Bald Eaglet #19-0207

March 26, 2019
Rescue Location
Campbell County, Virginia
Cause of Admission/Condition
Fell from nest
Former Patient
Patient photo

Last Updated Jump to patient updates

On March 26, the Wildlife Center admitted nestling Bald Eaglet #19-0207. The eaglet fell from a known eagle nest on a property in Campbell County and was caught by the property owner’s dog on March 24. The owners were familiar with the nest (located roughly 150 feet up in a tree) and knew the eaglet’s parents were active at the nest site this season. Re-nesting was not a simple option, and because of the long fall from the nest, the eaglet needed to be examined for injuries. The rescuer put the eaglet in a box and a volunteer transporter brought the bird to the Wildlife Center the following day.

On presentation at the hospital, the eaglet was quiet but alert and responsive. The patient was vocal and became easily stressed when handled; the bird would open-mouth breath with an increased respiratory rate and effort when handled for any length of time. A physical exam revealed bruising of the left patagium [skin along the edge of the wing], as well as swelling and instability of the right humerus [the bone between the shoulder and elbow joints in the wing]. Dr. Karra also appreciated an increased range of motion in the right shoulder. The remainder of the physical exam was within normal limits.

Radiographs were performed, but due to the young age of the eaglet, the bones are not yet completely ossified (meaning they don’t show up nicely on radiographs), making the extent of the trauma difficult to assess. Of the bones the veterinary staff was able to assess, two fractures of the right humerus were identified. There also appeared to be a “greenstick fracture” of the right ulna. A greenstick fracture is a fracture in which only one side of the bone is broken and the other side is bent. These typically occur in young patients who still have flexible bones. This type of fracture generally heals on its own and did not require repair, only stabilization.

Radiographs also showed food in the patient’s gastrointestinal tract and crop, which is likely indicative of parental care. Blood work showed the patient to be anemic, which may be consistent with a young age or could be due to blood loss associated with the trauma of a fall. The eaglet’s blood work was negative for lead.

The staff put the eaglet in an oxygen chamber for several days to assist the bird’s breathing to help minimize increased respiratory effort from frequent handling.

Further diagnostics showed that the eaglet was a good candidate for surgical repair of the humeral fracture. However, due to the incomplete ossification of the bones, the veterinary team was unable to fully evaluate the right shoulder and elbow joint. Because there was trauma to the bones surrounding these joints, it is possible there was also trauma to the immature bone that has not yet ossified, and which cannot be seen on radiographs; this could cause the wing to grow abnormally as the bird ages. Additionally, multiple fractures on a humerus can be difficult to repair and often creates a poor prognosis. The extent of damage and possibility of repair could not be fully appreciated until the veterinary team was able to surgically explore the fracture site.

On March 27, Dr. Ernesto prepared to examine and potentially repair the fractured wing; Dr. Ernesto said this was the first time performing this procedure on a bird this young and the bones “felt like plastic straws” because they were not fully ossified. He made an incision the length of the humerus to examine the full extent of the damage. Fortunately, Dr. Ernesto felt the fracture could be repaired and he determined that it would not require a pin or external fixator. Instead, he sutured around the fractured humerus to hold the fractured pieces together and in place. After the surgical site was closed, they wrapped the bird’s wing to stabilize the healing fracture.

Three days after surgery, the rehabilitation team began physical therapy on the eaglet’s wing; the rehabilitation team has contact with the bird four times per day for hand-feeding, so it was most practical for them to perform this procedure during one of the meals to minimize stress for the bird and reduce contact with multiple people. By April 1, rehabilitation intern Kylee reported that the eaglet was showing improvement in the range of motion with that wing; the eaglet is also performing some independent physical therapy by moving its wings while in a crate and when its offered food (a natural behavior for young birds). The rehabilitation staff take appropriate precautions to disguise their faces by wearing hats and masks during any interactions. However, malimprinting is a high-risk for raptor species in captivity at this young age, even with appropriate procedures and precautions in place.

The eaglet has a healthy appetite and has already gained 70 grams since admission last week. The rehabilitation staff will continue to monitor the eaglet’s use of the wing and the veterinary team will perform radiographs on April 3 to assess how the fractured humerus is healing.

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Patient Updates

Following repair of the fracture on March 27, Bald Eaglet #19-0207 was mostly eating well and tolerating physical therapy. At times, however, the bird was uninterested in eating and became stressed when its wing was extended for the physical therapy sessions.

Unfortunately, repeat radiographs performed on April 3 revealed that the fracture was healing at an abnormal angle. Initially, the veterinary team was unsure if the pectoral crest – a portion of the humerus where important flight muscles attach– was affected by the fracture, as the bones were not fully ossified and thus the extent of injuries could not be fully evaluated. It became clear that the angle at which the eaglet’s wing was healing would render the bird flightless and non-releasable.

The long-term implications for this injury could not be adequately assessed; there is no way to know if this would cause chronic pain or instability when perching as the bird aged. Dr. Ernesto believed that, at the very least, the eaglet’s wing would be very constricted and that the bird would likely have balance issues as an adult. Additionally, rearing a young eaglet for a life in captivity would prove to be complicated and potentially ill-fated if the bird could not properly imprint on an adult eagle.

After much consideration, the veterinary team elected to humanely euthanize the eaglet on the evening of April 5.