A Golden Eagle whose eyes proved bigger than her stomach provided some visitors to The Nature Conservancy's Pine Butte Guest Ranch an experience they'll never forget. The group, attending a Nature Photography Workshop, was returning from a day in the field, when a cry arose to "stop the van!" Several birders in the vehicle had spotted a Golden Eagle in a nearby field that seemed to be struggling to regain flight.
Kenton Rowe, the professional photographer teaching the workshop and Scott Randall, Pine Butte Ranch Manager, are both experienced in wildlife rescue and quickly took charge. After observing the eagle for a while, they decided something was seriously wrong. The two managed to capture the bird, swaddling her in a photographer’s vest and securing it with a couple of equipment straps to ensure their precious cargo wouldn’t be injured during transport to a wildlife rehab center. Following the guidance of staff at Montana Wild (Fish, Wildlife, & Park’s wildlife rehabilitation facility) the eagle was cushioned in the passenger seat for the trip to Helena, where center coordinator, Lisa Rhodin had arranged to meet them.
The Rocky Mountain Front is a vital flyway for Golden Eagles, and conserving the broad swaths of good habitat on the Front has been a decades-long commitment for the Conservancy.
Once at the center, a sample of the eagle's blood was drawn to check for any disease, parasites, lead poisoning, or other things that may have been causing the bird to languish. It turned out to be a much simpler problem: she’d simply eaten too much! When an eagle feeds too much, too quickly, they can develop a condition known as crop stasis – or “sour crop”. The crop is a muscular pouch near the birds’ throats that allow them to temporarily store undigested food. When they really gorge on something, an eagle can become really inactive while they slowly digest the food. But, sometimes the food can begin to ferment and become infected with bacteria. That’s what had happened with this eagle. With a really bad case, the condition itself can be fatal. But, Rhodin says they also see birds that are injured while in that sluggish state...hit by cars when they don’t get off the ground high enough, or attacked by predators. In this case, medication and re-hydration was all that was needed to bring the eagle back. On a blustery Friday afternoon, just a week after her rescue, the eagle was released near the Conservancy’s Pine Butte Guest Ranch and she didn’t miss a beat in her transition from the confines of the plastic carrier into the brilliant blue skies over the Rocky Mountain Front.
The compassion, knowledge, and resources of the people involved with both Montana Wild and The Nature Conservancy were evident in this moment of truth on an isolated Montana highway. Workshop participants, some of whom had traveled from Alabama, Texas, California, and Washington, agreed that playing a part in the rescue of this noble bird was a fitting end to a week immersed in learning about Montana wildlife and appreciating the natural beauty of the area. – Jodi Schellenger reported this story
NOTE: The Conservancy stresses that we don't encourage people to pick up wildlife that they believe to be orphaned or sick. The best action to take if you spot an animal in distress is to call your local wildlife agency or rehabilitation center. They will provide the best guidance and, when necessary, send a trained specialist to handle the situation.