Learn the Story Behind the Rescue of a Special Bald Eagle

Good bird photography often tells a story or captures a moment. Learn about a special bald eagle that captured the imagination of our readers.

On September 11, we posted this photo of an injured Bald Eagle to our Facebook page. We felt this eagle’s pose and story sent a strong and positive message reflecting the feelings of many on that day of solemn reflection. The picture quickly went “viral”, reaching nearly half a million people in just a few hours! With such interest in this photo, we thought readers might like to know a little more about its story. We contacted the rehab facility where the eagle lives, Back to the Wild in Ohio, and the photographer Nicole Freshour, to learn more.

Veteran's Salute by Nicole Freshour

Veteran’s Salute, by Nicole Freshour

Mona Rutger, Director of Back to the Wild, answered a few questions about the eagle’s injuries, rescue, and daily life.

What can you tell us about this eagle’s rescue?

This eagle was discovered in March of 2003, laying on the ground in a marshy area in Sandusky County, Ohio. I remember the day well, as it was in March, only about 20 degrees out and very blustery. We had to walk through wet, marshy areas with tall grasses and cattails, tripping over logs and such, with nets and heavy gloves.

When we came upon her, she had more than a dozen items of food laying around her, which she could not have found herself. We believe her mate was bringing food to her. One look at her told us she had very cloudy eyes and couldn’t see well enough to hunt. I examined her and found no broken bones nor bleeding, but found her to be severely emaciated and dehydrated and very near starvation.

Once back at our center, she was kept in a trauma box for four days to watch her vitals, etc. She weighed less than 6 lbs. when she arrived (she should have weighed about 11-13 lbs.) but gained weight quickly on a liquid critical care diet. After four days, she was placed in a recovery cage where we found her standing proudly on her floor perch within two more days. We couldn’t believe her will to live. Most birds would not have come back from the condition she was in. Within a week, she accepted solid food offered to her.

Blind eagle with flag

The rescued Bald Eagle

Do you know anything about her history?

This eagle was banded on both legs. Banding research helps biologists learn about species longevity, general health, and migration patterns and movements. When we turned her band numbers into the database, we learned she was born in April of 1992 and was 11 years old at the time of her rescue. She has been in our care for another 11 years and is now 22 years old. Some Eagles have lived in captivity for over 50 years!

Did you ever discover what caused her injuries?

A trip to the veterinarian with an extensive blood work up, X-rays, an eye exam and more confirmed our Eagle was a victim of West Nile Virus, contracted the summer before. The virus had attacked her optic nerves and caused her to gradually lose a great deal of her sight, but it had taken nearly eight months for this to happen. She no longer has West Nile Virus, but sadly her sight was damaged enough that she couldn’t successfully hunt and survive in the wild. We acquired special permits from USFWS and from ODNR, the Division of Wildlife, that allowed us to use this eagle in our educational programs as an ambassador of her species and all wildlife.

Does the eagle have a name?

I choose not to name our birds as it helps children understand they do not belong to us, but belong to the wild. For the good of the animals and to follow Federal regulations, we are never permitted to use them in ways that lead the public to think of them as personal “pets” of any kind. Whenever we exhibit these beautiful creatures of the wild, we make sure it is in an educational setting.

Blind eagle in amphitheater

Eagle and companions at Back to the Wild

What is this eagle’s daily life like?

Unlike many wild birds, she has adapted amazingly well to captivity. She is still a wild eagle, but preens herself to perfection daily, keeping her feathers in immaculate condition. She does not panic or harm herself in any way, but has learned to use ramps to higher perches, where she feeds and roosts at night. Each morning, we bring her outdoors to a large enclosure where she can be in filtered sun and shade and listen to the sounds of nature. She also communicates vocally with other eagles in our care at the center and even occasionally calls one in from the wild, who stops in for the day to investigate her!

She allows us to bring her out for school and community programs, where she has made a powerful, positive impact on listeners. We know she will never know freedom again, but how fortunate we are to be able to use her tragedy to educate others and restore human respect, appreciation and concern for the future of all species and our earth’s well-being.

Tell us a little about Back To The Wild

I founded Back To The Wild 22 years ago, and began creating a rehabilitation sanctuary for injured wildlife in my own backyard. I became licensed by the Federal and State government to allow me to rescue native wildlife including bunnies, squirrels, opossums, skunks, fox, bobcats, herons, egrets, songbirds, owls, hawks, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, reptiles, amphibians and more. Today, we take in over 2,500 injured and orphaned native Ohio wild animals each year and are able to return over 60% of those back into the wild. Each year, I educate over 70,000 children and adults about our natural world. We want people to know that we can make a positive impact on the earth. Please visit our website and Facebook page to learn more.

Resthaven Wildlife Area release

Releasing healthy animals back to the wild is one of Mona’s most important missions. This eagle was released at the Resthaven Wildlife Area in Castalia, Ohio.

Photographer Nicole Freshour saw this eagle at Magee Marsh during The Biggest Week in American Birding. She told us a little about what this special piece of bird photography means to her:

At the time, I snapped this photograph because I liked the unique pose. When the 4th of July rolled around, I was looking through my eagle photos to post for Independence Day, and this one caught my attention. She is a veteran of life and she made me think she is bowing in salute. She is bowing to other veterans and civil servants who have had to go through similar things, physically and mentally, to protect their country and to those who care for our wounded veterans.

When I captured this moment, I was impressed by how alert and healthy she was, despite her handicap. She acted as similar to the other raptors around her as she could, trying to asses the different noises around her, and also stretching and flapping her wings. If it weren’t for “Back to the Wild,” she wouldn’t be alive and teaching others about her story and helping with rehab and conservation causes. It’s easy to capture people’s attention by putting a live, magnificent animal in front of them. What better way is there for her to spend the rest of her life, if she can’t be free, than to help keep others free?

Our proud veterans fight for us to keep us free and are able to pass on the gauntlet in most ways to the next generation. This national symbol was injured and then the torch was passed to her to fight for others to stay free. Life itself is worth fighting for. Every single life saved is a victory.

We at Birds & Blooms are grateful to have had the chance to learn more about this Bald Eagle and its caretaker and photographer. Our readers know and love birds, and it shows in their bird photography, stories, and actions.

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.