One Sunday morning in August, I told my wife I was going to drive to the Fort Motte area to put corn in a feeder for deer on our property.

As I was driving down Highway 6 toward St. Matthews, I topped a hill where I could see about a mile ahead down the road. I noticed a large bird fly up off of the roadway. an approaching car nailed it in midflight. I couldn’t see exactly what happened because my vision was partially blocked by a car between us. That second car then straddled the “dead” bird and ran right over it.

My first thought was that the first idiot could have easily avoided hitting the buzzard because we could all see it for hundreds of yards sitting on the road eating a road-killed armadillo. All that was necessary was for the driver to simply slow down. Those of you kind enough to have read my articles over the years know of my disdain for people who carelessly or, worse, purposely kill animals on the roadways when it can most times be easily avoided.

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It took the combined efforts of a dozen or more people to save a bald eagle that was purposefully hit by one vehicle and then run over by another.

As I approached the armadillo carcass and the dead bird, I swerved over into the left lane slightly. Imagine my surprise when the “buzzard” raised his white head and watched me pass. The morons had run down a bald eagle!

Like many, my first instinct was to drive on and avoid trouble. What if a law enforcement person came by and thought I did it? I couldn’t do it! I backed up to the eagle and put on my flashers. There were suddenly semitrucks and cars coming in lines from both directions. I stood in the road and flagged them around.

Dr. John Rheney

The eagle tried to get up but slumped back down. I needed to get my truck out of the road, but it was the only thing protecting me and the bird from getting run over again. As I approached him from the center line, he flopped on one good wing over into the waist-high grass in the ditch. That’s as far as he could go. He couldn’t use his right wing at all.

With that, I moved my truck out of the thoroughfare and stood over the bird trying to decide what to do. He had recovered from being knocked out by the 60 mph blow from the car windshield and was quite alert now. His talons and beak were quite imposing and the work gloves in my truck would do little to protect me.

Barbara Holmes, a transporter volunteer from the Avian Conservation Center and the Raptor Rehabilitation facility, assisted with the release o…

I tried calling the two S.C. Department of Natural Resources officers I knew in the area. Neither answered. I have Dr. Charles Ruth’s number in my phone. He is the Deer Project coordinator and manager of the Large Game Division of the SCDNR. I didn’t know if he did anything with raptors and I definitely figured he would never answer a call from an unknown phone number on Sunday morning, but I was kind of desperate for advice.

Dr. Ruth answered the phone. I didn’t know he had my number stored due to the several times I had called him before, but he answered with a sort of tired, “Yes John.” With me explaining my situation, he perked up and said, “This is the first time I’ve dealt with this situation. Let me call you back.” I hung up and waited.

“He flopped on one good wing over into the waist-high grass in the ditch. That’s as far as he could go. He couldn’t use his right wing at all.”

In the meantime, Officer Matthew Lambert called me back and said it would be a couple of hours before he could get there to help, but he texted me the phone number for the Raptor Center in Awendaw. I called and left a message on the hotline. It is worth mentioning that officer Kevin Collins, also of Calhoun County, also returned my call later, even though he was on vacation at the beach.

Ruth called back and asked if I could get the eagle into a cage, saying, “The beak is bad but you really need to watch out for those talons.” The bird’s feet and talons were nearly as big as my hands. The beak was about the length of my pointing finger. I told him I would try but I would have to leave the bird and go home to get a cage.

I made the three-mile trip back to the house, ran in and told my wife I needed her help and to grab a blanket. I ran out to my work truck and got my welding jacket and a pair of welding gloves. As we sped back down the highway, Ruth called and said he had two DNR officers from Orangeburg County headed toward St. Matthews and if I could cage the eagle, they would transport it to Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, where the veterinarian would stabilize the bird.

When we pulled back off of the highway, the eagle was still in the ditch where I had left him. I put on my armor and grabbed the blanket. He tried to flop his way further but the thick grass held him. I threw the baby blanket over him and cupped my arms around him carefully, folding the broken wing against his body so I wouldn’t twist it off. He made surprisingly little struggle, but peeped a high-pitched sound you often hear hawks make. I tried to raise up but I had an armful of highway grass and weeds. The harder I pulled the more I was afraid I would crush the bird. After several readjustments, I was able to tear some grass out of the ground and lift the bird and put him in my dog kennel while Breta held the door open.

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As I headed toward St. Matthews, Amy at the Raptor Center called and asked if I could cage the eagle. She said they had no one within several hours of my location who could handle the bird. I told her he was on the way to a rendezvous with the DNR officers to take him to Riverbanks Zoo even as we spoke. She sounded relieved and said they already had plans to retrieve an injured hawk from the zoo the following morning and would pick the eagle up then.

Breta and I sat at the Hardee’s in St. Matthews for a while and Officers Cory Dantzler and Eddie Lee from the Orangeburg County DNR met with us to transport the bird to Riverbanks Zoo. The next day, he was in Awendaw at the Raptor Rehabilitation Center where tests disclosed he had an extremely dislocated right wing. After being tested for avian influenza, which was negative, he was put in an enclosure with his wing wrapped against his body for a few days. After the initial head injury and bleeding from the mouth were resolved, the eagle was placed in a fight pen where he is allowed the freedom to use his wing in an effort to keep the joint from calcifying.

Get for $1 for 26 weeks

After six weeks of emergency treatment and flight rehabilitation, the eagle was pronounced ready to be released back in the vicinity of where he was injured. He was lucky. Most automobile-struck birds die in the first 24 hours because they lie on the road right a way dehydrated and stressed for quite a while before being stabilized. Thanks to the help of many, he was in the hands of an avian veterinarian within a couple of hours. He dodged being put down on several occasions where the vets thought his suffering was not worth the continued stress on the bird. His wild nature and the strength that animals that fight to survive daily possess pulled him through.

Barbara Holmes, a transporter volunteer from the Avian Conservation Center and the Raptor Rehabilitation facility, contacted me this past week and asked if I could help her locate the eagle’s home area for his release. I was delighted to do so. I have a good idea where the bird’s nest is in a group of tall long leaf pines near halfway swamp. My wife Breta and some close friends accompanied us.

As Barbara and I moved the cage in position, there was sort of a hush. That changed to cheers and ooohs and aahhs as the huge bird jumped out of the cage, struggled for altitude, and then soared across the soybean field to the exact tree I thought he would go to. There he took in his new found freedom.

The penalty for even having an eagle feather in your possession is quite stiff. Killing an eagle accidentally can also carry a heavy penalty. Running one down that you can clearly see in the middle of a long stretch of road might be prosecutable as well. I can somewhat understand why the driver hauled butt out of there and maybe why the second driver, assuming the bird was dead, just simply ran over it again.

I see it time and again where drivers not only speed along totally unaware of wildlife trying to cross highways, but have also seen people intentionally run over snakes, turtles, squirrels and other forest denizens. I see people charging does crossing roads in May, oblivious to the certainty that a fawn will be right behind her.

There was absolutely no reason for this beautiful bird to be run down by the truck. He was visible to me from my viewpoint a half mile behind the first driver. All that was necessary was for the car to slow down and give the bird a chance to lift off and clear the road way.

Now it has taken the combined efforts of a dozen or more people to try to save this symbol of our nation. The officers of the DNR, Dr. Charles Ruth, the veterinarians at Riverbanks Zoo, and finally the Raptor section of the Avian Conservation Center have gone to extreme heroics and well beyond their job descriptions to help with this. My profound thanks and admiration to those folks and my great disdain for those people who will not be the least inconvenienced to avoid the suffering on our wild neighbors on the artificial pathways that we call roads.

The Avian Conservation Center takes in over a thousand injured birds of all types each year. They don’t beg for donations but are so very pleased to receive them. At one point I donated, knowing full well it was not going to help this bird but perhaps defray the cost of treating another one down the line. Happy motoring!

Dr. John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.

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