On the 4th of July, four DNREC Fish and Wildlife Enforcement agents were on a routine afternoon marine patrol on the Delaware River near Pea Patch Island when Sr. Cpl. Richard Blaasch spotted something sizable on the water. “It didn’t look like a crab pot or tree limbs or any of the typical things we see, so we turned to check it out,” Cpl. Blaasch said.
The object turned out to be a large bird, floating belly up with its open wings spread wide on the surface. “We didn’t know what kind of bird it was at that point. We thought maybe it was an osprey,” Cpl. Blaasch said.
Their find would turn out to be an appropriate one for Independence Day: a young American bald eagle.
Aboard the enforcement patrol boat, Agent Brandon Keese pulled the bird from the water, carefully pinning her wings and holding the waterlogged bird until they could get her to land for transport with two other agents to Tri-State Bird Rescue in Newark.
Cpl. Brian Pollock and Sr. Cpl. Mari Grehofsky met the patrol boat at the Delaware City dock and transferred the bird to a container, where it rode in Cpl. Pollock’s lap to the Newark avian rehabilitation facility. “She was sitting up and once in a while she’d make a squeal, but it was obvious she was very stressed,” Cpl. Pollock said.
At Tri-State, Dr. Sallie Welte, Tri-State clinic director, and Senior Clinic Director Aimee Federer initially examined and stabilized the bird, estimated to be 14 to 18 weeks old and only about two to six weeks out of the nest when she tumbled into the river, likely while trying to catch a fish. Dr. Welte found her feet had been injured, possibly even back in the nest where she was hatched. On one foot, she was missing part of a toe, and on the other was a broken and infected toe. She was also very thin and dehydrated.
“Her parents would have taught her to catch prey, but she would have been having difficulty because of her feet,” said Staff Veterinarian Dr. Erica Miller, who treated her the following day. Eagles and other raptors need all their toes and talons to capture their food, she added, and not being able to hunt effectively would explain her underweight condition.
The good news: “Her prognosis is good. She is building up her strength and eating well, and she can stand and perch normally,” Dr. Miller said. However, because her foot problems will hamper her hunting, she is unlikely to survive if released into the wild, so Tri-State is in the process of arranging for long-term placement in an educational facility.
“Our goal is always to return them to the wild, but in this case, we can’t,” Dr. Miller said. The young eagle is likely to adapt well to living away from the wild due to her age and inexperience, she added, and could offer a rare close-up view of one of our most beloved and iconic birds. “She will be an ambassador,” Dr. Miller said.