Adak Island eagles with burned feathers nursed back to health

dkelly@adn.comDecember 13, 2013 

The two young bald eagles were likely hunting for morsels of food in a trash dump on Adak Island when a fire charred their feathers.

Like other rural Alaska communities, the city of Adak burns its trash in a pit before taking it to a landfill. But in a recent burn, the flames badly singed the flight and tail feathers of two juvenile bald eagles. Stripped of their ability to fly, the eagles could have died if left untreated.

But a city employee spotted the animals, setting off a chain of events that brought the eagles more than 1,000 miles to be nursed back to health by an Anchorage nonprofit.

Now, it looks like both will survive -- and gain back their feathers after a molting season.

"I think these guys are really pretty lucky, considering," said Karen Higgs, a veterinarian who volunteers at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.

Several weeks ago in Adak, Keith Hamilton, an employee with the public works department, spotted one of the eagles while taking trash to the dump. He noticed it had singed feathers. Soon, he noticed a second bird, also with burn injuries.

Hamilton called the center in Anchorage and was told that without their wings, the birds were in trouble. He used a wool army blanket to corner and wrap up the birds, and placed them in a dog kennel for shelter.

Hamilton and his wife, Susie Silook, fed the birds halibut while they waited for the opportunity to send them to Anchorage for care.

"These were young and inexperienced," said Silook. "They don't know anything about fires."

Eagles are ubiquitous on the island, preying on rats and looking for scraps of food in trash dumps. Adak's burn pit is located at a quarry about a mile outside town.

Last week, the city built new containment structures to burn the refuse more cleanly, making it easier to transport to a landfill but also so birds have less material to go after, said Adak City Manager Layton Lockett.

"As we deal with waste management, the intent is never to harm an animal, obviously," Lockett said. "We do try to make sure we avoid anything of that nature."

Lockett added that Adak hoped for the best for the eagles.

"We do hope they learned a lesson," he said.

Only two flights a week depart from the island and the trip had to be postponed several days because of the weather. Alaska Airlines donated a flight, and on Thursday night, the birds traveled in the cargo area of a passenger plane to Anchorage.

On Friday afternoon, in a room in the Bird Treatment and Learning Center, a veterinarian, a staff member and a volunteer walked up to a cage to retrieve the animals. Each eagle was wrapped in an orange blanket and brought to a lit examination table.

"Never seen anything like this before," said Guy Runco, the volunteer coordinator at the center, as he was helping to hold one bird in place. The center has treated a total of 59 eagles this year, the majority of them bald eagles.

Veterinarian Higgs lifted a talon and pointed out peeled skin on the yellow underside. Both eagles lost flight feathers on both wings. Naked shafts protruded where feathers should have been.

One lost 95 percent of its tail feathers, leaving only charred stubs. The other lost fewer tail feathers but singed the feathers that coat its body.

Burn injuries are usually related to a bird landing on an electrical wire or being caught up in a forest fire. But victims of a municipal trash burn are a rarity, said Heather Merewood, executive director of the bird treatment center.

Higgs gently rubbed white ointment on the underside of the talons and administered antibiotics and pain medication, chased down with a chunk of salmon.

She said it appeared the birds were down on the ground, likely hunting, when they were burned. It isn't yet clear why they didn't fly, or were unable to.

"You always wonder what they were thinking," Higgs said, shaking her head.

Once recovered, the birds will be released into the wild on the mainland, near other eagles and a healthy source of food, most likely next fall, Higgs said.

They won't return to Adak Island. But Silook said she and Hamilton named the pair Tanaga and Kanaga, after the volcanic islands nearby.

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.


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