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Three fluffy grey birds appear sleeping in a nest.
Information icon The eaglet and its siblings live in a tree not far from Sevierville, Tennessee. Photo by American Eagle Foundation.

A young life saved

Veterinarians remove hook from bald eaglet

Was that fishing line in the nest? A worried eagle watcher clicked on the website’s email link and started writing.

Then, a second time: click! The email went winging. It landed in Al Cecere’s inbox.

He read it and turned to his computer. Cecere called up the site where two cameras offered unblinking looks at three eaglets born in the top of a Tennessee oak tree.

Yes, monofilament. And that meant the 3-week-old bald eagles or their parents were in danger of swallowing the line – or, worse, ingesting a lure or hook. Cecere, president and founder of the American Eagle Foundation, acted immediately.

A good thing, too. An eaglet facing certain death is alive today, thanks to a guy not afraid of heights and a steady-handed veterinarian. Cecere engineered the young bird’s capture, operation and return to its nest – all in less than 24 hours.

Here’s how it happened.

On April 22, a monitor watching the eaglets in their nest saw strands of fishing line in the nest. The parents no doubt had snagged a fish, bringing it back to their young – bringing, too, monofilament and maybe a hook or two. The next day, watchers discovered more tackle.

When he saw the fishing line, Cecere got busy. On April 23, he called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). The agency is charged with protecting the bird, a creature whose numbers are increasing, but which once was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Would it be OK to visit the nest, and perhaps remove an eaglet if it had swallowed fishing tackle? Cecere asked.

Resee Collins, whose Service duties include the oversight of eagles and their nests in a 10-state region, didn’t hesitate.

“We typically don’t allow access to nests if there’s a normal situation going on,” she said. “But this wasn’t normal.”

Cecere then contacted one of the men who’d erected eagle cams in the boughs of the 80-foot tree. Can you climb that tree? The guy said yes. On April 24, they met at its base.

The man ascended the tree while Cecere waited on the ground, using a walkie-talkie to offer encouragement and advice on how to approach and handle the three eaglets in the nest. The man came back holding a fluffy gray handful of Haliaeetus leucocephalus. It was about the size of a chicken, with tremendous talons. From its beak dangled a length of fishing line.

They headed to a nearby veterinarian, whose X-ray equipment confirmed Cecere’s fears: a hook, resting in the eaglet’s stomach.

An x-ray shows a sharp hook within the eaglet's stomach
An X-ray revealed a hook in the eaglet’s stomach. Photo by American Eagle Foundation.

“Had he [the eaglet] pulled on it, the hook could have torn the inside of its stomach or throat and caused internal bleeding,” Cecere said. “The bird could have then died in its nest.”

The next call: to the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinarian Medicine. Dr. Michael Jones, who specializes in avian medicine, told them to come right away. It’s a 30-mile drive.

Jones and a colleague took the eaglet and anesthetized it. As the bird dropped off to sleep, they got busy. With Jones overseeing the procedure, his coworker opened the bird’s beak. She inserted an endoscope into it. The flexible device, about the diameter of a ballpoint pen, had a camera attached. The vets watched as it descended into the bird’s stomach.

A small bird with two hoses down it's throat during a veteranary operation.
The hook-removal procedure, performed at the University of Tennessee, took about an hour. Photo by American Eagle Foundation.

It came to a stop at a hook, barbed and lethal. Jones’ colleague placed a miniscule set of forceps into the endoscope and gently pushed. The forceps traveled through the endoscopic tube and came to a rest against the hook.

And then, the forceps’ twin clamps came together on the hook. Jones watched as his colleague reversed the procedure – forceps/hook out, endoscope removed. The eaglet came awake about 30 minutes later. The whole operation took less than an hour.

“It’s exciting,” said Jones, who once removed a diamond earring from a brilliant-plumed conure. “It’s what we do.”

A man wearing a shade hat holding a small, fluffy grey bird with a large sharp beak and talons.
Al Cecere and the eaglet he helped save. Cecere is president and founder of the American Eagle Foundation. Photo by American Eagle Foundation.

The next day, April 25, Cecere also reversed his procedure – Knoxville to Sevierville, the tree-climber heading up with a bird and coming back down empty-handed. The treetop cameras showed the youngster with its siblings, apparently fine. It’s possible the parents never knew their baby was gone.

But Cecere did, and he resolved to get it back as quickly as possible. A former filmmaker, he established the nonprofit organization more than 30 years ago after seeing a photo of 24 poached bald eagles.

“That photo just hit me over the back of the head,” he said, “and deep in my heart.”

Now, he oversees an organization with eagle cameras aimed on four nests. “We’ve been saving and protecting eagles for more than 30 years,” he said.

Even now, after all that time, Cecere said, something in him stirs when he sees an eagle in flight – or an eaglet in peril.

Learn more about bald eagles in the Southeast.


Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist

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