A young bald eagle that was found two years ago in emaciated condition has been rehabilitated by the northeast Indiana non-profit group Soarin’ Hawk and will be released back into the wild on Sunday, Nov. 11, at Salamonie Lake at 2 p.m.
The public is invited to witness the release by Soarin’ Hawk volunteers at Salamonie Beach, 9214 Lost Bridge Road West, Andrews.
Soarin’ Hawk is a non-profit group established in 1996 to serve northeast Indiana’s injured or orphaned birds of prey. The organization rescues more than 250 resident or migratory raptors annually.
The eagle will be released at Salamonie Reservoir because several pairs of eagles are in residence there, says Pam Whitacre, a volunteer with Soarin’ Hawk. After two years of recovery, the goal is for the young raptor to connect with other eagles.
“There are eagles down there nesting, and he was young when he came in, so we want him to be around other eagles so he can learn how to hunt,” Whitacre explained. “When they’re really young and we get birds in and they haven’t learned how to hunt, we have to keep them and live-feed them and make sure they can hunt live if we let them go.”
In August of 2016, the then-six-month-old eagle was found at Madison-Grant High School, near Fairmount, by Indiana Conservation Officer Cpl. Josh Kilgore and Soarin’ Hawk volunteer Lynnanne Dennison-Fager. The eagle had a broken leg and mites had chewed the eagle’s feathers so severely it could not fly. Unable to hunt, it was weak and emaciated.
The injured raptor was brought to Soarin’ Hawk’s facilities in the Fort Wayne area to receive medical care. Fortunately, the broken leg had begun to heal, so surgery was not needed. The eagle was restored to health, but eagles do not molt and replace feathers every year, so the raptor had a long stay.
“He was limping a lot when he was in the pen, so we let him rest for quite a few months,” Whitacre says. “Then we decided to fly him, to see if he could fly, and he didn’t fly well, so we couldn’t release him.”
Veterinarian Pat Funnell, who treats the birds at the rehab facility, tried a technique called “imping,” in which flight feathers from a deceased bird are glued in with the eagle’s damaged ones. The bird was under anesthesia for over three hours for the operation. It took eight volunteers working more than 25 volunteer hours to replace over 20 feathers.
However, when they tried to fly him after the procedure the eagle still had trouble achieving viable flight. The rehab volunteers and professionals were resigned to wait until the eagle’s feathers naturally molted, which only occurs once per year.
Finally, in the spring of 2018, the new feathers were good and the eagle was capable of flying. However, before a raptor can be released back into the wild, Soarin’ Hawk must make sure the bird has sufficient strength to fly and survive. To do this, Soarin’ Hawk volunteers use “creance” flying (controlled flying using a tether). There was concern that the eagle wasn’t gaining enough strength, so three months ago it was sent to the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur, IL, where it could fly inside a 100-foot-long flight house that is not yet available locally.
Whitacre says the center in Decatur recently called them and reported their bird was now strong enough and ready to go back to the wild. Soarin’ Hawk volunteers drove to Illinois and brought the eagle back to the area on Nov. 5 in advance of the release on Nov. 11.
It will be the second eagle that the group has released back into the wild this year, the first one occurring in July at Eagle Marsh. Whitacre says when that day comes, the exhilaration and excitement should be palpable.
“There are no words that describe how rewarding it is to see them get back out there,” she says. “They’re helping the environment, for one thing. And second, they’re eating rodents and things out there. But it’s just so heartening, when you have a bird and you see them trapped in a pen for two years, and know he’s not flying and out there with other eagles, and then to set him free is just so emotional.”
Soarin’ Hawk also cares for 16 education birds that cannot be released because of permanent injuries. These birds are used in more than 100 presentations annually by volunteer at schools and other venues to educate the public about birds of prey.
More information about Soarin’ Hawk Raptor Rehabilitation can be found at the organization’s website, soarinhawk.org.