The eagle thrashed against the sides of the crate, causing it to shake.
“She’s eager to get out,” an onlooker said in a hushed tone.
On the snow-dusted boat launch of Phillips Lake in Dedham, a small group had gathered Tuesday to witness the release of the female bald eagle. For the past month and a half, the eagle had been recovering from an injury at Avian Haven, a bird rehabilitation center in Freedom. It was time for it to be set free.
Marc Payne, co-founder of Avian Haven, rearranged the blanket covering the crate and waited for the eagle to settle down. Then, with the help of Bangor-area volunteer Sue Stone, he opened the front and top of the crate.
The eagle burst forth, wings spread, and catapulted straight ahead. With each flap of its dark wings, it rose higher into the blue sky and closer to the sparkling lake, until it was a silhouette against the afternoon sun.
“It’s just thrilling,” said Stone, who took the injured eagle to Avian Haven on Oct. 5 after the bird was struck by two vehicles while trying to feed on a raccoon on Route 1A in Dedham.
“We really need to work to remove any roadkill away from the side of the road,” said state raptor specialist Erynn Call, who works for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “We work with the Maine Department of Transportation to do that. It’s a problem when eagles come down to feed on roadkill because they’re so large, it takes a few wing beats for them to get aloft above the height of a vehicle.”
“It’s definitely a good thing for people to be aware of and on the lookout for,” Call added. “And it’s another good reason not to speed.”
A witness to the accident called Avian Haven, which in turn called the Maine Warden Service for assistance. Ellsworth game warden Eric Rudolph responded to the call.
Rudolph has handled several injured or sick eagles over the years, he said, and has developed an effective method of capturing them.
“They can be pretty hard to catch just because they’re so big, and depending on the injury — well, this one was very mobile,” Rudolph said. “It was able to fly short distances close to the ground and it was able to run — and eagles can run really fast.”
When Rudolph arrived at the scene on Oct. 5, the eagle was moving through the brush beside the road. A passerby stopped to offer help, and Rudolph gladly accepted, enlisting the man as “the blocker.”
“In my experience, when they’re mobile, the best way to do it is try to corner them in between two people,” Rudolph said.
Rudolph herded the injured eagle toward the man, who held up a blanket to create a wall. Then, when Rudolph was close enough to the eagle, he tossed a wool blanket, and the bird instinctively grabbed it with its sharp talons.
“So that took the talons out of the equation,” Rudolph said.
He then trapped the eagle under a tote and slid the cover underneath.
“It’s all kind of one motion,” he explained.
Stone, who has been a volunteer at Avian Haven for a number of years, arrived with a large dog crate, which she used to transport the eagle to the Avian Haven facility in Freedom.
Avian Haven has a network of volunteers throughout the state for just this purpose.
“The top of the beak was broken nearly off,” said Diane Winn, co-owner of Avian Haven. “The following morning, we clipped the beak and used a Dremel to shape the edges … Remarkably, the bird was otherwise uninjured.”
Avian Haven staff have used the same method to fix the damaged beaks of other raptors, but this was their first time reshaping a bald eagle’s beak, Payne said.
“The beak is definitely critical to their everyday sort of activities,” said Call. “They use it of course to capture prey and consume their food. Also, if they’re scavenging, they’d use it — even grooming their mate and feeding their young.”
A bald eagle’s beak and neck muscles have adapted so that the eagle can eat quickly, Call said. They’re capable of eating about one pound of fish in four minutes.
An eagle’s beak is multilayered. Its core is bone, surrounded by a thin layer of tissue, nerve endings and blood vessels. And the outer beak is keratin, the same material that makes up human hair and fingernails, as well as bird feathers. Keratin grows, Call said, so to some extend, a bird beak can repair itself.
“It depends on how far back it’s broken,” Payne said. “It grows back, but if it’s broken too far back, it won’t.”
“This one was just the tip, so it will grow back,” Payne added, looking out over Phillips Lake, searching for the newly freed eagle in the many tall pine trees bordering the water.
Avian Haven aims to minimize human interaction with injured birds, therefore, it’s important that they get their feathered patients back into the wild as soon as possible. Reshaping the eagle’s broken beak, rather than simply waiting for it to regrow, allowed them to do that.
After reshaping the beak, Avian Haven staff started off by feeding the eagle soft items, such as fish, and over time, they changed its diet to tougher prey, such as muskrat and beaver.
“Each time she’d been handled for some reason, we’d [shape] the beak in order to coax it into normal shape,” Winn said. “Although her beak still lacks the full hooked tip normally seen on eagles, she’s proven that it works just fine as is.”
“It’s using [its beak] to tear at meat and stuff now, and the bird was getting really antsy and wanted to go,” Payne said.
The eagle was banded last spring at Phillips Lake and is likely the resident female of a nest in that area. If that’s the case, it’s highly possible that she will reunite with her mate.