Prior to the release of a young golden eagle at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort in Worley Idaho, Coeur d’Alene elder Cliff Si John offered some words of wisdom to the crowd:
“Thank you for our brother here who is about to be released into the freedom of the air, to be able to soar into the clouds and to see with his eyes what our eyes will never see. He flies so high and so close to the Creator. We release this bird in cooperation with this lady who has a special gift. … We send this bird away with our prayers and prayers of goodness for our children.”
Janie Fink, a biologist and rehabilitator of birds of prey, cautioned viewers that the eagle had never before flown and might land to get his bearings. “Hopefully he will live here and fly over this reservation,” she added. But the bird performed wonderfully, initially swooping low to the ground before pulling up and over the roof tops. “I’m very pleased with the day’s release,” she said.
The release of the eagle occurred in conjunction with the annual Coeur d’Alene tribal elders’ meal. As many as 1200 elders from numerous tribes throughout the northwestern U.S. and western Canada were expected to attend, and even though it’s an annual dinner, perhaps none before carried as significant an event as the release of a golden eagle into the wild.
Fink, who is one quarter Cherokee, is Executive Director of Birds of Prey Northwest, a facility to care for injured or orphaned birds. She explained that special U.S. Fish and Wildlife permits are required to run such a facility and to have these birds in her possession.
Prior to releasing the golden eagle, Fink she showed and discussed two other birds of prey. One was a peregrine falcon, a species that had neared extinction but now has nearly fully recovered. Fink explained this particular bird was part of a reintroduction project but was unable to be released, and so had become a bird used for teaching as she travels around the country. The other was a bald eagle, another species that has recovered well since the days when it was lawful to use DDT, a poison that had led to the species almost disappearing. The bald eagle Fink displayed had fallen from a nest as a baby and sustained a broken leg; it was found by people, taken in, and hand fed, and as a result it had become imprinted on the people. Imprinting is a specific bird behavior in which a young bird will develop an attachment to one of the first moving objects it sees—avian or human, animate or inanimate. Once a bird imprints on a human its chances of learning to fly, hunt or mate—indeed, its chances of survival in the wild—are slim. Such was the case with Fink’s bald eagle which, she said, believed that “food comes from humans.”
But on this day, the golden eagle was the primary focus. The release was the first major event to take place in one of the amphitheaters in front of the newly remodeled resort. Dave Matheson, CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort, addressed the crowd: “Thank you for your good thoughts for these sacred moments in time. Our people have always believed we have a natural order to live within, to find a balance with nature and to take care of it. We’re glad to be part of this sacred time for this sacred bird for he is the one who watches over this land and watches over our people.”
Fink said the bird was a male, approximately nine pounds with a six foot wing-span. “I think he has a better chance than most because of all the people here watching out for him. If this bird is grounded, people will know to get him some help.” Bald eagles are more commonly found in this region and this golden eagle release was rare here. “I’ve released only half a dozen in my career,” she noted.
The release of a single bird is not critical to the population as the numbers nationwide are good, but every golden eagle is important in itself. Fink said that up to 75% don’t see their first birthday due to natural mortality plus electrocution, illegal shooting, car collisions and wind turbines. The most recent survey throughout the west by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave an estimate of 20,722 golden eagles in the survey area. This area contains the majority of the population; the U.S. estimate in total is about 30,000 golden eagles.
Fink also said that on those occasions when an eagle in her care dies, the bird is sent to the National Eagle Repository in Colorado where they are then available for distribution to Native Americans. Feathers of this bird are very much in demand for cultural and religious purposes and this repository is the place to contact to get birds for that purpose. Natives looking to obtain feathers for ceremonial purposes should visit www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/law/eagle for more information.