The Best Way to Start the New Year – Releasing a Bald Eagle

By Ashley Lema, Wildlife Rehabilitator

On November 7, 2022 a Bald Eagle was hit by a car on interstate highway 84, which runs alongside the Columbia River in the Gorge’s National Scenic Area. Several worried people called Oregon State Police about not one – but two! – injured eagles on the median. We always recommend contacting the State Police for help with rescues when wildlife are on or near highways, because they can safely stop on the highway or even stop traffic for a rescue to happen. Not only are we worried about the safety of our rescuers, but rescue attempts can also unintentionally spook wildlife into passing traffic.

Bald Eagle being released at Rooster Rock
The Bald Eagle being released at Rooster Rock on New Years Eve, Jan. 1, 2023.

When people began approaching the eagles in the median, the second eagle flew away, which leads us to believe that this was either a territorial dispute (common this time of year as female eagles jockey over nest sites) or the hurt female’s mate who came to her side. We often hear that people worry when an injured animal has to be separated from their mate. However, if an adult animal can be approached and captured by people, it will not be able to adequately avoid predators, find food, mate, or care for young without treatment. While it is easy to anthropomorphize a wild animal’s experience and grieve for what might be lost, it is best to prioritize saving the animal’s life. Once the animal has recovered, we release them back into their original territory.  We do that for a great number of reasons, but one is so they can reunite with their mate if they have one, and sometimes we even get to hear about happy endings like this one. If the worst comes to pass and the injured animal doesn’t make it, it can be comforting to know that not only did we save that animal from suffering, but its mate will move on and find a new mate. Life in the wild is harsher than might be comfortable for our human sensibilities, and it is common for half of a mating pair to disappear or die. Those that survive need to be able to move on and pass along their genes to continue the great ecological dance. So rest assured, regardless of the outcome, the birds will be just fine and hopefully, we’ll be able to save a life.

Once captured and contained, Oregon State Police transported the injured bird to our Wildlife Care Center, the closest permitted wildlife rehabilitation facility. Upon arriving at our hospital, I gave my assisting volunteers a quick refresher on eagle handling, a run down on my plan for her exam, and we prepared all of our supplies. It’s important we work as quickly as possible when subjecting wild animals to stress, and that is anytime we are present, but especially when holding and touching them.

She was a perfect bird – 11 pounds, at least 4 years old due to her fully white head, and strong even in her subdued state. Her head was ticking occasionally, a classic sign of head trauma. She also had a bad leg that would need x-rays to determine the severity of the injury. Otherwise, this was the incredible physique of an adult eagle that was doing just fine before being struck by a vehicle, an impressive and somewhat scary presence to be in.

I carefully took blood from a vein in her wing so I could get further insight on her health while she rested. I gave her pain medication, as well as antifungal medication; because these animals aren’t made for being in such confined spaces, eagles can be prone to something called aspergillosis, a fungus that attacks the lungs and is usually fatal. A few days later, once stable enough, Dr. Lo and I were able to put her under anesthesia and take x-rays. Amazingly enough, no fractures! With her head trauma symptoms quickly resolving, and her leg injury being only soft tissue trauma, we were hopeful for her recovery – but as always, guardedly.

The Bald Eagle being given medications by Dr. Lo, as rehabilitator Ashley holds the eagle.

After about two weeks of supportive care and monitoring, we were able to move her to a large flight enclosure where she could finish healing and begin building up muscle again. Her flight became increasingly better with time and she was able to be released after about 7 weeks of being in rehabilitative care.

On New Year’s Eve, a group of Bird Alliance of Oregon Staff, with a few friends and family, watched her fly free – back to her natural territory, and hopefully to find her mate. 

Like the responding officer said, “As with most of the birds and wildlife we assist, it couldn’t be done without the public stopping to help, or at least taking the time to call it in.” Our work is important to the community, to the individual animal, and to the greater goals of conserving the wild. With the damage to the Wildlife Care Center just days before this, it was incredibly healing for me to see an animal we all put so much time and energy into go free. Bald Eagles especially are a symbol of resiliency, and while we’re not sure when we will be operational again, we are doing everything we can to resume our life saving work.

New found love for eagles? Add this live nest camera to your watchlist! The first baby of the year has already hatched! ❤

Southeast Florida Eagle Cam