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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Rehabilitated Wild Harpy Eagle Flies Free Once Again
Marta Curti — in Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research    ShareProbably the greatest threat that the Harpy Eagle faces in the short-term is that of human persecution. Many of the reported “sightings” that occur throughout its range (from southern Mexico to northern Argentina) involve the bird being shot and more often than not, killed. As a means to mitigate human-caused mortality of this species, The Peregrine Fund began an extensive environmental education program in Panama in 2001, to coincide with the Harpy Eagle captive breeding and release programs.

While education has helped reduce the number of Harpy Eagle deaths at the hands of humans in areas where we are working in Panama, the sad reality is that we cannot be everywhere. Though we are working in some communities in Darien, a province of Panama that borders Colombia and is home to the last known stable population of wild Harpy Eagles in Central America, the area is quite large and in some places, inaccessible. It is in these areas where wild birds may often find themselves in peril.

Over the past few years, in conjunction with Panama’s National Environmental Authority (ANAM) – the agency in charge of protecting the nation’s wild flora and fauna - we have rescued a total of five Harpy Eagles that have been shot or trapped in this region. Though we have been able to rehabilitate and release three of them, the other two, tragically, did not survive their injuries. In December of 2008 we received word that another eagle had been shot in Darien. At ANAM’s request, Angel Muela, biologist for The Peregrine Fund, went to retrieve the injured bird and brought it to our Neotropical Raptor Center in Panama City for rehabilitation. It was a young female approximately 2.5 years old with an obvious injury to her right wing.

Before we could decide on her course of treatment, we had to know exactly where she had been shot and the severity of the damage. Luckily, another Peregrine Fund biologist, Yeray Seminario who is also a wildlife veterinarian who specializes in raptors, was on a short term assignment in Panama at this time. He, Angel and I took the eagle to a local veterinary office so that she could get X-rays. It turned out that she had been shot in the wing. She suffered a large bone fracture and her elbow joint appeared to be dislocated. If either of these injuries didn’t heal correctly, there was a good chance she would never be able to fly well enough to survive in the wild.

We set the bone and bandaged her wing and began her on a treatment of antibiotics. At first she was reluctant to eat and after four days of her ignoring the food we put out for her, we started to worry. On the fifth day, we force fed her small chunks of meat. Thankfully after the first few swallows, she began grabbing the small pieces of meat from our hands. I never imagined that I would find myself having a wild Harpy Eagle taking food from my open palm! It was an incredible experience, but short-lived. By the third day, she was eating completely on her own and at the end of the week, we no longer cut up the food for her and she would happily eat entire meals by herself. She quickly became shy and wary of us again, and wouldn’t even eat until we had left the area. All of this was a great sign that she was feeling better. We still didn’t know, however, if her wing would heal properly.

After her antibiotics treatment was completed, and she had spent several weeks with her wing immobilized, we took her for another round of X-rays. Everything looked good. We then moved her to a larger chamber where she would be able to fly and exercise her wings.

A few months later, we fitted her with a VHF and GPS transmitter and released her into Soberania National Park, Panama, where our biologists were on hand to track her regularly to make sure that she was able to survive on her own. Though her wing appeared to be healed, we wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t impede her in any way from catching her own prey.

On the day of the release, we drove her about 10 kilometers into the forest. We found a nice open spot, with some high branches for her to perch on and opened the kennel door. She was reluctant to move at first, but eventually exited the kennel. She remained on the ground for quite some time – looking around and getting her bearings. After a few minutes, she flew awkwardly up into a low bush. For her first real flight in months, she did great! We left the area to give her some space and allow her time to adjust. Some of our field volunteers returned later that same day to check on her and found her perched in a higher tree, surveying her new home.

Wild female Harpy Eagle being released.
Wild female Harpy Eagle being released.
Using radio telemetry, volunteers tracked her and made sure to see her every two or three days. Though the bird was moving a lot, she was never seen with prey and volunteers ended up providing her with some supplemental food to keep her energy up and keep her healthy. Months passed and the bird continued to travel great distances, but there was still no sign of her feeding on her own. Just when we began to wonder if she would ever hunt, volunteers found her with a large sloth in her talons! This was great news! However, we still needed to see her with prey a few more times, to make sure that this catch wasn’t just a lucky break for her. A few days later, the volunteer biologists found her perched above the carcass of a coatimundi. She was hunting on her own!

Despite everything this bird had been through, we knew that she now had a real chance!

Though working in the field of wildlife conservation can be daunting and saddening much of the time – as environmental problems seem to so often be worsening instead of getting better; when we hear of another Harpy Eagle, or wolf, or jaguar that has been shot and killed – it is these moments that make all the difference. For this is when we realize that, despite it all, we can do this! We can save a species or an individual; we still can make a positive change. There is no better feeling than that!

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