An injured golden eagle got another chance to take flight, thanks to a team of rescuers and veterinarians who persevered in their care of her despite slim odds that the bird would make it.
On Thursday, months of hard work and dedication paid off for the folks at the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, Mountain Aire Veterinary Hospital and the California Wildlife Center when they were able to return the golden eagle back to where she was originally found in September — east of I-5 near the base of the Grapevine.
Finally freed after five long months, the golden eagle stepped out of the cage and took a few moments to reorient herself. But it wasn't long before she flew off, fairly low to the ground and to a nearby mountain — taking it easy, perhaps, but happy to be out in the open air.
"There's something to be said about the image of an animal in flying condition, healthy, spreading her wings," said Ben Teton, a biologist at Tejon Ranch Conservancy, an independent nonprofit organization that monitors thousands of conserved acres of Tejon Ranch. "It's a visual representation of exactly what we're trying to accomplish."
The golden eagle, which Teton and the other rescuers believe is female based on its size, was likely hit by a car while eating some roadkill. One of her legs was fractured and many of her primary flight feathers damaged. The bird first came to Teton's attention after he received a call from utility workers in the area.
After making sure he'd have a place to take the golden eagle once caught, Teton traveled about 12 miles north from the conservancy's Lebec location to get her.
"She was clearly on death's door, but she was still a formidable predator," Teton said. "I bundled her up and grabbed this giant, terrifying predator ... She was so weak, she put up no resistance."
When Teton found her she had been on the side of the road for a while and been sprayed by a skunk. She was in "a wretched state," he said. From there, the eagle went to Mountain Aire Veterinary Hospital, where veterinarian Diane Cosko came in on her day off to help the bird.
"We actually do a lot of wildlife care at our hospital, so it was just another one coming in," Cosko said. "It just happened to be a very big, magnificent bird."
The bird was later taken to the California Wildlife Center in Malibu, where in the first few months she underwent three surgeries. Both Cosko and veterinarian Duane Tom at the California Wildlife Center donated their services. Animal rehabber Vicki Bingaman acted as a liaison between the three organizations.
"Because wildlife is uninsured, it requires motivated coordination between many moving parts," Teton said. "Everybody has to buy in that it's worth it. They have to see beyond how disgusting and wretched she was and see her for the vibrant and robust life-form that's still there."
The eagle's fractured leg healed in November, but her feathers still needed to grow before she could be released. She's also put on a little weight: she was 9 pounds when she was found and now weighs 12 pounds. She was well-fed ahead of her release, giving her time to adjust before needing to hunt again.
The bird's survival still isn't a sure thing, as she reenters a territory that was once hers but might have been claimed by another in her absence.
"These birds are very territorial," Teton said. "The pressure is on to get her back into the field where she was recovered as soon as possible."
Returning the bird to her territory will also help her reunite with her mate, which, as a fully grown eagle, she's likely to have.
"My concern is for its stamina and if it's going to get enough food during the winter here," Cosko said. "We're gonna keep our fingers crossed and hope that it's at full capabilities when the weather clears and finds its mate. We're all hopeful about that."
Doing everything possible to help and not being guaranteed a happy ending is just part of wildlife rescue, Teton said.
"Everyone involved feels really good about the fact that we've given her the best possible shot," Teton said.
To keep up with the conservancy, which also provides opportunities for research and education, as well as tours for the public, follow it on Facebook or Instagram. The organization has more than 60 motion sensor cameras on its land, through which animals in their natural habitats can be seen, and it regularly shares its photos and videos.