An American icon gets a 2nd chance to fly

Rehab effort helps injured bald eagles return... 04:21

The Bald Eagle is a symbol of American strength, and also a remarkable comeback story. The birds were endangered, dying from a pesticide. While the chemical was banned and the eagle became officially protected, it can still can get into trouble.

Thanks to a team at the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center outside of Washington, D.C., one by one, the treasured birds are being rehabilitated to fly back into the wild, reports CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford.

"The bird was having trouble breathing," veterinarian and Blue Ridge Wildlife Center Director Dr. Belinda Burwell said, explaining the plight of one eagle in her care that, eight weeks ago, may not have made it through rehab.

"It was very weak and it had blood in its lungs and chest," Burwell said. "So some kind of trauma, we know it suffered some kind of trauma. The most common is being hit by a vehicle."

Found by the Potomac River near Washington, animal control brought the eagle to Burwell's hospital.

Outside it doesn't look like much, but inside it's an animal sanctuary.

This year Burwell and her staff expect to treat some 2,000 birds, reptiles and mammals.

There's a porcupine that lost his front teeth when he was hit by a car, there are turtles struggling to grow, an osprey that refuses to eat an owls with wings on the mend.

The one thing they have in common; they're unhappy with their temporary home, but that's how Burwell wants it. Her goal is to return all of the animals to the wild.

"We always have to remember these are wild animals," Burwell said. "They don't want people around. They don't want us touching them. They don't want us talking to them.

Eagles require extra care. They are bigger, and meaner, Burwell said. Some weigh up to 12 pounds with a wing span of seven feet.

In the last year, the center has treated 10.

Their current patient started off in a child's playpen and will finish his rehab at what they call the circular flight cage, or "fly way."

"It's sort of like a race course for birds," Burwell said. "So he can fly round and round without stopping and that helps condition him."

But before he's released, Burwell and her colleagues need to tag him for identification.

In this case, the bird was so stressed they had to both hood and pry is talons off the glove to get the ID on.

Liam McGranaghan is a part-time bird bander and full-time science teacher who helped the team tag the bird.

"Twenty years ago, if someone said they saw a Bald Eagle on the river, I would've probably second-guessed them and said 'oh you probably saw a red tail hawk or some other bird, not an eagle,' but today, oh without a doubt," Mcgranaghan.

A week later the bird is ready for release. In front of a crowd, Burwell whispered final words of encouragement.

"I'm happy that he flew away and happy that he's healthy, but I worry," Burwell admitted. "Will he get into trouble again? But hopefully he won't. He's headed back to the Potomac and that's a great place to live if he can just stay away from cars and people."