Injured Golden Eagle found in Mendocino County on the road to recovery
Flying 30 laps in a 100-foot-long cage is nothing compared to what a golden eagle would cover in the wild, where hunting grounds might sprawl over 35-square miles.
But it's a mighty accomplishment for a young raptor that was found three months ago ridden with parasites and starved to half its normal weight, said Dona Asti of Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.
Since arriving at the non-profit agency's facilities in late July, the now plumped-up bird has clawed back from the edge of death and is hopefully ready to soar.
On Friday, the eagle was transferred from Wildlife Rescue's facility north of Petaluma to an aviary near Point Reyes National Seashore, which will soon be left open, allowing the eagle to fly where it chooses.
"He will release himself," Asti said. "He's going to come out when he's ready."
The planned return to nature marks a hard-won victory for Wildlife Rescue, which has treated scores of birds this year, none of them more intensively than this one.
"Maybe we have done close to 100 birds this year but this eagle should count for 10 all by himself," Asti said. "It has been terribly, terribly labor-intensive."
Sick and wounded, the bird, was just about two months old when found this summer near a feed store in northern Mendocino County. It was driven 170 miles south to Sonoma County by Barbara Thrasher, president of Bones Pet Rescue in Covelo.
Rescuers nursed the bird to health with antibiotics, anti-parasite treatments and even a blood transfusion.
Too weak to eat, it survived at first on a liquid diet squirted down its gullet by syringe before gaining the strength to move on to deboned mouse and quail meat.
More recently the eagle has been fed road kill, including deer provided by county crews, and other carrion, such as jack rabbit.
Golden eagles are terrifying hunters capable of swooping down at speeds in excess of 150 miles an hour. But they're also scavengers happy to join turkey vultures dining on the dead.
Asti hopes that such versatile tastes will help the rescued eagle overcome hunting skills that may have dulled in captivity.
To prepare the bird for release, volunteers have been putting it through its paces, clapping hands and banging sticks to entice it to leave one perch in the flight cage for another one 100 feet away.
For their protection, the volunteers wear hard hats and high-cuffed gloves. A golden eagle's talons from front to back are wide enough to span a person's head like Michael Jordan palming a basketball.
Golden eagles are not aggressive to humans, but a tired clumsy bird could possibly choose the closest perch available, Asti said.
When it first recovered enough to fly, the bird could barely manage four lengths of the cage. Now it can easily do three dozen, Asti said.
Golden eagles, like bald eagles, 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.
The rescued eagle's survival still isn't assured. Now about five-months old, the eagle's problems appear to have stemmed from neglect by older birds, perhaps signifying it may be a "weak link" destined to struggle.
But it's impossible to know if that's the case, Asti said. It's her job to treat the eagle as best she can and improve the odds.
"We just give them the best second chance possible," she said.