Q&A: rehab of hatch-year bald eagles

How do sick and injured raptors get to SOAR?

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.

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 another wildlife rehabilitation group’s volunteers.

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 (if done growing), 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 with other experienced eagle rehabilitators and our veterinarians on appropriate care for admits and their unique needs, as needed.

After the exam, each bird is housed in an appropriate-sized intensive care ‘carry crate’ for security and to limit movement. If hatch-year siblings are admitted together, depending on their condition and age, they may be housed together in an ICU room. 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.

How does SOAR evaluate hatch-year bald eagle’s progress?

four hatch-year 2020 bald eagles

Four hatch-year 2020 bald eagles in the 20’x60′ flight pen to refine flight and landing skills in preparation for release. In this pen are Dawson 1 (male, the shortest of them), Dawson 2 (female), Sioux (female), and Parkersburg (female).

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. Efficiency comes with experience that can only be gained through trial and error.

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?

SOAR worries more about releasing 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 Raptor Resource Project / Brett Mandernack’s data) we know that bald eagles can make giant movements.

The adult eagles “know” where home is.

Oklahoma travel mapAn 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. “Oklahoma” was released 27 September 2017. Prior to release, 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. Summer 2019 she returned to Upper Red Lake (without any side trips to Canada) and was still there as of 30 June 2019.


mapSOAR has released 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.

Read also

Will SOAR release eaglets near their natal nests?

While an adult bald eagle with an established territory and knows where home is, juvenile bald eagles do not have their own territory, nor do they have an understanding of The location of their natal nest. Because SOAR sits in the midst of a diverse, quality habitat with no bald eagle nests within several miles, most hatch-year bald eagles admitted before having fledged from their natal nest are released at SOAR. With the 2019 addition of a 20×60′ flight-pen 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 we are 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. Hatch-year eagles admitted to rehab after they have fledged may be released away from SOAR.

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

Read also

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 June 2019 admit of three hatch-year 2019 bald eagles from the Decorah Hatchery Nest Camera and Decorah North Nest 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 eagle’s 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.