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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Idaho

Hurt eagle beats odds

Idaho Conservation Officer Jerry Hugo releases the rehabilitated eagle near the St. Joe River. 
 (Photo courtesy Idaho Department of Fish and Game / The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho Conservation Officer Jerry Hugo releases the rehabilitated eagle near the St. Joe River. (Photo courtesy Idaho Department of Fish and Game / The Spokesman-Review)

A young bald eagle hit by a logging truck has been returned to wilds of Idaho after a month’s convalescence in a quiet Spokane Valley cage.

The immature female was sitting in the middle of the road along the St. Joe River on Sept. 20 when a logging truck came around the bend and didn’t have time to stop. The truck was hauling a full load of logs and its driver, Creig Hixson, knew better than to try and swerve.

Just in the nick of time, the eagle took flight and avoided a direct hit by the grille and windshield, but not the truck’s log loading boom.

“I tried to stop, but there was nothing I could do,” said Hixson, of St. Maries. “He just kind of hovered there for a while – looked like a helicopter. Its wingspan is wider than the width of my Peterbilt.”

The eagle was struck by the boom of the truck and landed on the metal roof of the cab. “I could hear him up there just scratching away,” Hixson said.

The bird jumped off the truck and ran up a brushy road. It could move, but not fly. Hixson checked on the eagle throughout the day and then called the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He returned home that night worried about the bird and regretted not having a camera.

“I’ve been in a logging truck seat for 25 years and I’ve seen lots of neat stuff – cougars, bears, twin elk calves. This was once-in-a-lifetime,” Hixson said. “I’m going to get a camera and it’s going to be in the truck all the time.”

Conservation Officer Jerry Hugo took the injured bird to the Ponti Veterinary Hospital in Otis Orchards. Veterinarian Jerry Ponti and veterinary technician Marilyn Omler have helped rehabilitate dozens of injured hawks, owls and eagles.

Raptors with broken wings often face steep odds at returning to the wild, Omler said. Even when broken wings are pinned, the bones are frequently too fragile to withstand high-speed dives needed for securing food. The birds are then euthanized or spend their remaining days living in confinement at educational facilities.

The injured eagle, however, was lucky. Its wing had only a slight fracture and didn’t require a pin, Omler said. “We gave it quiet cage rest for four weeks.”

While recovering, the eagle had a steady diet of chicken and fish. “Every once in a while she got live prey: guinea pigs, rabbits and occasionally a rat,” Omler said.

Pressure was on to return the eagle to the wild before winter, when the birds migrate and their diet switches from rodents to fish.

Caring for a wounded eagle is not like working with an injured parrot or a sick dog. Raptors are nature’s perfect killing machines and their instinct is not dampened by a cage. Not only can eagle talons crush bone, but their beaks can slice off an ear or slash a face in the blink of an eye. “We’re very careful,” Omler said. “You always keep a cloth between you and the beak.”

The clinic receives no pay for its work. Currently, an undernourished saw-whet owl and a red-tailed hawk missing its primary flight feathers are on the mend at the facility, which has a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to house raptors.

“It’s truly voluntary on the doctor’s part,” Omler said. “But it’s really a thrill when we get (raptors) in here and even more thrilling when we have them released.”

In recent days, the eagle was allowed to exercise in the hospital’s large barn. Typically, if a raptor on the mend is able to fly 50 feet, it’s ready to be returned to the wild, Omler said.

“This bird was flying the length of our barn,” she said.

Final X-rays were taken Tuesday and the bird was deemed fit for flight. Hugo drove the eagle back to the St. Joe River. Along the way, he stopped and picked up some fresh roadkill food for the bird – a fawn victim of a recent motor vehicle collision. Before releasing the eagle, Hugo dragged the fawn into the woods and sliced it open to pique the bird’s interest.

“The bird nearly carried me off,” Hugo said, in a statement issued by the Fish and Game Department. “I opened the crate and took it out. One talon was hooked to my glove and for a moment I thought I was headed to the top of the tree with the bird.”

The eagle flew to a nearby perch, Hugo said, looked around and locked its eyes on the fawn below.

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