World Bird Sanctuary returns eagle to wild

Thursday, May 29, 2008 | 1:59 p.m. CDT; updated 11:35 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

MARYLAND HEIGHTS — A 2-year-old bald eagle with a nasty disposition is soaring again above the Missouri River after being nursed back to health at the World Bird Sanctuary.

The eagle was returned to the wild on Thursday after spending about a month under the care of the sanctuary in southwest St. Louis County. The 14-pound bird was let loose on property near a treatment plant for the Missouri American Water Co., near the river.

World Bird Sanctuary director Walt Crawford said the bird showed up on the grounds of the sanctuary in April with signs of toxin poisoning. Officials never determined what type of toxin the eagle got into, but were able to nurse her back to health.

“It’s probably one of the biggest females I’ve ever seen, and she’s got a nasty disposition, too,” Crawford said prior to a ceremony that culminated in the eagle’s release. “She’s a monster.”

That bit of attitude was quickly evident as the eagle flapped her wings wildly as her cage was opened. Just before she was let loose, she reached back and bit one of the handlers on the neck.

“I’m OK,” he said.

“You work with birds long enough, you’re gonna get bit,” said Crawford, who trained under famed zoologist Marlin Perkins.

Boy Scouts from Troop 950 in Florissant built three nests for eagles that will sit in various locations. One nest was recently placed at the same spot where the eagle was released in suburban St. Louis. Thirteen boys spent seven hours building the wooden nests capable of holding up to 3,000 pounds. AmerenUE donated 70-foot-tall utility poles to hoist them into the air.

“Very cool,” 14-year-old scout Eric Link said of the effort. “I think it was nice to help the bird.”

The eagle herself had no immediate use for the nest, or for the pomp and circumstance surrounding her release. As soon as she was let go, she flew away from the crowd and headed straight for the river, perhaps in search of a midday snack.

The World Bird Sanctuary has earned international acclaim for its efforts to promote conservation and its work to benefit birds, especially endangered species.

Crawford said it was surprising to see the ill eagle essentially come directly to the sanctuary’s door, but it’s happened before. Last year, a black vulture showed up in need of care. Two years ago, a white pelican did the same.

“I guess the word’s out that we do a good job,” Crawford joked. Of the eagle, he said, “We checked her insurance and she had it so we treated her.”

Crawford said about 200 pairs of nesting eagles now reside in Missouri — as recently in 1972 there were none here. Clearly, he said, conservation efforts are paying off.

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