Bald eagle released back into the wild after treatment at UF and Audubon Center for Birds of Prey

By Sarah Carey

A bald eagle rescued in Lake City after a mid-air encounter with another bird left it unable to fly was released back into the wild Jan. 10 after successful treatment at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and further treatment and rehabilitation at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland.

Representatives of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and numerous Lake City area residents were present to cheer the bird’s release, which took place at Alligator Lake Park, near its original location. Many from the local community were intrigued by the eagle’s story and had followed the bird’s progress since its dramatic rescue on Nov. 11 — Veterans Day — was captured on video and and in photos later posted to the FWC’s social media sites, where the story went viral.

FWC's Chris Wynn with eagle

Chris Winn, the Northeast Regional Director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, releases the eagle near the spot of its original rescue on Jan. 10.

“We’re so pleased that this eagle responded to therapy during its stay at UF, and that the additional rehabilitation it received at the Audubon Center helped bring it back to health,” said Amy Alexander, D.V.M., a clinical associate professor and zoological medicine specialist at UF who was part of the team that treated the eagle. “It’s wonderful to see it healthy and returning to the wild.”

The eagle spent two months recovering from a fractured right shoulder, an injury likely sustained during its in-flight altercation — a possible territory fight — as well as lead toxicity, which is common in the species and usually happens as a result of scavenging on carrion, UF veterinarians said. High levels of lead can cause weakness, anemia and neurological problems, all of which can contribute to a bird’s inability to fly.

The eagle being prepared for release.
At right, Shawnlei Breeding, Audubon EagleWatch program manager with Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, prepares the eagle for release at Alligator Lake Park. Holding the eagle is Chris Wynn, North Central regional director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who was the bird’s original rescuer. At center, looking on, is John Wooten, who witnessed the in-flight altercation the eagle was involved in with another bird before it went down near Alligator Lake in Lake City on Veteran’s Day eve.

After continued treatment for lead toxicity and after recovering from a fractured right coracoid, or shoulder bone, patient No. 2022-0667 was moved to the Center for Birds of Prey’s 100-foot “Magic of Flight” barn on Dec. 16 for flight conditioning. After rehabilitation and recovery, the eagle gained enough strength to be ready for release back into the wild.

“We are always excited and proud to see an eagle released back into the wild,” said Katie Warner, the center’s director. “Working together with UF and the local community gives raptors the best chance of recovery and release.”

The Lake City community’s fascination with the eagle started Nov. 10, when John Wheeler, a resident who lives near the lake, spotted two eagles fighting in mid-air. Wheeler reported the incident to the FWC, which provides guidance in wildlife emergencies.

“I was in my yard washing my camper when I heard a screaming sound descending from the sky,” Wheeler said. “Looking up, I saw two large birds entangled with each other, rapidly spiraling downward over my head.”

The birds hit the ground hard in a law office parking lot across the street, he said, adding that he rushed over to discover two eagles engaged in a fierce tussle on the ground.

“Yelling at them to ‘break it up,’ like I would for two dogs fighting, one eagle looked up and flew off, while the remaining eagle appeared stunned and was unable to move,” Wheeler said.

He called his neighbor and fellow Rotary Club member, Chris Wynn, who happens to be the FWC’s North Central regional director, for help. Wynn then contacted one of his FWC officers to respond.

Chris Wynn and John Wooten with the eagle prior to release.
Chris Wynn, North Central regional director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, prepares to release the eagle while John Wooten looks on.

After Officer Joe Johnston arrived, he and Wheeler discussed what to do and agreed that capturing the eagle with a blanket could cause additional trauma. They decided to corral the bird into the backyard bushes to see if it would fly away overnight. When it didn’t, Wynn and FWC biologist Anni Mitchell captured the bird and took it to UF’s Small Animal Hospital.

A subsequent FWC Facebook post about the rescue went viral, and since then Wheeler says he’s fielded numerous requests from community members concerned about the eagle’s well-being.

“Our community loves our wildlife and works hard to protect wild spaces,” he said.

During the eagle’s stay at UF, zoo medicine specialists found no wounds, but discovered the lead toxicity during a routine screening. Chelation therapy was used to remove toxins from its bloodstream and provided supportive care. Throughout its stay at the hospital, the bird remained bright and feisty and had a healthy appetite, Alexander said, adding that once it was no longer showing clinical signs of illness, the eagle was transferred to the Audubon Center.

The eagle flies off after a successful release at Alligator Lake Park.
The eagle flies off after being successfully released at Alligator Lake Park on Jan. 10.

The zoological medicine team at UF sees hundreds of birds of prey each year, including approximately a dozen eagles, and provides medical care as needed. Once these birds have received the treatment necessary to resolve any health issues, they are transferred to rehabilitation organizations for further assessment and for flight training to build back strength before being released back into the wild. Eagles are always sent to the Audubon Center.

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