Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 16, 2009

Rockabye Eagle

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:03 pm

It’s not something that you want to do often, but it needs to be done. Every now and then you have to get hold of your captive Bald Eagle and give him a vaccination shot for his own good. The West Nile vaccine must be administered via a needle by a real veterinarian. This medication can’t be dusted onto his dinner rat or stuffed into the mouth of his filet o’ fish. When your eagle is not an “on the hand” type bird, that means you need to get control of him before your vet can properly poke him. Actually, the whole process is a bit different than you may think.

If you are a regular reader, you may recall that the Lake Erie Marshlands Museum received an injured captive eagle named Luc about two months ago. Since that time, the bird has adjusted nicely – eating like a pro, taking visitors in stride, and generally endearing himself to thousands of visitors. Like his free-roaming kin, Luc is at risk of contracting the West Nile virus. Unlike free-roaming eagles, however, captive birds can be treated and it is our responsibility to give Luc the best of care.  The West Nile Virus appeared on the North American scene about ten years ago. This nasty bug  is transmitted by mosquitoes and is amplified by bird hosts (Humans can contract it but can’t transmit it). Some 200 wild bird species have been recorded with the ailment, although crows and robins appear to be the primary carriers.  In short, West Nile can make it’s host very sick and, in the case of birds, can be fatal.  The recent death of a pair of eaglet chicks in the nest has been tentatively chalked up to West Nile.

It’d be nice to say that the current vaccines provide a complete chemical barrier against this virus. It ain’t necessarily so. The most widely used medication is a horse vaccination made from a killed virus called Fort Dodge something or other (can you tell I’m not the vet in this story?). “Our” vet, a raptor specialist named Andrew Granowski from the Canton Animal Clinic, has elected to use another type of vaccine whose name I won’t even attempt to repeat. According to Andrew, and a whole host of other specialists, there is little proof that either treatment is totally effective . But, they are better than nothing.

At any rate, the treatment requires a good close look at the “subject” so the experience is akin to a regular check-up. That alone is good enough reason to perform the task. Our bird already received his first shot three weeks ago and the occasion of his required booster shot provided an opportunity to get a few pics of the affair. Let’s just say that the first time went well. This second time, we had an audience. A family of three were gathered at the screen to watch the three of use (Paul Cypher was the third hand and cameraman). When told we were going to give Luc his shot, one of them said, “oh, does that mean you are going to shoot a tranquilizer dart at him or something?” When I told them that I was just going to walk in and grab him, they crowded up to watch – expecting some blood.

 Luc’s initial reaction to these check-ups is equivalent to that expected from any species – he doesn’t like it. He has free reign of his very large cage and has the ability to perform limited flying. The second he spotted me walking in with my giant gloves on, he lept from the perch to the ground and ran for the far end of the enclosure. Paul blocked his route as I crowded him to the nearest corner. Eventually, he dropped down and waited for me to make the next move. My grab was quick, but not what I wanted. I had to be satisfied with pinning him with his back on the ground with a firm grasp on his powerful talons (see below). During this whole sequence, the bird never made a noise or attempted any aggression what-so-ever.

In this awkward position, the vet was able to make a hasty examination of the eagle (see here) before I was able to free my left hand and cradle the bird in my arms (see below). At this point, the syringe was un-capped and the dose injected (about 1 cc) directly into the breast muscle to the left of the breastbone. Dr. Granowski rubbed the injection spot with his finger immediately before placing the needle. This gentle touch caused Luc to raise up his belly feathers to expose his skin beneath as if resigned to his fate.  Once the deed was done, Andrew looked him over and pronounced that he looked “very good”.

I held onto Luc for a short while longer as Paul took the opportunity to clean the cage up a bit. Luc is molting many of his old feathers and the down and tail feathers are scattered about the enclosure. You can’t do this when the bird is free-perched without un-nerving him. Apart from the wing problem, Luc is blind in his left eye and I was able to get a nice close look at the injured eye (see here). It is an old, albeit well healed, injury that looks like a torn iris.  You can compare this eye with his healthy one in the view below.

One can’t help but admire the massive hooked beak found on a Bald Eagle such as Luc. Of particular note in this close up view is the fleshy cere that surrounds the nostrils. Given the position in which I was holding him, you’d think he would have happily taken the opportunity to take a chunk out of my left breast (thank God I don’t wear a nipple ring!).  Luc took no such advantage and patiently waited until I placed him on the ground and he returned to his perch.  He has definitely earned my respect and I can only hope I have earned his.

1 Comment »

  1. Those of us who work with raptors know that it’s the feet that are the most dangerous, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep a good eye on the beak as well. Even the small kestrel can give a nasty bite! Looks like you’ve lucked out with a nicely passive eagle.

    Comment by Ellen — September 21, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

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