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Rehab Center in Alaska Gives Birds of Prey a Prayer

June 20, 1997|PETE THOMAS

SITKA, Alaska — 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.

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