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More than 200 people gathered at Oak Grove Lake Park in Chesapeake Thursday afternoon, eagerly awaiting a chance to see a bald eagle released into the wild.

Ed Clark, president and co-founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, made the rounds through the crowd, showing off the 11-pound adult female that had been too sick to fly less than two months ago.

Then, he moved to the middle, counted to three, and launched the bird into the sky. It spread its roughly 7-foot wingspan and quickly soared above the trees.

“She definitely was ready to go,” Clark said.

Photo by Katherine Hafner 

A rehabilitated bald eagle soars over Oak Grove Lake Park in Chesapeake Thursday.

Chesapeake Animal Services responded to a call about the eagle in late October. Officers found it hurt and unable to fly and transferred the bird to the wildlife center in Waynesboro.

The eagle was “quiet but alert and responsive” at the time, the center said on its website.

Veterinarians found several issues with the eagle. It had corneal ulcers in both eyes, a broken talon, lesions on its feet and an old healed fracture on one leg.

The bird was also severely dehydrated and had a very high level of toxic lead in its blood – an amount known to cause permanent neurological damage, according to the wildlife center.

The care team gave the eagle fluids, antibiotic eye drops, anti-inflammatories and more, and it responded well to treatment. 

Over the past month and a half, rehabilitation staff helped the eagle rebuild its strength and stamina with daily exercises until it could fly consistently. 

Being released after just a couple months is rare, Clark said. Some birds need treatment for a year or more.

“Once she started feeling better, she let us know in no uncertain terms she did not like being in captivity,” he said with a laugh. “At least a half a dozen of my colleagues have been injured by this bird.”

eagle sized
Image via Wildlife Center of Virginia 

The eagle that was found injured in Chesapeake in late October. 

The Chesapeake eagle was one of almost 70 admitted this year – a record for the wildlife center, which opened in 1982. At least 15 of those birds came from southeastern Virginia. The statewide average over the past five years has been 46, which is still high, officials said. 

They include birds that were hit by cars, had nests destroyed by storms or were injured during territorial disputes with other eagles. Others, like the one in Chesapeake, suffered from lead toxicosis.

Clark said that lead comes from hunting ammunition left in dead animals, on which eagles feed. Even a piece of lead the size of a grain of rice can be fatal to an adult bald eagle.

“Each chunk is a toxic time bomb,” he said.

The increase in admissions is likely due to a combination of factors, he said.

On the positive side, it’s a reflection of bald eagles’ recovering population in Virginia. The number of nesting eagle pairs in the Commonwealth has grown from 20 to 1,500 since 1970 – a change of more than 7,000%.

“The good news is we have more eagles in Virginia than we've had probably in 500 years and maybe more than ever,” Clark said.

But that growth means more competition between eagles, which have been pushed out of their historical coastal habitat further inland. 

Climate change is also starting to affect their migration patterns and breeding seasons, Clark said.

Several more eagles are set to be released from treatment soon. Clark said he was pleased to see so many people show up for the event in Chesapeake.

“What a nice way to start the holiday season.”