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Free again

Injured golden eagle released back into wild after rehabilitation

By Alistair Mountz
Special to the Times

PINON, Ariz., May 19, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

TOP: A male golden eagle takes off into the open sky after being in a rehabilitation center for injuries he sustained from fighting April 12 west of Chinle. Biologists attached a transmitter to the golden eagle's back to track him.
SECOND FROM TOP: Navajo Nation zoologist Chad Smith holds the cage door open as a golden eagle quickly makes his exit April 12 west of Chinle. The golden eagle was injured while fighting another bird.
THIRD FROM TOP: The claw of a golden eagle is sharpened April 12 at the Navajo Nation Zoo in Window Rock. The eagle was rehabilitated then released back into the wild.




S ome old guy gets beat up, goes to the hospital and gets released. Pretty average story. Until you find out the old guy had to get his talons sharpened before they let him go.

Yeah, the old guy's a golden eagle.

"We got a call about him on Feb. 22," said Chad Smith a zoologist for the Navajo Nation's Department of Fish and Wildlife. "He was on the ground, and the person who called said he was fighting with other birds.

"We took him to the Navajo Nation Zoo to assess him," he said. "The injuries were pretty bad so we sent him to The Wildlife Center that day."

"He came to us from near the Piñon area," explained Alissa Mundt, rehabilitation specialist at The Wildlife Center in Espanola, N.M.

"When he came in it looked like he'd been attacked by something, it could have been another eagle," she said. "He had deep puncture wounds in chest area, other puncture wounds on his body and a tear on the back side of the right wing. It looked like a talon or nail punctured his wing and then didn't let go. It left a 1- or 1.5-inch rip when it did let go."

After two hours of cleaning and stitching, the eagle was put into a small enclosure and monitored closely. Although not life threatening, the injuries were serious, particularly the wing. A nine-pound bird can't fly with a hole in its wing.

After only a few nights on pain medication, and a few more days being monitored by the Wildlife Center staff, the eagle was put into a 100-foot high flight enclosure with a female golden eagle that can't fly.

"He did really well," Mundt said. "He reached all the high perches."

High enough, and healthy enough, to go back into the wild April 12 - "a quick turnaround," as Mundt noted.

"There are two other eagles that were here first and this particular eagle surpassed their healing process," she said. "It was a really quick turnaround, it was cool to see."

So, Center staff packed the eagle into a huge dog carrier with the name "Furrari" on it. Inside was a 3-foot log covered in holes and large notches, where he could perch.

The eagle reached the Navajo Nation Zoo, where he was fitted with a solar-powered tracking device on his back that will now track him wherever he goes.




"For the next several years we'll get reports on what's the bird up to," said Smith. "Usually they only put these on nestlings, but this was a rare opportunity to put one on an adult male."

Mundt explained that scientists hope to learn how the eagles are coping with climate change, and the tracker could help that.

"Last year was a rough year for eagles because of drought," she said. "Lots of fire too, so not a lot of prey. They are having to go longer distances in order to find food. Part of the reason the bird has a tracking device is there is a population decline happening with these birds. We want to know where they're all going."

After updating his look with a sleek satellite transmitter, the next step was obvious: get the old eagle's nails done.

"Being in captivity dulled his talons," Smith said. "We wanted to make sure he could still get rabbits."

Smith then drove to a remote area near Cottonwood, roughly where the eagle was originally found. All he did was open the door of the Furrari and the old guy knew what to do right away. Another unusual part of the story.

"Typically," said Mundt, "when you release birds who have been in rehab it's pretty boring. They will usually fly about 50 or 100 feet and just wait for you to leave, especially with that backpack. He had never had it on before, so that's pretty fantastic he flew right away."

Within 20 minutes the bird had disappeared into the distance toward Chinle, but not without getting into a brief spat with a crow first.

"Since January two eagles have been rehabilitated and released into the wild here on the reservation," Smith said afterward. "It's important to get any bird back in the wild, into the sky."

The remarkable recovery of this eagle is unusual. Some birds don't make it back into the air. Remember the female in the enclosure who couldn't fly?

"She's an education bird," explained Mundt. "She was brought in with injuries that don't allow her to fly anymore. Now she is actually being used by scientists to help figure out what's happening with the golden eagle population. They use her to attract male eagles that are briefly captured and fitted with a transmitter to find out where they go."

What will become of the old eagle?

"We're interested to find out where he's from," Smith said while hauling the empty Furrari back to the government vehicle. "The transmitter will tell us if he's a Navajo bird or not. He could be a northern bird that was migrating, or he could be a Navajo bird.

"But hopefully, the likely scenario is he lives out the rest of his life without getting into any more trouble, and ending back up in rehab," he said.

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