FAIRBANKS — Animal care experts at Mt. McKinley Animal Hospital are using the death of a young golden eagle to get word out to Alaskans about the dos and don’ts of approaching and handling young or injured wildlife, especially now that baby bird season is upon us.

The subadult golden eagle was brought to the hospital on Sunday after it was found on the road in the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. The young eagle was not moving much when it was found, did not fly away from humans and was emaciated.

A few blood tests by avian veterinarian Hayden Nevill showed the eagle had low protein in its blood, an indicator of starvation.

Despite attempts to stabilize the bird, it died on Wednesday night.

Now, the hospital is using the bird’s death as a teachable moment to remind us what to do when we find injured or baby birds in the wilderness.

“When we come across an injured bird that’s been hit by a car or electrocuted or shot, a person often feels a sense of responsibility to try to fix or repair the bird,” Nevill said. “In those situations, we want to give the bird the best chance at recuperation. The best bet is to let someone experienced or educated give the bird a chance. That’s we why do it.”

Injured birds

The biggest thing to remember about injured birds is they are wild animals.

When an injured bird is brought into the hospital, the goal is to stabilize the bird and not push it over the edge, Nevill said.

“We do certain tests but hold off on diagnostic tests,” he said. “With the eagle, when he came in, we examined the wings to make sure there was no break and took a radiograph to make sure he hadn’t been shot. We did a blood test to see if he was anemic and what his protein level was. The protein level was low enough that we didn’t know if we could fix him but we knew he wasn’t in pain, so we started rehydration with fluids. Once it starts to get better, we give it very easy to digest food. The biggest risk is with birds or any other animal is that if their GI (gastrointestinal) tract isn’t used, you have to get the GI tract moving again to process food and absorb calories. If you can’t, the food could sit there and rot. You have to get them calories but you can’t overstuff them.”

In the case of injured birds, though, the causes for the injury could be numerous — gunshot, electrocution, exposure to oil or toxins or just natural causes such as  a physical defect or maybe the bird just wasn’t a good hunter. Rehabilitating an injured bird is something only trained professionals should do, Nevill cautioned, and not something for the masses to try to take care of on their own.

“Our primary goal of rehabilitation is to return a healthy bird to the population so it can breed,” Nevill said. “We don’t want to put it through the stress of captivity if it can’t be returned to breed. It takes lots of education to rehabilitate birds. If someone doesn’t have that training, it can actually be dangerous to release the bird.”

Baby bird season

The other big push the hospital wants to make is now that it’s baby bird season, don’t be too quick to scoop up a young bird you find on the ground. It may be just fine on its own.

The most common reason people find baby birds on the ground is that they are fledglings — little birds that look like adults with feathers on their wings and tails, hopping around on the ground trying to fly.

When they “fledge,” the babies are trying to leave the nest and could be on the ground for several days, often with mom or dad close by to keep an eye on the baby.

“When you call is when it is obvious it has a problem,” Nevill said. “Really, the No. 1 thing is keeping cats away from them. They are trying to fledge and leave the nest and could be on the ground for several days, so keep your cats, dogs and kids away from them.”

The cat factor

In a study released in January, scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats in the United States — including pets, strays and feral cats — kill 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals per year, making cats the biggest human-linked threat to wildlife in the nation. More birds and mammals die from cats, the report stated, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with buildings and other man-made causes.

 It’s that reason that birders and vets encourage cat owners to take responsibility and keep the kitty inside as much as possible.

And Nevill was very clear he is not anti-cat — he actually owns cats — but he stressed the importance of knowing how much of a toll cats can impart upon bird populations.

“It’s a problem in Fairbanks just like anywhere else,” Nevill said. “If people care about songbirds, keep your cat inside. Cats will catch birds, even well fed cats.”

Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or on Twitter at @FDNMfeatures.