Soaring on her own Patched-up, fatted bald eagle on the wing

Published 12:05 pm Monday, June 21, 2010

EAGLE LAKE — After spending the past 10 months with Becki Bolm, a 2-year-old female bald eagle didn’t appear to want to leave the wildlife rehabber’s side at a release ceremony Sunday evening at Tara Wildlife preserve.

With about 70 children and adults anxiously looking on, Bolm opened the door of the eagle’s carrying cage at 6:40. Five minutes later, the eagle hadn’t taken one step toward freedom; instead, she just quizzically cocked her large head from the open door to Bolm, who knelt down beside the cage to whisper some words of encouragement.

“C’mon, Sugar, you can come on out now,” Bolm said softly to the juvenile eagle, who spread her wings a bit but remained at the back of the cage.

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Bolm then decided to remove the top half of the cage. When the top came off, the eagle immediately took to the wing, putting to rest any doubts about her full rehabilitation. Starting out low to the ground for about 20 yards, the eagle gracefully lifted to about 25 feet before disappearing into a thicket of trees — only about 300 yards from where she was discovered starving and unable to fly.

“Ah, she’s fine,” said Tara Wildlife President Gilbert Rose, who found the bird in August and watched as she soared away. “She’s going to do good out there.”

After the eagle had gone, Bolm glanced around in the skies for one last possible overhead sighting. Nothing. She described the feeling of finally letting the eagle go as bittersweet; a mixture of excitement and sadness.

“I could cry,” she said. “I’m really going to miss her.”

Bolm, a state and federally licensed wildlife rehabber, has been nursing the bald eagle since Aug. 13, when Rose found the bird unable to fly and being fed by local fishermen on the sprawling wildlife preserve between the Mississippi River and Eagle Lake, about 30 miles northwest of Vicksburg. Bolm initially anticipated a 4-month rehab period, but it’s taken the bird 10 months to regrow the tail feathers necessary for flight.

“She’d been on the ground for about three weeks and was just so malnourished, very close to death when we got her,” Bolm said. “She had a lot of catching up to do, and she molted twice before she actually got her tail feathers back.”

Rose said it’s not known how the young eagle lost her tail feathers in the first place.

“It could have been an attack by another animal, or they could have just fallen out due to the malnutrition,” he speculated. “We really didn’t know if it was going to survive or not.”

The eagle spent two weeks at Louisiana State University School of Veterinarian Medicine getting X-rays, blood work and CAT scans before being transferred to a 20-by-50-foot cage at the Old Court House Museum, where Bolm’s husband, Bubba, is curator and director.

While the eagle’s recovery was slower than anticipated, in her final weeks with Bolm, the raptor was eating one live rat and 10 baby chickens a day. The bird doubled its weight to 10 pounds in the 10 months she spent in rehab.

“She’s very thankful,” Bolm said. “I can just tell. She tolerated me so well.”

Bolm never names the birds and animals she nurses back to the wild. It makes it even harder to see them go, she said.

Sunday’s release coincided with the 228th anniversary of the nation’s adoption of the American bald eagle as its national bird. On June 20, 1782, the Continental Congress also adopted the design for the Great Seal of the United States, including a bald eagle grasping 13 arrows and a 13-leaf olive branch in its talons.

The bald eagle was on the brink of extinction in the late 20th century due to a variety of reasons, but chiefly a reduction of sustainable habitat, illegal hunting and a thinning of their egg shells attributed to the pesticide DDT. Thanks to federal preservation and reintroduction efforts, however, the bald eagle enjoys stable populations across the United States today.

The species was removed from the federal endangered and threatened species lists in 2007, but remains protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. It is illegal for anyone to possess the birds, their feathers, nests or eggs without a permit. Native Americans, however, are able to keep bald eagle feathers, which are used in sacred ceremonies and customs in their cultures.

Bald eagles made a local return about 25 years ago, with nesting sites first spotted near the site of Sunday’s release at Warren County’s largest lake — named for its shape, not for the birds.

Bolm said the large cage at the Old Court House Museum, which was made and donated by Bonelli Construction Company owner Joe Bonelli, will remain on site and serve as a flight cage for other birds of prey she’s rehabbing.

Bolm has been a licensed wildlife rehabber for the past 13 years, but said her passion for caring for wounded animals began much earlier in life.

“I’ve been doing it ever since my brother got a BB gun, when I was about 8 years old,” she said.

The bald eagle released Sunday was the third Bolm has nursed back to health in her career. She annually helps about 100 birds of prey and mammals — everything from foxes and skunks to coyotes and deer — get back into their natural habitats. That number has declined sharply since 2005, she said.

“People don’t realize how many animals died from (Hurricane) Katrina,” Bolm said. “I used to rehab well into 200 animals a year, and now I’m lucky to do 100.”

It takes juvenile bald eagles anywhere from three to five years to fully develop their iconic white-capped head. They feed primarily on fish and small animals. Bolm said the eagle released Sunday will have to begin hunting for herself today, as eagles need to feed daily to generate enough energy for their large bodies. When asked if she’s worried about the bird’s chances for survival, Bolm didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Not a bit,” she said. “She’s very, very healthy — and I know if something does happen to her or she goes down again, he’ll (Rose) call me and we’ll come out and take care of her again.”