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Ancient eagle dive-bombs man’s window

Recuperating 30-year-old bird will contribute ‘drastically’ to genetic mapping research.

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Bald eagle

Update, Feb. 11: Experts at the Teton Raptor Center now think lead poisoning may have caused the eagle to fly into a window.

Though the first blood test they performed on the bird showed no trace of the toxic element, a follow-up test found lead levels "considered clinical by most raptor veterinarians and rehabilitation centers," according to a press release from the center. 

The eagle will remain in the center's care for at least another few weeks while they treat it via a process called chelation, used to remove heavy metals from the bodies of humans and animals.

Original story: Shards of glass exploded across Reed Moulton’s bedroom, startling him from the mattress where he lay scrolling on Facebook.

At first he thought a tree had crashed through the window of his home in Hoback. In a few seconds he realized it was a bird — a raven, perhaps. As he cautiously approached he surely didn’t expect to find a wounded male bald eagle, and one of the oldest ever discovered in the wild.

Stunned, he called Wyoming Game and Fish, which called the Teton Raptor Center to retrieve the bird. While he awaited the experts, Moulton — a fourth-generation local whose great-grandfather built the Moulton Barn on Mormon Row — documented the scene in a video he later posted to Facebook. 

“I have no idea what happened,” he said, training his camera on the bloodied and immobile creature in the windowsill. “Poor guy.”

He could see the eagle breathing but felt certain it wouldn’t last until the Raptor Center folks arrived. Then, suddenly, as he stood watching, “it got up and started flapping its wings,” he said. “That’s when I got out of Dodge.”

He retreated to the hall but kept filming from the safety of his cracked-open door. By now the eagle had risen and commandeered a desk. In statuesque fashion, its back was turned to Moulton, its wings outstretched and its snow-white head cocked sideways.

“This dude is alive,” Moulton said with a nervous laugh. “This is terrifying.”

Soon after, Meghan Warren and two others from the Teton Raptor Center showed up. Moulton tried to help them strategize, but he found that Warren, who has handled some 80 eagles in her time as the center’s rehabilitation director, “was much braver than I was.”

“I was hiding behind the door, and I was like, ‘OK, here’s the situation. The bird’s over here,’ trying to give her a detailed description of the layout,” he said. “And she literally just waltzes in there and grabs it.”

Warren has rescued many birds under bizarre circumstances. She has untangled owls trapped in soccer nets, fetched kestrels out of chimneys, freed hawks from barbed wire.

“But never an eagle out of a house,” she said. “This was the most unusual I can think of.”

Until then the morning of Jan. 28 had been a typical one. She’d been at work, caring for her 10 avian patients, when the call from Game and Fish came in. She and her colleagues promptly hopped in the “raptor mobile,” a mini van equipped with an eagle kennel, and headed to Moulton’s house near the confluence of the Snake River and Horse Creek.

Due to poor reception, Warren hadn’t heard clearly during the call and expected to find the bird outside the house. When Moulton told her where it had collided, she was amazed it hadn’t broken the window.

“He said, ‘Oh, it did break the window. Come on in,’” she recalled.

As soon as she saw the eagle she detected the look of a concussed bird — “a little bit of a dropped head and squinty eyes.”

But subdued it was not.

As she neared, the eagle scrambled away, flinging glass in all directions.

She snatched its legs and pulled it off the desk, then restrained its wings and head. Despite her years of experience, she admitted that eagles are “intimidating and very powerful” with their sharp hooked beaks and 2-inch talons built for snaring fish.

They gave the bird an injection of butorphanol — a painkiller and sedative — and took photos of the band around its leg so they could learn when it was tagged as a fledgling.

“While we were doing that another eagle flew overhead and it called,” she said. “We think it was the mate,” likely searching for its lost companion.

Smooth recovery so far

Back at the Raptor Center in Wilson, closer inspection revealed a long list of injuries, but none obviously life-threatening. The dive-bombing eagle had sustained cuts and scrapes to its wings and feet, some head trauma, a scratched eye and severe bruising.

Bald eagle

Teton Raptor Center Rehabilitation Director Meghan Warren holds the eagle as rehab assistant Jess Schonegg administers medicine during the bird’s recovery.

Fortunately, X-rays showed no broken bones (but did show traces of an old break in the ulna — a long, thin bone in the wing — that healed years ago). For the first few days Warren kept the bird in an oxygen machine, until moving it to an enclosure on Sunday.

The eagle’s wounds are healing well, Warren said. The recuperating eagle is eating on his own again and seems to have reclaimed his former spunk. When one of the Raptor Center employees moved him, she had to wear the “full get-up,” leather jacket and face shield included.

“He’s very feisty,” Warren said.

All signs point to recovery, but she’s seen birds improve and then something strange happens.

“The fact that it’s made such strides in just a few days makes me feel confident,” she said, “but I know from experience that things can always change.”

Even if the eagle, now dubbed BAEA 1.28.20, unexpectedly takes a turn for the worse, he will have lived a long and remarkable life. It was banded in 1989, meaning it’s an elderly 30 years old and turning 31 sometime this spring.

Though captive eagles can live as long as 40 to 50 years, those in the wild rarely make it beyond 20 to 25. The oldest recorded was 38, living in New York City. Then comes a 36-year-old from Maine. Next in line, and the oldest west of the Mississippi, was 34 — another longtime denizen of the skies over Jackson Hole.

Stronghold of the Lower 48

That eagle, BAEA 3.12.16, was found battered and flightless near the base of East Gros Ventre Butte across from the National Elk Refuge in 2016. Warren initially thought the bird had been hit by a vehicle, but its injuries later led her to suspect it had been electrocuted.

After a month of unsuccessful rehabilitation, the Raptor Center euthanized the bird. But after decades of breeding in the region, its bloodline lives on in untold descendants around the valley and beyond.

That’s what spurred Bryan Bedrosian, the center’s research director, to collect data on the genetics of eagles throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, as well as surrounding areas like Billings, Montana, and Salmon, Idaho. The samples gathered over the past four years are being analyzed at Oklahoma State University, so he doesn’t yet have results. But, he said, some trends seem self-evident.

Bald eagle populations in the Lower 48 declined throughout the mid-20th century until they were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Around the same time the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of the pesticide DDT, which had decimated the birds by weakening their eggshells.

Bald eagle

A bald eagle rests in an oxygen and incubation chamber Thursday while recovering at the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson. The bird — which is almost 31 years old according to bands on its legs — flew through the window of a Hoback home early last week.

Because DDT wasn’t widespread here, however, local populations never saw the same crash. As their cousins across the nation struggled for survival, the eagles of northwest Wyoming likely bolstered the rest of the species.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Bedrosian said, “that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was the source for all of our surrounding regions and critically important for all of our bald eagle populations.”

Most important of all were the venerable eagles that have now reached such ripe ages as BAEA 3.12.16 and BAEA 1.28.20. Just as the former was the catalyst for Bedrosian’s genetic mapping, he said, the new bird will add “drastically” to the understanding of how Jackson Hole’s eagles sustained the American symbol in its darkest moment.

“Having these older aged birds is kind of the linchpin to this whole project,” he said. “It’s those individuals that essentially created the base for this entire population to thrive.”

In just four years Warren has cared for two of the oldest bald eagles ever found in the wild. She feels lucky to have encountered these “once-in-a-lifetime birds.”

Return to the wild is the goal

But at the Teton Raptor Center the goal is always to eventually reintroduce patients back to the wild. Once the eagle is mended — regained his sight and flight — the time will come to return to his natural habitat.

It’s unclear where he was born, and where he has roamed over the decades. His band tells his age, but Warren said it’s difficult to track down more detailed information from so long ago.

Most likely BAEA 1.28.20 never wandered too far. Bald eagles in some areas migrate in winter, but most do well in Jackson Hole, capturing fish in unfrozen water and feasting on roadkill.

Before his accident BAEA 1.28.20 made his home in a tall tree beside the river just north of Hoback. The Raptor Center was aware of the nest, but because it’s unstable no one has climbed up to investigate.

If the eagle that flew overhead during the rescue is the mate, it’s likely still waiting for its partner. Bald eagles are “serial monogamists,” meaning they dedicate themselves to one mate at a time and often remain with the same one for years or decades.

Soon, Warren hopes to take the bird back — to find “a nice, safe place away from the road, away from windows, and release it, so it can reunite with his mate.”

Contact Cody Cottier at 732-5911 or town@jhnewsandguide.com.

Cody Cottier covers town and state government. He grew up with a view of the Olympic Mountains, and after graduating Washington State University he traded it for a view of the Tetons. Odds are the mountains are where you’ll find him when not on deadline.

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