By Konstantine Fekos
Rarely do wildlife rehabilitation workers get to see beyond the graduation of ill and injured animals nursed back to a healthy release into the wild.
Volunteers and administrators of the Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center are certain they’ve come upon such a gem.
Reports from observers in Warren County say Freedom’s Spirit, a bald eagle rushed to the center for treatment about six years ago, has risen to her full potential, nesting successfully and even raising a family.
Spirit, born and banded in New York, serves as both a symbol of national pride as well as a living example of her species’ attraction to northwestern Pennsylvania, according to Tamarack Center staff.
“She is a magnificent bird,” said Carol Holmgren, assistant rehabilitator and education coordinator for the Tamarack center. “It took months of effort and the assistance of many people to put her back in the wild.”
Freedom’s Spirit suffered a fractured wing after being struck by a car near Youngsville, Warren County, in mid-January, 2006. Her speedy admission to Tamarack by the hands of passers-by and veterinarians led to a strong start on her steady road to recovery.
“She suffered a compound fracture,” said Sue DeArment, Tamarack’s executive director. “The bone was visible and part of it splintered.”
Tamarack Center volunteers examined and dressed Spirit’s wounds before sending the bird of prey to Dr. Jamie Lindstrom of Animal Clinic Northview in North Ridgeville, Ohio.
“Lindstrom said she was a good candidate for surgery,” DeArment said, recalling the operation’s success despite the fact most eagles don’t survive wing injuries due to infection or respiratory complications.
For the next nine and a half months an eagle rehabilitation team, comprised of Tamarack volunteers possessing a calm temperament, led Spirit in physical therapy consisting of short, guided flight in buildings ranging from 40 to 100 feet long.
“Nine and a half months is an extremely long time for any bird to recover,” said DeArment. “Eventually, we got her to an outside enclosure where she would fly up to different perches at certain heights; she progressed until she flew perfectly.”
During her stay in Tamarack, the 3-foot 6-inch eagle received her name from a community poll in which the most popular results were “Freedom” and “Spirit.”
Along with votes for a name, community schools, organizations and individuals donated hundreds of dollars to the Tamarack center, helping the nonprofit organization provide food and medication to its patient.
By early November 2008, Spirit’s 7-foot wingspan could carry her to familiar heights and she was released by Brokenstraw Creek, close to where she was found, before a crowd of teary-eyed volunteers and onlookers.
“We were very fortunate to release this bird back into the wild,” DeArment said. “And to see the outcome of the release, that’s what makes it so meaningful to those who worked with her.”
While remaining in the hearts of her caretakers, Spirit faded into a lifestyle as remote as the surrounding wilderness, until nearby wildlife observers contacted the center, positive the birds they’ve been watching are Spirit, her mate and at least two eaglets.
Some of the wildlife watchers attended Spirit’s release and called the center, reportedly after recognizing her bands, silver and blue, from the National Banding Association and her New York origins respectively.
“(The observers) are very careful to stay far away so as not to disturb her,” said Holmgren, who shared one couple’s report of Spirit in courtship flight, talons locked with her mate, near her new nest, approximately half of a mile from Brokenstraw Creek.
Spirit is expected to remain at her nest this coming spring, often perched atop a tree near the place of her release, State Gamelands 143.
“Those of us who worked with this bird all teared up to hear that she is doing well and raising chicks near where she was released,” said Holmgren. “She touched us all; we’ll never forget her.”
The Tamarack Center admits birds of prey, or “raptors,” adult seed-eating songbirds, opossums and turtles and has handled more than 150 cases of sick or injured animals so far this year.
As a nonprofit organization, the center relies on donations, memberships and contributions for education programs to treat wildlife effectively.
Volunteers are currently treating a variety of patients onsite, including owls, hawks and three bald eagles.
YOU CAN HELP
Community members can sponsor one of the center’s education birds for themselves or as a holiday gift. For $25, sponsors receive a certificate, color brochure about the bird they’re sponsoring and a 5-by-7-inch photograph of the bird. All funds support the sponsored bird’s care, and treatment of injured wildlife.
If hunters have extra unmixed venison during hunting season, the center can use it to supplement the diet of raptors for which they care. Hides can be taken to Ridge Road Taxidermy, 16825 Ridge Road, Meadville.
Hunters are asked to bury any portions of an animal containing the ammunition used in order to prevent unintentional lead poisoning of eagles who might eat the remains.
Eagle population soaring
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has estimated more than 217 bald eagle nests residing in state woodland areas since 2011 — led by Crawford County with at least 19 active nests.
With most nesting pairs producing eaglets, the upward trend of Pennsylvania’s bald eagle population, though still in a “threatened” state, is projected to continue.
Crawford County is considered by many observers to be the salvation of the state’s bald eagle population. For decades after World War II, the Geneva swamp area hosted the only nest in the state. Eaglets were occasionally removed from that nest for relocation, and others moved away on their own. The propagation efforts of the local nest were carefully protected by state officials. The statewide population growth began in the 1980s and continues to prosper. Top counties besides Crawford, based on a 2010 report, are Pike 19, Lancaster 18, York 10, Erie 8, Northumberland 8, Mercer 7, Tioga 6 and Warren 5.
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.