Last Saturday, residents along the Flat River sprang into action to rescue a bald eagle that had fallen into the water. It was the second time these neighbors had helped this particular bird. The first incident happened in February when the eagle was initially rescued, and the recent water rescue happened after an unsuccessful attempt to release her back into the wild.
Dubbed Rushmore by staff at Wildside Rehabilitation and Education Center in Eaton Rapids, the eagle is expected to now find a permanent home where she can live safely and comfortably as a display or education bird.
Difficult Rescue on the Flat River
The eagle was originally rescued on February 14th, according to resident Mike Van Timmeren. He says the bird was spotted multiple times on the frozen Flat River over an approximately two-week period. While bald eagles are regularly seen in the area, it was unusual to see one on the river unless it was catching something to eat.
After some investigation, residents discovered that the bird apparently couldn’t fly and had been eating a deer carcass in the woods off the shore. They contacted a wildlife rescue and were connected with a volunteer from Wildside Rehabilitation and Education Center.
“That was a kinda scary rescue,” says Louise Sagaert, founder and director of Wildside. “Water is always difficult and dangerous.”
About 10 residents assisted with the rescue, including Scott Dykstra, who explains that the group encircled the bird to contain it. As the group got closer to the bird, a towel was thrown over it, and it was safely transported to the facility at Wildside.
“It was quite heroic that all these people came out and helped,” Sagaert says.
Rehabilitation for Rushmore
At Wildside, the bald eagle was named Rushmore. There, she became one of the couple hundred raptors that pass through the center’s doors each year. In total, Wildside rehabilitates anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 animals annually, mostly small mammals.
“Typically, we don’t name [animals] that are going to be released,” Sagaert says. However, raptors such as eagles spend more time at the center, and the staff gives them names to differentiate them. For the bald eagles, the names all have a patriotic theme such as Lincoln, Washington and Liberty.
Sagaert says Rushmore has been one of the center’s most difficult rehabilitations both because of her size and the mysterious nature of her injuries. Her age is unknown but given her white head, she must be at least five years old. She also weighs about 12 or 13 pounds which may not sound like much, but Sagaert adds, “Those talons and that beak are formidable.”
It was determined that Rushmore had lead poisoning but even after that treatment was completed, she would not fly in the large outdoor enclosure. “We kept looking at those wings,” Sagaert explains, but nothing was obviously wrong.
“Every eagle has to be able to circle the cage before they can be released,” Sagaert says. With Rushmore failing to fly for any meaningful distance, staff began the process of looking for a permanent home for her. Then, about a month ago, she began flying exceptionally well, and the center decided they could release her after all.
Release Doesn’t Go as Planned
On Saturday, September 11, a group gathered along the shore of the Flat River to watch Rushmore be released into the wild. Many of those in attendance were the neighbors who helped with the initial rescue.
Wildside volunteer Darlene Smith was in charge of the operation and asked for silence during the release. She noted Rushmore had been in a vehicle for quite some time and may be feeling stressed. A carrier with the eagle was placed at the top of a small slope leading down to the water.
Once the door to the carrier was opened, it took a few moments for the bald eagle to emerge, take off and soar over the Flat River. The crowd cheered, and it appeared Rushmore was on her way back into the wild.
However, after a turn, she dipped down to the water and crashed into the river. Smith and her team jumped into action as Van Timmeren unhooked his boat and piloted the volunteers to the eagle’s location in the water. During the rescue, two other bald eagles soared overhead.
To the untrained eye, Rushmore did not seem in distress and appeared to bob in the water considering her next move. As the boat closed in, she appeared to try to swim for shore. Volunteers were prepared to jump into the water after her but were able to scoop her up in a net instead.
Safely back on shore, Smith addressed the crowd. “We do see a fair amount of that coming out of rehab,” she said. “Once she’s wet like that, she can’t fly again.” After a few quick calls, Smith and her team loaded Rushmore into their truck and took her for x-rays to ensure her wing wasn’t broken.
According to Sagaert, it was discovered that she has bone spurs on her shoulder that make a future release into the wild impossible. A permanent home will now be found for the bald eagle instead.
While the release didn’t go according to plan, the story could have ended differently for Rushmore had not a group of neighbors along the Flat River been ready to help. They brought the bald eagle to safety twice and now have memories they will likely never forget.