With the recent death of Phoenix, the Magnificent, I dug out this article written about him and the silent killer that eventually permanently grounded him. He will be missed by all of us, but particularly by me. I am totally aware that in this business the cardinal rule is that one should never get attached…I knew this and ignored it…Phoenix was always my favorite.
A Grounded Beauty (a reprint from Nature News, August 2004)
It is a small thing—way smaller than a speeding bullet, as deadly as a charging car and as insidious as a loss of habitat. But, it can still “take out” a large number of birds of all sizes. Aspergillus fumigatus is a formidable opponent.
Aspergillus is ubiquitous, naturally occurring fungus that is found in abundance particularly in rotting vegetable matter. In avian species it can do its damage when inhaled by an already compromised animal –working its deadly way into the respiratory system. If caught early, the damage might go no farther that the syrinx (voice box). The bird’s voice will change, signaling a problem at this point. Birds that live in captivity have a better chance of having the disease caught at this stage if the caretaker is aware of the change.
If the fungus proceeds to the air sacs, the problem is compounded. Air sacs are structures in the cavity of the bird that look like plastic bags filled with air. They are found around the internal organs and function among other things to mitigate the heat given off from the organs. They allow the birds to fly at high altitudes and are part of the respiratory system but not of the gaseous exchange. If the fungal infection invades the air sacs, it might not be immediately observable, but as the fungal refuse invades the area of the air sacs a shortness of breath will result. If the fungal infection thrives, a fungal-derived toxin can destroy the liver, resulting in a loss of appetite, discoloration of the mute, weakness, marked weight loss and death. This silent killer can affect many species of birds, but some are more susceptible than others. Penguins, flamingoes, ostriches, waterfowl, and parrots like the African Grey are among some of the most often infected. This fungal killer also victimizes raptors, birds of prey. In particular, this insidious disease affects the first-year red-tails, goshawks, gyrfalcons, snowy owls, and golden eagles.
When golden eagle number 99-1866 came into our facility his right shoulder was fractured at the humerus. His weight, normally at 8 pounds, was down to 6 ½ pounds—he was greatly emaciated and dehydrated. He was a victim of an accident—a bad choice was made—bad luck—and he was unable to hunt. He was starving and represented the classic definition of a bird under severe stress. What better chance was there for this opportunistic predator to take hold? In moves Aspergillus fumigatus.
The disease was spotted in golden eagle number 99-1866 through blood tests, and treatment with anti-fungal medication was administered. The fractured wing was pinned and healing nicely. The titer in new blood tests showed exposure to the disease but not currently present in the blood. Yet, he still could not fly without being winded like an out of shape runner. The fungus had taken its toll on the air sacs.
Exploratory surgery revealed a large nodule in air sacs in the lower body, and it was removed. Unfortunately there are more of these nodules that must come out. “Why you might ask, “Is so much being done for one bird?” But if you could look at him, you would find that there is a good answer. You would find it in the fire in his eyes. It is in the feathers—still shiny and strong. The bird is ringed with attitude. His focus is unmistakable. The message from his being screams of a desire to feel the wind, spread his primaries once again as he dances over lands and wild places.
The decision to release or not release is made carefully. A verdict to not release is usually made because the animal is not properly imprinted; its flight is compromised in some way; its ability to hunt and care for itself or to have a quality of life in the wild. But with number 99-1866, none of the reasons apply. His sight is sound, wings are strong, and the power in his talons supports his ability to take prey, and there is no doubt that he is a golden eagle. In his case, air sacs invaded by fungal residue have robbed him of his freedom. Invaded by a small predator he remains a grounded beauty.
Last week, sadly 99-1866, aka Phoenix, The Magnificent, slipped away from us. There was never a doubt that from the beginning he made the decision to allow us to work with him. From being The Boss who ran everyone out of his enclosure to The Magnificent who awed anyone in his orb, it was clear that he was in control and graciously allowed us to think we were. He became gentle beyond belief and even shied from the walking rock in his territory, Grandpa, the tortoise. I guess we are all allowed our idiosyncrasies. He will be missed by his handlers, his caretakers, and his thousands of fans….but he will be missed most by me….he was unashamedly my favorite, and I am letting go reluctantly.
This Week at Liberty
We were all devastated by the loss of Phoenix last week. He was the first education eagle that we’ve lost in the 32 year history of the organization. The entire Liberty family is hurting from his passage. The more I thought about what to write or what photos to use, the more I would begin to choke up.
This video is all I could muster.
(Click on this link, have your sound turned on. You can cancell the ad that appears at the bottom by clicking the small X in the upper right corner)
Good bye, Phoenix. We will miss you greatly and think of you often…