USA –– The resilience of a burned baby golden eagle that survived a Utah wildfire is astounding wildlife rehabilitators nursing him back to health.
“The trauma and the injury and the situation he is in — to come out of it is amazing,” said DaLyn Erickson, executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden.
All of the eaglet’s feathers, even on his head, were charred. He also suffered burns to the feet and around his beak.
His improbable story began June 1, when a volunteer who documents eagles placed a band on the bird.
The Dump Fire erupted three weeks later, burning more than 5,500 acres south of Salt Lake City and west of Utah Lake.
Kent Keller returned in late June to the nest, built on the edge of the cliff, thinking he would recover the band from a deceased animal. The nest on Lake Mountain was gone, the rocks behind it blackened by the blaze.
Keller then spotted legs and talons near a scorched juniper below.
Amazingly, the baby eagle was alive.
Near him were rabbit and squirrel carcasses, evidence his parents had tried to feed him after disaster struck. Fortunately, his eyes had not been burned.
Keller said he has thought of the horror the helpless nestling might have felt when flames approached.
“He had enough courage to jump from that nest and try to save himself anyway,” said Keller, 56, who describes himself as an amateur ornithologist. “He is a real fighter.”
The fall was about 25 feet, and the eagle probably walked back to the base of the cliff after rolling another 100 feet, said Keller.
The bird remained in the area for several days while Keller, who is authorized to band raptors, sought permission from federal and state authorities to obtain care for him.
On Wednesday, Keller handed the bird over to Erickson.
She and her staff dubbed the survivor “Phoenix” — a reference to the mythical creature that is reborn from the ashes.
There was no food in the craw of the dehydrated eagle, which weighed just over 5 pounds.
“He was lethargic and just obviously hurting,” Erickson told CNN on Saturday. “After we got him hydrated and medications, he perked up and that fire came back in him.”
Erickson said Phoenix, now about 70 days old, was a handful Saturday, lunging and using his talons as caregivers fed and provided antibiotics to the animal. “He’s not grateful,” she quipped.
Rehabilitators limit their contact with the eagle so that he will not “habituate,” or become too comfortable around people. They use hydrotherapy to help the healing in his feet.
“He needs those for hunting. There are lots of tendons and muscles we need to protect,” said Erickson.
Golden eagles, which are protected, typically eat reptiles, birds and small mammals, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They also are known to scavenge carrion.
Keller said golden eagle females are slightly smaller than the more-famous bald eagle and tend to hunt more and scavenge less. Their particular favorite prey in northern Utah is the black-tailed jackrabbit.
The resident of suburban Salt Lake City studies golden eagles and provides population information to state wildlife authorities. Erickson called Keller “the hero in this story.”
It’s too early to tell whether Phoenix will be able to fly in the wild. Rehabilitation will take at least a year and his feathers won’t fully molt until mid-2013.
“We are fairly confident, but there could be follicle damage we do not know about that would prevent feathers from coming in,” Erickson said.
The nonprofit center, which treats about 1,800 animals a year, is accepting financial and food donations to offset the cost of caring for the golden eagle.
“He is doing well and we are very positive about his outcome right now,” said Erickson. “(But) these types of things can turn at any moment.”
In her 12 years of wildlife rehabilitation, Erickson said, the eagle’s story is among a few cases she considers “nothing short of a miracle.”