Baby Golden Eagle Survives Wildfire

Image Credit: Leah Hogsten, The Salt Lake Tribune/AP Photo

A baby golden eagle is recovering at a wildlife rehabilitation center after surviving a Utah wildfire last month.

Kent Keller, a veteran Utah Division of Wildlife Resources volunteer, found the burned eaglet on June 28 behind a charred juniper tree. The bird was about 25 feet below its nest that was burned in the 5,500-acre Dump Fire near Saratoga Springs.

Keller, who has banded almost 2,000 eagles during his 38-year research study, was returning to the nest site to retrieve a band he had placed on the eagle June 1.

"I knew the nest was gone, and I knew for sure that the eagle was dead," Keller said. "I was shocked when I saw him standing there. All of his feathers were burned off."

The 70-day-old eaglet had suffered burns on its talons, beak, head and wings. Its flight feathers had melted down to within an inch or two of its wing and tail and at a little more than 5 pounds, was very underweight..

"I saw that there was food around him, so his parents were trying to feed him," said Keller.

Keller left the eagle behind and talked to federal wildlife agencies about the burned bird. About six days later, on July 4, Keller received permission to capture the eagle, which he did, and drove it to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden. The center assumed care of the eaglet this week.

"The eaglet is doing very well," said Dalyn Erickson, the center's executive director and wildlife specialist. "He has gained almost a pound and a half, and burns are looking good. We are going to remain guarded, but we are optimistic."

The cener named the eaglet Phoenix, a reference to the mythical bird that dies and turns to ash but resurrects itself as a fiery, majestic creature.

"Cliche as it is … the name just fit so well," said Erickson.

Erickson said that the center was trying to keep Phoenix's treatment as natural as possible.

"Birds eat everything; they eat all parts of the animal. Right now we are only feeding him elk meat and deer meat because he isn't ready to digest and cast out an entire prey animal," said Erickson.

If everything goes well, workers hope that Phoenix can return to the wild by fall 2013. The eaglet still has to go through complete molting before it can even begin to fly.

Phoenix is also going through extensive therapy to treat his burns, including hydrotherapy for his feet and beak.

"We're only bringing him out when we need to medicate him and feed him," said Erickson. "We're trying to be cautious about how much human exposure he gets. We don't want him to get too dependent on us.

"His survival is nothing short of a miracle," said Erickson. "Also, Kent Keller is a hero in my eyes. Taking the time to find and save the eagle was awesome on his part."