Rescued bald eagle at Va. wildlife center has built up a sizable online fan base

January 16, 2012

Last fall an Internet celebrity left the limelight to quietly fish the tidewaters of Virginia. But in early December an accident propelled her back into public view, where she remains — at least for a little while longer.

NX, as she is known from the letters on her leg band, is a bald eagle who has spent her life in an ornithological version of “The Truman Show.” It began at the Norfolk Botanical Garden last March, where she and two siblings hatched in view of a webcam that had been trained on nesting eagles since 2006, attracting thousands of viewers here and abroad.

When the chicks were just a month old, their mother was killed in a collision with a commuter plane at nearby Norfolk International Airport. (No humans were injured.) Fearing the father wasn’t up to single parenthood, the garden transferred the eaglets on April 27 to the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.

Within 15 minutes of the chicks’ arrival, more than 16,000 people signed on to a live chat about them, courtesy of a Norfolk television station, said Ed Clark, the center’s president. The center’s Web site, meanwhile, crashed at 30,000 hits. By Day 5 the traffic was up to 150,000 hits. Clark began opening his regular online updates with “Go-o-o-d Mo-o-o-r-r-ning Eagle Nation!” 

When the center put up its own webcam, fans started “babysitting” the eaglets, watching round the clock and calling the center when they saw some something of concern — like the time NX’s still-flightless brother stepped off a 30-inch-high platform. 

“It took some time, but we eventually taught the vigilant members of Eagle Nation that falling out of bed did not constitute a medical emergency,” Clark recalled in a recent blog. 

In July, more than 1,000 fans came to watch as NX and her brother and sister were released into the wild. NX flew only a few hundred yards and landed, apparently unwilling to leave. So she was kept at the center for one more month.

When she finally left in August, she was well equipped to remain online. On her back was a 31 / 2-ounce cellular transmitter that relayed data on her location to cellphone towers. The center uploaded the information to its Web site so researchers and devotees could track her every move. Some days she flew 40 miles.

 In September, she settled in the rural Northern Neck along the Chesapeake Bay, where cellular signals are spotty. So she wasn’t being tracked on Dec. 1, when a passerby spotted her injured by the side of a road — she had apparently been gorging on a deer carcass and was struck by a vehicle — and called local officials.

Kevin Keeve, the animal control officer who picked her up, said he has rescued several bald eagles — but never before one with a fan base. The people of Eagle Nation have been writing to thank him.

“I’ve got cards from Hawaii, Alaska, Illinois, Ohio, the U.K., Canada — from all over the place,” he said.

Now back at the wildlife center, NX is doing well — and doing good things for her caregivers’ fundraising efforts. The number of active donors to the wildlife center has more than doubled since the eaglets arrived, with more than 1,300 new donors since NX came back in December. Clark, who says he has served on more than 30 nonprofit boards, says he has never seen such a “meteoric rise” in donors. The number of people who have checked on her status online is up to 40,000.

Her prognosis is good, Clark says. The injuries she sustained to her neck, shoulder and wing are healing, and she has been moved to a small outdoor pen where she can hop and flap her way to different perches. Veterinarians hope she can be rereleased soon into the wild, with a transmitter so she can continue to stay in touch with her audience.

D’Angelo is a freelance writer based in Reedville, Va.

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