Updated: Jan 16
I was perched in the large alder trees by the sea that day. I was fishing, the salmon were running and I was hungry. Suddenly there was a loud bang and everything went black. I woke up in the grass bewildered. I could not see out of my eye. I flew up into the trees as far as my wings would carry me. I grew colder as night came, and then more days and nights passed by. My body shuddered and my feathers became soaked with rain. I don't remember how long it was before she came for me, but I knew I was dying.
That Alaskan summer evening, I got a phone call during a night out with friends saying that a tourist had seen a bald eagle in the park that looked very ill. I was a member of the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center's rescue team. My girl's night out suddenly became my second priority as I rushed to the center to grab another teammate and the proper eagle-wrangling gear. Off to the park we went to find this bird. I didn't have much hope in finding it though, since most people had a tendency to misunderstand normal bald eagle behavior. I had no idea that night would change my relationship with raptors forever, guiding me to a walk a more ancient path.
The sky grew dark and cold as I ran through the maze of trails. After over an hour of looking, I was about ready to give up. I crossed over a large bridge. A stiff breeze hit me breathing the words, “Turn left.” Despite the possibility of grizzly bears, or losing my way, I cut a sharp left down a small path by the river.
It did not take long for my heart to leap when I saw it - a bald eagle perched about 10 feet up in a small alder tree. I instantly knew this was our sick eagle. No healthy raptor would pick a perch so low. I yelled for Forest, my teammate to come and see. We waded through the soggy grass that blanketed the riverbed. Forest shimmied up the tree. The bird did not even flinch. I stood below with a large blanket and arms wide open. He reached out and grabbed the bird's legs and lowered them to me. I slowly folded its wings into my arms and transferred, in a ballet-like manner, the body of a very sick eagle into my own hands.
The eagle shuddered but put up no fight on our way to the clinic, where our veterinarian met us. We uncovered the injured bird to find one side of its face had been shot off by a shotgun. I was overwhelmed by anger and sadness. The cruelty of nature pales in comparison to that of man! About eighty percent of the injuries we treated were caused by humans, ranging from car accidents, electrocutions, gunshots, and on some occasions, ingested fishing gear.
When we weighed the bird at nine pounds, its size indicated that it was an adult male bald eagle. In all birds of prey, the males are approximately one-third smaller than the females. I had the honor of naming him Alder. He was ridden with feather lice and had a massive systemic infection. I cradled him in my arms while our vet examined him. The examination only took about twenty minutes, but twenty minutes seemed like an eternity to me because of the lice that continually crept up my neck and face. This was a true test of my ability to endure being creeped out for these birds that I loved. He was treated with antibiotics and put in our intensive care unit, a small room lined with large dog kennels covered in white sheets. It took him some time, but his wounds started to heal, he started eating on his own, and life returned to him after being transferred to a solo aviary to let him spread his wings.
Despite losing part of his beak and eye, Alder became a strong and healthy bird once again. Because raptors depend primarily on their keen eyesight to survive, he was unreleasable due to his disability. I wish I could say that he found a home at our center, or any other center, but the truth is that no one wanted a cosmetically imperfect bald eagle for their program. Alder was euthanized because he was ugly. This infuriated me! It was tragic. He fought so hard to live; he didn't deserve to die because of our miserable human need for aesthetic perfection.
I know people don't want to see a grotesque-looking bald eagle, but I believe that if Alder had been allowed to live, he would have had a huge impact. His injuries could have sparked so much awareness about the damage humans can do to birds of prey. In life we often throw aside those things and even other humans that we don't find good enough or pretty enough.
It was my third year working for the center rescuing birds. After all of this happened with Alder, I started to feel that my dedication was pointless. I felt worthless. I put my heart and soul into rescuing so many species of birds there. Many of them died of natural causes. I even had a juvenile female bald eagle die in my arms. I literally felt her heartbeat slow to a cold stop. That was terrible, but it was out of our control. Rescuing Alder and bringing him back to health after so much atrocity was not out of the center's control. The administrators had a choice. Their choice revealed the real hypocrisy I now clearly saw in raptor rehabilitation. This incident influenced me to choose a different path with the feathered kind. I am now a licensed falconer, training and hunting with birds of prey. Falconry has changed my life. It has infused me with a kinship and passion for raptors.
I don't know how I knew where Alder was that night. He was one of many bald eagles I tracked down and rescued in my hometown of Sitka, Alaska. He was the one who changed my life forever. I am thankful every day for the time I spent with all the birds there. I will never forget their strength.