Boy, the Martial Eagle died on the morning of the 26 July 2021 from the combined effects of myiasis, sepsis and blood loss. It was an unexpected and devastating loss. I remain in grief, personally unwilling to write about this very personal loss. It is only that we had received donations for building him a large enclosure that I feel the need to explain how and why it happened.
You may recall that Boy’s wing had been burnt by a powerline electrocution in early February this year. He lost all the flight and contour feathers and was fast losing dead as well as living tissue to maggots. There was also bone loss and arthritis in his wrist. Miraculously he regenerated flesh over exposed bone and from this grew new feathers. I had never seen this before.
He would never fly properly…but was a good candidate for captive breeding and an excellent education bird…walking through enchanted school children to get to his perch and food. He created more appeal than flying to the glove in the usual “bird show” routine and raised deep concern regarding our most lethal powerlines that now spread unrestrained across all our landscapes. Despite his improvement and imposing size he was fragile and was facing a long recovery period that needed daily tender care.
He would unwittingly self-destruct by hitting or scraping the stump of his wing against a wall, floor, perch, stone or branch. A soft growing flight feather is turgid with blood and if cut will bleed profusely. He was in a unique position, only reserved for the pullus in the nest, of growing ALL of these flight feathers at the same time. But unlike a pullus he was asymmetrical in that one mighty flap from his good wing would spin him onto the penguin-like flipper of the opposing wing. We could not for example, leave him in his small enclosure because he would jump about. Or tether him on a perch outside unattended for more than 15 minutes, because he would awkwardly fall to the ground on his bad side. We could not of course bind or enclose his wing in bandage or vet wrap because the feathers were growing in fast and would be deformed, break and bleed. The best compromise was to let him walk about and find his own perches. This took an enormous amount of my time to personally assist in his every move for big eagles require specialised attention that lesser birds do not. In order not to totally compromise my work and other commitments we set about building a large enclosure filled with distractions and easily accessible perches so that he could grow in that wing without damage.
We grew accustomed to letting him out of his small enclosure in the early morning and watching him run/flap across the glade to sit on perches among the other birds until he warmed up. Then, slightly surreptitiously…for he knew it was an illegal act, he would furtively make his way to the “Hobbit house” and climb and scramble his way up to the tallest tree. From there he surveyed his domain safe from the occasional diurnal buffalo and lion…but not leopard. In the afternoons we would put his food out on the ground and down he would come, gently. Because of that leopard is why he would then be put in his small phone booth sized enclosure for the night.
He was doing very well and had a set routine when I left on the 20th July for a rare break away from home to Tsavo East where I settled in for some serious raptor/elephant watching. I even made it to the coast, my first trip there since 2010…although it was for less than a day. I stopped by to see how we could improve standards on a raptor collection held there. Somewhat poignantly it was there, at the coast, that I got the terrible news.
Cutting my trip short I returned on the 28 July and did a post mortem. In checking in with my team it appears that in the intervening 6 days between the 20 and 26th his wing became vulnerable to maggots. He had hit his wing, cut a few flight feathers. These had bled. The weather change brought a lot of flies. These laid their eggs and within days they had set about destroying his wing. This time I wasn’t there to catch it early and as fate would have it, there was one crucial day, a Sunday…in which the tables suddenly turned against him. It was a day on which all my team left to attend to a government call to pick up “Huduma” identity cards, and left a volunteer alone. Sepsis and blood loss rapidly took its toll and to make matters worse the nights suddenly got much cooler. Those fly species that cause myiasis differ and these evidently were more precocious and aggressive. All it takes is two days to get from eggs to larvae. Boy never lay down or showed any sign of depression until the evening before. The next morning while the team were examining him he collapsed from a standing position into their arms and died without any struggle at all.
My particular work regarding our captive birds is focused on the treatment and release and these are emotionally the hardest. It’s the hard unforgiving edge of raptor rehab and it requires a hardened heart…one I do not now possess. Mortality is a behind the scenes truth and it accompanies the work of all vets, doctors and those that keep any animal. If we follow some USA rehab protocols we would have been obliged to have euthanised Boy the moment we knew his wing was dysfunctional. Because these particular animals are now so rare and in rapid decline the responsibility it carries and the decisions we make are enormous and ultimately it limits all our activities be they work or personal.
It is useless to go over what should have happened, what checks I should have done before leaving on a trip but of course it has preoccupied my mind. One thing is certain, had the new enclosure been finished this would not have happened. We need to expand all our centres to meet the demand and it is my intention to finish it as it will be occupied by another raptor immediately. Take for example the Tawny with one eye and burnt feathers. She would be far better off in this enclosure during her prolonged recovery. Take the 6 electrocuted unreleasable Augur Buzzards, some of which can be paired up as another case in need. The goshawks, owls, falcons too.
I do hope that some of you that have reached the end of this lament have shared with me some of the grief.
Kenya Bird of Prey Trust
Understand - Protect - Restore