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Nylon beak is best hope for hurt eagle

Beauty needs an artificial beak to replace one that was shot off. Success is far from assured.

June 15, 2008|Nicholas K. Geranios | The Associated Press

ST. MARIES, IDAHO — The eagle is named Beauty, although she is anything but.

Most of Beauty's upper beak was shot off several years ago, leaving her with a stump that is useless for hunting. Now a team of volunteers is working to attach an artificial beak to the bird in an effort to keep her alive.

"For Beauty it's like using only one chopstick to eat. It can't be done," said biologist Jane Fink Cantwell, who operates a raptor recovery center in this Idaho Panhandle town. "She has trouble drinking. She can't preen her feathers. That's all about to change."

Cantwell has spent the last two years assembling a team to design and build an artificial beak for Beauty, and it is due to be attached this month. With the beak, the 7-year-old bald eagle could live to the age of 50, though not in the wild.

"She could not survive in the wild without human intervention," Cantwell said.

The 15-pound eagle was found in 2005 scrounging for food and slowly starving to death at a landfill in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Most of her curved upper beak was gone, leaving her tongue and sinuses exposed, and she could not clutch or tear at food. Her lower beak was intact.

Beauty was taken to a bird recovery center in Anchorage where she was hand-fed for two years while her caretakers waited in vain for a new upper beak to grow.

"They had exhausted their resources and she would likely be euthanized," Cantwell said.

After getting complicated permits from the federal government, Beauty was taken in 2007 to Cantwell's Birds of Prey Northwest ranch near St. Maries, Idaho, about 50 miles southeast of Spokane, Wash.

Shortly afterward, Cantwell was speaking in Boise, where Nate Calvin heard the story of Beauty. Calvin, a mechanical engineer, approached her afterward and offered to design an artificial beak.

From there, Cantwell started adding volunteers, including a dentist, veterinarian and other experts.

Molds were made of the existing beak parts and scanned into a computer, so the bionic beak could be created as accurately as possible. The nylon-composite beak is light and durable, and will be glued onto the eagle.

They did not want to screw the new beak onto the stump of the remaining beak because the stump was so close to the brain and eye that it was risky, Cantwell said. But if the glue fails, screws will be tried, she said.

Either way, the beak won't be strong enough to allow Beauty to cut and tear flesh from prey as she would in nature. But it will help her to drink water and grip and eat the food she is given.

The new beak will be yellow and look as natural as possible. That's because Beauty has the potential to breed, and also to be a foster mother for orphaned eagles.

Fashioning the beak was a slow process because it must fit snugly over jagged injuries.

"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."

Cantwell feeds Beauty, often with strips of salmon dropped into her mouth with a forceps. The bird, which has a 6-foot wingspan and lives in an outdoor aviary, will continue to be fed by humans.

The successful attachment of a prosthetic beak is not unheard of, but it's rare, said Dr. Julia Ponder, executive director of The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.

"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 much faith that the artificial beak will work.

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

Although birds of prey are notoriously skittish around humans, Beauty has become somewhat comfortable with people. She allows herself to be carried by Cantwell, and also lies on examination tables while she is poked and prodded by those making the beak.

"She lay on the table for nearly two hours, fully conscious, knowing full well I was handling and restraining her, and never once trying to escape," Cantwell said. "I suspect she knows we're not trying to hurt her."

Cantwell is asked why she is going to such extremes to save one injured eagle, an animal no longer on the endangered species list. She said Beauty will become an educational bird, taken to schools.

"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," she said.

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