Eagle's freedom doesn't last long Ospreys attack bird released during Clinton visit to Md.

July 06, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

An immature bald eagle released at Patuxent River Naval Air Station to dramatize President Clinton's visit there Thursday got knocked out of the sky by four angry ospreys before the president had even finished his Independence Day speech extolling the comeback of "our national symbol."

The Navy, Coast Guard and Secret Service knew about the attack on the eagle before the president had stepped off the speaker's platform, but officials kept the enthusiastic crowd of invited dignitaries, military personnel and environmentalists in the dark.

"Talk about managing the news," said Robert Graham, a spokesman for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. Like most of those attending, he said, he learned of the eagle's predicament only from news reports yesterday morning. "This is all very strange."

The audience had cheered and clapped when the brown and black bird, too young to sport the trademark white head feathers, spread her wings and flapped powerfully into woods nearby.

About 15 minutes later, with Clinton still speaking, the eagle, nicknamed Freedom, was attacked by the ospreys as it flew toward the Chesapeake Bay about a half-mile from where it was released.

The 3-year-old female eagle, who has a 6-foot wingspan, was promptly fished out of the water by the Coast Guard and taken to a wildlife clinic in Delaware, where she was recuperating yesterday with a slightly injured wing.

Wildlife experts said the incident illustrates how rough nature can be. Eagles and ospreys often compete for fish and other food.

Freedom, enjoying her first flight in the wild since being injured three months ago, apparently flew right over its rivals' nests unwittingly.

It could not be learned yesterday whether the president knew of the downing of the eagle. The White House press office did not return telephone calls.

Craig Koppie, the federal wildlife biologist who shared the limelight with the president while releasing the eagle, said he learned of the bird's trouble from a Secret Service agent as the president waded into the crowd after his speech to shake hands.

Koppie said he kept quiet because he didn't want to tarnish the celebration.

"I genuinely wanted to see the president come out with flying colors," Koppie said yesterday.

He said he feared that news coverage of the eagle's abortive release would undermine the event, which was arranged to tout the administration's commitment to environmental protection.

"Our concentration was on the president and the moment, the beauty of the occasion," said Cathy Partusch, head of public affairs for the 7,000-acre naval air station on Cedar Point at the mouth of the Patuxent River.

Sallie Welte, a veterinarian and associate director of Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Inc. in Newark, Del., said she sutured talon cuts on Freedom's left wing and gave the eagle antibiotics to ward off possible infection from the injury.

"Freedom is doing fine," Welte said yesterday. It will be 10 days or two weeks before the bird is ready for another try at returning to the wild, she said.

Wildlife experts defended the decision to release the eagle.

Some injured wild birds are too badly hurt to be rehabilitated and must be kept in zoos or put to sleep. This eagle was not one of them, they said.

Freedom had been treated at the Baltimore Zoo for broken bones in her right shoulder after being found on the ground along the Gunpowder River near Aberdeen, said Koppie.

He speculated that the eagle might have been hit by a vehicle while feeding on road kill or accidentally flown into an obstruction, probably power lines.

The bird was transferred to Tri-State a few weeks ago so that she could exercise her mended wing in the center's large flight cage.

Other injured eagles have been returned to the wild without incident. An eagle dubbed Hope has not been spotted since being released two years ago by Mollie Beattie, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County.

Koppie, who has worked with eagles for more than a dozen years, said he chose the spot on Goose Creek for the release even though he knew there were osprey nests in the vicinity.

Ospreys and eagles were considered in jeopardy 25 years ago, largely because of pesticide poisoning, but ospreys -- also known as fish hawks -- have rebounded even more rapidly than eagles and are now a common site along the bay shore.

Eagles, which have been moved from endangered to threatened status under federal law, usually are the ones harassing the smaller ospreys, wildlife experts note.

They speculated that Freedom, who was unfamiliar with the St. Mary's County shoreline, might have been caught off guard by the suddenness and intensity of the ospreys' attacks.

"If you take a professional boxer and you set four thugs on him, he may not be able to defend himself either," said Mike Cranfield, chief veterinarian at the Baltimore Zoo. "Eagles and ospreys sort of have a wary coexistence," said Hugh Vickery, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "And this eagle found it out the hard way."

Pub Date: 7/06/96

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