There are days that stay with you your entire life. For Lee Duer, Thursday, March 2, 1995, was one of them.
Last week, Lee and his son, Jeff, did something that few people will ever do. On a 130-acre county farm east of La Plata, the Duers rescued a 17-year-old injured bald eagle. Bald eagles have been this nation’s symbol since 1967. In a world with an information highway centuries beyond when the bald eagle’s image was first placed on U.S. currency, what happened last week turned the magnifying glass away from technology and onto man’s relationship with nature.
“It’s a bird that’s very special to me,” Lee Duer said. “You see bald eagles in movies, on TV, but you don’t get this close.”
At the Wild Bird Center in Waldorf, a store that Duer and his wife own, a display stands as testimony to the Duers’ experience. Pictures chronicle the time the eagle spent at the store while Duer waited to find out where to take the injured, captured bird.
“Every individual in an endangered population is more important that an individual animal in a common population,” explained bald eagle biologist Glenn Therres. In 1994 in Maryland, there were 159 nesting pairs of eagles surveyed. In Charles County last year, there were 21 nesting pairs tracked and 21 young produced from those birds.
In 1977, when the state began surveying bald eagles, there were 41 pairs in Maryland. It was a statistic that served as a reminder of how close to extinction these birds might come. Today, those numbers are much higher: In the Chesapeake Bay Region (Maryland, Virginia, southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey), there are more than 300 nesting pairs.
The bird that was found by the Duers has a federal wildlife band that gives experts some information about him. Its band number leads to records that show the bird was tagged as a chick in May 1978 in Westmoreland County, Va. Bald eagles have been known to live up to 40 years, said AI Louis Cecere, founder of the National Foundation to Protect America’s Eagles. It is not known if the injured eagle is a breeding bird. But what is known is this: Had the eagle not been captured and then later treated, its death was certain.
Local veterinarian Dr. Mark Hocking, who treated the bird Thursday night, said the eagle probably would have died within several days had its chest gone untreated. During one of the last moments Lee and Jeff saw the bird before leaving the clinic Thursday night, the eagle stood with its beak knocking against metal and its body turned toward the back of a cage.
The scene was different the next day: the road to recovery had begun. Minutes before a state wildlife worker arrived to take the bird to the Baltimore Zoo where it is recovering, it stood calmly, its talons protecting a fish it had been thrown.
The eagle will remain at the zoo until it recovers and then will be placed in a flight cage so it can exercise and get used to flying again. If all these steps are successful, the bird will be released on, or nearby, the property where it was found. In order to protect the bird, the Maryland Independent is not releasing the location.
“We hate to see it have to go to Baltimore because that bird is our bird and we want to see it fly our skies,” said Hocking, who was contacted Thursday night by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and given emergency permission to treat the bird. “It is quite something when you take a bird that might have died and toss it up in the air and see it take flight again, to see that cycle completed. It’s just like saving a life – there is some bonding that happens. It is incredible just to see something that magnificent.
” … Wild birds won’t bond with humans and we don’t want them to. I get a charge out of knowing I have done something to help a species that occupies an important part in the ecosystem – that I have done things, in the bigger scheme of nature, to keep something in this world. Each and every species is important, but when you see something of this scale and grandeur, it is even more.”
Therres said bald eagles in the United States have been protected since 1948 and, recently, there has been a proposal to “downlist them to threatened” because of an increase in the bald eagle population. In 1973, Maryland enacted law to list the bald eagle as endangered and to develop programs to save it.
The bald eagle story, at times akin to a cops-and-robber chase, begins like this: On Thursday afternoon, Duer is contacted at his store after a customer who knows Jeff calls about a bald eagle they believe might be injured.
Days later, the memory is still thick in Lee Duer’s mind. He said the two drove about 20 miles and arrived at the farm and were taken to a back pasture. From hundreds of feet away, and with the aid of binoculars, the pair saw what they had come for.
Duer explained: “He was on top of a large brush pile and I knew something was wrong because they don’t usually hang around the ground. … The eagle wasn’t flying so we knew something wasn’t right.”
The eagle, however, had not lost its instincts and retreated down a hill to the woods. As they chased the bird, he led the Duers deeper into the woods and passed through two barbed-wire fences.
The Duers then lost sight of the eagle and Jeff used an old file cabinet to stand on to try to see the eagle – a move that ended up bringing them luck. The cabinet collapsed beneath Jeff and “spooked the eagle, bringing him out in the open,” Lee recalled. Finally, at the end of their one-mile run that had led them to a shallow stream bed, Jeff was able to grab the bird’s wings and press them against the eagle’s body so a coat could be wrapped around him to restrain him during the ride to Waldorf.
“Jeff finally got ahead of him, and he was between us, and he reared back on his wings and stuck his talons out and hissed at him; and then (he) did the same thing to me. He didn’t know what we were trying to do,” Lee recalled. On the return ride, the bird’s head was covered to keep it calm as it chortled, one of the noises eagles make.
In the van, Lee called wildlife authorities and told them that they had found an injured bald eagle. The eagle’s chest, where the wound was, was bloodied and coated with dirt. It was about an hour later that Lee received the call he hoped for. Someone – much closer than he expected – would take the eagle.
That doctor ended up being Hocking, who is licensed by the state and the federal government to handle and treat eagles in emergency situations when permission is given. Those licenses allow Hocking to work on birds of prey, but the regulations surrounding medical care for bald eagles are more stringent. Therres said there are approximately 150 migratory species rehabilitators in the state, but that only “a dozen or two dozen might” be given permission to work on a bald eagle.
Eagles, Hocking said, are “an elite group of huge importance in nature. They bond with their mates and mate for life. They go back to the same nesting sites each year and cover large territories.”
The eagle the Duers caught had the telltale white head – a sign of maturity – that not only told Lee he was an adult bird, but also that he was an important link in the fight to keep bald eagles alive.
The night the eagle was brought to the St. Charles Animal Hospital, the Duers were among a chain of protectors. As closing time neared, the last-minute appointments – including a Doberman and a small white poodle – signaled the day’s last visitors. But back in the examining room, the eagle captivated a small audience that included the Duers and some hospital workers.
“You’d be surprised to find out how many people think a bird is a bald eagle and, when they bring it in, you find out it’s an osprey, hawk or vulture. But I was psyched: I had my perch out and my biggest cage ready to go. But in the back of my mind, I knew it might not be an eagle,” Hocking recalled.
But what Hocking didn’t know then is that if there were a list of people in Charles County who knew what an eagle looked like, the man bringing him the eagle was on it.
Hocking, whose love for birds began when he had a hawk as a teenage falconer, had a comrade in Duer: Lee has a passion for birds. At Duer and his wife’s store, it’s like a bird junkie’s heaven. Everywhere there are feeders, books and foods sold to the backdrop of recorded sounds of birds in nature.
“This is so ironic, it couldn’t have been more timely,” Duer said. “We just formed the Southern Maryland Save the Eagles group” – a chapter affiliated with the National Foundation to Protect America’s Eagles. The foundation’s traveling teachers include two eagles, America and Challenger, who have spread the plight of the eagle through their captivity because of human imprinting and injuries.
When the eagle arrived at the clinic, Hocking X-rayed the bird and drew blood. An elevated white count indicated the eagle was fighting an infection. Hocking also knew that the bird had begun to burn up pectoral mass (his flight muscles); was dehydrated; had lost weight; and needed food. His crop – a place where food is stored – was empty. And, most importantly, the injury had prevented the eagle from flying.
After examining the bald eagle, Hocking discovered that the bird had not been shot and that the injury to his breast muscles was caused by something the bird had probably impaled itself on – perhaps a piece of wood – while hunting for food. Through debridement, Hocking trimmed away the tissue not capable of healing and flushed the “deep, festering” wound that was about one and a half inches deep. To fight infection, the eagle was placed on antibiotics.
It is the afternoon of Friday, March 3, and the St. Charles Animal Hospital is losing a patient. Minutes before the eagle leaves, it stands on the examining table with his talons protecting the fish as small droplets of blood still spill from its wound.
Lee, who is armed with a camera, takes pictures of the bird from every angle he can. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” he says, and his awe is transferred to the clicking camera.
Ironically, when it is time for the eagle to leave, it is put in a box marked with a wild turkey federation insignia. Long ago, when this country was selecting its national symbol, Benjamin Franklin had lobbied for the turkey.
Lee and Jeff, who watch as the eagle is loaded into the box and then the truck, are not far behind the beige DNR vehicle as its turns onto Post Office Road and heads out of sight.
For several hours, they had soared with the eagles. And, for them, that was enough.
Published in the March 8, 1995 edition of the Maryland Independent