Q&A: raptor admits, releases, and more

When is SOAR going to release the Decorah area eaglets? How does SOAR evaluate patients for release? How do these birds fit back into the environment?

Conservation Officer

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer rescued this eagle south of Spencer on US 71 (Clay County, IA) after receiving word from a passing motorist.

First, we should talk about how sick and injured raptors get to SOAR! SOAR receives the injured birds (usually after several phone calls, text messages, and photos to assess the situation) with the help of volunteer rescuers and transporters, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Conservation Officers or biologists, county conservation board staff, a federal game warden, or other wildlife rehabilitation groups.

On admission, live birds:

  • are checked for major injuries — fractures and wounds that would need immediate stabilization, cleaning, and bandaging — these may need the attention from one of our two cooperating veterinary clinics
  • have their eyesight evaluated
  • have their feathers checked for damage and parasites, all admits receive medication to rid them of external parasites
  • are hydrated — most birds come in with some level of dehydration
  • offered food appropriate for their level of starvation
  • all bald eagle admits will receive a blood lead level test, a weight, determine age by plumage, beak depth measurement to determine gender, and an x-ray as appropriate. It takes two people to admit one bald eagle. Bald eagle data is maintained for ongoing eagles and lead research and is shared with classroom educators for use in science, STEM, technology, and language arts classes. Click here to learn more.

SOAR consults regularly with other experienced eagle rehabilitators and our veterinarians on appropriate care for admits and their unique needs.

After the exam, each bird is housed in an appropriate-sized intensive care ‘carry crate’ for security and to limit movement. The bird will stay in intensive care to monitor food intake and output, discourage movement of injured or strained body parts, facilitate any needed bandage changing, and administering of medications.

20x60 flight pen

These bald eagles are in “strength training” in the new 20′ x 40′ flight pen extension on 1 March 2019. This flight pen is now 20′ W x 60′ L x 20′ H.

Each bird recovers at their own pace, much like an injured human athlete. Once the bird is moved from intensive care, then the bird is put in a flight pen with others of the same species. In the flight pen, the bird is able to exercise muscles into shape. Time in the flight pen also will tell us if their vision is good. Bald eagles may first go to a 10×20′ flight pen to begin strength training. Young eagles may transition next to the 20×60′ before finishing their rehabilitation in the 100’ eagle flight pen. A 100’ flight pen is required for rehabilitating bald eagles.

We observe the birds from outside the flight pen. We look for effortless flight, with several laps around the pen without heavy breathing. We cannot predict how long this will take. Every bird is an individual.

Nestlings and fledglings of any species admitted may take more time in the flight pen. If they are physically able to fly, they will fly. We cannot simulate all the flying experiences and obstacles that these young birds will need to navigate, but each bird will be evaluated for flight skill and stamina. This is why the 100′ flight pen is so crucial to the development and recovery of bald eagles. Flying and hunting are instinctual.

The average amount of time in rehab for nestling / fledgling bald eagles in the last four years is just under 180 days.

With the return of good muscle-tone, effortless flight, and a healthy appetite, the bird is ready for release.



How does SOAR choose a release location? Will SOAR release the eaglets near their natal nests?

Kay worries more about the non-migratory birds, especially owls. With every bird, the key to a release site is appropriate habitat for that bird! Before release, we look for a major travel corridor to make it easy for them to find a new territory / open space. River corridors are often used. Weather plays a factor, too. We want to give these rehabilitated birds every chance at continued success, so will not release right before a winter storm or during one of Iowa’s blazing hot spells. Releases are timed and located to create the least disturbance to resident wild birds.

Birds that make giant movements she worries less about. Thanks to telemetry data from several sources (including one rehabbed bald eagle at SOAR and Brett Mandernack’s data) we know that bald eagles can make giant movements.

An adult bald eagle was admitted to SOAR on 9 July 2017 with a telemetry unit and USGS band. This eagle was originally banded and fitted for a telemetry unit in Oklahoma, read her rehab story here, and is part of an Oklahoma study. “Oklahoma” was released 27 September 2017. Oklahoma’s telemetry unit was turned back on and started sending data on 28 September 2017. This eagle went from central Iowa down through the Ozarks, to east-central Oklahoma, to the Oklahoma-Texas border, and then a huge shift northwards where in mid-April this eagle was on Benton Slough in the Mississippi River between Des Moines County, Iowa and Henderson County, Illinois. From there she headed to northern Minnesota with a brief jaunt into southern Canada before returning to Minnesota. On 16 May 2018 she was NE of Waskish, MN and Upper Red Lake. This eagle repeated the pattern in 2018-2019. She wintered on the Oklahoma-Texas border area. This summer she returned to Upper Red Lake (without any side trips to Canada) and was still there as of 30 June 2019.

Oklahoma travel map

mapKay also has experience with releasing an adult USGS banded bald eagle at SOAR. In 2006, a bald eagle was admitted from Mills County, Iowa with a band. We learned that she was banded as a nestling in Shell, Missouri in 1986!  She had a fractured humerus — which our veterinarian pinned. The wing healed nicely, she spent eight weeks in intensive care. After one month in the 100’ flight pen she was ready to go. This eagle was released on SOAR property. In March 2009 a call from the Conservation Officer in Mills County, he had a dead eagle with a band — yes the same eagle. From this report, we know that, with at least this eagle, she had fidelity to her nesting territory and flew over 100 miles back to Mills County after release. (Liver biopsy showed lead poisoning as cause of death. She was 23 years old and in perfect feather.) See map.

The adult eagles “know” where home is.

Kay also worries about releasing inexperienced hatch-year raptors. Because SOAR sits in the midst of a diverse, quality habitat with no eagle nests within several miles, many of these young birds are released at SOAR. With the recent addition to a flight pen, increasing the size to 20×60,’ and with a “hack window” added in the far end, this flight pen has been used as a place for soft-release. A soft-release is one where after the ready patient is used to eating and navigating in that flight pen, the hack window / door is then opened and the bird can leave when ready. This flight pen is then left empty, with the window open, and food available until Kay is sure that the released birds are not returning. These birds can also indicate they are not ready by not leaving. Appropriate food (i.e. a roadkill deer) can also be left at the pond on the property.

Watch this video from inside the 20×60′ flight pen.

This new 20×60′ soft release pen includes sky lights and rain access. This soft-release flight pen was finished in March 2019 and has already been used for seven bald eagle, one peregrine falcon, and two red-tailed hawk releases. This type of release is much less stressful on the bird and on the rehabilitator!

Will the 2019 “crop” of eaglets be released near their natal nests? Most likely not as the adults at the Decorah Hatchery nest and Decorah North nest are already showing post-dispersal behavior so will be too late to expect that the parents would take over any care or guidance. Based on these two nests that are faithfully monitored, we would expect that the adults at other nests where eaglets have been rescued to be exhibiting similar behavior. Also, as of 25 June 2019, there are still black flies at the Decorah Hatchery – not what we’d like to have at a release site.

SOAR has one public release event each year, usually held in late August. Occasionally a bird is released at someone else’s event, based on the habitat and good weather. Otherwise most releases are subdued and low-key to again keep the stress on the released birds to a minimum as they return to the wild. We do our best to document the release and share on Facebook.


Will the eaglets (or any young raptor) be able to learn to fly and hunt without parental help?

If they are physically able to fly, they will fly. We cannot simulate all the flying experiences and obstacles that these young birds will need to navigate, but each bird will be evaluated for flight skill and stamina. Flying and hunting are instinctual. Efficiency comes with experience that can only be gained through trial and error.


If the eaglets or any admit can’t be released, what will happen to them?

Any decision on an admit not suitable for release is done on a case-by-case basis after all rehabilitation options are exhausted. The options are few: place the raptor with an organization with the proper US Fish & Wildlife Service education permit and any necessary state permits (and proper housing), request transfer to SOAR / Kay’s education permit, or euthanized. Our veterinarians play a major role in this decision.


How do adult raptors “deal” with the loss of offspring that are rescued? Do the adults grieve? Do the adults look for the offspring?

From a lead Raptor Resource Project (RRP) Facebook moderator in regards to the recent admit of three hatch-year 2019 bald eagles from the Decorah Hatchery Camera and Decorah North Camera: “Most people seem to interpret not seeing the bald eagle parents on camera as those adults are “terribly sad,” or “grieving,” or “looking for their offspring.” RRP says that,  “Eagles and other wildlife live in the moment, they have to, and when the adult eagles are seen on camera we see that they are carrying on with the normal activities they do including perching which is about 90% or more of an eagles day.”

Nest cameras give us outsiders a rare glimpse into the wild bird’s world. We humans need to be careful to not put too much of our own feelings about the situation on those eagles. Do bald eagles or any wild animal grieve? Probably in their own way, but life for that animal quickly turns back to tasks at hand – feeding  yourself or any young still in the nest and defending territory.

The RRP moderator we spoke with does feel that both pairs (Decorah Hatchery and Decorah North) have recognized their eaglets are gone and are in a different mode of behavior… either post-dispersal or whatever term is applicable.  “We don’t know for certain if Mom Decorah and DM2 saw either of their eaglets being rescued. They were not noticed by rescuers of D33 or D32, but they hardly miss a thing that goes on in the territory or near the natal nest so I find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t have seen.”

At Decorah North, a note on 6/21/2019, two weeks after the rescue of DN9: “The last time one of the adult eagles was seen on cam was 6/15 on a favorite far stream tree, and before that on 6/11 also in a stream tree.  Both times we believe it was Mr. North. The last time seen together on cam as a pair was on 6/7… also on a far stream tree.”

At Decorah Hatchery, reports from the hatchery on 6/24/2019 are that no eagles have been seen in the morning at the hatchery for the last two days. The last pair sighting on camera was back on 6/11, though hatchery staff have relayed to us that both eagles were seen at the hatchery in the early morning the week of 6/17/19. Mom Decorah and DM2 were on site on 6/25 perched together for some time, and again on 6/27. They were in a different dead tree they like and not seen on the RRP cam, sightings were substantiated by folks on the ground that day.

Photoperiod plays a big role in bird behavior and with the longer days, molting might be next up for the adult eagles.