A young bald eagle is now in Bozeman after it found itself in a life-or-death situation last week in Yellowstone County, struggling with lead poisoning. A retired school teacher and her husband stumbled across him and did everything they could.
When you think of birds of prey such as eagles, especially here in Montana, you may think of large, powerful birds. But according to the Montana Raptor Conservation Center in Bozeman, even those species of birds can have a bad day, such as a juvenile bald eagle who had just the right people show up at just the right time.
“They just went above and beyond to help this bird,” says Becky Kean, rehabilitation director at the Montana Raptor Conservation Center.
All alone, face down in the snow, on the side of the road - it’s a situation that, for most animals, means the end.
“Odds of this eagle making it through even a couple of nights out there probably would have been slim to none,” Kean says.
In Becky Kean’s 18 years at the Montana Raptor Conservation Center, it’s a situation that she’s seen go the other way many times, stemming from lead poisoning.
“Clenched talons, labored breathing, just very lethargic and it eventually gets them down,” Kean says. “That’s something that we can see immediately and then we do have a machine that we can test their blood and see what their lead levels are.”
“We were on our way back from an errand, keeping our eyes open and headed up one of the main roads and went past this brown patch,” says Julie Betts, a retired school teacher who lives north of Shepherd. Julie and her husband, Cary, were traveling in the area when that brown patch caused them to stop and go back.
“My husband said, ‘Was that what I think it was?’ and I’m like oh, my God, I think so,” she says.
The couple saw the juvenile bald eagle first, but saw no apparent signs of life.
“He absolutely… he looked… he was gone,” Julie says. “In our opinions, he was gone. My husband just took his foot and gently touched him and he started breathing.”
“They had a towel with them at the moment and put him in the back of their seat,” Kean says. “Another predator could have came and got him or he could have maybe possibly froze to death out there.”
Julie and Cary immediately called the center in Bozeman, which they knew to do from an earlier similar experience.
The couple was fresh from saving another juvenile bald eagle in the same area, a female, another that they took to Becky.
“This was the second one within two weeks,” Julie says. “I am just in awe of what they can do and this raptor was near death.”
“They just love taking those country drives and so I knew it was very important when she called me that we had to meet immediately,” Kean says.
Julie says eagles, to her, stand for staying strong through anything. So she says this was just her returning the favor.
“On our way up there, I would reach back and just kind of gently touch his feathers and just really hoped that he was still alive,” she says.
The next two nights, Kean says, were tough. “When we got him here, we didn’t think he was going to make it through the evening,” Kean says. “His lead levels were high. Our facility wouldn’t be able to do what we do if it wasn’t for All West Vet, for sure.”
After treating him two nights in a row, Kean says she was unsure if the young eagle would survive the second night. The next morning, it appeared as if he just needed a few days.
The bird was standing, weakened but alert. “Them finding him that evening was a life-saving matter for this bird,” Kean says.
Becky says the eagle will stay there until he has recovered enough to be released, which could be some time. But as a standing example, the female, which was Julie and Cary’s earlier rescue two weeks ago, is recovering well.
For now, both Betts and Kean point fingers at who the real heroes might be. “You know, there are a lot of tears that go along with rehab but this one was tears of joy,” Kean says. “They are the heroes of the day, saving the eagle and picking him up.”
“I don’t consider us heroes or anything. I don’t at all,” Julie says. “We were just people that happened to drive by at the right time and the right place and we both love eagles. I like to think that anybody would have done the same thing.”
Staff of the Montana Raptor Conservation Center say if you ever encounter an eagle that is downed, contact them immediately. Getting in touch with raptor experts quickly could mean the difference between life and death.