May 5, 2008

Injured Bald Eagle Set to Receive Prosthetic Beak

A team of volunteers in Idaho plans to attach a prosthetic beak to a disfigured eagle found in the wild.

When the eagle, named Beauty, was discovered in an Alaskan landfill in 2005, most of her upper beak had been shot off. She was literally starving to death, caretakers said, because she could no longer tear at her food.

For two years, Beauty was hand fed at a bird recovery center in Anchorage. Caretakers had hoped to see her beak re-develop, but it no progress was seen, and in 2007 she was taken to Birds of Prey Northwest ranch in Idaho after permits were obtained from the federal government.

Jane Fink Cantwell, a biologist who runs the raptor recovery center, said the center in Anchorage had exhausted their resources on Beauty.

"She would likely be euthanized," Cantwell said.

Soon after, Cantwell was joined by mechanical engineer Nate Calvin. Eventually they were joined by a dentist, a veterinarian, as well as other experts who volunteered their time to help assemble and attach a prosthetic beak for Beauty.

Cantwell said that without help of humans, Beauty wouldn't be able to survive in the wild.

"For Beauty it's like using only one chopstick to eat. It can't be done" said Cantwell. "She has trouble drinking. She can't preen her feathers. That's all about to change."

The team has made molds of the existing beak, and scanned parts into a computer to make an accurate model.

"One side has much greater damage than the other," Cantwell said. "It's not as simple as a quick, snapped-off beak, 90 degrees and flush."

The team decided to use glue instead of screws to attach the nylon-composite beak to the eagle, because the stump is so close to the brain and eye. But if the glue fails, screws will be tried, Cantwell said.

The volunteers don't expect the new beak to be strong enough to allow Beauty to cut and tear its prey, but it will help her drink water and eat the food that is given to her at the Cantwell center.

"Not enough of these have been done out there to say, 'yes, it can be done successfully,'" Ponder said. "Whether or not it will be functional is a question."

Dr. Erik Stauber of the nearby Washington State University veterinary hospital in Pullman does not have a lot of faith the artificial beak will work.

"It's a valiant effort to do something," he said. "We have no experience with it."

Beauty has the potential to breed or be a foster mother for orphaned eagles. Cantwell has other plans for Beauty as well.

"She's a miracle recovery patient from her initial injuries," she said. "She will be a huge educational tool, primarily to instruct people on why we should not shoot raptors and why they are beneficial to the environment.

"Give me an hour with a third or sixth grader and they will never shoot a raptor."


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