At the end of this story a bald eagle will die.
I tell you this now not to deprive you of hope, but to simply warn you that this isn’t a tale of survival.
It is one of pain and disappointment.
And of great beauty.
It is also, oddly, a story of success – of a species brought back from endangerment and now thriving among us, except for the times they’re not, the times when our way of life and theirs just don’t mix.
Early on the morning of Black Friday, after getting pre-dawn deals at Lowe’s and Kohl’s, Karen Keegan and Daniel Craven, family friends from Hendersonville, and Keegan’s daughter were driving home when they spotted something unusual on Ritter Road in Colleton County.
Ever since she was a little girl, Keegan, who is retired from the U.S. Postal Service, has kept her eyes peeled for bald eagles. She especially does this when she crosses the “big bridge” to Edisto Island, where nesting eagles have been known to be.
“We always look up,” Keegan said of herself and her mother back in the day and of herself and her kids later. “I do it all the time.”
On this day, Keegan was to get her wish. She was going to see a bald eagle, but not under circumstances she ever would have chosen.
Craven, who was driving, saw it first.
“I think that’s an eagle,” he said.
So they stopped.
There in the ditch near a cemetery, flapping its wings, was a bald eagle that was bleeding.
It had been hit by a car, most likely because it was going after some roadkill a short distance from where Keegan and Craven had found it.
Now, though, buzzards were feasting on what would have been its treat.
Keegan began making phone calls, eventually connecting with a state Department of Natural Resources officer on St. Helena Island, who would come to Ritter Road and then bring the eagle to Dr. Marikay Campbell, co-owner of Port Royal Veterinary Hospital, a sort of way-station for injured wildlife.
After Campbell assessed the bird and sutured its wound, the bird would then be sent to the Avian Conservation Center in Amendaw for further assessment and rehabilitative care.
A CONNECTION IS MADE
In the meantime, while waiting for what would become two hours, Craven drove Keegan’s daughter home and left Keegan to keep an eye on the bird before returning to wait with her.
Keegan kept a safe distance, not wanting to spook the creature, which was still able to move around a bit, but not fly.
She did not let that bird out of her sight.
“I’m not going to leave you,” she kept telling the bird. “Help is on its way. I am not going to leave you.”
Soon, the buzzards were finished with their snack and began showing interest in the eagle. They circled above the dying bird and its rescuer.
Keegan’s voice gets fierce remembering this part.
“I told him ‘Those buzzards aren’t going to get you. They are NOT going to get you.’ ”
Several cars passed, but not one stopped to check on Keegan, which seemed to surprise her.
“No one asked if I was OK,” she told me, puzzled. “No one.”
And time seemed to slow down. The DNR officer came as fast as he could, but for Keegan it felt like forever, though never like an inconvenience.
She was only worried about the bird’s survival.
“I would’ve slept in that cemetery if that’s how long it took to get him help,” she said.
MAKING AN IMPRESSION
It’s an attitude that impresses Kara Bale of the Avian Conservation Center. She and I chatted about how this time of year is a dangerous one for bald eagles. They are nesting and are territorial, which means more active. And even though they catch their own food, they are also great scavengers and opportunists.
(It’s why Ben Franklin did not like that the bald eagle was chosen as our national symbol. Cowards, he called them.)
Bale said that people sometimes can’t be bothered to deal with injured wildlife.
“We are judged by how we treat the weakest amongst us,” she said. “That there are people who adjust their day (to help). … I think it’s pretty spectacular.”
All throughout her wait, Keegan kept stealing looks at the bird. Beyond the horror of seeing its injuries, she couldn’t believe that she was so close to what in some ways seemed like the mythological.
“He was the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “He was beautiful … just so beautiful.”
KNOWING OUR NATIONAL SYMBOL
Bald eagles are just three colors – white, brown and yellow – yet they dazzle. Like a declarative statement from God. They are uncomplicated and solid. They are strong and seem all-knowing.
“When you see something that can fly like that and look so majestic in the sky, it kind of it brings out the romantic in all of us,” said Campbell, who has treated bald eagles before, but is always awestruck by them.
After the DNR officer arrived and carefully transported the eagle to his truck, Keegan was able to touch the bird’s wing.
“I kept telling him that he was going to be OK. That they were going to make him better. I prayed for him. I prayed silently for him.”
The bird, whose age and sex are unknown – only that it was a midsize adult – had a fractured pelvis, which left it paralyzed.
It was euthanized at the avian center.
Keegan knew the prognosis wasn’t good. The DNR officer and Craven had prepared her.
“But I’m one to hope till the last minute,” she told me.
She didn’t want to bother anyone with a litany of phone calls to check on the bird, but her impulse to call was strong. She held herself back.
Finally, though, word came that the bird didn’t live.
“I cried a little,” she said. “It still bothers me that he didn’t make it. I understand why, but ... it’s still on my mind. I can’t get his eyes out of my mind.”
The two had locked eyes several times while they waited together.
Keegan said she’s sure the bird understood what was happening to it and that it trusted her to help it.
“I know he did. I know he did. I know he did. I know in my heart he did,” she said sadly.
“He knows we did all we could.”
IF YOU FIND INJURED WILDLIFE
Do not touch or move the animal or bird. Injured wildlife can be particularly dangerous. Call S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ 24-hour/seven-day a week hotline at 1-800-922-5431. While it is your choice to stay with the animal until help arrives, it is important that you assess your own safety in the matter. Standing on the side of the road, especially in the more rural parts of the state, can be dangerous.
Sources: South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Dr. Marikay Campbell of Port Royal Veterinary Hospital