When a bald eagle hits your car

The injured eagle
The injured eagle was initially treated at Wildwoods Rehabilitation Center in Duluth, but was later transferred to the Raptor Center in St. Paul. The bird was photographed at Wildwoods on Monday.
Courtesy of Wildwoods

On Monday morning, an odd request went up on Facebook:

A bald eagle needed a ride.

The large female eagle had been injured by a car, and was being held at Wildwoods, a nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation center in Duluth. Due to the severity of its injuries, the eagle needed to be transported to the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center in St. Paul.

"If you or anyone you know is headed south and has room in their car for a large dog kennel," Wildwoods' post said, "please call us."

Eagle fact: Possessing an eagle or its feathers without the proper permit is punishable by up to a year in prison.

Having the national bird in your backseat is rare — for many reasons. In 1940, Congress enacted the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which makes possession of an eagle — or even an eagle feather — a crime punishable by a $100,000 fine or a year in prison.

But there are exceptions to the statute, including an allowance for those attempting to treat wounded birds.

Robbi Tribbey of Superior, Wis., ended up volunteering to drive the bird. Her 17-year-old son, Devin Lindberg, came along for the ride.

"In the car, I looked at him and said: 'How many people do you think are on the road right now with a bald eagle in a box?'"

Tribbey felt it was her duty to take the eagle on its St. Paul road trip. After all, she said, she was the one who hit it.

"Obviously I didn't mean to," Tribbey said. She and her son had been driving back from their cabin on Sunday evening. They were just south of Dairyland, Wis., when they saw the bird feeding on roadkill in the brush on the side of the road. It tried to take off right in front of their Suburban. "I slammed on the brakes and it hit the front grill of my car, then the windshield. It went up and over and landed back in the road."

Eagle fact: Benjamin Franklin once wrote that bald eagles are "a bird of bad moral character."

That was the beginning of the family's three-hour dance with the injured eagle. They shooed it out of the road to protect it from other cars. They held up blankets to keep it from getting spooked by traffic. They called every number they could think of: the DNR, local veterinarians, the Raptor Center. No one was available to come out and assist.

The best thing to do, Tribbey finally decided as it was getting dark, was to get the eagle in the car. The Raptor Center advised her to use a cardboard box, which a passing motorist donated to the effort.

Tribbey's son carefully captured the bird.

"I told him to pick it up like you're picking up a turkey, but carefully, with the talons away from you," Tribbey said.

Back in the car, with the eagle under a blanket in a cardboard box, Tribbey and her son named the bird. "We call her America."

A bald eagle
A bald eagle spotted in Minnesota
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Midwest Region via Creative Commons

With wildlife rescues closed for the night, the family ended up keeping the eagle overnight in the car, with the windows cracked, in a borrowed dog kennel. On Monday morning, Tribbey drove America to Wildwoods in Duluth.

Eagle fact: Full-grown female bald eagles can have a wingspan of up to 8 feet.

Sarah Glesner, an animal care supervisor at the rehabilitation center, assessed the eagle. "She weighed just over 10 pounds, which sounds like not too much, but for a bald eagle, that's pretty big. Her feet were the size of my hands," Glesner said. The bird was one of the largest eagles Glesner had ever encountered. Female eagles can have a wingspan of up to 8 feet. Due to the eagle's size and the scarring on her talons, Wildwoods estimated she was an older adult bird.

While the eagle incident was a once-in-a-lifetime encounter for Tribbey and her son, Wildwoods triages eagles with some regularity. The majestic birds were once in danger of extinction, but thanks to federal recovery programs, the population has rebounded in Minnesota and around the country.

In 1963, there were fewer than 500 known breeding pairs in the country. By 2007, there were nearly 10,000 pairs, and the birds were removed from the list of endangered species.

With the growing number of eagles comes more frequent encounters with people — and that can often lead to injury. Glesner estimated the facility has treated 20 eagles so far this year, including one day when three eagles were admitted within a span of just six hours.

Some of the eagles Glesner oversees have been hit by cars or trucks, but many more present with symptoms of lead poisoning. From her initial examination of America, Glesner theorized that the bird had both issues: Sickened by lead poisoning, the bird had been unable to take off in time to avoid Tribbey's car.

Eagles often contract lead poisoning from eating fish that have swallowed lead sinkers, or from scavenging the ammunition-riddled carcasses left behind by hunters.

After Wildwoods triaged the bird, the facility made the decision to send the eagle to the Raptor Center for continued care. The small nonprofit relies primarily on volunteers to operate, so it did what it usually does: Put out a call on social media to see if someone could give America a ride.

Glesner always gives volunteers some quick tips about driving with an eagle in the car. "Make sure the car is as quiet as possible, no radio, no excessive talking," she said. "And no extra handling. No stopping to take a photo, no stopping to show other people. Think about the amount of stress the animal is in."

Eagle fact: In the wild, the average eagle life span is 15 to 20 years.

In the end, Tribbey ended up volunteering — they'd come this far together already. Wildwoods loaded up the eagle in a dog kennel, and off they went.

The Raptor Center in St. Paul admits about 100 eagles every year. The center is part of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. Lead poisoning and miscellaneous trauma — which can include being hit by a car or train — are the leading causes.

"Right now we have 15 bald eagles and one golden eagle in our clinic," said Julia Ponder, the center's executive director and one of the veterinarians. "Last week, which is not common at all, we had a bird that had a collision with a plane over the St. Paul airport."

The center assesses sick and injured raptors, including eagles, hawks and owls, to determine which have the potential to be released back into the wild. For the eagles that don't survive, the federal protection act becomes critical once again.

All eagle feathers and carcasses must be sent to the National Eagle Repository in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Denver. The repository is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which handles the distribution of eagle feathers and other parts to Native Americans. In order to obtain eagle parts for religious ceremonies, Native Americans must submit an application.

"Numbers of requests, by far, exceeds the number of eagles available," according to the repository's website.

For birds that do recover, the Raptor Center stages a release day. The event is open to the public. This year's Fall Raptor Release is on Saturday, Sept. 26, at the Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center in Hastings, Minn. Ponder estimates the center will release six birds.

America's fate, though, is unclear. When contacted, Ponder said that two eagles injured by cars were admitted on Monday, but she wasn't sure which had arrived from Duluth. One eagle was still being treated, while the other was paralyzed and had to be euthanized.

"That's a typical day at the Raptor Center," Ponder said.