A Tale of Two Eagles

Story written by PAMELA HARTMANN in 2013.

An eagle does not often crash through a windshield, nor is it often that Game Warden Teri Hickey happens to be driving by a scene at the perfect moment, exactly when needed. But both occurred the Monday before Thanksgiving, 2013.

In the early evening of November 25, a woman was driving down Pozo Road in Santa Margarita when a golden eagle hit her windshield with enough force to break the glass and end up inside her truck, on her lap. The bird was not moving and appeared dead. Shaken, the woman carried it to the bed of her truck. At this moment, Teri Hickey, with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, was driving by, and the woman flagged her down.

Hickey doesn’t know for certain why the eagle collided with the truck. “There’s no way,” she says, “that an eagle would dive toward a vehicle.” Although fierce hunters of prey such as rabbits and ground squirrels, golden eagles—especially immature ones, as this was—also scavenge for carrion, so Hickey’s best guess is that the eagle was eating road-kill—possibly a skunk, whose scent was in the air—when it was startled by the truck and flew up in an attempt to get away.

It turned out that the eagle was not dead. Hickey borrowed a dog carrier from a neighbor and drove the bird to Pacific Wildlife Care (PWC) in Morro Bay—the only permitted facility on the Central Coast that rehabilitates injured wildlife other than marine mammals. The eagle was admitted at 6:30 p.m. with the identification of “GOEA 13-1896.”

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire community to save an injured, orphaned, or sick wild animal—in other words, to rehabilitate it and return it to the wild, which is the mission of Pacific Wildlife Care. An essential component in this community of support is the public of SLO County—people who call the PWC hotline (805-543-9453) when they find an animal in distress. Another component is the team of volunteers who answer hotline calls, work as transporters of wildlife to the Center, or care for animals at the Center itself.

And vital to PWC’s mission are the skills of the highly trained Senior Rehabilitators and the expertise of Dr. Shannon Riggs, hired at PWC the previous January and one of only two full-time, on-site veterinarians at wildlife centers in California.

On the evening of November 25, when Game Warden Teri Hickey carried the “windshield eagle” through the doors of Pacific Wildlife Care, Dr. Riggs was  traveling back to the Central Coast from vacation. It fell to Melinda Alvarado, a Senior Rehabilitator, and Susan Dumeyer, also a Senior Rehabilitator but working that day on a volunteer shift, to do the intake on GOEA 13-1896. “It was obvious that it had a broken wing, with a slightly exposed bone,” and shattered glass everywhere, in all the bird’s feathers, but the eagle “was definitely alert and not down at all,” says Alvarado, who with Dumeyer treated the wound site, removed the glass, and secured the wing overnight.

Up close, golden eagles are impressive creatures. “There’s something royal about them,” about the “golden feathers on their head and the reddish-brown underneath,” Alvarado says. With their yellow feet the size of a small adult human hand and black talons the size of a pinky finger, “they’re really strong. They can break human bones or carry off small animals.” She describes GOEA 13-1896 as “strong and fighting the whole time she was with us. If you didn’t know she had been hit by a car, you wouldn’t think anything was wrong.”

The next morning, when Dr. Riggs examined the bird and its X-rays, she was “glad that the person driving didn’t have an accident” beyond that of an eagle crashing through the windshield. The bird’s right humerus was broken into three big fragments and many smaller ones. The fracture near the elbow was open—bone broken through skin. “It was amazing that she was alive,” Riggs says. In the surgery she performed, Riggs treated the bone with one long pin through its entire length and two smaller ones perpendicular to the bone—all connected with an external “fixator,” or bar.

GOEA 13-1896 was placed in an indoor enclosure. Over the next few days, volunteers and senior rehabilitators noted unusual, stress-related behavior: she pulled out feathers and shredded her bedding material; she often fell off the low perch placed in her enclosure; for much of one day, she made vocalizations that sounded oddly like those of a duck—although eagles are, for the most part, silent. Riggs explains that even though wounds on the bird’s head didn’t seem too serious, she “could have sustained some head trauma.” Dumeyer adds that in this alien environment, the bird was stressed from having to deal with humans walking past her enclosure and entering it several times a day to give her medications or to force-feed her. Yellow caution tape was placed around the enclosure to keep human footsteps at some distance.

Within a few days, GOEA 13-1896’s behavior was normal. She began self-feeding, which meant that medications could be injected into “med mice,” thereby minimizing necessary contact with humans. Things seemed to be going well.

Meanwhile, in an outdoor enclosure at PWC, another golden eagle was recuperating from a different type of injury. This bird, GOEA 13-1828, had been brought to the center on November 7 via a circuitous relay of concerned people.

In the hay field of a Creston cattle ranch, foreman Matt Simonin had found the eagle—alert, Simonin says, and “just hopping around”—but unable to fly. A ranch hand wrapped it in a blanket while Simonin called Animal Control, which patched him through to the 24-hour hotline at Pacific Wildlife Care. The hotline volunteer, in turn, called Jeanette Stone, Center Operations Director at PWC. By this time, because the Morro Bay center was closed for the night, longtime member/volunteer Elizabeth Rathjen went to the ranch to pick up the eagle and then met Stone in the parking lot of the Rite-Aid in Atascadero for the hand-off.

Stone drove the eagle to Dr. Riggs’ home. Working on Riggs’ kitchen table, Stone held the bird while Riggs gave it sub-cutaneous fluids and examined it for the cause of injury—at this point, a mystery, although one with several clues.

The next morning, when the eagle was admitted to Pacific Wildlife Care, she was tested for lead poisoning, a common cause of dysfunction and death among raptors that eat prey killed or wounded by lead ammunition.* But in the mystery of this eagle’s affliction, lead poisoning turned out to be a red herring; the tests came back negative.

The smell of singed feathers was the clue that alerted Dr. Riggs to the cause of injury—electrocution from a power line or power pole, both of which present a hazard to raptors such as eagles, who perch on them. The usual path of conductivity is between the skin of one wing and a foot or leg. The electrical shock that results is usually fatal. In this case, the entry point was probably the left leg, which was swollen. The exit wound was on the upper right chest. In this, Riggs says, they “got lucky” because the chest has muscle and a good blood supply, unlike the more common injury site of the wing, which has a limited blood supply. Although this eagle lost the talon to the third digit on her left foot—a talon that would not grow back—she could function well without it and was otherwise “a big, healthy, full adult bird,” as Riggs describes her—or in Alvarado’s words, “full of piss and vinegar. You had to watch out for her.”

For several weeks, each volunteer walking through the doors to begin a shift at PWC would ask, “How are the eagles doing?” because as Dumeyer puts it, “You can get emotionally invested.”

So it was “heartbreaking,” Alvarado says, to find that GOEA 13-1896—the bird who had survived a crash through a windshield and weeks of life with humans caring for her—had to be euthanized.

On December 20, the eagle had been anaesthetized in preparation for X-rays and pin removal. During her examination, Dr. Riggs found that the bone broken closest to the shoulder was healing well. The break near the elbow, however, was not. There was “too much soft tissue damage,” too much “loss of muscle and supportive tissue,” Riggs says. She had no choice but to euthanize. “You think everything’s progressing well,” Dumeyer describes it, “and then you turn a corner, and there’s a huge nightmare. . . . It’s about the quality of life. The goal is to get them back to the quality of life they had before. It doesn’t always work out.”

But sometimes it does.

The other eagle—the one found electrocuted in a hay field in Creston—was healing well. What she needed now was the one thing Pacific Wildlife Care couldn’t provide: space large enough for conditioning, in preparation for return to the wild. PWC’s aviaries are fine for smaller birds, but an eagle needs a space at least 100 feet long, Riggs explains. For this purpose, the bird was taken on a road trip—to the Ojai Raptor Center, to which Riggs and the whole PWC team are grateful. After about a week of exercise in a large aviary at ORC, GOEA 13-1828 was ready for return to her natural habitat.

It doesn’t always work out. But it often does, with a little luck and an enormous effort by a community of people.

*The use of lead ammunition by hunters will be illegal in California beginning in 2015.

Eagle release 2013

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