eagle is exceptionally strong.

The veterinary team has been checking the surgical site on the eagle’s wing each day; the left ulna is swollen and bruised but is only showing a minor amount of discharge around the pin sites. The eagle is receiving laser therapy each day before her wing is re-bandaged and wrapped.

The eagle has been able to keep down the tube-fed diet; on Saturday, Dr. Karra took “contrast radiographs” – before tubing-feeding the eagle, she added a minor amount of “contrast” to the diet. After the tube-feeding, she took radiographs of the eagle to check for any leakage from the eagle’s punctured stomach. Everything was within normal limits, and the bird was tube-fed twice a day throughout the weekend. On Monday afternoon, the rehabilitation team will offer the eagle a diet of “clean meat” — easily digestible rat meat without fur and bones.

The eagle’s demeanor and progress are encouraging, though the bird still has a long road to recovery. The eagle is still at risk for internal infection; the prognosis is also still guarded for a full recovery from the multiple wing fractures.

On the afternoon of January 17, Drs. Ernesto and Peach took Bald Eagle #19-0031 to surgery to repair the eagle’s broken left wing and to remove the fish hook. Dr. Ernesto decided to try one more time to endoscopically remove the hook using a grasper attachment. He was able to grasp the hook, but felt a lot of resistance; it was difficult for the team to get a full understanding of what exactly the entire lure looked like. The team decided to open up the eagle’s abdomen and stomach and retrieve the hook that way.

Dr. Ernesto was able to insert his finger into the eagle’s abdomen to feel the hook; when the lure was successfully removed, the team then understood why there was resistance – the fish hook was mostly covered in a rubber fish-shaped lure!

After the abdomen was closed again, the veterinary team proceeded to pin the eagle’s left wing fractures by inserting five small metal pins perpendicularly into the bone, then applying an external fixator to align the bone fragments and keep everything in place.

The eagle recovered well after the three-hour surgery and was placed in the Center’s holding room. The veterinarians started the eagle on a significant course of antibiotics since the eagle’s stomach was punctured by the hook.

This morning, the eagle was bright and alert. The eagle will receive fluids today to ensure the bird is staying well-hydrated; on January 19, the eagle will start to be fed again, but will receive several very small tube-feeding diets as her stomach continues to heal.