Well, I got a cool opportunity this morning. Friends and wildlife photographers Rick and Laurie Kline told Jennifer and I about two rehabilitated golden eagles that were going to be released north of Torrey.
The eagles, a young male and a mature female, were both West Nile victims that had been found unable to fly. “Coal,” the big female, was discovered in a coal mine coal pile near Price, Utah, where the releasers – Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation – are based. Rick and Laurie found the young male walking down the center line of Highway 24 while they were driving to get a pizza one evening. It was young enough that both its parents were still flying around. They called it “Abbey” because it was so feisty.
Both eagles were now being returned to the wild at Hogan Pass, a magnificent saddle that overlooks southern Utah’s Cathedral Valley, San Rafael Reef, and Henry Mountains. By 11 a.m. about a dozen people were oohing and ahhing at the aerial views of distant mesas, while the eagles were being pulled from their blanket-covered dog cages. Both birds were clearly healthy, and so wild they radiated energy like a static charge.
Goldens are bigger than bald eagles, and far more actively savage. While our national symbol prefers to live by perching lazily wherever it can eat dead or dying fish, goldens are aggressive hunters that roam far, plan aerial ambushes over long distances, and easily outmaneuver dodging jackrabbits – their favorite prey. They’re the most bad-ass of the larger eagles and hawks.
The birds get held for a while to let them settle down from being uncaged, then we all get to pet an eagle. The feathery savages stare back in shocked indignance, as if speechless at our lack of tact. The head feathers are sleek and soft. The massive yellow feet are decidedly reptilian. The scary huge talons are wickedly hooked, hard and smooth as polished ivory.
Most birds exhibit what’s called “sexual dimorphism,’ meaning the sexes are physically different. In the case of owls, hawks and eagles, females are considerably larger than males due to the physiological demands of egg laying. Coal, at perhaps 12 pounds – massive for a bird – is easily gnarly enough to beat the crap out of me.
The knot of chattering people walks over to the edge-of-the-world brink. The weather is perfect, blue sky with a light headwind for easier take-offs. Both birds are launched together with a three two one.
Even with a giant toss, these bomber birds have to fight for altitude. Squinting through a crisp telephoto lens, there’s time to watch the counterpump of giant wings and muscled legs. You can hear the creak of straining tendons and the whoosh of sweeping feathers. And then they catch lift. The wings flatten and still, the primary feathers stretch. Rocking and tipping, both birds vanish into the blue expanse, one gliding southeast toward the distant Henry Mountains, the other surfing an invisible left-hand curl of ridgetop wind north toward the San Rafael country.
Unlike most rehabilitated wildlife, these golden eagles have a decent shot at making it. They were never injured, only sick (most rehab patients are auto strikes). They were wild when they were disabled (unlike orphaned babies). Now they’re well fed, which predators rarely are, and the rabbit population is on an upcycle. If they do decide to migrate for the winter (not all raptors do, even within a given species) they’ve got until October, since goldens are the last birds to move in these parts.
In Utah, as in most states, wildlife rehabilitators need to be licensed, and ready to work 24/7, but it’s still a volunteer job. They don’t get paid. The expenses come from their own pockets, and donations of money, supplies, and volunteer labor. There are those who say that, ecologically speaking, rehabilitating individual animals is a waste of time, but that’s not really the point. It’s a channel for people who love wildlife but may not live near habitat. Besides, the environmental and biology education value of animal ambassadors alone makes the effort worthwhile.
There is undoubtedly a wildlife rehabilitator near you. Cash is always welcome, as is the labor…assuming you’re up for a near-full-time commitment. If you’re a teacher, scoutmaster, club official, or even a gang leader, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator and have them make an appearance at your gathering. And don’t forget to ask for donations. Maybe have your club sponsor a particular animal, and then be present for its release. It’s a worthy cause, and an experience you won’t forget.