Meet SA's bravest eagles - and the 'birdman' who helps them

2015-05-15 20:56
(Picture: Ronelle Visagie)

(Picture: Ronelle Visagie)

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Cape Town - A juvenile male black eagle that damaged his wing, probably by flying into a power line, is recovering well and expected to spread his wings in the wild not too far in the future.

The bird is around six months old and has already crept into the heart of Dr Hank Chalmers, who is training him to fly and hunt.

He does not have a name yet because Chalmers usually only names those birds that find a permanent home at the rehabilitation unit of the Spier Eagle Encounters centre in Stellenbosch.

“People don’t know birds so they don’t realise they have personalities. The more you work with them, the more the bird relaxes with you, plays with you and then the personality starts to come out,” Chalmers told News24 on Friday.

The black eagle, also known as the Verreaux’s Eagle, was found at the Breede River, about 10km upstream from Malgas in the Western Cape, with tissue damage to its left wing and a right wing break in the elbow.

(Picture: Ronelle Visagie)

'They show you a different type of affection'

Surgery was not necessary and Chalmers strapped the wing to the body.

“They show you a different type of affection. This eagle is awesome and the main reason for that is that it is from the wild, not confiscated and hand-raised.”

Unlike two other injured juvenile black eagles who were brought to the centre, this one is likely to heal completely and should start making small, test flights soon.

In the wild, the mother bird normally drops prey from high in the air and teaches her chicks how to catch it.

As a substitute mother, Chalmers decided to use a model plane to do the same.

Once the plane is in the air and tracked down by the bird, a little trap door opens and releases a plastic packet parachute with bait attached at the end.

The bird catches the package, nibbles on the bait and is rewarded on the ground with a bigger treat. This exercise builds fitness and teaches the bird how to catch prey in the wild.

'They definitely will never fly again'

The other two juveniles do not seem to be as lucky.

“They definitely will never fly again. Their condition is just too bad,” Chalmers said.

One of them was rescued by two Eskom employees, Thabang Mosase and Phumzile Nikelo, who were inspecting a power line close to Petrusville in the Northern Cape last month when they found the bird underneath a pylon.

Eskom called in Ronelle Visagie, an Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) field officer, to assist the employees and pick up the bird.

“He was a real fighter. As soon as I got near him, he just came for me. He was obviously used to fighting for himself,” she said.

The 3.75kg bird had a broken left wing and was believed to have been grounded for a while. 

He was taken to the Kimberley Veterinary Clinic, where it was determined that the wing must have been broken at a young age and had attached at the wrong angle.

The eagle was then taken to Chalmers, who said part of the wing bone was exposed and dead.

'Good Samaritans'

He would know next week whether it was possible to operate on the bird.

EWT’s wildlife and energy programme manager Constant Hoogstad said the employees who found the bird were "good Samaritans".

“Without their swift action and knowledge on what to do, the bird would have had no chance of survival.”

He said more than 9 000 employees had completed a course on wildlife and power line interactions in the last five years, which had resulted in an increased number of reported incidents.

For Chalmers at the centre, rehabilitation is a full time job that requires hard work and early mornings to get the birds out on flights.

But it seems to be a small price to pay for releasing them back into the wild and using those that can’t fly to educate the public about the dangers these birds face.

Read more on:    cape town  |  conservation  |  animals

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