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Golden eagle ready to return to the wild

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.

Location data from Golden Boy's transmitter will be beamed to a polar-orbiting Argos satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and then relayed to the WVU researchers. The transmitters used in the study are expected to remain operational for at least three years.

Since the study began in 2006, it was initially believed that fewer than 2,000 golden eagles lived in the eastern United States. From data gleaned since then, "it now looks like there may be 3,000 or even 4,000 of them," Miller said.

The study also showed that the highlands of West Virginia and bordering counties in Virginia provide the winter range for most eastern golden eagles, although winter populations of the species are also turning up in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York. The birds travel to Quebec, Labrador and northern Ontario to breed and nest.

The study has also turned up the presence of golden eagles in unexpected locations, including Arkansas and southwest Missouri.

The western population of golden eagles is believed to be about 10 times larger than that found in the east.

In West Virginia and elsewhere in the eastern United States, bald eagles are more abundant than golden eagles, and are more frequently seen. While bald eagles feed on fish and waterfowl in lakes and rivers, often within view of human activity, golden eagles are more wary of humans and favor remote highland terrain where they dine on turkey, grouse, rabbits, rodents and winterkill or road-kill deer.

While freezing rain, high winds and other forms of inclement weather delayed a planned release of the TRAC-rehabilitated golden eagle earlier this week, the bird will be set free as soon as conditions moderate, according to Wendy Perrone. 

The eagle's eventual departure will be a bittersweet event.

"They say you should never fall in love with a bird," she said. "But with a bird like this, you can't help it."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 


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