A raptor rescue to remember

A bald eagle survives an Alabama interstate calamity thanks to the foresight of two caring Birmingham women.

By Jeana Durst, content director, JBMC Media
Photos courtesy of Cindy Wentworth and Debbie Wilson

What happens when you see an injured bald eagle on the side of an Alabama interstate? If you are Cindy Wentworth and Debbie Wilson, it turns into a miraculous rescue. You may even recognize the story—their rescue mission was shared over 2,200 times on Facebook. What’s most striking, however, is the calm and compassion these two ladies exhibited. And what we as caretakers of all animals—not just dogs and cats—can learn from their experience.

Cindy Wentworth is pictured alongside I-59 in northeastern Alabama with the injured bald eagle she and Debbie Wilson rescued.

On January 26, 2020, Wentworth and Wilson were on their way to Desoto State Park for a day hike, chatting in the car. From the northbound lane of I-59 somewhere between Gadsden and Fort Payne, Wentworth spotted an unusual sight: “I see something in the middle of the road eating roadkill. My first thought ‘oh my there’s a bird in the road,’ and then I realized he had a white head,” Wentworth says. So they turned the car around to investigate, but once they had made it to the southbound lane, the bird was gone, so they resumed their route. When they did, they spotted the bald eagle on the side of the road across the interstate, obviously injured and struggling with a hurt wing. So they whipped the car around again back to the southbound lanes. “We parked 20 feet from it–cautious because it was a raptor and we wondered how it would respond,” Wentworth says.

What they found was a fully mature bald eagle with a pretty serious injury, likely a brush with a car while he was feeding on roadkill. As the ladies tried to decide what to do, they maintained a safe distance from the eagle, who didn’t try to move. After exploring some options, they decided to call 911. The dispatcher there connected them with Alabama Wildlife Management, who sent a ranger in their direction, but he was an hour and a half away.

During their wait, many cars passed. Only one stopped—a couple looking for a selfie with a bald eagle made a quick stop and agitated the bird in the process. In fact, at that point, the eagle hopped from the side of the interstate into the median. “At that point, we realized it could still move but just hop,” Wentworth says. As the women moved to be near the bird a local police officer stopped at some point to help ensure safety. He reported that they had just recently rescued another eagle along this stretch of I-59, which is, unfortunately, known for its ample supply of roadkill.

A closer look at the eagle before it was rescued and moved to the Southeastern Raptor Center in Auburn for rehabilitation.

Responding to the new activity, the eagle now moved into the northbound lanes, at which point, Wentworth sprang into action again. “Without even thinking, I jumped into the road and shooed it across,” she says. She guided the bird to safety as the police officer ensured hers, and now this feisty raptor was near the tree line on the side of the northbound lanes. At that point, two rangers from neighboring counties arrived on the scene. “When they got there, the rangers got a big tarp, and the male ranger and the police officer were trying to put the tarp on it while the eagle hopped further into the tree line,” Wentworth says. It became something of a chase, with all parties trying to respect the eagle, while not losing track of him. Finally, they were able to drape the big bird in a thick tarp long enough to carry it to a cage in the truck and carefully move the tarp away, leaving just enough on the eagle to protect him for the ride to the Southeastern Raptor Center in Auburn.

The Southeastern Raptor Center is a regional rehabilitation and education facility collaborating with Auburn’s Veterinary School of Medicine. They provide educational programming for those interested in learning about raptors and care to birds of prey in need.

This story had a happy ending—all because these women decided to suspend their day to help an animal in need. Wentworth and Wilson shared an unusual experience: a moment in time when humankind and wildlife collide and are able to commune through a crisis. They both agreed to dub the eagle “Champ.” But we think the real champs are these two brave ladies.

What to Do if You Find an Injured Bird or Raptor

The Alabama Wildlife Center with a rehabilitation center, located at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, is an excellent resource for injured birds and accepts any kind of bird. It’s Alabama’s oldest and largest wildlife rehabilitation facility, caring annually for almost 2,000 wild bird patients from more than 100 species. The Southeastern Raptor Center at the Auburn School of Veterinary Medicine is designed specifically to care for birds of prey.

Here’s a summary of what these two organizations say about what you should do if you find a raptor in need:

  • Always wear thick leather (welding) gloves or other heavy protective clothing when attempting to handle a raptor if you can. Also, the best thing to do is throw a blanket or towel over it and carefully secure the feet.
  • Raptors will use their sharp talons to grab as their primary defense. The talons are long and sharp and can penetrate through skin and muscle to the bone. Some birds, such as great horned owls, vultures, or ospreys, use their beaks as defense and are especially prone to turning around and biting.
  • Covering the eyes helps to calm a bird. Hold a large towel or blanket in front of you like a blind, and slowly approach the bird. Drop the towel over the bird, and (wearing welding gloves) pick it up through the covering, with the feet pointing away from you.
  • Grasp the bird from behind, gently but firmly clasping the wings against the body, with the legs extended forward away from you. Immediately place it in a sturdy box of an appropriate size. (Any handling is seen as a threat and causes severe stress to the animal.
  • Cardboard boxes make good containers because the bird is calmed by darkness. Make sure any box size is appropriate to the size of the bird. If possible, use some kind of bedding to support the bird in the box. Draping a towel over the box will also help to buffer stress for the bird.

If you are closer to Birmingham, call the Alabama Wildlife Center at 205-663-7930, Ext. 2. If you are closer to Opelika, call The Southeastern Raptor Center at 334-844-6347.


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