BROOKS, W.Va. -- A year-old golden eagle caught in a Monroe County coyote trap last November has been nursed back to health and will spend the next few years helping scientists learn more about its species' migration patterns.
"Luckily, only one of his toes was caught in the trap," said Wendy Perrone, director of the Three Rivers Avian Center, who traveled to a field near Salt Sulphur Springs on Nov. 14 to free the bird of prey. Once back at TRAC's Summers County raptor rehabilitation facility, the young male eagle's toe was splinted, he was put on a diet of rats, and he was treated for an infestation of lice picked up during his travels.
"He eventually got tired of rats, so we started feeding him road-kill deer," Perrone said. "He's gained over a pound on the 7 pounds, 3 ounces he weighed when he first came here."
Before long, the eagle, nicknamed Golden Boy, was introduced to physical therapy in TRAC's recently completed flight barn, equipped with a circular, 12-foot-wide flight lane that circles the barn's interior, allowing extended flight to take place.
"He's been the model patient," said Ron Perrone, TRAC's co-director. "He's really laid back and non-aggressive when we have to handle him. The trap broke his toe, but he developed what's called a false joint that allows him to use his talons well enough to hunt."
"He can fly well, he can hang upside down from the ceiling rafters, and he is able to get his own prey," said Wendy Perrone. "There's really no point in keeping him here any longer."
But before releasing Golden Boy in time to begin his presumed migration to points north, the eagle was visited by Dr. Tricia Miller, a wildlife biologist with WVU's Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. Miller is part of a WVU golden eagle research team studying the range, population and migration patterns of eastern golden eagles, as well as the differences between eastern golden eagles and their much more abundant western cousins.
The WVU group and its research partners have been studying eastern golden eagles by, among other things, placing remote, motion-sensitive cameras on ridge-top clearings baited with road-kill deer to get a better handle on the species' range and population. Other golden eagles have been trapped in nets, then banded and equipped with radio transmitters allowing researchers to track their migration routes.
Golden Boy is one of several golden eagles that have been found injured, then rehabilitated back to good health and equipped with radio backpacks by those in the WVU study before being released into the wild to resume their travels. In 2011, TRAC rehabilitated a golden eagle that suffered a bruised pelvis after having been struck by a car near the Mercer-Monroe county line, which was also equipped with a transmitter pack and released.
A primary goal of the study is to reduce the risk of fatal wind turbine encounters by eastern bald eagles and other raptors that migrate along the higher ridges of the Central Appalachians -- terrain also favored by regional wind energy developers.
"We have 200 cameras operating from Maine to Florida and west to Arkansas," said Miller. So far, about 60 golden eagles have been outfitted with radios, which generally remain operational for three or more years, allowing researchers to precisely track their range and migratory habits. About 20 of the eagle-borne radios are currently active, she said.
Before the golden eagle's radio backpack was installed and adjusted, feather and blood samples were taken to compare the eastern golden eagles' genetic makeup to golden eagles living west of the Rockies.