In early January 2018, Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a bald eagle that had been burned by a power pole discharge. While it isn’t a common injury for us to treat, an electrical shock is not unheard of. When we do have an incident like this, Florida Power & Light is extremely responsive. They investigate and repair the pole (and numerous poles on either side of it) to make sure the poles are safe going forward, for both the wildlife and workers who may encounter it.
The word “electrocution” was first used in the late 1880’s in the United States to describe a new form of electrical execution via the electric chair, which was invented by a dentist, who apparently was no longer content to just torture patients in his dental chair. (This will come as no surprise to anyone who was a patient of Dr. Goldy, the pediatric dentist I was sentenced to as a child.)
Originally it referred only to death by that method, but quickly caught on as a term to describe accidental death by shock since no word for that existed. Electrocution is now also used to describe serious but non-fatal injuries due to electric shock, the results of which may vary depending on the strength of current and length of exposure.
When an electrical current passes through the body, it can cause immediate death by stopping the heart or respiration. It can also cause more insidious damage when the current flows in one part of the body and out another. Quite often those relatively minor-looking injuries will become life-threatening over the course of the next few days. The tissues—nerves, blood vessels, muscles, and organs—between the entrance and exit wounds can become necrotic, leading to the eventual death of the victim.
Luckily for the eagle, we believe our patient had been burned rather than shocked. (If you can consider being burned all over your body a stroke of luck.) The bird had just landed atop the power pole with a fish he caught in a nearby canal. According to one witness, a large spark arced from the line next to the eagle into the ground a few feet away. Our patient was burned by the heat emanating from that arc. He was blown or jumped into the canal, which seems like adding insult to injury, but may have helped save his life. The intense heat on his feathers and skin was immediately quenched by the cool water.
When he got to PRWC, the eagle’s prognosis was guarded. He could have inhaled the heat or water, causing damage to his lung tissue or pneumonia. He could have broken bones in his wings or legs when he fell. The delicate tissue of his eyes could have been destroyed. A serious incident like this can have long-lasting repercussions.
We dubbed the eagle Icarus, after the character in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and fell into the sea. Whether it was hubris or hunger that initiated the event, our Icarus didn’t drown, and he is now recovering nicely from his injuries. He suffered burns on most of the feathers all over his body, head, and wings. The skin on his face and feet were singed. But the sensitive tissues of his eyes and respiratory systems seem to have been spared. He has no broken bones and with a recent development of his predilection to perch on top of a doorway, we have reason to believe he may be able to fly again someday.
The skin on his feet and face is healing well and his appetite is good. He will be placed in our 100-foot flight cage soon while the rest of his feathers molt. It can take up to three years for an eagle to molt every feather on his body, and Icarus had almost all his feathers affected. With the damage that was done to his skin, we are cautiously optimistic that his body will go into overdrive and replace the seared feathers more quickly.
In the meantime, we will continue to care for this decrepit soul until he is once again the majestic bird he once was—and will be again, thanks to the community’s support.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Icarus getting feisty.
Icarus perching atop the door.
Icarus was a figure in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun, melted his wings, and then fell into the water. Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a bald eagle this week who was apparently acting out this tragedy. It would seem I am not the only one who has been struck by the thespian bug.
Earlier this week, a couple in a PGI neighborhood heard a loud bang. Assuming it was their pool pump, they ran outside to see what had happened. (I wonder what their rascally pool pump has been up to lately for them to have assumed the worst of it.) When they got outside, they saw an eagle swimming in the canal behind their house. They immediately called Peace River Wildlife Center, while their neighbors called the Punta Gorda Police Department.
Luckily for me, I was on desk duty that day. (If you cannot read the sarcasm between those lines, you must be a new reader. And, so, welcome.) PRWC’s office staff member had to leave a few minutes early, so I had agreed to answer the phones for an hour. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, how about an eagle catching on fire?
I gathered up some rescue equipment and flew out the door as quickly as I could. By the time I got there, PGPD Officers Tony Pribble and Joe Farley were already on scene. With the assistance of passing boater Dave Dyke, we were able to corral the bird against the seawall and scoop him out of the canal. We bundled him into a waiting kennel and got him into treatment at PRWC.
FPL and PRWC representatives examined the area the next day and found the pole where the incident likely occurred to document it. The bird appears to have been burned while trying to eat a fish atop a power pole overlooking the canal. There was a large burned area of grass at the base of the pole, where the flaming eagle may have landed after causing a spark when he dropped his wet fish. He then proceeded to flounder into the canal, which likely helped keep him from getting more severe burns.
All of his feathers were singed—head, body, tail, and both wings. There was superficial damage to the skin on his wings and some sloughing of the skin on one of his feet. Otherwise, he appeared to be relatively healthy. There was no singing in the mucous membranes of his nares or throat, so his respiratory system seemed to have been unaffected by the heat and flames. His lungs sounded clear, so it would seem he did not take in any water during his brief swim—thanks to the quick actions of the neighbors who reported him and Officer Pribble who scooped him out of the canal.
Our Icarus unfortunately did have a brood patch on his belly. This is an area of skin on the lower abdomen where the bird has plucked his feathers out in order to pass body heat to his eggs or hatchling chicks. Bald eagle nesting season in southwest Florida is from October to February, so this adult male and his mate could be preparing their nest, laying and sitting on eggs, or even rearing hatchlings already. “Papa” will be out of commission for quite some time while his feathers molt to new, functional ones. Hopefully mom will be able to fend for herself and the new family for a while.
Since birds do not molt all their feathers at the same time, Icarus could be in rehab for an extended period of time. It can take up to three years for a bald eagle to replace every feather on his body. Time will tell if Icarus will be able to return to the wild, but at this time we are cautiously optimistic. While he cannot be on display to the public during his rehab, we will provide periodic updates at the Center, on our web site, and on our Facebook page.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Icarus’ right wing
Icarus’ left wing
If Benjamin Franklin had gotten his way, the national emblem of the United States might have been the wild turkey. Franklin thought the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character” who “does not get his living honestly.” He based that opinion on the fact that eagles will often steal fish from ospreys and other birds rather than catch their own.
Last week, we followed the nesting bald eagles from site selection to nest building to hatching and brooding the eggs and chicks. Regardless of the morality of the method by which the parents acquire meals, the hatchlings grow quickly. By three months, they are ready to leave the relative safety of the nest.
Most fledglings leave the nest at around 11 weeks of age. Sometimes initial attempts at flight are unsuccessful, and the youngsters may end up on the ground. If uninjured, the juveniles can be left on the ground and the parents will continue to provide food to them until they are able to fly. Attempts to replace the grounded pre-fledgling back into the nest can frighten the sibling, resulting with both youngsters on the ground. Once fledged, the young will often fly back to the nest for supplemental feeding by the parents for an additional six weeks or more until their foraging skills are more adept.
Although the babies grow quickly, bald eagles are large birds and take a long time to reach maturity. The characteristic plumage—white head and tail, with dark feathers on the rest of the body—does not show up until the bird is more than five years old. During the first four years of their lives, the immature eagles participate in an avian Rumspringa, exploring vast territories and traveling up to hundreds of miles a day. During the fifth year they will select a breeding territory and settle down. Florida adult resident bald eagles usually do not migrate, but spend their lives within a ten mile radius of their nesting site(s).
Some notable differences in appearance during the first five years of their lives helps to determine a sub-adult eagle’s age:
Age (yrs) Head Body/Wings Tail Bill Eyes_________
1 dark brown dark brown dark brown dark grey dark brown
2 brown mottled with white mottled little yellow light brown
3 whitish chin mottled mottled grey on paler with
and neck tip only eye stripe
4 mostly white mostly dark more white dull yellow pale yellow
5 white dark brown white bright yellow pale yellow, almost white
Ideally these birds should be left alone, but our fascination with them unwittingly results in human-bird encounters that often end up causing harm to the bird. Hordes of people flock around a nesting site to watch and photograph each stage of the birds’ progress. Every attempt should be made to observe from an undetected distance, make no loud noises, and use no flash photography or artificial light.
Florida is second only to Alaska in the number of resident bald eagles within the state. Eagles are opportunistic foragers and will scavenge carrion whenever available. One of the best places to see them is around a landfill, especially at dawn or dusk.
Bald eagles live quite a long time. A bird from New York was 38 at the time of its death in 2015. PRWC’s resident bald eagles, Arthur and Bilfred, are not quite that old, but they are getting up there in the years. You can see them every day from 11a.m. to 4p.m., even on holidays like Thanksgiving.
I wonder if Ben Franklin had prevailed if we would be carving the holiday eagle at dinner time today? Best not to contemplate that. Enjoy the yams, squash, potatoes, and green bean casserole—I know I will!
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Juvenile and adult bald eagles in rehab.
The bald eagle has been the national symbol of the United States since 1782. It is North America’s second largest bird of prey—only the California condor is larger. With bald eagle breeding season well under way here in Southwest Florida, let’s take a closer look at these regal birds.
Mated pairs may begin selecting sites and nest building or reconstruction as early as late September. A bald eagle nest can be quite massive. Often returning to the same nest each year, the birds may add to it annually until the weight of the nest is more than the tree can support and the nest—or sometimes the entire tree—falls. Typical nests average 5 feet in diameter and 3 feet tall. The largest nest on record, in St. Petersburg, Florida was 9.5 feet in diameter and over 20 feet tall.
Constructed near, but not at, the top of the tallest tree in the vicinity, the nest affords the birds shade from the sun and a good vantage point to monitor activity in the area. Nest shape depends on the tree in which it is located and can be flat, conical, or cylindrical. The eagles often have an alternative nest sight within their territory of approximately one square mile. They may switch sites if they have an unsuccessful season due to too much noise and commotion or too many predators.
While most bald eagles return to the same nest site and mate each year, if either is no longer available, the survivor will find a new mate and, if necessary, build a new nest or steal one from another large bird (typically, a great horned owl.) In Florida’s subtropical climate, the eagle’s breeding season can range from October to April, but most clutches are laid during December and January.
The average clutch size is two eggs and incubation generally takes about 35 days. Incubation begins as soon as the first egg is laid, so the eggs may hatch one or two days apart. This is in contrast to other bird species that lay an egg a day over a period of time and do not begin incubation until the last one is laid, ensuring that most of the offspring hatch at approximately the same time. Due to the rapid growth of the eaglets, the difference in size during the first few weeks can be a determining factor in the welfare of the chicks.
The parents will usually feed the oldest chick at every feeding. If there is enough food after that baby is full, then they will feed the second. So not only has the first-born started out larger, but has the advantage of better nutrition. In this manner, the birds help to ensure they can successfully raise at least one chick even in times when food is scarce.
During the first two weeks, the male provides most of the food, while the female tends to the young. At three to four weeks, the female brings as much food as the male, with the young pecking at the food, but relying on parents to tear the meat into edible portions. By six weeks, the eaglets are able to self-feed when supplied fish and rodents by the parents.
As the hatchings grow, the competition for food and attention from the parents can get brutal. The smaller sibling can be bumped from the nest by a larger more aggressive nestling. While many people may find this practice unpleasant, it is vital for the natural selection process to ensure the long-term health of the species. The strong survive.
Next week: Bald eagles, part deux.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Bald eagle nest, photo courtesy of USFWS
The call comes in at 6 p.m. Someone had seen an eagle on the ground at 10 that morning. He had called Florida Fish and Wildlife, but they did not have an officer in the area. Many calls later, he had finally gotten through to Peace River Wildlife Center, and they called me. Saturday evening. It will be dark soon. The caller is willing to wait for me. It’s about a half mile hike back into the scrub off the main trail. Really? I don’t think so. Maybe I’ve read too many James Patterson novels, but that sounds like a recipe for disaster.
First thing Sunday morning, I gather my gear and head for the “carefully detailed” location where the injured bird was last reported. “Back the trail (as if there is only one), where it goes around the corner of where the dried up retention pond used to be…” I get there and the first thing I see is three trails. I pick the one labeled “A”—seems an obvious choice to me. Of course it is the wrong choice. Of course I don’t figure that out until I hike for a good 20 minutes.
So, after another 20 minutes I’m back to where I started. Okay, plan B—trail B. I call the number for the man who found the eagle. No answer. I’m not really surprised. He probably doesn’t have good cell reception in the dungeon where he spends the wee hours of a Sunday morning honing the blades on his machetes and pick axes. The surgical instruments, I imagine, he leaves dull so that each cut is all the more painful. (Darn you, Patterson!)
Still dragging myself and my rescue equipment down the narrow and overgrown path, I am getting further and further away from civilization. I am looking for the plastic bag that has supposedly been tied to a tree near where the eagle was discovered. I see neither an eagle nor a bag. And we’re walking, and we’re walking…
Finally! A bag tied to a tree. Maybe there really is an eagle in distress here and not just an elaborate set up to procure an unsuspecting human sacrifice. I set down my equipment and start looking in earnest for the bird. Making ever widening circles around the immediate area, I feel like I have scrutinized every square inch of the place for miles around. Okay, maybe it was just a few feet, but I’m tired by now. And I’ve gotten myself so caught up in the villain’s scheme to abduct me that every time a branch cracks I jump three feet in the air, so I’m counting that vertical distance in my miles logged.
Not surprisingly, I do not find an injured eagle. I don’t find a feather, a footprint, or any other evidence that any living creature has ever set foot here before me. Well, there is the plastic bag. And maybe some raccoon scat, feral pig rootings, and a million different birds. Actually, all kinds of animals live out here. It really is quite beautiful. I suppose if this is the last place I see before the burlap sack gets thrown over my head, I’ll have that lovely image to sustain me through the first few days of torture.
I give up and keep walking. The retention pond is relatively empty at this time of year, just a mucky muddy bottom at the very middle of it. Its footprint is still quite large and the path encircles it, so I continue my hike, ever watchful for an injured eagle in case he has moved from his original spot. I make it back to my car with mixed emotions. I am disappointed to have wasted so much time and yet I am happy to still be alive. Maybe Kreeper McKreppison only comes out at night after all. But my overriding thought is how much I need a doughnut.
As soon as I get to the doughnut shop, my cell phone rings. It is a lady telling me that the eagle is still there and that she and her husband will be happy to guide me to it. Hmph. So my doughnut(s) and I are off again. This time when I arrive (10 minutes later, and the doughnuts are long gone) a perfectly normal-looking couple are waiting for me in the parking lot. They even have a perfectly normal-looking dog with them. Evil villains never have a nice dog with them.
We walk to where they had seen the eagle just minutes ago, but now we can’t find the bird. Did anyone see that coming?! So they let Boots off her leash and tell her to find the eagle. Maybe I was premature in thinking these people were perfectly normal. Do they really think they can hold intelligible conversations with their dog? Actually what I was wrong about was that the dog, Boots, is anything but normal.
Boots crashes through the underbrush for a few minutes, stops, lets out a single bark, and then returns to us. She then turns and leads us back to where the young eagle is hiding under a palmetto. A short chase ensues, but we are able to catch the eagle and take him back to PRWC.
The bald eagle is a first-year juvenile. She has probably flown into something while learning how to hunt. There is a slight swelling near her right shoulder, but x-rays show no broken bones or luxations. We are hopeful that after a little cage rest, this youngster will be able to go back home and take to the skies with a little more agility. Had we not found her, she most certainly would have ended up as dinner for some predator.
So I guess it turns into more of a Dean Koontz dog-saves-the-day kind of tale than a Patterson man-is-just-plain-evil exploit. Except that there were no government assassins, time traveling Nazis, or mad scientists. As far as I know. Those people did say they were from Vermont. Who knows what their real origin might have been. People don’t actually live in Vermont, do they? But I digress.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM