The museum, which uses live rescue animals as part of their educational programs at the museum and in local schools, has sought to add an eagle to its collection for more than a year. Museum assistant director Mike Clough says it was a Marlboro Elementary School class that first suggested it. “After one of our presentations at the school, one of the students asked why we don’t have an eagle,” Clough recalls. Aside from the stringent state and federal licensing process that must be completed to have a live eagle, one of the barriers was having an appropriate enclosure for the big bird. “A couple of weeks later, we got a check from the class to help us build an enclosure.”
The Marlboro Elementary School students’ donation spurred the museum to build the enclosure, seek licensure, and then begin searching for an appropriate rescue eagle in need of a home. Along the way, the Marlboro Alliance, Deerfield Valley Rotary, the Vermont Community Foundation, and museum director Ed Metcalfe also donated to the project.
After finding, then losing an opportunity to get an eagle from California, Clough found a bird that had been rescued from an injury in Wyoming. “He was found on the side of the highway vomiting and with a bad wing,” Clough says. “He weighed about five pounds – half what he weighs now. He was a real mess.”
Nursed back to health but with a permanently injured wing, the eagle can glide across his enclosure – about 20 feet – but can’t fly at altitude. “If he got out, he could probably glide down to the bottom of the mountain,” Clough observes, “but he wouldn’t be able to get up in the air to fly away.”
Early Thursday morning, the eagle flew into Albany (on a cargo plane), where he was met by Clough for the ride to his new home. The enclosure, located at the back of the museum, has a view looking over the mountains and the valley below – appropriate for a retired bird of prey.
Clough says the eagle has good potential to be used as an education bird, that is, one that will be comfortable sitting on his gloved arm, and in front of people. Training will begin right away. “I’ll start off with some basic acclimatization, letting it get used to me at feeding time, so I’m associated with food,” Clough says. “Food is their main motivator. Once we get through that hurdle, it’s a matter of getting closer and closer until it will take food out of my gloved hand. Once that happens, it’s all over.”
Once the bird is comfortable sitting on his gloved arm, Clough will be able to take it out of the enclosure for talks in front of small groups. If that goes well, the eagle could be in area schools as part of the museum’s classroom education program. Clough says he hopes to have the eagle glove-trained within a month.
The prospect of having a live eagle for wildlife demonstrations is exciting for educators like Clough, because bald eagles, which were once nearly extinct, are becoming a common sight around southern Vermont. Many valley residents have reported seeing mature bald eagles in the vicinity of the Deerfield River and Harriman Reservoir. “There’s been a huge spike in sightings,” Clough says, “and in 10 years we’ve gone from no verified nesting eagles in Vermont to 15.”
Although eagles will eat carrion and small animals, their preferred diet is fish. While the museum already has a supplier of small rodents for the feeding of their carnivorous animals, they’re hoping a new partnership with the state fish hatchery in Bennington will mean their eagle’s diet will be mainly fish.
The eagle has already proven to be an attraction at the museum, but he has yet to be named. Clough says the museum’s policy has been not to name the education animals – they’re not pets. But he says he and Metcalfe are considering breaking the rule and naming the bird, so that people can make more of a connection to the eagle. “The birds don’t care, of course,” Clough jokes. The museum may have a “name the eagle” contest or fundraiser.