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Beak to talons: a bald eagle exam

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Beak to talons: a bald eagle exam
August 13, 2019

It’s something you don’t realize about bald eagles until you’re two feet away from one: just how big they really are.

It was a Thursday afternoon at Northwest Trek, and the veterinary clinic had a very special patient. Sequoia, a recently-arrived bald eagle, was getting a wellness exam in preparation for joining her fellow eagles Salish and Sucia in the new Eagle Passage exhibit.

vet examining bald eagle
Veterinarian Dr. Allison Case, left, listens to Sequoia’s heart as keeper Wendi Mello holds her.

Sequoia was already under anesthetic, and keeper Wendi Mello carried her into the clinic, cradled like a child in gauntleted arms. Rescued from the wild with a shoulder injury that prevents her from fully flying, Sequoia still has all the impressive majesty of any bald eagle. At one year old, she’s still covered with the thick, white-flecked brown feathers of a juvenile, with a dark brown head that won’t get its signature white feathers for another few years.

As Mello steadied Sequoia’s head and held her feet together, still grasping tufts of grass from her behind-the-scenes home, the team swung into action.

eagle wing and vet techs
Veterinary technicians Sara Dunleavy, left, and Tracy Cramer prepare to take a blood sample.

As veterinary technician Tracy Cramer gently spread out one massive wing to take a blood sample, veterinarian Dr. Allison Case got to work trimming each two-inch talon, first with clippers and then a file.

As she worked she examined the pads of Sequoia’s feet. About half the size of a human hand, and covered in thick, knobbly skin, they’re one of an eagle’s deadliest weapons, able to exert up to 400 psi, pr pounds per square inch. (That’s ten times the grip strength of an average adult human.) Case called out observations to vet tech Sara Dunleavy, assisting today from sister zoo Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

“How is she breathing?” asked Case.

“Steady,” replied Mello, intently observing the feathered chest’s rise and fall.

eagle xray
Eagle x-rays. on the new digital equipment.

Case finished up the talons. “Let’s have the lights down, please,” she called, and Mello and fellow keeper Miranda Mauck gently laid the eagle onto an x-ray plate. Brand-new, it’s a digital system recently funded by the Northwest Trek Foundation that allows instant imagery whether in the clinic or out in the wildlife park’s meadows or forests.

As the room cleared, Dunleavy – clad in lead gowns – clicked the pictures one by one, showing Sequoia’s strong skeleton and small wing injury.

“Wow, look at that clarity,” said Mello. “These digital images are amazing.”

Quickly, the team finished up the exam. With Cramer supporting the eagle’s head, Case and Mello hoisted her onto the scale: 9.9 pounds. Case examined her cloaca (a bird’s excretory orifice), eyes and mouth cavity, palpated her organs, and filed her beak to a sharp tip while Cramer dosed her with a topical parasite preventative.

filing bald eagle talons
Dr. Case files Sequoia the bald eagle’s talons during an exam.

Through it all, Sequoia rested calmly, her eyes covered with pale feathered lids.

“Even their eyelashes are feathers,” Mello pointed out.

Finally, the exam was done, and Mello cradled the massive bird once more, her eyes covered in a towel to keep her calm, as she slowly awoke.

“There you go,” said Mello, as one eyelid flickered. “Wake up, Sequoia.”

The team walked Sequoia over to her habitat, and as the eagle began to stretch wings and talons, they quickly set her down and retreated, watching carefully until she was fully awake.

“She’s marvelous,” commented Case, and both keepers nodded in agreement.