IFAW BRRC: Diary of raising an eaglet: the miracle of care
Diary of raising an eaglet: the miracle of care
By Li Ying (Linda), BRRC March 2009
An orphaned baby eaglet arrived at the International Fund for Animal Welfare Beijing Raptor Rehabilitation Center (BRRC) on a bright June day, helpless, starved and very much alone. A kind person had found the little creature in a Beijing suburb that morning and had rushed him to BRRC.
The eaglet was only two weeks old, a fluff of soft feathers and a voice twice the size of his body when he was hungry. He ate voraciously and didn’t waste time with a picky appetite. If a caretaker was too slow feeding him, he would peck the forceps as a stern reminder that there was a hungry little eaglet down here and won’t you keep up with his gullet, please!
Caring for an orphaned bird so that it grows up fit for survival in the wild requires great skill and care. Baby birds easily become imprinted on their food provider: that is how they evolved to recognize a parent who would care for them. When a human feeds them, they quickly become imprinted on the face and voice of the feeder. A human-imprinted bird will not do well in the wild, as it identifies more with humans than with its own species.
At BRRC, our foremost objective is to rehabilitate birds to survive in the wild. We believe that wild animals belong in the wild and we do all that we can to help them to do so. When raising an orphaned baby, we carefully provide barriers between the caretaker and the baby so that it doesn’t learn to identify food and care with humans. To feed the babies, we use hand puppets that look like the adult bird. The puppets are extended through holes in a cardboard “wall” so that the baby does not see the person’s face. We do not speak when we work with the babies so that they do not imprint on human voices. All this requires a terrible degree of restraint on the part of the caretakers: the urge to cuddle and coo at the beautiful little creatures is almost overwhelming. But we adhere strictly to the procedures that ensure a wild future for the glorious eagle that this little ball of fluff will become.
We built a nest for Little Eaglet in a basket filled with soft grass and stones. He nestled in, cozy as though under his mother’s wing. His instinctive sense for hygiene kept the nest clean and unsoiled. When he need to go to the toilet, he climbed up on the side of his nest and cocked his tail over the edge into the great blue sky.
Little Eaglet developed so quickly that he actually looked different every single morning. It was like watching a flower grow on a time-lapse film. Within three weeks he had shed his downy coat and began to grow flight feathers. One day he marched out of his nest and lifted himself into the air onto a real perch for grown-ups. We nearly burst with pride, watching him. He was now a young and handsome Grey-Faced Buzzard Eagle. This is a protected species in China, a rare and magnificent creature.
But now who would teach him how to be an adult? How would he learn to hunt and build nests and find a mate and learn all the things that an eagle needs to know?
Luck was with us that summer. An adult Grey-Faced Buzzard Eagle had been rescued by someone else that same summer. She hadn’t done well, and BRRC received her gladly and quickly restored her to good health. And now Little Eaglet had a friend and teacher. A month after Little Eaglet came to us, the two eagles were introduced and they were fast friends. Little Eaglet followed the adult bird everywhere and copied her behavior relentlessly. In no time at all he learned to fly and to swoop and maneuver as an eagle does.
Little Eaglet gained strength and agility and skill and made it increasingly clear to us that he didn’t need us any longer. His mentor was strong and healthy now and also ready to return to the sky. And so on a sunny day in August that year we drove the pair into a quiet, leafy area far outside the city. We lifted the shrouds from their heads and they stood for a moment, testing the air, assessing the new environment. And then they lifted their wings, pushed the air beneath them with their powerful limbs and without a backward glance soared above the trees. There wasn’t a dry eye among us. We had done our work well, and now they were in the wings of the Great Eagle God in the sky.
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