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Rare golden eagle recovering from injury with help of Illinois Raptor Center

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 9:41 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — DECATUR — When Jacques Nuzzo received a call from a state conservation officer about an injured golden eagle found in a field north of Sadorus on Oct. 25, he thought it was a case of mistaken identity.

“A lot of people misidentify immature bald eagles as golden eagles,” said Nuzzo, program director for the Illinois Raptor Center. “The chance of it being a golden eagle was next to nothing.”

Nuzzo was amazed when the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic later sent him a photo of the bird, which had a broken wing.

He caught his first glimpse of the noble-looking, immature bird with glimmering gold-colored feathers on its head and the nape of its neck and distinctive white tail feathers.

He greeted the image with mixed feelings. On one hand, there was regret for not having rushed to the scene to see a golden; a rarely seen visitor to the area. However, the bird had a broken bone, so it required immediate attention of the wildlife clinic.

The good news was that the eagle would land at the Illinois Raptor Center as soon as its medical treatment was complete.

Caring for Midas, the name given to the 8-pound golden that has been residing in rural Decatur since Dec. 6, is presenting a few challenges.

“We’ve never had a rehab golden eagle before,” Nuzzo said.

Golden eagles, larger and stronger than the more common bald eagles, can put away a tremendous amount of food. In the wild, they prey on mammals and waterfowl, including rabbits, marmots, antelope, deer, ducks and geese.

Nuzzo has been feeding him large portions of quail, rats and venison. He started out with two full-grown quail each day but cut back because of concern that Midas might become obese, which would impede his progress toward flying high again.

Nuzzo has learned to treat Midas with extreme caution. When Nuzzo first met him, the encounter did not proceed as he had hoped.

“I was reaching in to get him in the crate,” Nuzzo recalled. “He grabbed both of my hands and pinned them to the bottom of the crate. I didn’t have him; he had a hold of me.”

Nuzzo, who has been working with predatory birds at the center for 21 years, realized he might escape without injury by maintaining his composure. The standoff lasted about two minutes, but it was a very long two minutes.

“He finally let go,” Nuzzo recalled.

Unlike bald eagles, which often dive for fish, golden eagles prefer to slam into land-based prey, like linebackers hunting quarterbacks.

“Golden eagles are extremely powerful birds,” Nuzzo said, adding that people who have worked with goldens have been rewarded with broken arms.

Nuzzo commended the people who reported the injured bird, the conservation officer who captured him and the veterinary students who treated him.

“If left in the wild and he couldn’t fly, he would probably be dead,” Nuzzo said, adding that he could have been prey for a coyote, dog or an ignorant human. “Just the fact that someone could just pull up and grab him speaks to his danger.”

Nicki Rosenhagen, a clinic manager at the University of Illinois, said the radius of the eagle’s left wing was fractured.

“It was a closed fracture; it didn’t penetrate the skin,” said Rosenhagen, a second-year veterinary student. “The bone was fractured all the way through, one fracture line.”

Because the ulna was intact, the clinicians used that bone as a splint. They put a figure-8 wrap around the wrist and elbow to immobilize both joints. After about two weeks, the bone healed.

“We kept the bird in a small enclosure to minimize activity,” Rosenhagen said. “Birds heal quickly.”

Rosenhagen said this was the first golden eagle treated at the wildlife clinic in recent memory. She said students in intake mistook it for an immature bald eagle.

“It’s a logical conclusion,” said Rosenhagen, who formerly worked at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Washington state, which took in just one golden eagle during a four-year period.

Golden eagles are mostly found in the wide-open spaces of the Western states.

Bob Russell, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there are about 50 golden eagles that winter in Illinois in the northwest region near Galena.

Golden eagles dominate the smaller eagles in such cases as disputes over an animal carcass.

“Nobody messes with a golden eagle,” Russell said. “They are better fliers than bald eagles. They’re magnificent birds. They can soar effortlessly with just a little updraft. They circle slowly, big, wide circles a couple of hundred feet across.” They soar at heights of 1,500 to 2,000 feet, just above the height of the Willis Tower in Chicago.

Midas will not be displayed to the public, because of a federal prohibition on displaying eagles during their rehabilitation.

Nuzzo, who is rehabbing Midas’ wing strength by giving him food on a perch to force him to fly to it, said he is not sure where or when the bird will be released to the wild. Before Midas is let go, Nuzzo plans to prepare him through controlled flying operations.

“We’ll fly him on a line, to fly between two people for food on each end,” Nuzzo said, adding that they will need a large site with a well-mowed field. “We are making him aware we’re here to help. He wasn’t trusting with people when he first came in. It’s nice to be part of the healing process.”

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