Indiana Department of Natural Resources employee Jim Robertson had just planned to mow an area near Lake Monroe. He didn’t expect he would be saving the life of a bald eagle that July day.
The eagle was sitting on a nearby fence post and didn’t react to the sound of the mower approaching. When he stopped mowing, the eagle took off, but only flew about 20 feet before falling into weeds.
Robertson called Rex Watters, a wildlife specialist at Lake Monroe, and Watters got in contact with the Indiana Raptor Center in Nashville.
“That was one lucky eagle,” said Laura Edmunds, a master falconer, vice president and director of education at the center.
The eagle had contracted the West Nile Virus through a mosquito bite. The window for treatment is only about four days, Edmunds said. After that point, the eagle would have been unlikely to recover.
It wasn’t too late. By Aug. 24, the eagle was able to be released after only about a month in recovery at the center, Edmunds said.
While the virus itself is not deadly to the eagles, the effects are, she said. Weak eagles are prevented from hunting and starve to death. If they have lost too much muscle, they may not be able to recover.
Edmunds estimated that the raptor center had to euthanize about 25 birds with West Nile Virus last year that reached the center too late to recover. Yet, they were also able to release about 15 back to the wild.
The eagles at the 15 to 16 nesting sites around Lake Monroe play a key role in the local environment by keeping the carp population in check, Watters said.
“Carp are overproductive, and they can dramatically change the quality of the water in an area where they’re overpopulated,” Watters said.
The Lake Monroe eagles all originated from eagles reintroduced to the area from Wisconsin and Alaska in the 1980s, Watters said. They take about five years to mature to breeding age, so saving one that is part of an active breeding pair that’s been in the area for about eight years is significant, he said.
Anyone who sees a bird in apparent distress can contact the DNR, or Animal Control at the sheriff’s department, Edmunds said.
The raptor center begins seeing most birds with West Nile around July 1 each year, Edmunds said. Signs to look for are a bird on the ground that either makes no attempt to fly away when approached, or that attempts to fly and cannot.