The large brown raptor sat squarely on a stump, tufts protruding playfully from its head as it took in the small, barn-like structure that will be home for a while.
The severely ill golden eagle is recovering at Wildlife Rescue of Sonoma County. Even in its weakened condition, the regal bird's dark chest with white feathers in the center puffed out boldly while its yellow talons gripped the perch.
It had been a long journey for the fragile aerial hunter, a breed rarely seen in Sonoma County. It was found outside a pet feed store in Covelo about a week ago. Clerks there noticed the ailing eagle and called Barbara Thrasher, president of Bones Pet Rescue in Covelo, who ultimately drove the bird the 170 miles south to Wildlife Rescue on Meachem Road north of Petaluma.
"The fellows called me and told me, &‘I have this eagle,'" Thrasher said. "They think that he maybe hit the power line, because they had a brownout at the store just before they found him, and some of the customers saw him on the roof."
The men eased the eagle into a plastic carrier and tried to keep him cool on a very hot day until Thrasher arrived.
It took some time to locate a rescue center that could help the eagle, and then Thrasher and the eagle set out on the three-hour drive.
Just what's been ailing the bird was not immediately determined. When it arrived at Wildlife Rescue it was face-down in straw in the travel crate, said Doris Duncan, head of Wildlife Rescue. It was emaciated, weighing slightly less than five pounds, about half the normal weight of an eagle its age. It has since gained more than a pound but still has little muscle mass. "It's all feathers," Duncan said.
The eagle had a burn injury on one leg and a severe lice infestation, said Dr. Dan Famini, veterinarian for Wildlife Rescue. Complicating matters, one of the Covelo rescuers had fed the eagle road-kill that was rancid, further sickening the bird. Famini said people who find injured wildlife should not feed them, but should contact appropriate rescuers.
"He was on death's door," Duncan said. "We didn't know if he was going to live or die."
The outlook improved after a blood transfusion, antibiotics, anti-parasite treatments and fluids were administered orally and under the skin.
"The eagle's done great, but it's still not out of the woods by any stretch," Famini said. "It was an extremely sick bird. The fact that it's recovered as much as it has so far is nothing short of amazing."
In the wild, Golden Eagles catch and eat rabbits, squirrels and prairie dogs and can grow to a wingspan of six or seven feet. The raptors nest on cliffs or trees and are found in mountainous areas, grasslands and forests, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.
Like bald eagles, they are federally protected, meaning it is against the law to take or harm the birds of prey. Exact population figures are unknown, but the number of golden eagles is thought to be in decline in the West.
Rescuers are unsure whether the recovering bird is a male or female, a distinction usually determined by weight. But they estimate it's less than a year old.
"We can tell he's a baby, because he has a lot of down feathers," said Kristen Reeder, education director for Wildlife Rescue.
Reeder and Danielle Mattos, animal care director, have been feeding the eagle skinned, boned mouse meat and cradling him in their arms while gently squirting antibiotics into its beak with a pipette.
When its strength improves, the golden eagle will be moved to a larger aviary, where it will be able to test it wings again. Right now, it needs that strength to heal.
"The long term outcome of this bird is not yet clear," Famini said. "He's getting feistier every day, but he's not really stronger yet."
The eagle likely will stay at the center for two more months, and then if strong enough may be released back to the area where it was found.
"We're hopeful that that will happen," Thrasher said. "I hope that he has a long life ahead of him."