MAQUOKETA, Iowa -- Jason Stott was horrified when he struck a mature bald eagle with his truck a month ago. On Thursday, he was elated to be able to release the healed bird back into the wild.
Stott and his daughter Katrina, 11, were driving near Maquoketa one evening when they spotted an eagle eating the carcass of a dead raccoon on the road shoulder.
Just as they passed by, the eagle flew up into the truck's path, striking the windshield so hard it shattered the glass. Stott pulled over, jumped out of his truck and ran to the crumpled raptor.
"I thought it was dead, so I put a woven rug over the body. Then, I saw it start breathing, and it opened its eyes -- big, bright yellow eyes," said Stott, of Mount Pleasant.
A Jackson County sheriff's deputy suggested taking the adult male eagle to the nearby Hurstville Interpretive Center with both county and state conservation offices. Stott gingerly picked up the eagle, amazed at how light it felt, and placed it in the covered back of his truck. The eagle was kept overnight at the center and brought to the Macbride Raptor Project clinic in Solon, where an examination determined it was not badly injured.
On Thursday, Luke Hart, the project's assistant director, brought the now-healed eagle back to Jackson County.
"We like to release them close to an area they are familiar with, but this could be a migrating bird, too," Hart told a crowd of more than 20, including many children, who came to watch the release at the Hurstville center.
Hart answered questions about eagles and mimed a swooping raptor to the delight of the wide-eyed children.
Macbride receives about 150 injured or lead-poisoned raptors each year, about 20 of them bald eagles. Half recover and can be released back into the wild. The bird Stott hit, the center's 104th this year, was one of the lucky ones.
In the warm afternoon sunshine, Hart carried a large cardboard box through tall prairie grass behind the center to a clearing where the crowd spread out around him. He asked Stott if he would like to do the release.
"Oh my, yes. It's a chance of a lifetime," Stott said, strapping on a thick leather apron and donning protective glasses and thick gloves.
Hart reached deep into the box and grasped the unnamed eagle upside down. He carefully transferred the raptor to Stott's hands and told him to give the bird a good, hard toss toward the nearby wetlands. The giant bird fairly leapt from Stott's arms and flew low over the crowd, veering east and gliding toward the Maquoketa River.
"He'll find that river to eat and a place to sleep right away," Hart said.
Stott beamed as he watched the graceful bird until it disappeared from sight.
"That was awesome. That's all I can say," he said, near tears.
James Wicke, 10, of Maquoketa, was impressed with the eagle's enormous size. Hart estimated its wingspan at nearly 7 feet.
"It was really big," Wicke said, "and it seemed really happy to be free."