Updated: Jun 21, 2021
I left him lost in thought looking at the distant hill. I had been in a panic because he was out of sight but now that I knew he was safe, I walked back to the house and let him be. He could stay half an hour before the witching hour began at sundown when leopards and other wildlife appear.
He had been doing this every day lately…escaping from the front lawn on his own to get away from all of us and be free. Gentle coaxing, under one’s breath, and food treats was the usual way to get him to do what was safe. Sometimes he’d figure out everything on his own. Getting up in the morning in his pen, making sure we all knew he was ready to be let out, walking sedately on very long legs to his sunshine perch, changing from this early morning and now too hot perch to a shady cool perch…going on a small walk-about to see the distant hill ridge, coming all the way back on his own…getting fed and finally stepping gracefully onto the glove to be carried to his night time pen.
For a very young Martial Eagle, named Boy he was behaving exceptionally well. Martial Eagles are not too bright, not compared to wise Tawny Eagles, one of whom shares the front lawn with him. Crowned Eagles are a little more forgiving and the other huge “mega” eagle, the Verreaux’s Eagle, is much more resilient. These big eagles are all sensitive souls much more so than a falcon or buzzard for example.
Boy was in a transitional period, between 9 months and a year, half way between learning to hunt and dispersing away from parental care when he, like so many of Kenya’s birds of prey, was electrocuted. Make no mistake the best term for an electric shock that leads to death is electrocution even if it takes a while. The subtlety in terminology is supposed to be that those that are “electrocuted” are killed instantly, and those that are “shocked” recover and fly away. There really isn’t much chance of a bird being shocked and making a recovery.
The Martial, Boy the Tawny eagle and five out of six Augur Buzzards currently in my care at the Soysambu Raptor Centre have all been electrocuted.
To understand how it happens we need to look at the normal three phase power we have crisscrossing towns, cities, the countryside in Kenya and running right through the heart of conservancies and protected areas. The new concrete poles have multiple reinforcing rods running from top to bottom. Some 10-15% have broken tops with bare exposed rods. After a rain the damp cement becomes ferrous with rust reaching the surface. Even if the cap is thick, cement itself is quite a good conductor of electricity esp when damp.
Dry wood is not such a good conductor and that is why we have seen a sudden surge in electrocuted raptors, because plantation-grown wooden posts are being phased out and replaced and most new lines are concrete. Again, when wet the chances increase greatly on both wood and cement poles. The wooden cross arms, again poor conductors, are being replaced by metal, and to compound the danger all the more the insulators are now much shorter, bringing that air gap between live wire and earth so close that in many poles it will electrocute small songbirds. The wires are naked too, when previously many lines esp., near urban areas were insulated with plastic. A short circuit can of course also occur from one line to the other, and open wings of even fairly small raptors can span that gap and kill them.
Short circuits often cut the power to the user, and while there are automatic trip switches that can turn it back on there are many times it cannot. This means a power outage and a measurable economic loss and customer inconvenience. It is something we can use to support the return to much safer alternatives…or totally safe options of which there are many.
A bird lands with its feet in front and wings outstretched. The legs are spindly things, no thicker than match sticks on smaller birds and about the thickness of a pencil on medium to large raptors. The wings are covered in plastic-like insulating keratin feathers. If dry these long flight feather tips can brush against a live wire and not arc the electricity through the body. But if the fleshy part of the hand, arm or elbow touches the electricity it will instantly travel down the arm into the core of the body and across the leg to the foot. The chances increase with the amount of humidity. The thin leg acts like a 5 Amp fuse, the much thicker hand acts like a 30 Amp fuse. The reason so many birds initially survive electrocution is that the 5 Amp fuse “blows” first. It may not kill the bird…but it certainly kills the foot. And raptors use their feet especially talons to get food.
So it is that we see a rapid increase in electrocution cases. Birds are brought to us by people who find them on the ground sometimes near to poles but as often nowhere near to poles. They can fly hundreds, even thousands of kilometers away before their wounds overcome them. Burn marks and the smell of burnt hair (feathers) is typical. Often one leg is slightly discolored and the opposing wing tip has a bruise on the inside of the carpal (hand). That is all. Even the foot and wing work…but not very well.
Over the next few weeks the limbs atrophy, turn black and die. The trick is to define where the electricity traveled, and do what one can for the underlying tissue. These areas are then treated for burns and swathed in gel gauze. The bird put on an aggressive course of antibiotics and the limbs gently massaged to increase blood flow. Often the outcome is disappointing and the limb will need to be amputated. We have plenty of birds with prosthesis but that is another story.
Boy came from Lake Naivasha and was lucky to have been rescued and taken to a vet. The inner carpal and wrist (hand) was covered in maggots and the wing itself was still intact with feathers. Most of the maggots were expertly removed but unfortunately the primary feathers were cut off as part of the “treatment” before Shiv Kapila, fellow director, got there. It was clear to both of us that the chances of recovery were very small. The ulna had been burnt as well and the main blood vessels to the hand were destroyed.
Not to be discouraged, for miracles do happen, my team and I set about doing daily changes of dressings and especially removing those maggots. It was a twice a day chore for over a week before we finally eradicated all of them…each one removed by tweezers.
Now the carpal (wrist and hand) swelled and the skin turned a nasty colour and formed a crust over its surface. A few weeks later all the feathers of the hand and upper wrist fell off. The primaries despite us securing each of them and sewing Z shaped plasties to graft skin over their “roots” all came off in one lump.
This was expected. The bird always looks like it will keep its wing—but it continues to die back. Very typical in electrocution cases an as yet unnoticed burn resulted in his middle talon sloughing off and we were all very concerned that the entire foot was to follow. Although it changed colour, we saved it.
Meanwhile the eagle himself sat through all of these procedures stoically. He would accept the hood…the ignominy of being grasped around the back and hugged in close to the body, an hour of treatment…all with the most gracious of manners. Occasionally he would struggle and affirm authority and scatter us all. Those massive talons could easily have packed us all to an emergency room but somehow all of us remained unscathed.
Falconry management is humane especially for birds undergoing treatment. It offers one up close and personal opportunity to even tend to an injury while it stands looking bemused on the perch or glove. Eagles are cognizant problem solving beings and young ones have a strong sense of play. I set about making small tasks, hiding food and talking to him, with the intention that he would talk back. The closer he got to food the more I would encourage him verbally. It was an attempt to occupy his mind. This isn’t absurd or dangerous for his development. Even with birds one day capable of release, getting very familiar with their handler is not only harmless it gives them a reason to live. And creating games, things to look forward to… is very important. Putting a hawk or eagle alone in a shed and not having them do anything can lead to serious behavioural problems, stress and unknown death.
Night time Boy slept tucked up in a small low night enclosure.
In the morning I would open the door and out he would stride—initially in the wrong direction—and then cause us all anxiety. Finally he learned to walk out onto 4 perches. He’d navigate around the Tawny Eagle and Black Sparrowhawk and develop a safe routine. Now of course he walks out to where he can see the hills and I am certain he misses those days when he would fly to them and soar out of sight. That’s why I leave him alone, even if there is some slight risk… so that he can be a wild eagle for a while.
Boy had a naked “flipper” which he kept hitting. It would bleed and we had to wrap it up. I was ready to accept that we had lost the battle in even keeping the hand alive.
But when we took off his bandage which had been on for a week we saw sprouting feathers on the skin. What is more the primaries had somehow, despite the supporting flesh and muscle attachments dying away, begun to grow through again. Each day he improves and perhaps one day he will have a wing with feathers enough to use. I remembered exactly where his tendons severed for I sewed two under the skin in case we could locate their muscles to reattach later.
It is certain that he will never fly or be released, but he can certainly hop and flap around one day well enough to have his own large enclosure. Should we ever get a female his chances of breeding are as good as any. In the meanwhile he has met and endeared himself to a great many people. An entire school sat down with him recently in awe and he stared serenely back. Just that has made his life valuable…for there will not be one of those children who will ever forget. Nor will they forget how it was that he was struck down by a thing we can so easily render harmless.
Martial…”Boy” has years before he reaches adulthood. If he is able to live into his 50s, he, like so many of our unreleaseable raptors, will have a fruitful and meaningful life ahead.
Join our campaign. We are fundraising for Boy’s continuing veterinary care costs, will you help us?
Gauze bandages: $10/1000 KSh
Antibiotics and creams: $50/5000 KSh
Surgical equipment: $250/25000 KSh
Vet costs per day: $500/50000 KSh
Or contribute to a more secure enclosure for Boy, to keep him safe from predators,cost: $5,000/500000 KSh
For those in Kenya you can donate via Mpesa:
Select Paybill# 4041103
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For those abroad you can donate via GivenGain:
For those in the US that would like to receive a tax credit you can donate via Empowers Africa and select "Raptor Centers":
If none of these donation channels work for you feel free to contact us directly.
Kenya Bird of Prey Trust
Understand - Protect - Restore