Lori Paras was choked by tears as she described her first encounter with a young golden eagle she’s caring for at the Santa Fe Raptor Center.
“He just laid there, blind. There’s nothing you can do, there’s no medication,” she said of the bird’s illness, a West Nile virus infection.
Paras, director of the El Rito-based Raptor Center, spent long nights awake with the bird for two weeks, thinking she would lose him. But three weeks after he was discovered near Farmington, he has pulled through and is on a path to recovery. It’s an uncommon success story.
“The eagles that I’ve dealt with in the past, with this severe of case, they would die,” Paras said. In 2002, when the mosquito-borne virus first hit the state, she lost six or seven of them.
The golden eagle, Oro — a nickname from a volunteer — has soft, speckled feathers and yellow coloring on his feet and around his beak. He had been suffering from West Nile-caused encephalitis, swelling of the brain or spinal cord, a condition from the virus that develops across species, Para said. “Whether it’s a human brain or a bird brain, the virus can make it swell, and that causes serious problems.”
There are no West Nile antiviral treatments or vaccines for humans and most animals, though there is a vaccine for horses.
The virus caused the deaths of two people in New Mexico in the past two years. In 2017, the state saw 33 human cases and one death. The rate dropped in 2018 to seven confirmed cases and one death.
Two weeks ago, the New Mexico Department of Health said five new cases had been reported in Bernalillo, Doña Ana, San Juan and Valencia counties, bringing the total for 2019 to six.
Health officials said five of the six West Nile cases resulted in neuroinvasive disease, the most severe form of an infection, which can cause meningitis, encephalitis and paralysis. All six people with reported infections this year have recovered.
Inflammation of the spinal cord or brain develops in just a small fraction of people — about
1 in 150 — who are infected with West Nile virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Chad Smelser, an epidemiologist with Department of Health, said what appears to be a high rate of serious infections in reported human cases here isn’t because the state is attracting a worse form of the virus; rather, he said, patients with more serious cases end up in a hospital, and those cases get reported. Many people who contract the virus have little to no symptoms and fully recover without treatment.
The bird population hasn’t been so lucky.
“It hit raptors, songbirds and corvids especially hard,” Paras said, listing the types of birds that have died in waves from the virus. Corvid populations — ravens, magpies and crows — are only now just recovering, she added.
She described their deaths as sudden, as quickly as 12 to 24 hours after showing symptoms.
When Oro fell into her lap three weeks ago, she said, she didn’t think he had much of a chance.
“He’s a baby. He’s got softer feathers, which means it’s easier for mosquitoes to bite him,” Paras said, adding she believes Oro was was born in April or May. “He should still be with his parents.”
A driver spotted the eagle fall from a cliff onto the road near Navajo Dam in the Farmington area and called the state Game and Fish Department, which then called in Paras to treat the bird.
When she first laid eyes on him, she knew it was something serious.
“His head was hanging off the seat, lolling, and he wasn’t caged, and barely responded,” Paras said.
Oro had gone blind from the brain swelling, and Paras could feel his fever from how hot his beak was, she said. He was examined by wildlife veterinarian Dr. Kathleen Ramsey of Española, who determined all they could do was give him fluids, vitamins and hope.
Paras fed Oro two skinned mice a day for nearly a week, worried he would starve, but it was all he could keep down.
Now, Oro has recovered enough to stand up again, and gets hand feedings and a rat in his cage at night.
He’s far from the only bird in Paras’ care; she has four barn owls, three kestrels, two red-tailed hawks and a single Swainson’s hawk at the center in El Rito, a mountain village in Rio Arriba County near Abiquiú.
She’s released five great horned owls, a western screech owl and six barn owls this year.
Oro is still blind, but Paras is hopeful his sight will be restored when the brain swelling goes down, and she’ll be able to return him to the wild.
“What’s wonderful is if I can get this bird back out there, he can pass on some of this immunity,” Paras said.