Injured eagle to receive artificial beak

Posted: Sunday, May 04, 2008

ST. MARIES, Idaho - The eagle is named Beauty, although she is anything but.

Beauty's beak was partially shot off several years ago, leaving her with a stump that is useless for hunting food. A team of volunteers is working to attach an artificial beak to the disfigured bird, in an effort to keep her alive.

"For Beauty it's like using only one chopstick to eat. It can't be done" said biologist Jane Fink Cantwell, who operates a raptor recovery center in this Idaho Panhandle town. "She has trouble drinking. She can't preen her feathers. That's all about to change."

Cantwell has spent the past two years assembling a team to design and build an artificial beak for Beauty, and it is due to be attached next month. With the beak, the 7-year-old bald eagle could live to the age of 50, although not in the wild.

"She could not survive in the wild without human intervention," Cantwell said.

The 15-pound female eagle was found in 2005 scrounging for food and slowly starving to death at a Dutch Harbor, Alaska, landfill. Most of her curved upper beak had been shot away, leaving her tongue and sinuses exposed, and she could not clutch or tear at food.

Beauty was taken to a bird recovery center in Anchorage, Alaska, where she was hand-fed for two years while her caretakers waited in vain for a new beak to grow.

"They had exhausted their resources and she would likely be euthanized," Cantwell said.

After getting complicated permits from the federal government, Beauty was taken in 2007 to Cantwell's Birds of Prey Northwest ranch near St. Marie's, Idaho, about 50 miles southeast of Spokane, Wash.

Shortly after, Cantwell was speaking in Boise, where Nate Calvin heard the story of Beauty. Calvin, a mechanical engineer, approached her afterward and offered to design an artificial beak.

From there, Cantwell started adding volunteers, including a dentist, veterinarian and other experts.

Molds were made of the existing beak parts and scanned into a computer, so the bionic beak could be created as accurately as possible. The nylon-composite beak is light and durable, and will be glued onto the eagle.

They did not want to screw the new beak unto the stump of the remaining beak because the stump was so close to the brain and eye that it was risky, Cantwell said. But if the glue fails, screws will be tried, she said.

Either way, the beak won't be strong enough to allow Beauty to cut and tear flesh from prey. But it will help her to drink water, and to grip and eat the food she is given.

The new beak will be yellow, and look as natural as possible. That's because Beauty has the potential to breed, and also to be a foster mother for orphaned eagles.

Fashioning the beak was very slow because it must fit snugly over jagged injuries. The gunshot tore off most of her upper beak, while leaving her lower beak.

"One side has much greater damage than the other," Cantwell said. "It's not as simple as a quick, snapped-off beak, 90 degrees and flush."

Cantwell currently feeds Beauty, often with strips of salmon dropped into her mouth with a forceps. The bird, which has a 6-foot wingspan and lives in an outdoor aviary, will continue to be fed by humans.

Cantwell is asked why she is going to such extremes to save one injured eagle, an animal no longer on the endangered species list. She said Beauty will become an educational bird, taken to schools.

"She's a miracle recovery patient from her initial injuries," she said. "She will be a huge educational tool, primarily to instruct people on why we should not shoot raptors and why they are beneficial to the environment."

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