Ancient eagle rehabilitated in Jackson returns to the skies

Anne Hare, a Teton Raptor Center volunteer, opens a crate to release a soon-to-be 31 -year-old-male bald eagle that crashed through the window of a Hoback home on Jan. 28. The eagle received treatment at the raptor center for levels of lead “considered clinical by most raptor veterinarians and rehabilitation centers” which may have contributed to its accident, according to a press release from the center. (Photo by Ryan Dorgan, Jackson Hole News&Guide)

JACKSON — Meghan Warren’s “once-in-a-lifetime bird” has gone home.

She and her colleagues at the Teton Raptor Center released the 30-year-old bald eagle — ancient by avian standards — back into the wild Friday after more than a month of rehab. The feathered sensation made headlines in February when he crashed through a Hoback resident’s bedroom window.

His rescuers found him with cuts and scrapes to his wings and feet, head trauma, a scratched eye and severe bruising. But in the end, what hindered his recovery was a bout of lead poisoning.

The raptor center team suspected poisoning right away, Warren said. The eagle suffered a seizure the first day they captured him, and his unorthodox entrance seemed a dead giveaway — a healthy bird likely would have avoided the glass pane.

But their first test for the condition, which is common among birds who scavenge on carcasses loaded with lead ammunition, came out negative. So they started treating his other injuries.

After a week or so they decided to test him again, and this time the lead level in his blood registered well above the clinical threshold of 20 micrograms per deciliter. Warren had a new problem.

“Treatment for lead poisoning is a big deal,” she said. “The … process can be hard on their body and there can be side effects. So you don’t want to do it lightly.”

She saw no other choice, though. And the situation was made more dire by his healing wounds — lead poisoning can suppress the immune system, potentially making it harder to fend off infection.

Throughout the process, called chelation, Warren said the bird remained alert and had a steady appetite. After a couple rounds his lead levels dropped significantly and his symptoms faded. All the while, his lacerations and bruising healed nicely.

By the end of his stay at the raptor center, he met all the requirements for release: He could fly moderate distances on a creance — essentially a long leash for birds — without signs of exhaustion; his vision was solid; and he never lost his fear of humans, thanks in part to the raptor team feeding him through a tube.

Warren had planned to send the eagle back to the nest he shared with his mate, near the confluence of the Snake River and Horse Creek. But as the raptor center prepared to discharge its patient, researchers monitoring the nest discovered that the female had picked up another partner, and may already be incubating the newcomer’s eggs.

“It was a classic story of losing your girl in Jackson,” joked Reed Moulton, whose window the bird shattered.

Bald eagles are “serial monogamists,” meaning they dedicate themselves to one mate at a time and often remain with the same one for years or even decades. But if that mate dies or disappears, they won’t skip a breeding season to mourn.

“That’s of course not what we wanted to happen,” Warren said, “but we couldn’t release him earlier.”

Instead of tossing him directly into a beak-and-talon deathmatch with the new male, the team let him go outside the raptor center in Wilson. “An area that’s not too far away from the one he’s familiar with,” Warren said.

From there, she expected him to head toward the nest, unaware it’s now occupied by a stranger. So she and others from the raptor center drove down to keep an eye on it for the rest of the afternoon. He never showed up. No one can say what the eagle will do now.

It’s always a joy to see recovered birds return to their own world, Warren said. Just four years ago she watched another injured bald eagle — at 34, the third oldest ever discovered in the wild — deteriorate and eventually die of complications from electrocution, despite her best efforts to save it.

Against that backdrop, this eagle, also one of the oldest known specimens, was an especially inspiring case.

At the bird’s release, staged on a warm, sunny morning, Warren and some 10 others looked on from behind the kennel, hushed and hidden from his view.

As the kennel door swung open he shuffled forward, glanced left and right warily and, without a second’s hesitation, hopped out onto the snow. A split second later he was airborne, soaring southward on the open skies as though he’d never left.

“He flew off beautifully,” Warren said.