WINLOCK — Six bald eagles soared back into the wild near Winlock Saturday after being rescued from the brink of death.
The birds got a second chance to take wing after feeding on euthanized horse carcases left them in critical condition. They were nursed back to health after being saved by a neighborhood of concerned residents and helped by a Washington wildlife center.
More than 75 people gathered in a field on Harkins Road to witness the the six eagles — five juveniles and one adult — return to the wild. Some in attendance, including members of the Cowlitz and Hopi Indian tribes, said they saw the event as an uplifting, culturally significant experience.
“A lot of people are like me, just mesmerized by eagles,” said Sharon Thomas, the Winlock resident who started the neighborhood effort to save the birds. “It’s exciting to know they’re going to fly off and make more eagles.”
The six eagles took flight, falling just short of breaking the United States record of seven released at one time, according to specialists who saved the federally protected birds at the West Sound Wildlife Shelter.
“This feeling you get when they take off is just fantastic,” said Karol McFarlane, another Winlock resident who helped the sick birds.
At the release, the wildlife center announced the formation of the Fallen Eagle Fund, which will go toward medical treatment of all bald eagles at the shelter to help get them back to the wild.
Thomas first noticed one struggling eagle by her home at 164 Harkins Road on March 22.
Thomas and her neighbor, Darlene Osborne, called Raindancer Wild Bird Rescue in Olympia for help.
The next day, more neighborhood residents, including McFarlane and her husband, Roy, got involved after discovering a second poisoned eagle.
The neighbors found four more sick birds on March 24. When they found the last eagle, it was lifeless, unable to hold its head up.
“I thought it was a goner, but something told me to go back and check,” Osborne said. “I just wanted all of them to survive.”
By the time the neighbors were done transporting the sick birds, they were covered in stench.
“They stunk really bad. It was like a dead smell,” McFarlane said. “But it was worth it.”
The six bald eagles were suffering with vomiting and convulsions by the time they reached the West Sound Wildlife Shelter on Bainbridge Island. Some were unconscious due to consuming the potent drug Euthasol, which the horses’ owner, Debra Dwelly, used to euthanize the two animals on March 20.
“Poison is horrible, horrible,” said Lynne Weber, a rehabilitation specialist who treated the sick birds.
Teams of veterinarians and volunteers administered fluids and charcoal to get rid of the poison. Weber said two of the birds were comatose when they came in and had to be given atropine to get their hearts going.
After a week of rehabilitation, Weber said, the birds will have the chance to live 20 or more years, the typical lifespan of a wild eagle.
“It was really miraculous they were able to heal them, Thomas said.
Another Winlock resident, who wished to remain anonymous, found a seventh poisoned juvenile eagle that was released Wednesday after being treated by the Portland Audubon Society.
Had all seven eagles been released at one time, it would have matched the U.S. record.
“I would have prefered not to,” Weber said.
In an attempt to find out what was causing the birds’ illness, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field agent Steve Furrer was flying in a small plane over the field on March 24 when he found the first horse carcass. Thomas’ neighbors simultaneously found the second dead horse.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife is still investigating the case. The agency’s spokesperson, Joan Jewett, said poisoning a bald eagle, even inadvertently, is a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The offense carries maximum penalties of up to one year in prison and $200,000 in fines.
Jewett said once Fish and Wildlife finishes its investigation, the findings will be sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for possible charges.
Winlock resident Brian Menche and other neighbors guarded the contaminated carcasses for hours until the houses could be buried to prevent more animals from poisoning.
Menche said it took an entire neighborhood’s collaboration to bring the eagles back from near death.
“That’s what saved the day,” he said. “I think it’s divine intervention.”
At the eagles’ release on Saturday, a Hopi American Indian man from Arizona, who goes by the name Lomaoya, sang prayer songs and gave a blessing. Lomaoya said the national bird is culturally significant to many American Indian tribes.
“Eagles are the ones that fly us to the heavens to Father Sky,” he said. “We all need to stay afloat in this world. This is very important.”
Kelly Guerra, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, said she came from Chehalis to witness the return to the wild because of the eagle’s significance to American Indians.
“The eagle is revered,” she said. “This cultural experience makes my heart feel at peace. It’s righting a wrong.”