VERSAILLES — Eleven months after a bald eagle was found on the side of Missouri Route 52 in Benton County, he returned to the wild.
As the door of the cage opened, Marquis, the eagle, waited a second before flapping his wings five times to cross over to the nearest tree.
A voice heard through the crowd of people said what others were thinking: "The eagle has landed."
It was a brief, fleeting moment, seemingly small. But for those involved with Marquis' recovery, it was a victory for a bird that they doubted would even survive.
On May 5, Mark Brinson answered a phone call from Benton County Conservation and learned that a bald eagle had been hit by a car on the highway in that county.
Brinson has been a volunteer for the Raptor Rehabilitation Project for three years. The project works to rehabilitate and release birds of prey into the wild. Brinson drove out from his house in Versailles and met the caller on the highway, where he saw how bad of shape the eagle was in.
"Luckily he was in shock, so he did not fight me," Brinson said. "He was too hurt to do anything."
Brinson quickly made arrangements for Marquis to be transported to the rehabilitation project in Columbia that night. Alyssa Scagnelli, a third-year veterinary student at MU, took over the eagle's care.
"He was my first eagle patient," Scagnelli said. "I had never seen that many injures in a bird before."
Marquis was in cardiovascular shock when he arrived at the center and did not respond to any stimuli. The vet stabilized him with care and medicine, but they doubted he would make it through the night.
But Marquis was alive the next morning. And over the course of several weeks, the full extent of the eagle's injuries became apparent. He'd fractured a right ulnar carpal bone, the equivalent of a wrist bone in an eagle, and had two pelvis fractures, which caused him to limp.
A dislocated shoulder prevented him from flying.
The process of healing Marquis took months, and at one point, the bird was receiving physical therapy three times a week to help it fly again.
"I did not want to give up on him," Scagnelli said.
But after all his injuries had healed, he still didn't take to flying. At this point, it seemed like he would never be released into the wild again, and the rehabilitation project prepared to find him a permanent home in captivity.
Then Marquis surprised everyone. One day when he was put back into the flight cage, the eagle unexpectedly took off in flight. That was the moment when it became apparent that an eagle few thought would survive could eventually return to the wild.
After 11 months of work, Marquis was returned to the area where he was found and was released. Many Versailles residents attended the event Saturday to see this monumental moment.
Off a winding gravel road, a group of about 30 people gathered, including his original caretakers and Versailles residents who wanted to see the occasion.
While the group awaited the arrival of Marquis, people bought raffle tickets to choose who would open the kennel and release the eagle.
Conner Crowe, 11, was the lucky winner.
"I wanted to see the eagle fly," Conner said.
Scagnelli was unsure whether Marquis would take off right away, but the eagle immediately darted to the nearest branch. Marquis spent about five minutes perched on the tree within sight before taking off again toward a nearby creek.
Marquis coasted across the cloudless blue skyline and disappeared within seconds.
"It's kind of like fostering a dog, when you have to let them go," said Scagnelli, the eagle's primary caretaker. "I'm mostly happy, but a little upset."
Most of the birds that come to the Raptor Rehabilitation Project were hit by cars, Brinson said. But unlike Marquis, most of them will never return to the wild. About 80 percent of raptors do not get released.
The project, part of the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, also focuses on educating the public about raptors and their importance to the environment. It showcased education birds at the release Saturday.
"Education birds and rehabilitation birds are handled differently," volunteer and education coordinator Woodrow Petrovic said.
Because rehabilitation birds like Marquis are to be released into the wild, they are handled by veterinary medicine students and have minimal human contact. Education birds are never going to be released.
"They are healthy but can't survive on their own," Petrovic said. "We want them to be used to people."
Brinson has pulled other birds off the roadside since the night in May when he rescued Marquis. He said he averages about 10 to 15 birds a year, usually bald eagles, red-tailed hawks or barred owls.
But this was the first time Brinson had seen one of the birds he'd rescued return to the wild.
"To see him fly off is a beautiful thing," he said.
Supervising editor is Edward Hart.