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One tough eagle: Audubon rescues, hopes to release a bird who knows trouble

By Katy Muldoon
The Oregonian

Nobody knows when the bald eagle's troubles began but one thing's clear: She's a tough bird, with an old puncture wound to one eye, a BB lodged in her chest, a droopy wing and other injuries indicating she probably battled recently with another eagle.

One tough eagle: Audubon rescues, hopes to release a bird who knows trouble

Look closely at this original X-ray and on the left you can see a white dot -- a BB embedded in the eagle's chest muscle. (Katy Muldoon / The Oregonian)

Nobody knows when the bald eagle's troubles began but one thing's clear: She's a tough bird, with an old puncture wound to one eye, a BB lodged in her chest, a droopy wing and other injuries indicating she probably battled recently with another eagle.

Bob Sallinger first heard about her Saturday afternoon, Nov. 9. A hiker noticed the ailing raptor on West Hayden Island in the Columbia River, near the confluence with the Willamette River, and called Audubon Society of Portland's Wildlife Care Center.

Sallinger, Audubon's conservation director, drove to the island with his son, Peter. They met the hiker and walked about a mile until they found the bird.

As Sallinger approached, the eagle tried to fly but couldn't lift off the ground.

He didn't have a net, only an old blanket he keeps in his vintage Volkswagen van. He tossed it over the eagle and scooped her into his arms. Sallinger grasped her firmly around the neck, so her fearsome hooked beak couldn't latch into him, and around her ankles, so her razor-sharp talons couldn't grab him. As darkness fell, he carried her to the van and drove her to the Wildlife Care Center in Northwest Portland.

Veterinarian Deb Sheaffer met him there.

The eagle was so beat up she sat still enough for an X-ray, which didn't show any broken bones, only the BB in her chest muscle.

Despite the fact that federal law prohibits shooting eagles and other birds of prey, and that stiff penalties can include jail time, Audubon often sees evidence of it when treating them for injuries.

This bird's weight was good. Her feathers, white at the head and tail, and deep brown through the torso and wings, were in fine shape. She did, however, have a bum wing as well as gashes in her legs.

Most concerning, Sallinger says, was the eagle's right eye, which had a significant injury.

Eagles need bifocal vision to hunt. The thinking goes that if they have serious, permanent eye injuries they'll die in the wild. As Sallinger puts it, "Imagine trying to catch a salmon with no depth perception."

Such a bird brought to wildlife rehabilitation centers, such as Audubon's, typically are deemed unreleasable. Bald eagles – symbols of freedom in the United States – end up living out their days in captivity.

In the days that followed, though, a couple things got Sallinger thinking this eagle might be the exception.

A veterinary ophthalmologist examined the bird's eye and said the injury, likely from a puncture, appeared to be at least a year, given the scaring. If it survived a year or longer with a bad eye, it must have found a way to compensate.

Sallinger also heard from a West Hayden Island resident who routinely watches and bald eagles nesting there and sends his photographs to Audubon. He told Sallinger he'd taken pictures of a female nesting eagle with an eye injury a couple years back.

Sallinger rifled through Audubon's photo library and sure enough, there was an image of a nesting eagle with an injured eye. It was dated 2012.

"This means," Sallinger says, "that she has been surviving, mating, nesting and raising young successfully despite the eye injury."

At least, if the bird in the picture and the bird in the care center are the same animal.

David Redthunder, the fellow who photographed the bird with the bad eye, told Sallinger that since the injured bird has been recuperating at Audubon, he's seen a pair of eagles near the nest.

Eagle pairs typically return to the same nest during their breeding years but interlopers routinely try to claim territory as their own, sometimes displacing residents.

So while Sallinger is fairly confident, given the documented eye injury, that the recovering bird is the island's resident female, he can't be 100 percent sure.

He'd like to be.

Sallinger has been among the conservationists leading the contentious fight against a Port of Portland proposal to develop part of West Hayden Island – including the nesting area – into a deep-water marine terminal. He thinks the bird in his care center is the same one pictured on the Save West Hayden Island Facebook page. In the photo, she sits high in a tree, surveying habitat that one day might look entirely different.

Regardless, Sallinger and Sheaffer, the Audubon veterinarian, mulled difficult questions in the weeks since they brought the bird in. They wondered, given the eye injury, if in good conscience they could consider returning the bird to the wild if the other injuries healed. Sheaffer tried to figure out why a bird in apparently good condition otherwise had a droopy wing. Was there a hairline fracture or tissue injury that didn't show on the X-ray?

Looking for answers, she turned to VCA Rock Creek Animal Hospital in Aloha. The small-animal clinic has digital X-ray technology far more sophisticated than Audubon's, and it sometimes offers to help the nonprofit at no charge. Sheaffer made a Monday afternoon appointment.

Around 2 p.m., Lacy Campbell lifted the eagle from a pen and carried it to the care center's veterinary clinic, where the bird weighed in at about 13 pounds – enormous for an Oregon bald eagle.

Sheaffer took scissors to a couple of manila file folders, snipping them a little wider than an eagle's tail. As Campbell, the care center's operations manager held the bird, Sheaffer wrapped the folders around the tail, stapling them at the edges. She hoped the makeshift tail wrap would keep the eagle from mangling its feathers during transport in a plastic animal crate.

Campbell carefully moved the bird into the crate and Sheaffer slid the door closed. A volunteer helped lift it into an Audubon van for the drive out Northwest Cornell Road to the private veterinary hospital on Northwest 185th Avenue.

Inside the hospital's surgery, as a golden retriever, a black Labrador, a bulldog and a Chihuahua looked on groggily from cages, David Barno examined the eagle.

As Campbell held tight to the bird, Barno shined a light in that bad right eye so he could see detail. He held a stethoscope to the raptor's chest and listened to her heart. One at a time, he extended her wings and felt for damage but didn't find anything out of order.

To X-ray the eagle, Becky Irving, a veterinary technician, slipped a plastic mask over its beak and turned up the anesthesia gas. Slowly, the bird relaxed and drifted off. Campbell placed it on the X-ray table and left the room. Sheaffer stayed to monitor the eagle's heart rate during the procedure.

A screen projected the digital X-rays images, showing the bird's structure in fantastic detail. Barno moved in close for a look. Nothing looked wrong.

"Good news," Sheaffer said.

A soft-tissue injury, the likely cause of the droopy wing, should heal in time.

Many of the birds that end up in Audubon's Wildlife Care Center – from the tiniest bushtits to the most majestic eagles -- don't make it. Sheaffer, Campbell and Sallinger don't know whether this one will.

Within the week, though, they expect to move her to a flight cage where she'll have room to exercise a bit. They might try creance flying her tethered to the long cords used in falconry to help her rebuild her flight muscles. And if it all works out, they'll return her to North Hayden Island.

"My bias," Sallinger said, "is toward giving these birds another chance in the wild. Not every bird survives. Not every story has a happy ending ... but if she can fly, let her go. Let her have her freedom."

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