Q: What does it take to move bald eagles into a new home?
A: An expert keeper and animal care team – and plenty of patience.
It was the week of the Eagle Passage Grand Opening, and two of Northwest Trek’s new bald eagles were ready to move in.
Early one morning, before the park filled with guests and noise, veterinarian Dr. Allison Case gathered with curator Marc Heinzman, keepers Wendi Mello and Miranda Mauck and a team of keepers and interns. All were ready to gather up the eagle pair from where they had been living behind the scenes while their new home was built.
Rescued from the wild with injuries that prevent them from fully flying, Sucia (a female) and Salish (a male) are easier than most eagles to pick up. They’ve also been cared for by humans before, so weren’t worried when the keepers entered their space.
Gently, Mello and Mauck scooped up each bird in turn, weighing them and holding them while Case gave them a physical exam for wellness and body condition.
Then the keepers tucked the birds in crates to bring them to Eagle Passage, their new home in the center of the park. Created from mesh attached to living trees, with plenty of perching snags and giant logs creating ramps over the walk-through visitor tunnel, the habitat is also lushly forested. Towering Douglas firs give cool shade, maples offer a dappled understory and big sword ferns dot the ground.
Nestled in the trees, also, is a mew (the traditional term for an inside building for birds). It will give all the eagles a safe, indoor space where they can choose to shelter, and where their keepers can care for them.
It was here in the mew that Mello and Mauck carried their charges. Gently, one by one, they set the crates down and opened them, giving Salish and Sucia access to their whole space.
Immediately, Sucia darted out of the mew doorway and into the trees. She can extend her wings around 70 per cent, and instantly did so, flying up to first one low perch, then a higher one atop a snag.
“She’s the one who’s a bit braver, more exploratory with space,” said Mello. “Salish is slower, but more outgoing with people.”
Meanwhile, Salish (who can’t fly, due to an injury) had hopped outside to some low-growing bushes. He discovered the shallow water pool and began playing, dipping head and body.
Mello, Mauck and the team waited, patiently and silently, inside the mew.
Finally, he made his way to the foot of one of the ramp logs (deliberately designed by Trek staff for eagles with disabilities), and stair-stepped up to the top – right over the tunnel where entranced guests would soon be walking and gazing. Calmly, he settled his feathers and began to look right and left with bright, alert eyes.
“Their first instinct is to get to a high place where they can look around and see everything,” Mello explained, backing out of the mew and coming to watch the two from the outside. “That’s why this exhibit is so perfect. It gives them all these high perches where they can feel super-comfortable and safe, but people can still see them really well. As a keeper, this is such a rewarding experience – to watch an animal explore and experience a new home.”
In fact, it’s a view of a bald eagle that most people are never likely to get in the wild. From the wide tunnel, you can look up at Salish, just feet away above the mesh, and see every part of those two-inch talons gripping the log, every ripple on the yellow skin of his feet, every long black feather on the underside of his wings. It’s an intense, almost electrifying experience – yet completely calm, just like the eagles themselves.
Above all, it’s a dramatic reminder of how this majestic species was saved from extinction over the last half-century, as concerned citizens spoke up to protect them from pesticides and hunting.
The eagle pair, who lived together in another accredited zoo before finding their forever home at Northwest Trek, will be given some time to get settled into Eagle Passage before the park’s other two bald eagles Sequoia and Cheveyo move in too.
Meanwhile, guests can experience the entire Eagle Passage at the grand opening 10am Aug. 3: gazing at the birds, climbing into a human-sized “nest” to see what it feels like, stretching their own arms against a life-size graphic of an eagle’s wingspan and making their pledge to protect wildlife.