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May 24, 2009

Eagles in ICU

One Plum Brook eaglet rallies, other fights to recover from injuries after nest tumbles


They've been on this earth for just a few short weeks, but it's more than enough time to learn that fate can deal some cruel misfortunes.

Photos of two young eaglets in an enclosure at Back To The Wild
Register photo/JASON WERLING
The two eaglets that fell from a NASA Plum Brook nest rest in a holding area at Back to the Wild in Castalia.

Ever since that windy May morning when their half-ton home fell from a tree at NASA Plum Brook, these two eaglets have endured some real zingers.

They were in that nest all the way down.

One got banged up a bit, but wasn't much worse for the wear. The other wasn't as lucky - he sustained a broken leg and, as veterinarians would learn, some serious internal injuries.

"When birds fall out of nests, things happen to them more than just their leg," said Sue Orosz, a veterinarian at Toledo-based Exotic Pet Wellness Center. "It appears there's something else going on here. His red blood cell count is dropping, which most likely means there's some internal injuries."

It's been a flurry of events since May 13, when a NASA employee went to snap a picture of two newly hatched eaglets, only to find the nest and its occupants had fallen from the tree.

"We think it happened on a Wednesday," said Mona Rutger, director of the Back to the Wild animal rehabilitation center in Castalia. "But it wasn't discovered until a Friday."

The thicket around the nesting tree was almost impenetrable, but rescuers eventually located the two eaglets in a tangle of bramble and poison ivy.

"The parents were calling to them," Rutger said. "One looked dead, but when you got closer, you saw it was breathing."

Nature's riffraff

Rutger's sanctuary for nature's afflicted sits at the end of a long gravel driveway off Bardshar Road. It's cloaked by giant bushes and tall evergreens she planted 19 years ago, when she first started Back to the Wild.

"We're 100 percent funded by donations," she said. "We don't get any money from the state or federal government."

Eaglets, as it turns out, aren't the only ones having a hard time.

On any given day, there are a few hundred animals tucked in at Back to the Wild.

Each year the place helps about 2,500 wild animals, including every species you'll find creeping, crawling, swimming or flying in northeast Ohio: box turtles and spotted salamanders, bard owls and barn owls, rabbits, possum, baby squirrels and birds of every feather.

The weekly operation runs upwards of $3,500, and the facility can exhaust a shopping cart full of 30-cent mice in days just to feed some of the injured carnivores.

And in this tough economy, people tend to cling to their greenbacks like owls cling to white mice.

"We're in an emergency state right now," Rutger said. "We're in crisis mode with this economy."

Just a few days ago - less than two weeks after taking in the two injured eaglets - Rutger took in a grown eagle discovered by some farmers in Sandusky County. The bird sustained damage to its body and wing, either from a fight with another bird or a fight with a power line.

More than likely, it was the power line.

"Ninety percent of what animal rehab centers take in is human related," Rutger said.

To be sure, there are 10 eagles at Back to the Wild, including the two eaglets and the banged-up adult bird.

Employees at NASA are donating money to Back to the Wild to help cover expenses from the care and repair of the two eaglets, but it'll scarcely be enough to shift the facility's finances from red to black.

Houston, we have a problem

Recovered from the fallen nesting site at NASA, the eaglet with the broken leg was taken to Firelands Animal Hospital in Huron, where veterinarian Marianne Socha took free x-rays of the bird's broken leg. It was then taken to Toledo, where veterinarian Sue Orosz patched his leg with pins.

The bird was then returned to Back to the Wild and reunited with his sibling in a 12-by-5-foot rectangular box lined with soft orchard grass.

The two eaglets demand time and tenderness from their new caretakers. One day last week, Rutger operated on a single hour of sleep, having spent the night tending to the eaglets.

"It consumes your life," Rutger said. "It takes up every waking hour. But you can't just do a halfway job. You have to follow through on it. Every one of those birds are important."

Rutger is quick to point out the birds can't be coddled or cooed.

"People find an animal in the wild, and they want to hold it in their lap," Rutger said. "They talk to it, baby it, try to comfort it."

Those are exactly the things you shouldn't do, Rutger said, particularly with an animal like an eagle, a threatened species closely monitored by government wildlife officers.

"It's easy to be cute and cuddly with an animal, but it doesn't do the many good in the long run," Rutger said. "They become permanently imprinted with humans, and they'll seek humans out. That's irreversible."

The healthier eaglet is spending most of his time satiating a voracious appetite.

"He's eating like a little monster, devouring everything," Rutger said. "They go from egg to full-grown eagle in just 10 weeks."

Which is why the other eaglet with the broken leg is causing Rutger and veterinarians so much concern. The bird hadn't been eating, so this past week he was returned to Toledo, where Orosz discovered he suffered internal injuries.

"We've been giving him fluids and hand-feeding him," Orosz said. "He was regurgitating it, but now he's holding things down. The biggest concern is his red blood cell count dropping."

Rutger said the bird has improved, but the lack of nutrition for just a few days can weaken spots in primary feathers he's starting to develop.

"If they miss one day of food, the feather and bone growth is so rapid that they'll develop stress lines on each day," Rutger said. "And then the feather has a weak spot there."

Since the eaglet went several days without food, he'll likely have brittle feathers. It takes a year for him to molt the feathers and grow new ones.

"The pinned leg isn't the problem right now," Rutger said. "It's the brittle feathers."

Fostering hope

The two eaglets are little orphans now that their parents' nest has been destroyed, so they'll be handled just like orphans in the human world.

They'll be fostered into other nests and adopted by adult eagles.

At least, that's the plan.

"An eagle pair feeding a chick or eaglet will adopt another eaglet, but it has to be a fairly young eaglet," Rutger said. "That's a best-case scenario, if they adopt them in"

The agenda for the healthier eaglet is simple and short-term: On Thursday, biologists and officers from the Ohio Division of Wildlife will transport the bird to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor.

A nest in that reserve contains two baby eaglets that wildlife officers will lower from the nest, tag and inspect before placing them back into the nest. That's where the biological sleight-of-hand happens.

The two eaglets in Oak Harbor are the same age as the eaglets at Back to the Wild. When biologists place the two eaglets back into the nest, the healthier eaglet from Back to the Wild will join them.

Wildlife officers will find out real quick if the adults fall for the trick.

"They're in a biological feeding mode," Rutger said. "When they hear a begging call coming from their own species, they'll respond."

"It could end up a disaster," Rutger said. "But they might accept it and surrogate it."

Either way, the public is invited to attend the event, which starts at 10 a.m. at the wildlife refuge at 14000 West Ohio 2.

photo of an injured eaglet
Register photo/JASON WERLING
Mona Rutger of Back to the Wild holds one of the eaglets that fell from a Plum Brook nest. Rutger is helping the Ohio Division of Wildlife determine if fostering the birds into an existing nest is possible.

The second eaglet at Back to the Wild will prove much more difficult to nurture and reintroduce to the wild.

Tentatively, the plan is to let the eaglet recoup before placing him in a makeshift nest inside a 20-foot high flight cage at Back to the Wild.

Inside the mammoth cage is a full-grown female eagle that's been with Back to the Wild since her wing was permanently damaged six years ago.

Rutger said she suspects the female's instincts will kick in and she'll care for the eaglet, which would allow him to be raised by his own kind and then sent back into the wild.

Want to learn more?

WHAT: Eaglet tagging and "introduction"
WHEN: 10 a.m. Thursday
WHERE: Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, 14000 Ohio 2, Oak Harbor
WHY: An eaglet whose nest was destroyed in Erie County is being fostered into another wild nest at the national wildlife refuge, while two other eaglets are being tagged. The public is invited.

... And even more?

WHAT ELSE: Back to the Wild open house
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 31
WHERE: Back to the Wild animal rehabilitation center, 4504 Bardshar Road, Castalia
WHY: Funded entirely by private donations from local residents, Back to the Wild is appealing to local residents to help fund the facility's operations.

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