Fisherman Rescues Drowning Eagle: Explaining Viral Video

When Don Dunbar went fishing on September 8, a young bald eagle probably wasn’t the catch he had in mind.

But that’s what he got as he encountered the waterlogged raptor floundering in the waters of Nanoose Bay (map) in British Columbia, Canada. The raw video Dunbar shot while bringing the bird on board using a net has gone viral. (Also see “Five Bald Eagle Cams to Watch Now.”)

When the stunned youngster proved unable to fly, Dunbar brought it to a local wildlife rescue center, O.W.L. Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society, of Delta, British Columbia.

National Geographic spoke with Mindy Dick of O.W.L. to learn more about what happened in the startling video and to find out how the animal is faring now.

You’ve seen the video and have now worked with the bird that stars in it. What do you think happened here?

What happens commonly with bald eagles is they sort of misjudge the size of the fish, and they sometimes just cannot carry it away, and instinctually they just will not let go of it either. Sometimes they end up getting dragged under a bit.

But they can swim. They have very strong wings, and if they’re close enough to shore they’ll just continue hanging on to the fish and drag it onto shore. We don’t really know, but we can only surmise that’s what was going on here.

Was this unusual?

This happens a lot around here actually. We have a very large bald eagle population, but normally they’re pretty good swimmers and normally they would swim away from a human being and not toward them.

So it did seem like he was completely exhausted and had been in the water for some time as he was completely waterlogged.

They just won’t let go of the fish even if it’s dragging them under?

[Raptors] have incredible pressure and crushing power in their feet. Eagles, they tend to lock on [to their prey]. When they lock on … they just don’t want to let go. (Watch a video of a bald eagle family in Washington, D.C.)

What type of fish would he likely have been going after out in Nanoose Bay this time of year?

Salmon, most likely.

What can you tell me about this particular eagle? How old is it?

It’s a first year. A fledgling. He’s kind of having a hard time because he was learning how to fly and hunt at the same time. [In fact,] all birds of prey have a 60 percent mortality rate in their first year.

At one point in the video it looks like he’s stretching out his wings. Is that in an attempt to dry off?

That’s what they do. Even when it’s pouring rain, you’ll see them sitting up in trees doing that. It’s how they dry out their wings instinctually. (See National Geographic’s backyard bird identifier.)

Are their feathers water resistant?

They are water resistant to a point. They all secrete oil through a gland at the nape of their back, near the tailbone, and when they’re preening they’ll reach back and get some oil from that gland and disperse it through their feathers. But underneath their great primaries [primary feathers] is a lot of down. So if that gets wet, like this guy, that’s going to weigh him down.

How would you rate the animal’s chances of survival if the friendly fisherman hadn’t come along?

I believe he probably would have drowned and gone under due to exhaustion. That bird was fighting for his life. He was half the weight he should have been at this age. [He was] very, very emaciated when he came in.

How is the eagle doing now?

He needed pretty immediate medical intervention. As it turned out, he actually had E. coli. What is going on now is, with antibiotics and special feeding he’s doing fantastic.

I’m really, really thrilled with his progress.

What’s the process now? Will he be reintroduced into the wild?

If all goes well, he will graduate slowly through our facility, and from there he’ll go to an outside enclosure. He’ll have the opportunity to hunt, [and] we’ll likely put him with an adult to show him the ropes.

[With an] early fledgling, it could be that he didn’t get many lessons from mom or dad or that something happened to them, and all of that could have contributed to his downfall.

It’s probably going to be a good month and a half to two months [before the eagle is returned to the wild]. We’re going to release him where he came from.

What’s your advice for someone who finds themselves in an odd situation like this with a wild animal?

The advice I give people who encounter wildlife is to actually look up your local wildlife rescue center and put that number in your phone. Do not attempt to rescue wildlife on your own. It’s incredibly dangerous. With this rescue the bird was completely exhausted, but in other cases they can be pretty dangerous.

You can learn more about the eagle’s progress on the O.W.L. Facebook page.

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Stefan Sirucek is a writer and journalist who reports from both sides of the Atlantic. He's written for the Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @sirstefan.