Far from what today’s crowd calls civilization, Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship gained a new appreciation for America’s symbol of greatness.
Blankenship had the honor to release a rehabilitated bald eagle into the wild at the Uchee Creek Special Opportunity Area (SOA) in rural Russell County.
“Holding the eagle, I could tell she was ready to go and get back into the wild and enjoy life again,” Blankenship said after launching the immature eagle into the air. “Seeing the length of those talons and feeling the strength of her legs, it was really a little bit surprising how strong that eagle was.
“The nongame wildlife work we do, including raptors and birds like this, is very important to the Department of Conservation and the community. People are fascinated with hawks, kestrels and raptors of all kinds, eagles particularly. For us to be able to work with Auburn University and other rehabbers around the state and see those birds come back from injuries and be released back into the wild, that is extremely rewarding for us at the Department of Conservation.”
The released bald eagle was rehabilitated at the Southeastern Raptor Center, a part of Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The immature eagle was found in Lee County with a broken wing. Once at the Southeastern Raptor Center, X-rays revealed the bird had been shot. Multiple small shot were evident in the X-ray, and one piece of bird shot had broken the metacarpus in the bird’s left wing.
“The bird was picked up in 2016 near Smith’s Station,” said Carrie Threadgill, nongame biologist with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. “Auburn had the eagle for more than 500 days to rehabilitate it. The eagle has passed its flight test and should be good to go.”
Marianne Hudson, who joined Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries as Conservation Outreach Specialist after a stint at Auburn’s raptor center, said the rehabilitators follow a specific protocol to get the birds ready to be released.
“Since the eagle came in with a broken wing, first it goes through treatment for that injury,” Hudson said. “The wing was splinted. As it healed, it was allowed more and more exercise and rehabilitation. The Southeastern Raptor Center has large flight enclosures to allow natural movements. The flight enclosures also have turns in them so that the eagle can maneuver in different directions.
“Between now and the time it was first discovered in December of 2016, this eagle has built up enough strength, stamina and muscle mass to completely pass its flight evaluation.”
Hudson said Dr. Seth Oster, one of the veterinarians at Auburn, oversees the flight evaluation and determines when a bird can be released.
“Dr. Oster and his staff evaluated the eagle’s takeoff, landing, perching ability and maneuverability,” Hudson said. “Dr. Oster has deemed this eagle recovered well enough for release.”
Hudson said there is no fear that the eagles and other raptors that are rehabilitated will become too accustomed to humans.
“These eagles are not handled,” she said. “They are just as wild as they were the day they came in. The eagles are not tamed at all. They are afraid of people. It will be able to resume a normal eagle life.”
The Uchee Creek eagle was the first of two birds to be released within a week in Alabama. The second bird was released five days later at Cedar Creek SOA in Dallas County.
The Cedar Creek eagle also had a broken wing but the cause is unknown. This bird was found injured in Camden, not far from the Cedar Creek SOA.
“Both of these birds were released close to their points of origin,” Hudson said.
The Cedar Creek eagle arrived at the raptor center with numerous problems, including a broken radius and ulna in the right wing. It was also emaciated, suffering from conjunctivitis and had lice. However, the immature eagle responded quickly to treatment and was released after 229 days in rehab. These birds are considered immature because, although they have reached full size and strength, they have not yet attained the adult white head and tail plumage. This means the eagles are less than 5 years old.
Threadgill said another rehabilitated eagle will be released at Weiss Lake in northeast Alabama later this year.
“Because of the efforts of the nongame program with the eagle reintroduction that started in the 1980s, the rehabilitators, like the Southeastern Raptor Center, are seeing more eagles brought in each year,” she said. “Hunters, such as the ones hunting on the SOAs, are the reason we were able to fund the eagle reintroduction program. With the fees we get through our license sales, we have been able to reintroduce eagles throughout the state. Now eagles are found in every county in Alabama. We have sightings of eagles in every county, and we have records of nesting in most counties, if not all.”
Although there are two species of eagles in the lower 48 states, golden eagle and bald eagle, the vast majority of eagles seen in Alabama are bald eagles.
“All of the eagles that are actually nesting and are found in Alabama in the spring and summer are bald eagles,” Threadgill said. “We only see golden eagles in the wintertime when they are coming down from Canada. Golden eagles nest in Canada, but we do have golden eagle surveys on some of our WMAs (wildlife management areas) and some of our other partner lands. We get game-camera pictures of eagles every year. We do have a winter population of golden eagles that we didn’t know about until we started the game-camera surveys.”
Should anyone discover an injured eagle or other bird of prey, a licensed rehabilitator should be contacted immediately, according to Hudson.
“There are a handful of federally licensed bird rehabilitators in Alabama,” Hudson said. “It is a volunteer program that takes both federal and state permits to rehabilitate migratory birds, including bald eagles.”
Hudson said to go online and check the list for rehabbers who accept migratory birds.
Although the person who shot the Uchee Creek eagle has not been found, anyone who harms a raptor of any kind can end up in big trouble.
“Raptors are protected by state and federal laws,” Hudson said. “To injure one is a federal offense. The penalties are severe.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.