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Record-breaking numbers of eagles admitted to Wildlife Center of Virginia

Amanda Nicholson, senior vice president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, is reflected in the glass as she watches Buddy, an ambassador eagle who lives at the center, enjoy a meal of fish.
Randi B. Hagi
Amanda Nicholson, senior vice president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, is reflected in the glass as she watches Buddy, an ambassador eagle who lives at the center, enjoy a meal of fish.

This story was reported and written by WMRA.

The Wildlife Center of Virginia is a hospital for native wild animals that teaches veterinarians-in-training and the public how to care for the natural world. They've admitted an increasing number of bald eagles in recent years. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[eagle calls, birdsong]

Two new patients were en route to the Wildlife Center last Wednesday, just in time for American Eagle Day. The holiday commemorates the anniversary of the adoption of the "Great Seal of the United States," which features an eagle in its design, on June 20, 1782.

Dr. Karra Pierce, director of veterinary services at the center, told me about the expected arrivals.

KARRA PIERCE: One of them is a transfer from the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center … I think it just was found on the ground, not flying. And then the other one is coming from, I think, Virginia Beach. It's a transfer from a rehabilitator as well and I believe it had a leg injury. So we'll see when they get here.

Dr. Karra Pierce directs veterinary services at the center.
Wildlife Center of Virginia
Dr. Karra Pierce directs veterinary services at the center.

Being ogled by a human reporter is a stressful experience for an injured wild animal, so I didn't visit the patients myself. The eagle you hear in the background is 16-year-old Buddy. He's an education ambassador who lives at the center because of a permanent beak misalignment – meaning he couldn't survive in the wild. Buddy had just gotten his regular beak trim that morning and was busy munching on a fish.

[eagle calls]

Bald eagle populations have rebounded dramatically since the 1960s. But with increasing numbers come more eagles trying to find habitat and food alongside humans.

PIERCE: They are doing better in the wild, which is great – their numbers have kind of rebounded from a previous low, but with that, they are struggling sometimes to find appropriate habitat to live in, or choosing to live in habitat where there might be a higher risk of conflict with humans.

That has resulted in more and more bald eagle patients coming to the center. Twenty years ago, they admitted 21 of the raptors. That number rose to a record-breaking 66 bald eagles last year, and they're on track to match that number again this year.

PIERCE: We get a ton of bald eagles that were hit by cars. Oftentimes they're actually scavenging on the side of the road. So they might find a hit-by-car opossum on the side of the road – that's a great meal for a bald eagle! … If there is something dead they can go for first, that is to their liking, they are going to go for that. But often those things are on roadsides … putting them at risk of being hit by a car.

She said three out of every four eagles coming in test positive for some amount of lead in their blood, which can directly cause neurological problems and make them susceptible to other injuries.

PIERCE: So they are out there, again, scavenging, and they find a hunter-harvested carcass, and what will happen is the hunters will field-dress their carcass, so you shoot your deer in the field, you take all the insides out that you don't want to take home to feed your family, and those little insides have little pieces of lead mixed in them – little fragments, basically. That's another great meal for a bald eagle, so they'll come along and feast on those things ... and then they have a really, really, really acidic stomach, so that acid interacts with the lead and basically leaches the lead out so they can absorb it into their blood system. … The biggest impact we see is certainly from the neurologic effects. They're likely predisposed to other issues if they're not neurologically appropriate. So in my mind, it's much more likely a bald eagle that's suffering from lead intoxication is going to be hit by a car, because they don't have their wits about them.

A bald eagle patient undergoes surgery at the center.
Wildlife Center of Virginia
A bald eagle patient undergoes surgery at the center.

When a new eagle comes in, the vet team gives them a little time to quiet down after being transported across the state by a strange giant human.

PIERCE: And then we will do a full physical exam. We are a teaching hospital, so most times our students are going to be involved in that physical exam looking at the whole patient. We're going to look at the eyes, the beak, the wings, the feathers, looking for any kind of issues, any indication of what was wrong with this patient. Sometimes we have a good idea when they come in. The finder will be like, "oh, his right wing was drooping to the ground." … But sometimes they come in with minimal to no history, just, you know, "wasn't flying."

Then come the diagnostics, including x-rays and blood work. If there's a bone fracture, the eagle may require surgery, or just a bandage coupled with pain medication, food, fluids, and rest. For lead intoxication, the vets will administer medication twice a day that pulls the lead out of the blood so the bird can excrete it. Recovery time can range from a few days to more than a year.

PIERCE: Once they're medically cleared, the vet team passes them off to the rehab team, and they go outside into our big flight pens to start exercising. Because just like humans, if you don't exercise for a while, you get out of shape pretty quickly, and they have to be athletes, right? They need to be able to fly to find food, to get to the tops of trees, get out of the way of cars quickly, so we want to make sure before we release them that they are performing at their kind of peak athletic endurance and ability.

The number of eagles coming in has, at times, strained the center's physical capacity.

PIERCE: We have three flight pens that are big enough to hold bald eagles, and they're huge, they're great for them … but for the last, oh my gosh, probably two years they have been full consistently, with eagles waiting to move into them, sometimes. And luckily, eagles, you can house them together. They play nice. As long as there's enough food they really don't bother each other, for the most part. But, definitely, I have never felt this much pressure on our big flight pens because of the number of eagles we have, and because some of them are these longer-term cases where they are improving, but so slowly that they need more time out there, taking space away from another patient that might need that space.

To protect your local eagles, the center advises hunters to use non-lead ammunition. Motorists should be mindful while driving and not throw trash out of the car. Even something that seems innocuous, like an apple core, can attract a raccoon to the roadside which then draws in an eagle.

A juvenile bald eagle, which hadn't yet grown the species' distinctive white head feathers, is released in Seven Bends State Park in September 2023. The eaglet had recuperated from a broken wing at the center.
Randi B. Hagi
A juvenile bald eagle, which hadn't yet grown the species' distinctive white head feathers, is released in Seven Bends State Park in September 2023. The eaglet had recuperated from a broken wing at the center.

Copyright 2024 WMRA

Randi B. Hagi

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