Days before America's birthday, the national symbol made an expected visit to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier.
A juvenile bald eagle, likely less than a year old, flew into the Tavernier center Friday, apparently lured by the smell of food being doled out to resident turkey vultures by facility technician Dave Bingham.
"Dave's mouth hit the floor in awe," Executive Director Joan Scholz said. "The bald eagle was extremely hungry and thin. It came to the perfect place to get help."
The eagle was suffering from a genetic beak deformity that hinders its ability to eat.
"The top part of the beak didn't align with the bottom," explained center rehabilitator Amanda Barber. "When that happens, the top part isn't being ground down so it keeps growing until it becomes overgrown."
Bingham and Barber, joined by center volunteers, were able to capture the ailing bird about four hours after its arrival. Blood tests showed the eagle, probably a female, was suffering from low protein levels and needed care.
Since bald eagles are highly protected under federal law, the Wild Bird Center contacted a specialized treatment facility near Miami and made the transfer less than 24 hours later.
After a preliminary surgery by a veterinarian, it appears the eagle stands a good chance of eventually being released.
"They said there's about an 80 percent chance that she'll be releasable," Barber said. "That's really exciting news because I thought she would be a permanent resident somewhere."
Specialists from the Louisiana State University veterinary school are expected to examine the bald eagle for more evaluation.
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center has cared for a few eagles in its history, Barber said. "It happens once in a while but we don't see that many of them," she said. "It's pretty random to have one just show up here." It's not the first time that a protected species has made its own way to a local animal-care facility.
In March 2009, a young loggerhead sea turtle suffering from an infection and malnutrition was found in the boat basin behind the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. After two months of treatment, the turtle named Kincaid was healthy and gaining weight.
More than 30 years ago, an offshore dolphin stranded not far from the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key.
The population of bald eagles in Florida is growing, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in a report this week.
"Based on its 2011 aerial survey, the FWC estimates there are 1,457 active bald eagle nests in Florida," the report says, "nearly a 9 percent increase since 2008 when the state implemented a bald-eagle management plan."
A 1973 survey showed just 88 active bald eagle nests statewide when the population was devastated by pesticides that caused eagle eggs to weaken and break.
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