Friday, December 19, 2014

Golden eagle set free in hopes of solving rare mite mystery


California Raptor Center volunteer Brenton Pierce holds Griffy, a rehabilitated golden eagle, before releasing her. Tim Hussin/Special To The Chronicle

By Carolyn Jones
On a hot, poppy-covered hilltop near San Ramon, Griffy the golden eagle bid farewell to her human saviors and — with a few quick, thunderous flaps — started a new life: as a flying medical researcher.

The majestic 12.5-pound raptor was released in Las Trampas Regional Wilderness on Friday morning after spending eight months at UC Davis, where she was recovering from a near-fatal mite infestation that has mystified scientists.

She is among three mite-infested golden eagles reported in the past year to the state Fish and Wildlife Department, the first ever such cases in California. All three birds suffered from severe feather loss and crusty skin caused by a rare mite last recorded in the 1970s in Europe on small songbirds called palm swifts.

Two of the eagles died but Griffy survived and flourished, so much so that biologists were able to set her free.

Scientists don’t know what has caused the infestations or how an obscure mite associated with a small bird in Europe ended up in California, but hope Griffy can help them learn. They outfitted her with a solar-powered transponder that will allow scientists to monitor her activities, in hopes of learning more about the mite scourge that’s affecting California’s second-largest raptor.

For her part, Griffy seemed eager to participate.

Wearing a hood over her golden-sheened head, she sat passively on the lap of a UC Davis volunteer while biologists weighed and measured her, took blood samples and affixed the transponder. She didn’t even seem to mind the television crews.

With her deep reddish-brown feathers tinged with white highlights, she looked like a model for a nature calendar. One couldn’t even tell the muscular 2-year-old had even been sick.

Soars upon release
When the poking was over, the UC Davis crew carried her to the top of a hill, removed her hood and let go of her huge talons. She swooped low through the canyon, curled up the hillside and then disappeared behind a stand of oaks, presumably in search of squirrels.

“It was beautiful. She looked a little wobbly at first but then she just found the air and soared,” said Camille Nowell, a biologist with the East Bay Regional Park District, one of the groups that helped save Griffy.

Not bad for a bird that’s been in captivity since August, said Fish and Wildlife biologist John Krause.

“It’s one of those great moments, to see a bird take flight like that,” he said. “She hasn’t forgotten. She knows she has to fly, has to eat, has to keep going. She’s ready to take care of business.”

East Bay park district researchers found Griffy last summer while doing field studies at Altamont Pass, a favorite stomping ground for raptors because of its plethora of ground squirrels, snakes, mice and strong wind currents.

Found in bad shape
She was barely able to fly when they discovered her, said Doug Bell, a wildlife manager for the district.

In fact, she looked so disheveled they thought she resembled a Griffon vulture, hence the name Griffy.

“She looked absolutely horrendous,” he said. “She was bald, crusty … getting weaker every time we saw her.”

After several attempts, they trapped her by laying out a pig carcass for her to dine on, and then drove her to the California Raptor Center at UC Davis for treatment.

There, she underwent the same procedure one would give a dog or cat for fleas: a topical cream on the back that absorbs into the skin and repels parasites. It worked.

“She had the worst mite infestation I’ve ever seen on a bird,” said the center director, Michelle Hawkins. “To see her fly again after such a debilitating disease … this is the reason we’re all here.”

The transponder will likely fall off in three years or so, and after that Griffy can expect another 25 years or so of an anonymous life among her fellow raptors. By then, hopefully, she will have helped solve the mite mystery, biologists said.

“Golden eagles play a critical role in California’s ecosystem. They’re predators — they keep everything in balance,” said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Janice Mackey. “If there’s something that’s happening to them, we need to find out what it is and how we can help.”

— To see a video of Griffy, the golden eagle, being freed, go to

— Reach Carolyn Jones at



San Francisco Chronicle

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