Bald eagles are one of the largest birds in North America. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Spinney

This story is the third in a series by Richard Spinney about his experiences transporting injured and sick wild birds for Avian Haven bird rehabilitation center in Freedom, Maine.

Eagles are big. They appear majestic when perched in a tree. When they are flying aloft and being chased by a crow, the size comparison indicates how large they are. But it was when an eagle was sitting on my lap that I fully realized how very big they are.

A bald eagle stands nearly 3 feet high. It has a wing span of nearly 7 feet and it weighs 9.5 pounds. Yes, eagles are big and yet a piece of lead the size of a grain of rice can kill a bald eagle.

It all began when my phone chirped like a bird. From the chirping, I knew it was Diane Winn, co-owner of Avian Haven, who was calling. “Are you available?” she asked. I was.

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A bald eagle had been struck by a tractor trailer on I-95 up north. It was alive and a game warden was enroute. I started imagining the scene: That poor eagle must be in tough shape. Broken wings, feathers missing, ugh! I was not looking forward to this trip. To say “It takes an act of Congress to euthanize a bald eagle” is not much of an exaggeration. I wondered how much this poor bird would suffer despite Avian Haven’s best efforts.

The warden and I made arrangements via phone where to meet. He got the eagle in a crate and headed south. When we met, he explained that the truck driver had seen something in the road ahead and had changed lanes. He slowed down and as he was still approaching, the eagle flew across the road in front of him and appeared to swerve away from the truck. The driver lost sight of the eagle, pulled over and stopped in the breakdown lane. The eagle was against his grille. After a few moments, the eagle got down and sort of hobbled down over the embankment to where the warden later gathered him up and put him in the crate.

In my backseat, the eagle was quiet the whole trip to Avian Haven except for a few times when it adjusted its position in the crate, probably to make itself more comfortable.

When I reached Avian Haven, Marc Payne, the facility’s other owner, met me. Everybody else was busy with other birds in the various buildings.

“Do you want to help me with the eagle?” he asked.

“Sure. What do I do?” I replied.

“Shake my hand.” He reached out. The thought “Are we making a pact? Blood brothers?” flashed through my mind. We shook hands and he had a strong grip. “This is how firmly you have to hold its legs,” he said.

I put on a pair of heavy gloves that went nearly to my elbow and sat on a high stool. He adjusted the position of the eagle and handed it to me so I was grasping the eagle’s legs. The feet were on the stool between my legs, my hands held the legs just above my thighs and the eagle’s head brushed my chin. It was facing away from me and seemingly casually looking about the room. The huge size of the orange beak made a distinct impression on me. I was astonished at the condition of the eagle. It appeared to be unscathed.

“Can you hold the legs with one hand while I draw some blood?” I adjusted my grip while he extended the eagle’s right wing. I reached my right arm out fully and grasped the eagle’s wing. The end of the wing was still beyond my reach. I paid attention to my left hand so it wouldn’t relax. I could feel the eagle’s bones in its wing with my right hand. I was surprised at how thin the bones felt. I saw the eagle’s vein in its wing – about the size of a blue vein in a person’s wrist.

A bald eagle flies high in the sky, followed by a crow, which gives an idea of the eagle’s size. Gulls fly in the background. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Spinney

Marc tested the blood for lead. The reading was low, but high enough to affect the bird’s coordination and perception. That would explain why it flew in front of the truck and waited so long before flying away in the first place.

As I sat on the stool with the eagle, another person arrived and relieved me of the eagle in order to take X-rays. I left the room during the process. Amazingly, the X-rays showed no broken bones. There was no way to determine if there were internal injuries, but it must have been sore at least.

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The eagle was kept in the main building for close observation for several days, then moved to a separate building called The Eagle House and eventually to the “Donut.” At least that is what I call it because it looks like a hollowed-out donut with the “hole” covered with a roof and divided into large cages. Each cage has different perching levels and has access to the donut which is about 50 feet in diameter. The donut also has perches around it at various levels. Birds in the donut can fly laps and build up their stamina before being released back into the wild.

I did not attend the release, however, I learned that the eagle was returned to the general area where it was initially found. The truck driver was invited to attend, but was unable due to his schedule.

Avian Haven frequently posts videos and photos of birds being released back into the wild on its Facebook page. Here’s one of their slow motion videos of a bald eagle being released. A description of The Donut and other structures at the facility can be found at their website, avianhaven.org.

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Richard Spinney lives in Brewer with his wife of 48 years. He retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after 20 years’ service, sold real estate for 23 years while also teaching adult ed algebra for 10 years, was a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist for a few years and the treasurer of The Maine Genealogical Society for 14 years. He has volunteered for Avian Haven since the summer of 2016.