Rehabilitated Bald Eagle Returns to the Wild with New Feathers

By Tara Lemezis, Communications Intern

Have you ever heard of an avian rehabilitation technique called imping? Most people, unless they’ve cared for injured birds, have never heard of this falconry practice dating back several thousand years.

Imping, short for implantation, is a process in which “donor feathers”, usually of the same species, replace broken or missing feathers, enabling the bird to fly safely again. The imping process is much the same as humans getting hair extensions or fake fingernails.

Photo by Tom Schmid

Wildlife rehabilitators pay careful attention to neurological and physical signs an animal exhibits while in their care. Poor feather condition can be just as detrimental as a broken wing when considering a bird for release. If a bird has broken feathers, rehabilitators will assess the number of feathers that need to be replaced, how the bird uses its wings and tail, the season of their molt, and the size of the animal before deciding to imp. For smaller birds, lighter materials like toothpicks and tiny wooden dowels can be used to attach the new feather to the existing feather. With bigger birds, like an eagle, needles without the tip or pieces of metal and glue can be scored and used for imping. The most structurally sound way to imp is to carve out the shaft of the replacement feather so that it fits into the shaft of the old feather that it’s glued to, reinforcing the weak point.

In late March of this year, Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Wildlife Care Center took in an adult male Bald Eagle whose tail and legs were severely punctured, injuries sustained from a territorial dispute with another eagle. Territorial disputes are one of the most common reasons Bald Eagles are brought into the care center and this eagle was no exception; he was really beat up—he had severe wounds on his inner legs and damage to his tail feathers, but had no broken bones or internal injuries.

Here you can see veterinarian Deb Sheaffer as she weighed the Bald Eagle. If you look at the bird’s legs, you can see bandages covering his wounds.

Before there was any thought of imping, this Bald Eagle needed surgery to clean out the dead tissue if he was going to make a full recovery. A long and complex procedure, the bird’s surgery had to be performed at the Oregon Zoo’s veterinary clinic.  The eagle needed to be sedated for the hour long procedure on both legs, where large amounts of tissue in his muscles were cut out and then sewn back up.

The Oregon Zoo has been a wonderful resource to Bird Alliance of Oregon’s rehabilitation efforts, sharing their veterinary staff and services. Veterinarians Kelly Flaminio and Mitch Finnegan from the zoo assisted our Wildlife Care Center with the Bald Eagle’s remarkable recovery.

He returned to the care center shortly after the surgery and spent the next eight months healing. Wound cleaning, bandaging, antibiotics, and pain medication were part of his daily healing process. New pockets of dead tissue would open up all the time, so it was a long road to recovery for the bird. And because of his condition, he suffered some wing damage during the healing process.

“During his stay, because he was not able to stand for an appreciable amount of time, he would use his wings to help support him,” said Lacy Campbell, Wildlife Care Center Operations Manager.

“Birds in captivity are prone to feather damage,” explained Lacy. “We try to limit it as much as possible, but when you have an animal, especially a larger animal, in a cage, that possibility of feather damage is going to be there because they aren’t meant to live in cages.”

Lacy imped two primary feathers on the left wing to give him the best possible chance of success in the wild.
Lacy Campbell measures to attach a new feather to the Bald Eagle's damaged feather.

Eventually, the Bald Eagle will lose the borrowed feathers and grow his own new ones.

On November 10 at Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve, after months of intense treatment at Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Wildlife Care Center, the Bald Eagle was released back into the wild at a time when salmon are spawning and threats of territorial battles are low.

Photo by Tom Schmid
Photo by Tom Scmid

Every year the Wildlife Care Center treats 3,000 injured or orphaned native animals. If you would like to make a donation to support our wildlife rehabilitation work at the Wildlife Care Center, click here.