Member of the 'Eagle nation' flies free after treatment

HIGHER CALLING: Ceremony honors bird's special lore.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via The Associated Press

Published: August 2nd, 2009 08:44 PM
Last Modified: August 2nd, 2009 08:44 PM

FAIRBANKS -- Kim Green of Two Rivers stood beneath the hot Fairbanks sun in a full-length, fringed hide dress, her eyes drawn to the cloudless blue sky.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, tracking a young eagle to his perch in a tall spruce overlooking the Chena River.

"We can release all this wonderful energy, these prayers and hopes," she said. "An injured animal is going to carry our prayers, our spirituality."

An Abenaki by heritage, Green was among several hundred people captivated by the recent release of a rehabilitated eagle at the Midnight Sun Intertribal Powwow on the Carlson Center lawn.

Named Bolt, the 2- or 3-year-old eagle was found in February 2008 on the ground near Kodiak. Stunned by a power line, the eagle's chest and back bore open wounds, and parts of his spine were showing, said Lisa Pajot of the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.

Rescuers flew the bird to the center, where staff treated his wounds with antibiotic ointment for several months, fed him plenty and allowed time for healing. Bolt was moved to the center's flight training facility at Fort Richardson after several months of convalescence. There, he made short forays into the air, building wing strength for an eventual release back to the wild.

"An electrocution is usually really hard to recover from, but this particular bird, he's great," Pajot said. "He's definitely feisty; he's ready to go."

Upon release, some birds dart to a high point and pause, getting their bearings and a read on the lay of the land.

"Others keep flying, like they want to get as far away from humans as possible," she said.

Bolt did both.

The eagle darted to a higher perch, atop a spruce, spreading his broad, powerful wings to showcase a splash of color, and perhaps to test his flight muscles.

A frenzied flurry of gulls circled the treetop, squawking at the newcomer. In an elegant push, the eagle took off as the crowd let out a collective cheer, watching the bird bat his brown wings, glide, bat, and glide, dipping along the Chena with two gulls at his tail.

Powwow chairman Benno Cleveland, who is half Eskimo and half German, said eagles are a rich part of Alaska Native culture.

"We believe the eagle is a messenger from the Creator to the people, and from the people back to the Creator," Cleveland explained.

The eagle is not earth-bound, and soars higher than any other, high enough to spread those messages, according to Native lore. Eagle feathers often are used in prayer and healing, while wings may be used to smudge incense for cleansing and other ceremonies.

"In Fairbanks, we didn't have too many eagles flying around here for a long time," he said. "But lately, we're seeing a lot more, and young ones as well."

Four veterans carried the eagle's rectangular box to the release site, where four Athabascan elders opened the doors to freedom.

"Have good thoughts within your heart and in your mind," Cleveland urged spectators prior to the release. Give thanks to the Creator for allowing "one of our brothers of the Eagle Nation to be free."

Bolt shot straight from the box, starting into a long, graceful sweep up into the branches of spruce trees, flushing out smaller birds.

Four women in traditional regalia stepped out in a wide circle to a drum beat, bearing a ceremonial blanket for donations to the bird center. More than $300 was collected from onlookers torn between the dancing display and a search for the eagle in treetops across the river.

The center takes in about 50 eagles and 800 other birds per year, Pajot said. People are the largest threats to eagles.

"Eagles don't have natural predators," she explained.

The birds that find their way to the Anchorage center often have been hit by a vehicle, absorbed toxins at landfills, or ingested fishing line and lures.