Even when wounded, a Golden Eagle's beak and talons are a weapons arsenal. Handling the bird requires thick, elbow length gloves for protection.
The bullet made an ugly hole in the eagle's wing.
An X-ray of the wing shows bullet fragments remaining.
The eagle's talons and powerful grasping muscles make handlers very cautious.
Due to the sharp eyes of a local mortician and the continued work of one of the best wildlife rehabilitators in the state, a young male golden eagle is alive and recovering from a small caliber gunshot wound. Because of the time taken by one who usually cares for the dead, this particular raptor will survive his wounds and live - although angry - and possibly rejoin his mate in the wild.
The known portion of this golden eagle's saga began shortly after Bobby Etzel and a group of his friends arrived in Clark's Valley. The group was about to embark on a holiday rabbit hunting excursion when Mitchell and his friend Wade Marinoni noticed something in the powder white snow.
"As we pulled up, we saw a bald eagle perched in a nearby tree and as it flew off. Wade noticed a golden eagle in the snow flopping around," said Etzel. "We walked over and decided to call dispatch."
Debbie Pappas and the Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation Center were notified by the dispatch center and began making their way to the bird's location. The rescue, which took place during the frigid morning hours of Dec. 30, depended on communication between Pappas and Mitchell as she tried to locate the bird.
After arriving on scene, Pappas confirmed what the hunters already suspected.
"We felt that morning, as hunters and outdoorsmen, that the bird had been illegally shot," said Etzel. "The situation didn't look natural in any way but the good thing was that besides the injury, the bird didn't look to be in too bad of shape."
According to Pappas' investigation, the eagle, which had been shot in the left wing with a .22 caliber bullet, had most likely only been down for a day or two as he had not begun to lose much weight. She reported that there has been an ongoing problem in Eastern Utah with illegally shot raptors and other protected species.
"These people are intentionally shooting at these eagles. It's not like they are shooting at something else and then the eagle gets in the way," she said. "They know what they're doing and they just have a problem."
Pappas reported that the damage to the young male's wing was quite severe as he had to be examined by a physician before the location of the bullet wound could be found.
"We needed to confirm where the break was because the whole area of his left side was all swollen with blood," she explained. "The vet found a severe fracture of the ulna and if the bone does not set correctly there could be some problems with the bird's wrist as well."
After examination, it was determined that the bullet passed through the eagle's left wing, causing the break, and then imbedded itself in the upper breast of his left side. Pappas speculated that because of the bullet's location, the bird was able to remove the shell casing on his own. No slug was found in the wound.
"It broke all of our hearts to think that somebody would shoot an eagle like that," said Mitchell. "But Debbie and her group got out there so fast it was great to see that the bird was going to be treated well."
Because the golden eagle is an adult, Pappas will only need to insure that he regains the ability to fly correctly in order to release him. As an adult, he already knows how to kill, she said.
His release into the wild now hinges on just how his broken bones will heal.
Pappas reported that a case will now be opened concerning the illegal shooting of the bird. She was very complimentary of local investigators and the tools they use to find those who harm wildlife illegally. When discussing the case, Pappas's passion concerning wildlife is evident. She sees birds and especially raptors on a parody with human beings.
"This bird had a mate and as this species will mate for life, she is most likely waiting for him," said Pappas. "Hopefully he will make it back to her."
In this instance, it is not only Pappas and her team who provided life saving assistance for an endangered bird. In truth, it was a group of hunters who began the process which would ultimately save a life.
"There was a lot of excitement for me to know that Debbie was coming and that there was a chance to save this bird," explained Etzel. "We're always on the other side of things and the funeral home and that can be hard, but there was a great amount of comfort for all of us knowing she was on her way. It was an awesome experience. We knew we saved a life."