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.

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.     

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.
  • Larry Hawley

    Great job by this young man. My son Is part of a wildlife refuge center here in Utah and has a handler permit,he gets a lot of calls about downed raptors and helps reintroduce them back to the wilds, also we have lost a lot of raptors here with west nile virus,sad to see some of these beautiful birds die.

  • Pat

    rather than talking to the camera, please just help the poor thing!

  • Jessie Olson

    Beautiful! Good people doing good things for nature, just as nature does for as. Good on you! Keep paying it forward

  • peter dearsley

    I hope Don Dunbar is faster to land his fish than he is his eagles.

  • Trevor Erich von kaschje

    Wow . That just shows you it want help and you where there in the right spot . Thanks for been there for him

  • Donna Wolfe

    Gods Bless you Don Dunbar, for caring enough to help!

  • Pieter Sanders

    Don Dunbar sounds like a really nice guy. Well done to him.

  • aggie

    very difficult to manage rescue of a poor animal with one hand. Might take a while. Would it not be easier to put camcorder away for few minutes?

  • Pradeep Kumar

    Well ! Nice one … but if nothing major was gonna happen but for the bird getting on board, it would perhaps have been better if the clip would have been edited to a shorter version. It could easily have been 3-5 minute clip rather than the current 12 min – quite a lot indeed ! Thanks for sharing anyways,

  • cora saldo

    Thank you for saving….

  • bang bang

    wow so nice heart of person like you….. you save the life of eagle thanks you so much,,,,

  • Dianne Reddy

    That was so fantastic.The little guy knew he was in trouble and accepted the help extended to him.I,ve seen this before in other bird species,but never an eagle.Good job sir

  • Charlie Darantinao

    I wish a good gift to a guy to saved young eagle.GOD bless!

  • muhammad umer butt

    Great job sir.

  • John

    perfect, we’re not satisfied with undoing natural selection within the homo sapien species, but now we have to screw with evolutionary processes in other species as well. We’re so pretentious.

    I dare Nat Geo to not post this

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    WOW, What a catch!
    I wonder what he was using for bait?!

    Job well done sir. I’m sure the Eagle appreciated the help.

  • Pier Lanzini

    Very nice but honestly if I shall be saved from someone in the sea I will choose someone else. The fisherman has put minutes before to help and I think after minutes or even hours in the sea under the sun was to think about some water instead to try to became Spielberg. Ciao

  • sunithasquires

    My boyfriend has rescued 2 eagles in his life that were hurt. They showed no aggression or fear towards him and he brought them both to vets but unfortunately they were too injured and had to be euthanized. He did say that he cuddled those eagles in his arms and they were beautiful and it was very sad that they didnt survive.

  • Justine

    thats precious.. this guy saved this young eagles life.. made me smile. 🙂

  • ruperto calderon

    very well done all of you

  • Khan

    For your own fun and video making . You make suffer this little bird for so long .. It’s feel so cruel and and stone heart you are . Why didn’t you just got the nest in first place and pick the bird from water ? Instead of teasing it and making your stupid videos or comments .. This is refocuses . For delaying help so that you can play around and make video

  • Rob in Ottawa

    They’re going to release him where they found him?!? Back in the ocean?!?

  • Azad

    good job , thank you .

  • Laurel

    Way to go Mr. Dunbar! And to all the rest who are criticizing, get a life – the guy did what he had to do and managed to get it all on film for us to enjoy and appreciate!

  • Christine Dino

    Thank you for saving the Eagle! Good job Don!

  • Sarah Carswell

    Fantastic job Don! This warms my heart to see someone care enough to help. I am impressed that you stayed so calm as to not scare it and even took the fishing poles down, well done and thank you!

  • Elise Wolf

    And from a Nat Geo journalist of all people….”They are water resistant to a point. They all secrete oil through a gland at the nape of their back…” Sorta….the oil gland (called a preen gland) does produce oil but the oil is not what produces waterproofing. It works like conditioner, keeping the feather supple and flexible. Waterproofing is structural and integral to the design of the feather. Feathers have tiny barbs that zip together sort of like velcro….so that the feather becomes physically impenetrable by water (hold a feather under the faucet and you will see the water roll off). Contamination (dirt, oil, chemicals, soap) and damage impair this ability of the feather leading to hypothermic birds. If oil was how birds stayed dry, then oil spills would be great for them. The feather is a phenomenal physiological marvel. (Read the book, Feathers).

  • Gen

    lmfao “welcome aboard buddy” …” well so much for that idea “. Awesome, funny dude.

    🙂 Made my day!!

  • Ahmed Raafat

    i think he was scared from the eagle

  • Andrea Montemayor

    Awesome, thanks for caring enough to rescue him, loved the way he looked back at you when you took him out the water I think he was thankful…
    Really hope that eagle recovers fully!

  • Wenzeslao

    It is very good that this guy saved the eagle but he put his 15 minutes of fame before the well-being of the little creature by taking his sweet time while the eagle was begging for held. But I will say thanks anyway

  • Kathi

    The man does a good deed and does a great job of it. Isn’t it amazing how many creeps and jerks crawl out from under the fudge-sludge to criticize him.

  • Ben

    While I’m glad the Eagle was rescued, the video infuriated me. Put the freaking phone down and save the bird, if that is what your priority was. It seems as though the man cared more about the video than the animal.

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