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Oily the eagle flies free again

By Emily Carlson 9:21 PM January 9, 2014

He was one of the most difficult cases Bird TLC had ever seen, but left a mark on the center no bird has before

HAINES - Eagles are the symbol of freedom and they’re meant to soar in the wild, free from any restraints. Sometimes they run into trouble, however, and it’s usually at the hands of humans.

An eagle that was recently brought to an Anchorage rehabilitation center is one of the most difficult cases the Bird Treatment and Learning Center has ever seen. But he left a mark on the center no bird ever has before.

Tucked away in the pristine beauty of the Chilkat Valley is a remote place where eagles soar and people flock. Thanks to the latest salmon run in North America, every winter comes the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world.

Every November, Haines hosts a Bald Eagle Festival. This year is the 20th year, and the weeklong event culminates with an eagle release.

This year it’s extra special. Some of the people traveled more than 700 miles to watch a special bird fly back into the wild. Over the past 10 months, they fell in love with the eagle as they nursed him back to health.

At Bird TLC, the center sees about 800 birds every year. Their injuries range from broken wings to abandoned baby birds. But last February, a mystery arrived at their door. A bald eagle from Kodiak came in covered with some sort of sticky mess. The wildlife officer who found him thought it was oil.

“We used Dawn. You’ve seen the wildlife commercials, Dawn gets that stuff off,” said Heather Merewood of Bird TLC. “We gave him a nice Dawn bath and the water washed off clear.”

After a number of baths, the sticky stuff remained. Frustrated, Bird TLC clipped some of the bird’s feathers and sent them to a lab. It turned out the bird was covered in something humans thought was harmless to leave outside uncovered.

“I don’t know what happened with this guy, why he ended up in a bucket of linseed oil,” Merewood said. “Why there was a bucket of linseed oil sitting out? If there was a fish in it … I don’t know but he was covered from head to toe in what we think is linseed oil.”

It took several more baths for volunteers to wash bird 13-05 clean. Bird TLC sticks to numbers to keep emotions out of the equation.

“I think everybody gets attached to all of them a little bit, but this guy in particular cause he was the problem child,” Merewood said. “What’s going on? This isn’t fish oil, what’s going on with this guy?”

Then something happened that has never happened to a bird headed back to the wild at the rehabilitation center.

“You do get some birds where they have an interesting story and they end up with nicknames,” she said. “So yeah, this is Oily.”

Soon Oily was healthy enough to start flying again. Nine months later he was clean, molted and flying again. It was almost time to kick Oily out of the nest. Back in Haines, Oily’s most dedicated volunteers bid for the chance to release him back into the wild.

“Oily is a special bird,” said volunteer Cathy Loughlin. “But there were times when people thought that he may not be releasable.”

Loughlin traveled 775 miles and paid $200 to release Oily. She was nervous, and wondered if all the hard work would pay off. After months of rehab, was Oily strong enough to fly away?

In just seconds, Oily flapped his wings and flew away. For bird lovers, it was the perfect moment. They may never see Oily again, but volunteers know the bald eagle is back where he belongs: Soaring the sky with other eagles — a symbol of freedom back in his place.

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