A tale of two eagles

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Rehabbed bird released at Oconto Marsh
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In a still from video taken Nov. 25, a newly released eagle flies toward the Oconto Marsh. (Times Herald photo by Warren Bluhm)

About 200 people on Saturday took advantage of a rare opportunity to see a rehabilitated eagle fly back into the wild.

The 2-year-old female, given the name “Freedom” after a suggestion from the crowd, wasted no time after the door to her cage was opened, soaring quickly away over the Oconto Marsh.

Freedom was found in May near Madison and was suffering from lead poisoning. Lori Bankson, curator of animals for Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay, said the young eagle might have ingested lead pellets while feeding on an animal that had been shot.

The story of how she found her way to Oconto began with another eagle and two duck hunters who came to its aid in August.

“You’d be surprised how quick you can become attached to a wild animal or bird,” said Jon Viestenz who, with John Panetti, found a male eagle while setting up a duck blind in the marsh owned by the Oconto Sportsmen’s Club on Aug. 25. “We saw something white and said to each other, ‘Boy, that could be an eagle.’ So we motored over there, and it was. But it didn’t fly.”

They didn’t want to get too close or spook it, so they left but felt uncomfortable about leaving what could be a sick or injured animal. The next day was the club’s annual Youth Day, so they were busy helping with various activities, but the eagle weighed on their minds and they resolved to check its welfare the next day.

They got permission from Warden Paul Hartrick of the Department of Natural Resources to take possession of the bird if it needed help, and went out with welding gloves, protective face shields and a large dog cage.

Viestenz said they were a bit hesitant to approach the bird after jumping into the deep water. “We were at the same level as this eagle, and it got a lot bigger all of a sudden.”

The bird made no attempt to resist their help.

“Truthfully, the look in its eye was more like ‘thank you,’ because it had been there for quite some time,” he said.

Oconto Police Chief Bernie Faith transported the eagle to Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. Viestenz couldn’t say enough good things about the rehabilitation team, which consists of Bankson, another full-time staff member, four part-time keepers, college interns and a host of volunteers. “What they do for not just eagles but all animals was amazing,” Viestenz said.

Bankson said the sanctuary has taken in more than 5,500 injured and sick native Wisconsin animals so far this year, from baby deer mice to coyotes and foxes, working with animal control officers, hunters and the public.

“I can definitely say this was one of the more unique cases we’ve ever had,” she told the group. “This male eagle, he was quite old. He had some head trauma. He was quite thin and, as Jon and John noticed, he had been in the water for quite a while. It took quite a toll on him.”

The team performed a great deal of intensive care on the bird, treating him five times a day with fluids and medicine, and keeping him warm in an incubator.

“We take in 10 to 20 eagles every year; our release rate is 75 percent,” Bankson said. “This eagle was getting a lot better, was getting stronger. But he did have some significant head trauma, which resulted in an eye issue that he was dealing with. But he was eating on his own, and he was fighting.”

Sadly, the great beast lost that fight in mid-October.

“That’s one of the hardships that come with wildlife rehab,” she said. “These guys come in, and by the time we’re able to approach them, they’re quite sick.” Bankson said eagles will always view humans as predators. So by the time she is able to work with them, “they’re in pretty dire need. And I can tell you that losing this eagle was a big blow to my staff.”

Because of the loss of the male eagle from the Oconto area and the strong support of the community, the 2-year-old female eagle from Madison was chosen for release in Oconto Marsh. That support was evident Saturday by the size of the assembled crowd.

“When we drove up, I said, ‘Wow. This is a lot more than the five people I expected would come to a wildlife release on the Saturday after Thanksgiving,’” Bankson laughed.

This is a perfect time of year to return an eagle to the wild, she added. “The bay is open. Nobody’s worrying about territories right now,” she said. “Actually what’s happening is the eagles are flocking together and they’re working together.”

Sometimes when wild animals are released, they can act tentatively or seem a bit disoriented. Freedom, true to her name, was ready to be free and took to the sky immediately.