Mended young raptor flies free in tribal ceremony

By Alison Boggs
Worley, Idaho (AP) October 2011

A golden eagle found grounded as a baby flew free for the first time after more than a year of rehabilitation with a Coeur d’Alene raptor biologist.

Jane Fink, executive director of Birds of Prey Northwest, released the eagle during the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s annual Elders Dinner gathering, attended by hundreds of people from tribes throughout the Northwest.

Fink stepped onto the lawn in front of the Coeur d’Alene Casino in Worley, holding the hooded young male raptor in her arms, his feet in her heavily gloved hands.

“It’s always an awkward moment for me because I can’t guarantee what will happen,” she said. “Whether he lands on the ground and sits there for a while to get his bearings, he’ll not likely fly toward you; he’s afraid of you.”

Then she walked across the long green lawn and removed the hood. The eagle began struggling and squawking in her arms. Released, he flew low across the lawn, then gained elevation and alighted on a nearby rooftop.

The crowd erupted in cheers.

“Go, go, go, fly, fly,” people yelled, clapping and whistling.

Coeur d’Alene tribal elders offered prayers and songs prior to the release.

“Grandfather in heaven, thank you for our brother here who is about to be released into the freedom of the air,” said Cliff SiJohn, the tribe’s cultural awareness director. “He will see things with his eyes that we will never see.”

Fink’s nonprofit organization rehabilitates injured raptors, educates the public about them, and tracks those that are released into the wild. She has special permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for her work.

She said the golden eagle was orphaned 14 months ago and has been cared for in her rehabilitation center. The raptor has been offered live prey to condition him to hunt.

“We don’t just release these birds after their injuries have mended,” she said. “We exercise them and provide them opportunities to hunt so they’ll be successful upon release.”

Prior to the release, inside the casino ballroom, Fink did a presentation for the crowd with a young female peregrine falcon and a 20-year-old female bald eagle named Liberty. The eagle has been with Fink for 15 years as she travels the country with her educational program.

Liberty fell and broke her leg as a baby and was taken in by people who hand-fed her. While well-intentioned, Fink said, that action imprinted Liberty to humans and forever removed her opportunity to return to the wild.

The bald eagle’s shrill call filled the room, eliciting gasps from the crowd. But, while endowed with a 6-foot wingspan, a powerful hooked beak and massive talons, Liberty is incapable of hunting, Fink said.

“She thinks food comes from humans,” Fink said. “If she were out in the wild and were hungry, she would sit on somebody’s head and beg for food.”