Freeing the eagle; injured bird treated, released after car collision

Crowds get a closeup look as Executive Director Jim Elliott of the Center for Birds of Prey prepares to release the bird back into the wild Monday at Boone Hall Plantation.

MOUNT PLEASANT - Not every 9-year-old gets a chance to touch a bald eagle, much less a feisty one. Barnett Glisson didn't hesitate to stroke the tail feather. Then he watched rapt as the bird leapt free.

The young female eagle was released Monday at Boone Hall Plantation in the marsh environs near Horlbeck Creek, after a six-month rehabilitation at the Center for Birds of Prey in nearby Awendaw. She had been struck by a car in southern Charleston County, apparently while scavenging on the roadside, said Jim Elliott, center director.

The collision fractured her wing but not her wild side. Even as eagles go, this one "has not been an easy patient," Elliott said. "She has not been happy. She'd rather be somewhere else."

For real. No sooner than the towel came off her head, the eagle reared back her head and "scree-ed," then "harrupped" as if she were indignantly clearing the throat. Elliott kept her on her back, a grip on her talons and his own head craned out of reach. It got in one good nip at his shoulder.

The most exceptional thing about the release might have been that it's not so exceptional anymore. The eagle was removed from the federal endangered species list in 2009; its recovery had become the champion of the sometimes criticized program and the emblem of the conservation effort in general.

It used to be the bird was rarely seen in the lower 48 states. The American national symbol, one of the truly majestic animals in nature, its population was shredded by DDT and other threats to fewer than 400 nesting pairs by the early 1960s. Today, nesting pairs are estimated at more than 11,000 in those states, including more than 200 in South Carolina.

Today, bald eagles can be found nesting near waterfront subdivisions as well as in the remote ACE Basin. Spotting one can be as simple as looking up while driving down Dorchester Road. But the bird's problems aren't solved. Threats now include car collisions and things as weird as barbiturate poisoning from feeding on euthanized animals in landfills.

As Elliott pointed out, the center in its two decades has probably treated and released half as many bald eagles as now can be found in the state, and has been able to release only about half the injured balds brought in.

The feisty female, released on the brink of breeding season, might soon be helping with that. Elliott turned her head high, lifted her above his head and watched her peer intently at surroundings. When her form settled into perch he nudged her into the air and let go.

The bird flapped tentatively a few times, climbed as if to test the wing, then turned in that still glide into the marshside oaks.

Just before the release, Elliott had noticed Barnett, of Springfield, Ill., awed in the crowd that had gathered under the live oaks. Barnett had never been that close to an eagle before. Elliott turned the bird to him tail first - head away - to give him the touch.

"I thought (the feathers) would feel soft but they felt really hard," Barnett said. "It felt fascinating."

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