Den (dewhitton) wrote,

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Last night Helen phoned to ask if I could help her with a wedge-tailed eagle. The bird had become tangled in a fence and lost all her flight feathers. We were going to replace the lost feathers with those from a dead bird.

So today I arrived at Helen's farm at 10am. Gillian turned up not long after. Gil and Helen are trained raptor handlers while I am not, but the job would take three people so I was No.3.

We were followed out to the aviary by Helen's orphans, 19 young kangaroos, 2 wallaroos and a swamp wallaby, who all wanted a feed. Helen and Gil went in and I waited outside. There was no WAY I'd go into an aviary with a wild eagle. I'd met one of Helen's rescues last year, a sea eagle they'd named Lucrecia. These birds are insane.

So I held the door while 21 small macropods clutched at my pants and looked for milk. The wallaby hopped onto a 44 gallon drum, an effortless 4 foot vertical leap, so she could grab my hair and test my left ear for nipples. From inside the aviary came a brief round of banging and flapping, and they had the eagle.

Helen emerged holding the eagle's feet so the talons were in front. The eight incredibly long, really sharp black spikes clutched at the air when it saw me, and it opened it huge, amazingly sharp, pointy beak. I put the hood on the bird's head after a few attempts ("How do I do this without getting bitten?") and we went inside.

Helen held the bird's feet and head while Gil and I stretched out the wings and counted the lost feathers: 8 on the right, 4 on the left. Her right wing had lost all it's major flight and soaring feathers, and her left had lost 3 of the major wing-tip feathers and one major from the middle of the wing.

I held the wings out while Gil made a scalpel go red-hot in a blow-torch and cut away the damaged feather spines.* Mmmm! Burnt feather smells! Then we measured the length of what remained of each feather. R9 and R10 were so damaged less than 1cm remained of them. We would be working within the actual wing of the bird.

The bird was placed inside a large box ("Dear LG, Your 21" monitor boxes are just the right size to hold pissed off wedge-tailed eagles. Should you ever consider corporate sponsorship…") and we set about preparing the replacements. Gil and Helen examined the wings of a dead eagle and worked out which feathers we'd need, and what length they had to be cut. I labeled them with sticky labels: R10 to R4 and L10, L8 to L6. The replacement feathers had to come from the same place as they were going to go because each feather was a different length and shape.

They set about whittling bamboo kebab sticks down to the required sizes while I used a Ryobi cordless drill to clean out the interior of the spines. ("Dear Ryobi, Your cordless drill is instrumental in the repair of damaged eagle wings. Should you ever consider corporate sponsorship…") Then Gil used a 2-pak epoxy to glue the sticks into the feathers. ("Dear Araldite…") while Helen and I captured the eagle. I opened the box and Helen did all the towel throwing, grabbing sharp things, hanging on type of stuff.

Finally the bird was again upside down in the table while I held out the wings and Gil glued in the replacement feathers. Sometimes I had to drill out the feather spines. It was weird doing R9 and R10. The drill-bit went into the hole a good 3cm. I expected the bit to come out the other side, but it didn't. I didn't even hit a vein.

Finally all the feathers were in. We used bits of scrap paper to keep the feathers from gluing together, and occasionally has to twist one a fraction to ensure it lined up before the epoxy cured. Gil spread the wings and they looked okay, if a bit tattered. At least the eagle has usable wings again.

The operation took four hours. Right now the bird is on her way back to Coonabarrabran to live in a flight aviary where Gil can keep an eye on her. If things go well she'll be released into the Warrumbungle National Park.

Eventually she will moult those feathers and grow her own, which is as things should be.

*If you don't use a red-hot scalpel the spines split and crush.

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