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Famed rescue eagle 'Harley' dies near Eveleth

Harley the bald eagle is shown in December 2009 while he was undergoing rehabilitation. He was found dead near Eveleth in January 2012. (2009 file / Ben Wilson.)

Harley the motorcycle-riding bald eagle has perished, with officials from the University of Minnesota Raptor Center confirming his remains were recently found in a farm field near Eveleth.

Harley had been fitted with a transmitter in 2010 that allowed researchers and his fans to follow his lengthy flights for about

18 months, but the signal from the transmitter stopped several months ago, and no one knew where the eagle was.

Raptor Center officials had hoped it was just a technical issue. But a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer retrieved the eagle's body earlier this month and sent it to the Raptor Center.

"While we are still hoping we might get a bit more information from testing, the cause of Harley's death is not clear at this time,'' Julia Ponder, executive director of the Raptor Center, noted in a blog post. "One very interesting finding raised a few questions: Harley had recently molted almost all of his primary flight feathers on one wing. This is a very abnormal molt for a raptor (and having) that many missing flight feathers would make flight challenging or impossible.''

Ponder has said Harley's travels raised awareness of eagle behavior not seen before.

"After following Harley's story for two years, it is hard to believe he is gone,'' Ponder posted in a blog that had kept followers posted on Harley's travels. "We enjoyed watching Harley's travels, we got a lot of information from him, and we set the stage for piloting some new education initiatives and began to see some new possibilities. We have many reasons to remember Harley fondly.''

Harley first made news by getting a ride on the back of a motorcycle, but raptor experts then were amazed by how far he migrated south and north.

Harley was found Aug. 3, 2009, foundering along Douglas County Highway T near Wascott by Harley-Davidson motorcyclist Brian Baladez of Cloquet. The bird appeared injured, disoriented and was unable to fly. His age wasn't known, but experts described him then as young.

Baladez captured the bird in his leather jacket and used a bungee cord to secure it to the saddle bags of his motorcycle and drove it 50 miles to Duluth. Harley eventually was taken to the Raptor Center, where he was treated for lead poisoning and malnutrition. Veterinarians later had to do surgery on the wing from an old break that hadn't healed properly.

Harley was nursed back to health, fitted with a GPS transmitter and set free -- with Baladez called in to handle the release -- in January 2010 at a bald eagle wintering area along the Mississippi River south of the Twin Cities.

The eagle flew north and spent much of the spring along the South Fork of the Nemadji River on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, only about 30 miles from where he was rescued.

He spent his first summer with a transmitter near Lake Vermilion and in the Meadowlands area along the St. Louis River. But then he spent last winter in Arkansas, flying 640 miles in 12 days to an area not normally frequented by eagles.

"Harley has done several unexpected things: His abrupt move to northern Minnesota earlier this year, then his jaunt to winter in Arkansas," Ponder said at the time. "When dealing with (just one animal) we can't make solid scientific conclusions. But every piece of information adds to our knowledge base and gives us ideas of where to look for more information. No one had any idea of any connection between the Arkansas eagles and our northern birds."

By March, he was back in Douglas County. He spent this past summer and fall following a similar pattern, spending the summer in northern Minnesota, flying north into Ontario for a time and then settling in an area between Hibbing and Eveleth for much of the late summer, not far from where his remains were found.