Bald eagle sent to new home in California

Posted: Monday, July 19, 2004

An eagle from Juneau went on its longest flight Sunday, all the way to Los Angeles, but it went as cargo.

"Fritz," a female adult bald eagle that is blind in one eye, was shipped via Alaska Airlines to Los Angeles, where officials from the Ojai Raptor Center in nearby Oak View were scheduled to pick her up.

The eagle was found sitting on a low tree branch in a backyard on Fritz Cove Road on June 10.

"We were able to walk right up to her," said Kathy Benner, operations manager for the Juneau Raptor Center. "She was in pretty bad shape. She was very thin and extremely dehydrated."

The cause of the bird's condition wasn't apparent at first. But when Benner was caring for Fritz in a flight enclosure at a Mendenhall Valley home, she realized she could approach the eagle from the right side without being noticed.

A veterinarian at the Southeast Alaska Veterinary Clinic confirmed that Fritz was blind in her right eye. Without depth perception, the bird had trouble even landing on a perch, let alone hunting, Benner said.

"To be able to swoop down and catch a fish, you would miss," she said.

Federal regulations prohibit rehabilitation centers from returning birds with such injuries to the wild. The choice was to euthanize the bird or find her a home.

The Juneau Raptor Center cares for about 40 eagles a year, out of about 200 birds annually. Some of the eagles die of their injuries or diseases, some are freed and some are euthanized.

"A lot of injuries that we see are pretty bad, and the animal has to be euthanized," Benner said.

Rarely are they sent to a new home, but that is changing. About six years ago, the Juneau Raptor Center sent two eagles to a Ketchikan eagle center. Sunday's flight marks the first placement since then, Benner believes. Another eagle, one missing a wing, is set to go to a New York state raptor center in August.

The Ojai Raptor Center learned of the Juneau eagle through a bird rehabilitation center in Anchorage, Benner said. Ojai was looking to replace an Alaska bald eagle that died in February or March. It will pay for the flight.

Wild Wings in New York state heard of the Juneau Raptor Center through a listing on the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council's Web site, Benner said.

Benner believes it will be easier to place eagles now that the Juneau Raptor Center is using the Web site.

Not many bird education centers take eagles because they are large and aggressive, said Patty Perry of the Ojai Raptor Center.

Fritz will be shown at schools and other places - even a major tennis tournament - to educate the public about raptors and raise money for the center's rehabilitation work.

"I will train her to get on my fist. I will train her to be comfortable in front of groups," Perry said. "We have her aviary ready for her. I'll sit with her."

It can take months to train an eagle, she said.

"Time and miles. Time and miles. Time and miles. It's gaining their confidence. It's spending hours every day just sitting with them so they feel comfortable - and you feel comfortable," she said with a laugh.

Fritz's beak and talons won't be covered, but Perry will wear a heavy glove that reaches to her shoulder when she handles the bird.

Bald eagles aren't often seen in southern California.

"It's a big novelty and it's a great fund-raiser when we take out the 'balds,'" Perry said. "People are very enthralled and attracted to them."

• To contact the Juneau Raptor Center, write to P.O. Box 34713, Juneau AK 99802 or call 586-8393.

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