With two or three grand sweeps of their wings, a pair of golden eagles flew back to freedom Friday from a ridge overlooking the Columbia River.
Their release by veterinary scientists from Washington State University came six weeks after they were found exhausted and near death at a coyote trap.
“I always feel good when I get one back out in the wild,” said Steve Judd, a wildlife biologist for the Colville tribe.
The eagles were captured Jan. 18 north of Keller in Ferry County and released Friday along the Columbia River to the south. The idea was to put them back in their native range on the Colville Indian Reservation.
Both eagles almost died from injuries suffered in the steel-jawed leg trap. The trap was being used to take coyotes legally.
When the two trappers found the eagles, one was caught in the steel jaws, and the other was standing nearby. That eagle apparently had struggled free but was too tired to fly, officials said.
The trappers wrapped the birds in their coats and took them to the community center in Keller. From there, they were turned over to scientists from WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, which has operated a raptor rehabilitation program since 1979.
Wildlife officials said the eagles are a mated, or bonded, pair.
The eagles apparently were drawn to bait used to attract coyotes. Biologists said trappers are asked to cover their baits from above so they can’t be seen by birds of prey flying overhead.
Dr. Erik Stauber, who has treated injured raptors since the mid-1950s, said both eagles were so exhausted they couldn’t eat.
They were given nourishment intravenously at first, and then force-fed later. During the early stages of treatment, the eagles were kept in a quiet, dark room to reduce stress.
The larger of the birds, a 10-pound, 5-year-old female, suffered a chipped foot bone and exposed tendons in the lower leg.
The smaller bird was a 9-pound male about 3 years old with an injury to the toe bone that holds a talon.
Both birds’ wounds were infected, and could have killed them if not treated, Stauber said. At the very least, they would have been crippled, he said.
As they healed, the eagles ate 1-1/2 chickens a day.
Stauber said the six-week recovery was slow for the strong birds. “They generally heal much faster,” he said.
Recovery took longer because they had become so weakened by being caught in the trap, he said.
WSU gets as many as a half-dozen eagles a year. In all, the college treats about 100 raptors annually from four Western states and two Canadian provinces. It is the only school in the region capable of caring for injured birds of prey.
Golden eagles are about as numerous as bald eagles in northeast Washington and North Idaho, the scientists said.
However, golden eagles are more solitary and are not seen as frequently as bald eagles. Also, they don’t congregate like bald eagles. With wingspans of about seven feet, they appear to be as large as bald eagles when seen in flight.
Over the years, Judd said trappers have cooperated in covering their baits to avoid accidentally catching birds.
The American Veterinary Medical Association opposes the use of steel-jawed leg traps, but the taking of fur animals is seen as part of the economy in remote places like the Colville reservation.
So Judd was philosophical about the eagles’ injuries.
“Things like that happen,” he said.