TYNGSBOROUGH -- The time had arrived. A pair of 12-week-old bald eagle chicks, found forlorn a month earlier, were ready to return to the wild.
The first chick, uninjured despite his fall from a nest in May, swiftly took flight Wednesday, vanishing into the sky. But the second, which had suffered a broken pelvis after falling about 50 feet from the nest, proved more apprehensive.
Even after being shaken from its cage, the second eaglet flew just a few dozen feet, perching in a tree just 10 feet below the nest from which it had toppled. It was not quite ready to soar, but at least it was free.
The chicks have been in the care of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, where they were rehabilitated and taught to fly. Wednesday, they were released at the Vesper Country Club in Tyngsborough by state wildlife officials.
“I had so much time invested in these guys that I had to come see them off,” said David Taylor, a wildlife rehabilitator who housed them while they were recovering.
Eagle rescues are relatively rare, Taylor said. He has saved six, but only three, including the two released Wednesday, lived long enough to be sent back into the wild.
The difficulty, he said, is that bald eagles shy away from human contact, making them particularly tough to rescue when injured. Often, an injured eagle will climb high into a tree, out of the reach of rescuers, and stay there until it is too late to provide medical care.
This pair probably fell through a hole in the bottom of their recently built nest, said Mary Griffin, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, pointing up to their earlier home.
Eagles return to the same nests year after year, Griffin said, making repairs and expansions to those nests every February. A first-year nest, she said, often lacks the reinforcement to support growing eagles.
“We brought them back to the site where they were born,” Griffin said. It is important, she said, that the released eagles learn to fend for themselves in the environment where they were hatched.
At least two bald eagle nests exist at the country club, and state wildlife officials said they are often given updates by local birdwatchers and golfers who keep tabs on the birds.
Wednesday’s release is indicative of the bald eagle’s resurgence in Massachusetts and across the country, Griffin said. Despite being a symbol of national pride, the eagle was listed among endangered species by federal wildlife officials until last year, when its status was upgraded to “threatened.” Even with the state’s bald eagle population growing in recent years — the latest wildlife survey located 22 adult pairs of eagles raising 35 chicks — the species remains on Massachusetts’ endangered list.
After being rescued, the injured eagle was treated at Tufts. Once healthy, it was housed by Taylor, who kept it in a netted pen and sustained it with roadkill.
“I’d routinely scrape rabbits and squirrels off of the road,” Taylor said. “People would give me the funniest looks.”
Once healthy, the eagles were moved back to Tufts to learn to fly.
“You don’t really teach them,” said Maureen Murray, staff veterinarian at Tufts Wildlife Clinic. “They just need enough room to practice.”
The eagles were placed in the university’s flight room — a 100-foot-long, 40-foot-wide, and 40-foot-tall containment. After a few days of walking around the room, the eagles were tempted to jump by elevated feeding platforms. Before long, they had begun to take flight.
“The thing they have to practice most is landing,” Murray said. “They were pretty clumsy at first.”
Feeding themselves will be the first challenge. Rather than a steady diet of roadkill, they will be forced to hunt for food in and around the Merrimack River.
“This will be the most difficult part of their lives,” said Pat Huckery, a district supervisor for the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
The eagles will spend the rest of their lives hunting and dining on fish and roadkill. Currently brown from head to toe, both birds, once they turn 4 or 5 years old, will develop the distinctive white head that is the signature feature of bald eagles, Huckery said.
Their original nest rests about 50 feet above a fairway on the country club’s golf course. Even if they make that nest their temporary home, it is likely the eagles will migrate out of the state once fully grown, Huckery said.
“We have no idea where they’ll end up,” she said. “These guys could make it as far as Canada, for all we know.”
Wesley Lowery can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.