Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, a non-profit wildlife teaching hospital in Boyce, recently admitted its first ever golden eagle patient. Despite the hospital’s best efforts, the gravely ill raptor did not survive, said Dr. Jen Riley, BRWC hospital director since 2016.
“He died overnight at some point,” Riley said on March 15. Found March 13 by a nearby property owner, the bird’s prognosis was guarded from the start, she said.
“It was after we had closed for the day, but the staff was still here. He [the finder] drove over and asked us to come get it. We followed him back to his property which was a couple of miles away,” Riley said, noting that the bird was extremely weak and easily contained by BRWC staff.
Upon intake, BRWC conducted extensive testing, which revealed that the eagle was “very thin and covered in mites and lice. In-house blood work ruled out our primary suspicion of lead, but revealed a heavy burden of blood parasites, anemia, and an extremely high white blood cell count indicating infections/inflammation,” BRWC said in a Facebook post about the species.
Riley said that she’s awaiting further testing results to find out exactly what killed the bird, but speculated that perhaps the golden eagle suffered from some sort of fungal or bacterial lung infection. “We’re hoping to hear back in the next week or so.”
While she’s disappointed that the eagle did not survive, Riley was pleased that BRWC was able to offer it treatment. “It’s still a cool patient, even though he didn’t make it. It’s good for educational purposes to see the differences between bald and golden eagles,” she said.
“It’s not that they’re rare, they are uncommon” in this area, Riley said. “They migrate through our area so we only see them during a select time of year.”
Golden eagles have smaller heads than bald eagles with golden feathers on the nape that do not change with age, she said. They are closely related to hawks, with fierce talons and feathers all the way down to their feet. Golden eagles are found year round in the western United States. They overwinter in the southeast region, Riley said.
“This time of year, they are going back to their northwest breeding grounds,” she said.
While this was the first golden eagle BRWC has ever treated, the hospital commonly treats bald eagles. The bald eagle population “has been great for the last 20 years,” Riley said, noting that the hospital primarily treats the species for lead poisoning.
“Most come in as ‘hit by cars’ but they have high lead. When they’re on lead, it’s basically like being on alcohol or drugs. They make poor decisions. They get in the roadways and can’t get out. That's when they get hit. So it’s not that they’re getting hit by cars and have high lead, it’s that they have high lead and get hit by cars,” Riley explained.
She said that about 90 percent of admitted eagles, and other scavengers like vultures and Virginia opossums, have lead in their system from ingesting deer that have been killed by lead bullets. BRWC encourages hunters to use 100 percent copper bullets for deer hunting as they are safe for wildlife down the food chain.
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