There are few animals as majestic and free as the bald eagle.
Here in Sitka, and throughout Alaska, this magnificent creature puts on an avian show like no other, soaring gracefully above lush forests of spruce, plucking salmon from rivers while in full flight.
When they’re not airborne, bald eagles stand guard over their world from the treetops, stately sentinels sporting snowy crowns.
It is somewhat sad, then, to see one of these wildest of raptors talon-tied by a piece of leather to a wooden post, trying to maintain a noble appearance even though it no longer can fly and has to take food from a human hand.
Volta is one such unfortunate eagle, an adult male who spends his days posing for cruise-ship tourists flooding into this island community in southeast Alaska.
Sunset, a juvenile female bald eagle yet to develop the distinctive white crest, is another. Watching her gaze out into a forest she once called home, one gets the feeling a tear is about to spill from her eye.
These, however, are only two of the many residents of the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, a sprawling facility nestled in the forest alongside the Indian River on the outskirts of Sitka.
Some of the others eventually will be released back into the wild, thanks to the efforts of the nonprofit center’s small staff and its many volunteers, who chip in with time and donations of everything from money to medical equipment.
Like Volta and Sunset, many of them will never regain their freedom and instead will spend their days here and abroad--flying in what is surely second class to them, via jet--as educational tools to teach young students what birds of prey are all about.
And, of course, to teach them what immediately becomes obvious to anyone taking a tour through the ARRC: that bald eagles and other raptors have one heck of a time getting along with this thing we call civilization.
Volta slammed into a power line in Sitka and suffered injuries to his chest and wing that have left him unable to fly. Sunset also hit a power line, which severed part of her wing.
Power lines are a primary threat to Alaska’s birds of prey.
Zap, a young female, flew into one in Ketchikan, was shocked and badly burned, hence her name. Zap has not yet recovered enough to fend for herself.
“But we’re not giving up on her yet,” says Kim Middleton, rehabilitation manager at the center.
The list of avian visitors to ARRC--one of world’s premier bald eagle facilities--is a long one.
Spookie, an adult female bald eagle, was hit by a logging truck and shipped in from Klawock, Alaska. She was rehabilitated and released.
Twinkie, shot by some idiot and later brought to the center, is fortunate to be alive, but the adult female eagle has seen the last of freedom.
Gandalf, an adult female great horned owl, is also a gunshot victim and cannot fly well enough to survive in the wild. But she is playing a valuable role at the center, serving as foster mother to a baby great horned owl that eventually may regain its freedom.
Contact, a juvenile male bald eagle, was found at the end of Ketchikan Airport without part of one wing, which, it is presumed, was amputated by an airplane.
And there was Buddy, a longtime resident of the center and Sitka’s unofficial mascot.
“Buddy was severely habituated to humans and could not be released because of that,” Middleton says. “He was found in a small village. . . . Someone could have stolen him from his nest and made a pet out of him. This is very illegal, so nobody has ‘fessed up.”
Buddy died recently of a mysterious lung affliction. His death made local headlines and saddened many of Sitka’s 8,000 residents.
“About 80% of the birds we get are here because of injuries caused by humans, either directly or indirectly,” Middleton says. “The No. 1 cause is collision injury, and that’s collision with power lines, collision with cars, collision with airplanes, collision with structures, windows. . . . And when a bird collides with something, they either break some part of their body or they sustain a concussion injury.”
This is a busy time at the center, Middleton adds, because the birds are still trying to get their bearings, so to speak, after a long, cold winter.
“The birds have used all the body reserves they possibly can, so now they’re doing stupid things, like chasing each other through power lines, to get each other’s food,” she says. “There’s a huge competition among eagles and they start fighting. . . . We got a bird recently that crushed the skull of another eagle because they were fighting over a piece of food. We called her Cruella DeVil.”
The ARRC has come a long way since it was established in 1980 by a small group of Sitka residents who treated injured birds at their homes.
It now has a staff of eight year-round employees--including a veterinarian, a curator and a husbandry coordinator--that operates on a 17-acre parcel of land bought with “a generous loan” from Holland America Line Westours Inc.
It has a membership base of about 4,000 around the world, and their dues help to keep the facility operational. The ARRC gets no assistance from federal, state or local taxes.
Over the years, the center has treated hundreds of birds, released more than 150 and sent many others to institutions ranging from zoos and captive breeding programs to other raptor centers.
It provides educational programs for about 50,000 students a year in schools throughout the United States, and is constantly striving to advance research in the rehabilitation of injured birds.
The ARRC accepts and treats any injured bird, but its primary patients are owls, hawks, falcons and, of course, bald eagles.
Bald eagles had been on the list of endangered species but their status recently was upgraded to “threatened.” There are believed to be 30,000-40,000 bald eagles in Alaska, with half of those living in the Southeast Alaska wilderness.
About 70 bald eagles a year end up at the ARRC, which does everything it can to get them back into shape to live the way nature intended.
“We release them right here and they go back to wherever it is they came from,” Middleton says. “And if it’s a migratory bird and it’s missed its migration, then we ship it to wherever it’s supposed to be. We’ve shipped hummingbirds down to [San Juan] Capistrano and red-tailed hawks to California. And we’ve shipped snowy owls up the other direction.
“We don’t know how many of these birds survive, we just feel we have to give them the best possible chance.”
Anyone wanting to become a member and help improve the birds’ chances can contact the ARRC at (907) 747-8662.
If you’re among the many who enjoy an occasional stroll in one of Southern California’s national forests, you’d better take your wallet next time you go.
Like it or not, user fees are in effect in the Angeles, Cleveland, San Bernardino and Los Padres national forests.
You can buy an annual pass for $30 or a daily pass for $5 per vehicle. Passes are available at REI stores or the district office at the forest you plan to hike in.
According to Robert Brady, a spokesman for the Angeles National Forest, efforts are being made to sell permits through other sporting-goods and department stores.
Of money generated through the program, 80% will be put directly back into the forests for trail maintenance, sign improvements, graffiti removal and the like, and the remaining 20% will go into a federal general fund.
Yes, the user-fee system is controversial. But if there indeed are noticeable improvements within the forest, it’s not unreasonable.
Meanwhile, gone are the days when you could just pull over and hike at your leisure. Well, you still can do that, but you might get a $100 ticket.
Said Brady, “We’re going to ease into that part of it. At first we’ll be giving warning tickets, and then fix-it-type tickets so people can send us the [user fee] when they get home.”
AROUND THE SOUTHLAND
Youth and senior citizen fishing derbies and clinics sponsored by the Department of Fish and Game will be held Saturday at Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Los Angeles. The derbies are free, but those 16 or older need valid state fishing licenses. Details: (562) 590-4824.