For the Birds Radio Program: Emily's Eagle, Part II
My friend Emily Buchanan is a wildlife rehabber working near Duluth. She took in a Bald Eagle with a badly injured wing near Wrenshall a couple of weeks ago—it was in such bad condition that she was pretty certain it should be euthanized. But she cleaned its wounds, administered fluids, and fed it, and after looking at x-rays, the Raptor Center said the injuries were to soft tissue alone, making them reparable, and so Emily got him down to them. This particular eagle was banded, and when Emily investigated, she found that he’d been banded as a nestling south of Gordon, Wisconsin, eighteen years ago, by Hawk Ridge bander David Evans. Emily’s taken care of a lot of birds over the year, but had never before known the history of her charges. It was thrilling to know exactly how old this bird was, and where he’d come from. The Raptor Center cleaned his wounds again and put him on IV antibiotics. During the first week, he was recovering beautifully. Then the ophthalmologist did an exam and found that the poor bird had a torn retina, and was blind in one eye. An 18-year-old eagle who has spent his entire life in the wild wouldn’t adjust well to spending his lifetime in captivity, and an adult eagle with other injuries as well would have trouble adapting to monocular vision, so the Raptor Center decided the most humane thing would be to euthanize him. This was ironically what Emily had thought would be best at the start. But now that she had learned that the bird had a fighting chance, it was hard to have her hopes dashed. Losing birds is the hardest thing about rehabbing wildlife. Sure there are wonderful stories about the successes. But even if you have a great track record, many of the birds that come in end up dying. I once had a nighthawk who had been hit by a car and her only major injury was a badly damaged eye. She was a splendid bird, and surprisingly affectionate, and I grew deeply attached to her. But the eye tissue grew necrotic and she kept getting infections. A few different eye doctors and vets looked at her, but none felt comfortable removing the eye, which was really her only hope. I helped her through several infections, and each time she recovered yet again, I grew hopeful that she’d survive until all the eye tissue had sloughed off, but the final infection was just too much for her. Even though it was completely expected, I was devastated. Another time I had a baby Blue Jay who was paralyzed with neurological damage from lawn chemicals that had been applied to the three yards next door and behind the yard of the woman who found him. I thought he’d die right away, but he looked at me with sparkly eyes and begged for food with those winsome baby Blue Jay expressions, so I figured the least I could do was to make sure he didn’t die hungry. But he didn’t die—he got stronger and stayed so interested in everything going on that I fashioned a sling-type baby carrier and took him everywhere with me. After a couple of months, he managed to sit up for a few minutes, and within a day or so could hop a few steps before toppling. He was so proud of himself, and I felt bad cooping him up in his plastic bucket when I wasn’t carrying him about, so I set him up in a 10-gallon aquarium padded with cloth diapers that I placed in our family room so he could see everything going on. But that night he wedged himself between the glass and the diaper, and one of his shoulders, poorly feathered from all the times he’d fallen on his side, was pressed against the glass—he died of hypothermia in his sleep. You don’t become a rehabber without a huge helping of compassion, but you can’t survive without at least some ability to detach. And that’s hard to do when an injured or orphaned bird’s eyes meet yours with a pleading look and you have no choice but to do something. I thought that with experience, I’d grow inured to losing birds, but no–the more training and experience I acquired, the more hard it became when all that training and experience were still not enough to keep a worthy and trusting bird alive. Rehabbing services last longer when housed in an institution, so as people burn out, there are more trained people to replace them. Fortunately, it’s not ONLY a sad job. Tomorrow I’ll tell another rehab story, close to my heart, that was a rousing success.