Even though bald eagles build huge, strong nests to survive the elements, the nests aren’t invincible—proven by the unlucky fate of a nest that fell apart due to a storm last spring in South Florida that caused two baby eaglets to fall 85 feet to the ground. Thankfully, one chick survived, and was brought to VCA South Dade Animal Hospital in South Miami for treatment. Five months later, after surgery and months of rehabilitation, along with flying and hunting lessons—she flew freely into the wild for the first time in August!

A survivor’s story

After the fall on March 13, 2021, Audubon Eagle Watch volunteer Jeanne Kaufmann, who had been monitoring the nest, contacted Lloyd Brown, founder of Wildlife Rescue of Dade County (WRDC) to share that the surviving bald eagle chick appeared injured. Lloyd then contacted Ron Magill, communications director of the Miami-Dade Zoological Park and Gardens and local animal celebrity, who joined him and Jeanne to check out the injured chick after the fall.

With one of the eagle parents circling above, Lloyd carefully examined the surviving chick and noticed that it was severely dehydrated and one wing was injured. After discussions with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, it was determined that immediate life-saving measures were necessary to save the eaglet. The team then transported the injured eaglet to the WRDC facility for treatment and rehabilitation.

VCA donated veterinary services  

The team then called upon the complimentary expertise of Don Harris, DVM, at VCA South Dade Animal Hospital in South Miami, Florida, to examine the injured eaglet. Dr. Harris is an internationally regarded avian and exotic veterinary specialist.

“I examined the young eagle, and determined that it incurred a soft tissue injury after the fall, a sprain, in its right wing,” states Dr. Harris. “I devised a sling to relieve tension on the injured wing, and I recommended the bird undergo rehabilitation. The young eagle was improving in rehabilitation and was beginning to use its healing wing. Unfortunately, it further injured itself in its rehabilitation habitat. After x-rays back at the clinic, we discovered a new injury to the bird’s distal radius and ulna.” 

There was a bone fragment poking through the wing and cutting into the eaglet’s tendon, so surgery was required for the eaglet to fully recover. “During surgery, I removed the bone fragment and aligned the wing. In spite of the fact that other authorities in raptor rehabilitation said the bird would never fly again, we agreed that a figure-8 sling would be the best course of action for its successful recovery and our prognosis was highly optimistic.” 
Building strength to soar

Once strong enough to get back to flying lessons, Lloyd and his team dedicated many hours over the last several months to rehabilitate the eaglet. In her rehabilitation habitat at the WRDC, the growing eagle went to school to build her strength to fly. She also learned how to fish and hunt animals, which she may find in the area after her release. 

Thanks to a successful surgery by Dr. Harris, in addition to a variety of other treatments over several months, the eagle regained full use of her injured wing and was able to fly with a tether during her lessons. 

“To our surprise, in addition to fish, one of her favorite foods is iguana!” says Lloyd. “This is a unique adaptation to our South Florida environment with a potentially beneficial impact on efforts to control an invasive species.” 

Defying the odds, she flew beautifully

After more than five months of dedicated care and rehabilitation (of which out-of-pocket rehabilitation costs were covered by the Ron Magill Conservation Endowment at the Zoo Miami Foundation), as well as the surgery and medical services provided by Dr. Harris and VCA South Dade Animal Hospital, experts decided that the eagle was ready for release to live a fully free life and hopefully have chicks of her own. 

The emotion-filled, defying-the-odds release took place on Saturday, August 21, 2021, at 11 a.m. on the border of the main entrance of Everglades National Park. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine-Cava opened the bald eagle’s crate while national and local media captured photos and video of the eagle’s first untethered flight. It was extra special that this national symbol of freedom flew in the direction of the national park where those who saved her life hope she’ll thrive and be protected.

Finally, to protect future generations of this bald eagle family, the team also installed a more secure platform at the nest tree to prevent another collapse. Financed by the Ron Magill Conservation Endowment, the team also installed high-resolution web cameras around the reinforced nest platform. The team hopes the eagle pair will return to lay eggs and raise more eagle chicks in this tree—and we can watch another generation take flight! 
“"In spite of the fact that other authorities in raptor rehabilitation said the bird would never fly again... our prognosis was highly optimistic," says Dr. Harris.”