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Eagle family takes flight after surviving predator attack

The eagle parents received antibiotic treatment for superficial puncture wounds that likely would’ve become infected if they’d remained in the wild. A likely scenario involved the adults working as a team to protect one or both eaglets from a raccoon, coyote or another predator.

A pair of bald eagles and their eaglet soared back into the wild last week in Aitkin County after the parents recovered from injuries likely inflicted by a raccoon or another predator.

The Donahue family, visiting their summer home on Clear Lake near Glen, found both the eagles unable to fly with obvious injuries on June 21. DNR Conservation Officer Lt. Robert Gorecki responded to capture the birds and bring them to Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation in Garrison for care.

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Dr. Katie Baratto, a veterinarian at Garrison Animal Hospital who volunteers her time to tend to the wildlife in the rehabilitation center, said they expected eaglets when the call first came in.

“It’s a common time of year for babies to be in low branches and on the ground because they’re fledging and learning to fly,” Baratto said. “But we do see injuries and things like that, so we always check them and then try and get them back in the nest.”

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Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Lt. Robert Gorecki handles a bald eagle shortly before the family was released back into the wild Friday, July 2. Submitted photo / Jim Lease

When the adult male and female pair arrived in Garrison, however, Baratto said there was an immediate concern for their eaglets likely left behind, still learning to hunt from Mom and Dad. Back out to Clear Lake a vet technician and the DNR officer went — this time, accompanied by employees of Deerwood-based Bollig Tree Service. Sure enough, they located a nest occupied by two fledgling eaglets atop a 55-foot white pine. A tree service employee climbed and retrieved one of the two babies, while the other became frightened and flew away from the nest.

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“We were able to house the baby with the two parents in our new flight pen, which was awesome because they had plenty of room to move around and heal in there. And they were able to take care of their own baby while they were with us,” Baratto said. “And the other one, we just, we couldn’t do anything about it. So we crossed our fingers and hoped that he’d do OK until we could get them all back out.”

The eagle parents received antibiotic treatment for what Baratto described as superficial puncture wounds that likely would’ve become infected if they’d remained in the wild. While it’s impossible to know for sure, Baratto said a likely scenario involved the adults working as a team to protect one or both eaglets from a raccoon, coyote or another predator.

“The assumption would be one of the babies was on the ground at that point and they were trying to protect it,” Baratto said. “ … They’re like toddlers, you know. They crash and burn and they fall and their parents protect them, just like ours do. We just don’t get to interact with a family group of birds like that very often.”

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Submitted photo / Jim Lease

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The new flight pen at Wild and Free, which covers 100 feet in length and can be divided into three “rooms” for birds in the organization’s care, allows volunteers to secretly place mice and other food through hidden windows for the occupants to find.

“We didn’t have to do some of the prework of … chopping or ripping food up for a baby to be able to feed itself. We were just able to throw mice or whatever we’re feeding them in and the adults then took care of the baby,” Baratto said.

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Just over a week later, the protective parents and their progeny were ready to return home. On the shores of Clear Lake near the eagles’ nest, those who rescued the impressive birds — Gorecki and the Donahues — released them back into the wild. Gorecki said there’s a great chance the second eaglet reunited with its family, noting lake residents spotted the baby around the lakeshore just ahead of the release.

A DNR conservation officer for 15 years, Gorecki has tons of experience responding to calls of injured animals or those acting strangely, including eagles. But last week’s release did mark a first for the lieutenant.

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Submitted photo / Jim Lease

“It was a pretty unique experience, and we’re glad to be a part of it,” Gorecki said during a phone interview Wednesday. “ … Certainly it is the first time that I’ve released two adults and a baby, the three of them all at one time. That’s unique.”

Gorecki said officers don’t receive formal training in handling nuisance animals, so two younger officers accompanied him to the release to gain experience.

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“It is a lot of just learning by trial and error, learning from previous officers that you work with and in the field. And they’ll help teach you some of the tricks and ways of not only protecting yourself and protecting the animals when you’re capturing them, and of course, navigating releasing them,” he said. “ … I thought it was pretty fitting over the Fourth of July holiday, getting to release our national bird.”

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Submitted photo / Jim Lease

Good and growing

The eagle family released last week is just one of the releases conducted by Wild and Free in recent days. Also back to their environments recently were foxes, raccoons, squirrels, bunnies and songbirds. It’s the time of year, Baratto said, when a variety of baby animals who came in for one reason or another are old enough to live on their own — but this year is shaping up to be one of the busiest ever for the rehabilitation organization. So far in 2021, Wild and Free recorded more than 700 intakes of injured or abandoned animals.

RELATED: Orphaned bears get new lease on life in remote area of northwest Minnesota

“Last year during COVID, we weren’t sure how things would go. But I think there were so many more people outside last year, which was amazing. We had record numbers and we are on the move to break those this year,” Baratto said. “ … It’s been awesome. We’ve got some interns this year, which they’re getting great experiences and they’re able to help us give better animal care and help the volunteers, who we’re so happy to have back this year because we could have very minimal volunteer support last year. So it’s been a really good year. It’s been a really busy year.”

In addition to the new flight pen, Wild and Free also recently added a new mammal pen and is in the process of fundraising for a second bear enclosure. The organization can always use more volunteers as well, Baratto said, for those interested in helping Wild and Free. Volunteers must be 18 years old or older.

RELATED: Pine Grove Zoo welcomes orphaned baby river otter
The influx of animals and organizational interest hasn’t necessarily exposed Baratto or the team to any rare species or circumstances — they’ve been at this for decades, after all — but it has opened doors to more people to educate and help foster a love for the outdoors and its inhabitants.

“What has been cool is seeing how much people care. Because really, we don’t affect populations with what we do. It’s about the single animal and giving them a shot. And educating the public, because people need to know who needs help and who doesn’t,” she said. “ … In a time when everybody’s just been so stressed out and crabby, it’s just so nice to get that call — ‘We found a baby bird and we don’t want to do anything wrong, what should we do?’ You know, people care. And it’s nice to see.”

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Related Topics: MINNESOTA
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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