MAPLETON -- A bald eagle born with a rare birth defect has become the longest to live in Utah County after being diagnosed with West Nile virus.
"This is our third or fourth bald eagle with West Nile. Usually they die within two days," said Patti Richards, founder of Great Basin Wildlife Rehabilitation, a nonprofit where state wildlife officials send wounded or sick wild animals. Eagles with the virus usually "seizure up and tremor. It's terrible to watch. But Mike has been holding his own."
Nicknamed by staff here, volunteers here hope Mike can become the first at this rehab to beat the disease. And it just might be because Mike knows how to fight for his life.
"He has no nostrils," said Richards. "None."
A rare birth defect has left Mike without air holes in his beak. Bewildered caretakers had to study him intensely to figure out how the eagle was getting air.
"He breathes out of his tear ducts," she said.
Mike was also born with only two working talons on each foot -- eagles should have four, three in front and one in back.
"He has survived this long with these disabilities," Richards said. "You've got to see it to believe it."
Mike came to the rehab center after being found by a family in Saratoga Springs who delivered the deathly-ill bird to Richards in a laundry basket.
Richards calls Mike "a champ of an eagle" because he has fought not only the virus but his birth defects.
"The fact that he has lived almost four years is astronomical," she said.
Although he has lived longer than any other eagle with West Nile at this rehabilitation center, Mike is not out of the woods. His legs are paralyzed from the virus, and if that paralysis doesn't subside, he will have to remain in the rehab for life. It is also still possible the virus might take Mike's life.
For all of the eagles sickened with the West Nile virus and brought to the center, "we are doing everything we can, around the clock sometimes," Richards said. "They are on a lot of supportive care."
Medications help reduce the swelling of the brain caused by the virus, which also enlarges the hearts of these birds, which means they can die of heart attacks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control is continuing its investigation of why so many Utah bald eagles are suddenly being struck with West Nile, but Richards said it is clear to her the disease has morphed into a more potent form in birds.
"It is not the same as it was," she said of the virus. "Seven or eight years ago, we never lost an eagle" because medical intervention as able to save the birds. Not today.
Meanwhile, Mike is being watched carefully. Because of his deformed claws, he has been a scavenger his whole life, living off road kill and other dead animals.
"He can't kill anything to eat, not with those feet, so he is a total scavenger," she said. "If Mike comes out of his paralysis, we are going to give him surgery to give him some nostrils."