After ten weeks at UF, Ziti bears little resemblance to the broken bird the team first met. Her wing has healed, and a new, snow-white feather grows from her tail, which was ragged from dragging across the road after the accident.
Many wild animals brought to UF are so badly injured that they have to be euthanized. But X-rays revealed no additional fractures, and enough intact bone left to support a surgical repair. Ziti would get a second chance.
Under the supervision of zoological medicine clinicians Dr. Jim Wellehan and Dr. Amy Alexander, residents Dr. Kyle Donnelly and Dr. Jane Christman pinned Ziti’s wing back together, holding it in place with a metal and acrylic fixator on the outside of her wing until it could heal.
Some eagles are laid back, happily taking the free meals and cooperating with treatments, says Resee Collins, who oversees eagle rehabilitation permits, including UF’s, for the southeast region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Others are more cantankerous,” she says. “You’ve got to love them: Those are the survivors.”
Ziti belongs squarely in the latter category.
“She has a very sassy personality, which is what we want,” Christman says after the surgery. “We don’t want eagles to be snuggly.”
Sauvignon — young, thin and crawling with parasites — was too sluggish to be sassy. The team cleaned him up, fed him and ordered blood tests and x-rays to pinpoint the cause of his weakness. Despite their cachet as America’s national bird, eagles are happy to scavenge, points out zoological medicine service chief Dr. Darryl Heard. Sometimes their issues stem from eating lead-contaminated carcasses left by hunters. Others get sick from snacking at landfills. One eagle brought in from a landfill slept for days, which Heard says could have been caused by eating a euthanized animal that wasn’t disposed of properly. (See sidebar below for tips on what you can do to protect eagles from pollutants and other hazards.)
While some eagles just need a safe place to sleep it off, Ziti required more intervention. After her first surgery, the team noticed that her scab wasn’t healing as expected. That led them to suspect infection, so they went back in and removed some damaged tissue. This time, she healed up beautifully. The fixator came off and the glorious new tailfeather grew in. Physical therapists helped her regain her range of motion and the integrative medicine team used cold laser therapy to speed her healing.
Ziti was on the mend.
Sauvignon’s tests are back, but they haven’t shed any light on what brought him here. His bloodwork and x-rays are unremarkable.
A DNA test, however, has confirmed that he’s male, which the staff had guessed based on his size. Females are larger, which is why they assume Ziti, a large adult, is a she.
Even without answers, Sauvignon has gained weight and strength during his stay. He’s now looking like a gawky teenager, with black feathers sticking out from his head like spiked hair. (Bald eagles don’t get their signature white head for several years.) His eyes are still baby-eagle brown — they’ll change to yellow as he matures. The silliest part is the combination of his dark gray beak and yellow lips, which give him a clown smile he’ll sport until his beak changes to adult yellow in a few years.
Ziti, meanwhile, is looking every bit the resplendent national emblem. By early April, both eagles are ready to graduate to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Florida, where they’ll get flight training to rebuild their muscles in preparation for their return to the wild.
Sauvignon leaves first, on April 8. Ziti follows the next weekend. Christman, Ziti’s doctor, drives her to Audubon herself. The stakes are high: To make it in the wild, eagles have to fly well enough to hunt. If they can’t be re-released, their options are limited. As Heard explains, “If a zoo wants an eagle, chances are they already have one.”
At Audubon, Ziti gets a full exam and Christman gets a tour, checking out the roomy flight cages that will allow Ziti to get her strength back.
“I'm excited for her. This is the best possible place to succeed,” she says.
Twelve days later, tragedy struck. Ziti refractured her wing and had to be euthanized.
After Ziti’s death, Christman agonized over whether she should have done anything differently. Should she have kept her at UF longer, or did she keep her too long? Could the repair have been more solid?
“When something like this happens, it can be so discouraging. It makes you think, why do we do what we do? But things can't always be as happy and fuzzy as we want them to be. I've thought about it, and there isn't anything I would have done differently. We're all glad we gave her that opportunity. There isn't anything we could have done to change her outcome.”
Collins, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife coordinator, points out that while release into the wild is the ultimate goal, it’s not the only one. Necropsies of eagles that don’t survive add to our understanding of environmental threats the birds and other species face, such as poisoning from lead sinkers, which can be easily avoided if anglers opt for weights made of non-toxic materials. Eagles that die also get another life of sorts through the National Eagle Repository, which provides feathers to Native Americans and Alaskan Natives for religious and cultural ceremonies.
Sauvignon, however, has a different fate. After six weeks of rehab, he’s still geeky as hell, but he’s ready. On a Friday in May, he’s fitted with a tiny leather hood to keep him calm on his way to his new home, Princess Place Preserve in Flagler County. A nesting pair of eagles there has an eaglet almost exactly his age, and while it isn’t necessary to his survival, his rehabbers hope the pair might adopt him.
The hood comes off. He squints in the sun for a moment, then he flies.
10 ways to protect eagles (and other wildlife)
Tips from Dr. Darryl Heard, associate professor of zoological medicine at UF
- Don't use lead fishing lures or sinkers, which can poison wildlife, especially eagles. Also, properly dispose of fishing line so animals don’t get tangled in or swallow it.
- Go light on pesticides in your yard.
- Supervise kids with air rifles. They might take pot shots at birds without thinking through the consequences.
- Dispose of hazardous materials properly. You don’t see your trash as a snack, but a hungry eagle might.
- Regularly clean bird feeders so they don’t spread disease.
- Keep pets vaccinated. Diseases like distemper can spread to wildlife.
- Don't let dogs off-leash in areas with gopher tortoises or other vulnerable wildlife.
- Keep cats indoors. One study showed outdoor cats killing an average of two animals a week.
- If you hunt, bury gut piles. Don't leave them where animals can scavenge them and accidentally ingest lead shot.
- Don't pick up "orphaned" wildlife. Unattended baby animals are likely not abandoned, and interfering might create an orphan, not rescue one. “If they are not in danger from cats, dogs or vehicles, leave them alone,” Heard says.
Eagles and us
Environmental topics can be politically divisive, but everybody loves eagles.
That’s what environmental historian and University of Florida professor Jack Davis realized when he began researching bald eagles for the follow-up to his 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.”
The eagle is more than an emblem: It’s the most popular animal for sports mascots and the star of a hundred live-streaming webcams around the country.
It wasn’t always that way, Davis says.
“Bald eagles have been our national symbol since 1782, but they had no protection. Into the 20th century, Americans were blowing the damn bird away left and right. Newspapers would cover the shootings with the wingspan measurement, as if they were reporting someone catching a largemouth bass. It was crazy.”
Eagles’ fate began to change with federal protection in 1940, plus the banning of the insecticide DDT and the restoration of their nesting and feeding areas.
The book, slated to hit shelves in 2021, will explore the connection between our national identity and the natural endowments that distinguished our fledgling nation and continue to shape our national character. The effort leading to the recovery of bald eagles in the United States “reveals to us values that perhaps we didn't know we had,” Davis says.
“It’s not just a bunch of birders and tree huggers watching these wildlife cams. It's all of us.”