Hikers and dog walkers along a Juneau trail on Monday spotted something unusual, an eagle hanging upside down in the trees. Although the eagle ultimately did not survive, its rescue led to a compassionate and painless end of life.
J.D. McComas says they were tipped off by Juneau resident Laurie Craig who was walking the Emergency Vehicle Access Road, commonly known as the airport dike trail. In the trees near the south end of the floatplane pond was what appeared to be an eagle hanging upside down like a bat.
At first, the eagle appeared dead. But then it moved and screeched a little.
“We don’t believe it had been in there for more than a day. But it had been there for quite a few hours, it seemed,” McComas said. “It was fairly distressed.”
McComas is a federal wildlife biologist. His job includes bird hazard mitigation at the Juneau International Airport, because if a seagull, raven or eagle hits a plane or gets sucked into a jet engine, then it could be a bad day for everyone.
The fire department sent a ladder truck to the airport for the eagle in the tree.
Kathy Benner of the Juneau Raptor Center also arrived with some sheets and tips on handling a large raptor.
“He was amazing,” Benner said. “I mean, that bird was at least 70 feet up. So, it was a long walk for him.”
“It was precarious to say the least,” McComas recalled. “I’m slightly afraid of heights”.
McComas was clipped to the ladder. But he said it was still tricky to maintain balance, wrap the eagle with a sheet, and free the eagle’s leg from the fork of a branch.
“I’m guessing the way it looked, it had went to leave his perch, and got its body weight out in front of it,” McComas said. “And that kept his leg pinned in between that fork and hanging upside down.”
And then there was McComas’ difficult climb back down the long ladder.
“You’re holding the bird tucked under one arm sort of like a football, and keeping three points of contact on the way down,” McComas remembers. “It was a slow, slow descent.”
Back at the Juneau Raptor Center, Benner said they put the eagle in a dog kennel with shredded paper and a towel as a pillow for its head. They gave it some fluids and pain medication.
“The bird was in pain,” Benner said. “He was crying out.”
Benner said the male eagle showed signs that it had spent most of its time recently on the ground, but also it had difficulty standing. For the right leg that was caught in the branches, X-rays showed signs of another older injury like a previous break that didn’t heal properly. The left leg was swollen, too.
“The bird’s range of motion was impaired,” Benner said. “It was contributing to this bird not being able to hunt and catch food.”
Benner said even before it found itself stuck in a tree, it was starving. So, they euthanized the eagle or put it to sleep.
“So if he hadn’t been rescued, he could still be up there, for all we know, dying a very slow painful death,” Benner said.
She said the eagle will be sent down to a federal facility for permanent cold storage, which is routine for a protected species.