Eagle on mend from broken wing

Surgeons at Animal Clinic Northview in the Cleveland suburb of  North Ridgeville work on a bald eagle that was injured recently when struck by a small jet near the Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport.
Surgeons at Animal Clinic Northview in the Cleveland suburb of North Ridgeville work on a bald eagle that was injured recently when struck by a small jet near the Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport.

CASTALIA, Ohio — The patient was moved into surgery at a facility near Cleveland on Tuesday, and there a pair of doctors worked to mend a nasty fracture. Three metal pins were placed in the ulna, which had been broken in two places. The radius was sound and would serve as a splint to stabilize the break.

The injured party will have the pins removed in a few weeks, and if the meticulous rehab goes as planned, she will regain her strength and be flying again before the end of the year.

Pilot? Flight attendant? Astronaut? Trapeze artist?

None of the above.

She’s a bald eagle, and she’s on the path to recovery after a harrowing accident that occurred when this raptor found itself in the path of a bigger and much more powerful aviator.

About a week ago, two adult eagles were close to the runway at the Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport, located east of Port Clinton and very near the Lake Erie shoreline. As a small jet landed at the airfield, it possibly struck one of the eagles. While its mate took flight, the injured eagle remained in a grassy area near the runway.

After a pilot reported seeing an injured eagle near the runway, airport director Stan Gebhardt contacted the area’s equivalent of wildlife 9-1-1, the Back To The Wild Wildlife Rehabilitation & Nature Education Center here.

“The pilot didn’t feel a strike, and there was no thud and no apparent damage to the plane visible, but the eagle definitely had a broken wing,” Gebhardt said. “So most probably, sometime during the day, she got too close to an airplane. We have no way of knowing exactly when it happened.”

Back To The Wild holds state and federal licenses to rescue injured, orphaned, or displaced wildlife, with the intention of rehabilitating and releasing the animals once they are healthy. After picking up the injured raptor, the center’s staff first stabilized it with medication and a temporary wing wrap, and then took her to the Animal Clinic Northview in a suburb of Cleveland, which has avian surgical specialists on staff, for X-rays and evaluation. The eagle was given fluids, a diet of fish emulsion, and necessary nutrients before it was taken back to Northview earlier this week for the procedure.

The bird was not banded, so its history and origin are somewhat of a mystery, but Mona Rutger, director of Back To The Wild, is certain that it is associated with one of the numerous bald eagle nesting sites along the Lake Erie shoreline.

Since it is mature and has the white feathers on its head, Rutger said the eagle is at least five years old. If it hatched eaglets this past spring, those birds would be out of the nest and functioning independent of their parents.

The female bald eagle hit by the jet was one of the some 2,500 wild animals the center will receive this year. She will initially spend time in a recovery cage to minimize movement while she is on the mend and then move to a transitional cage where her flying skills can be tested.

The last step before release is a stay in the 160-foot flight cage where muscles are rebuilt and flight is possible.

Until then, she remains anonymous, just another patient in the diverse menagerie at the shelter.

“We never name the wildlife here,” Rutger said. “Since our mission is to return all wildlife back into the wild, it helps us teach kids and adults that they don't belong to us and that they truly belong to the wild. By not naming them, it helps everyone understand that we should never try to make them into pets.”

The best-case scenario has the female bald eagle being released early in 2013, and that release will take place near the site where she was struck by the jet, but not on airport grounds.

“That moment — that is the ultimate thrill for us,” Rutger said. “To see the eagle fly away and go back to the wild — it’s why we are doing this. When that happens, this all feels so right.”

Rutger said regardless of where the release takes place, the eagle will most likely return to her familiar territory. If her mate has not found a new female, the pair is expected to reunite and use its same nesting site.

The bird struck by the jet is one of nine bald eagles currently under the care of the center. Several of those are not releasable, due to the severity of their injuries, so they are used for educational purposes.

Back To The Wild, which Rutger founded in 1990, is a private rehab facility and is funded exclusively through donations. The organization educates about 70,000 students, members of youth groups, and adults each year in the importance of preserving and protecting our natural world. The facility is open around the clock, every day of the year.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.