By Kevin Tate
TUPELO – A cage door was opened, a little encouragement was given and a young bald eagle born here was back home Friday afternoon, soaring high above gray waters on a day wildlife officials were happy to see.
“He’s a very fortunate bird to have been cared for and returned to good health,” Jeff Rosamond, Trace State Park’s ranger, said about the 1- or 2-year-old bird released Friday. Scientists say bald eagles may live as long as 30 to 40 years in the wild.
In early June of last year, park visitors reported a large bird on the ground in one of the camping areas. Rangers discovered it was a juvenile bald eagle with an injury that couldn’t be determined.
“He was favoring his right wing,” Rosamond said. “He would fly 100 or 200 feet as you approached, though, so we decided to just watch him for a little while and see what he did.”
They checked on him the next day and he was gone, but the day after brought another report similar to the first, so they contacted state wildlife officials. Conservation officer Matt Gray and assistant park manager Josh Massey used thick leather gloves and a large dip net to capture the injured bird, which was taken to the Jackson Zoo, home to a nationally recognized raptor rehab center. There the bird was watched, fed and housed in a large flight cage, where it began to thrive.
“The eagle came in weak and not doing well,” said Dave Wetzel, deputy director of the Jackson Zoo. “We fed it well, and it seems to be doing fine.”
State wildlife officials brought the bird home Friday. After a few moments’ hesitation at the open door, a conservation officer tilted the cage slightly and the eagle swiftly returned to the wild under its own tremendous power.
Its capturers, who had estimated the bird to have stood more than two and a half feet tall with a four-foot wingspan in June, said it appeared to have grown a great deal in the months since. Bald eagles reach maturity, complete with white head feathers, at around 5 years of age, at which time they may stand three feet high with wings that span six feet.
When the zoo received the bird in June, the nature of its injuries could not be determined.
“It was just not doing well,” Wetzel said. “It might have flown into something and injured its wing.”
The zoo’s raptor rehab center frequently treats hawks, vultures and owls. This is the fourth bald eagle the center has seen in the last couple of years.
“We’ve had two eagles come in in that time that had definitely been shot, though this one was not,” Wetzel said.
“The bald eagle is our national bird,” Rosamond said. “They’re not to be bothered.”
Shooting or harassing bald or golden eagles is a federal crime, punishable by a $250,000 fine or two years in prison. State penalties also apply.
Beyond their symbolic value, as apex predators, bald eagles serve as bellwethers in the ecosystems they inhabit. Healthy apex predators indicate healthy ecosystems overall.
Although eagles aren’t generally subject to other predators once they’re past the hatchling stage, the hazards they meet in the wild are still numerous.
“Sometimes they’re singed by power lines, and on rare occasions they’re injured by flying into windows,” Wetzel said. “More commonly they’re injured in a fight with another bird, or they’re injured in a fight with their own prey, something they caught that fought back and injured them.”
Officials believe this juvenile eagle is the product of a resident pair that has inhabited a nest overlooking the south end of the park’s 600-acre lake for the past several years.
“They seem to hatch and raise one juvenile per year,” Massey said. These new eagles soon leave the area to find their own territories for nesting and feeding.
“The eagles here have become a real attraction for bird watchers and, really, anyone interested in nature,” Rosamond said. “We have people come out and bring their kids, and they’re very excited to be able to show them what a bald eagle is. There aren’t many places in Mississippi where you can go and expect to have a reasonable chance to see a bald eagle.”
Only a few decades ago, bald eagles in the Lower 48 states were estimated to number as few as 400. Today, scientists place that count at more than 10,000.