Gracie was having a good day. This was unusual. Much of the time, she hangs out alone in a corner of the football-field length shelter she shares with a dozen or so other birds, enjoying looking at herself in a little mirror perhaps, but not doing much else. Not that anyone can really blame her. Since being hit by a car, she’s been blind in one eye and has such shoulder pain that she often keeps her head almost upside down to get some relief. But on the day we met, Gracie was out of her corner, hopping sideways like a crab, staring me down with her one good eye as I crooned, “Hello, Gracie,” to her over and over like a goofball.
Gracie is a young bald eagle, one of forty-plus injured bald and golden eagles who live in the Iowa Tribe’s Grey Snow Eagle House in Perkins, Oklahoma. (Visit the Grey Snow Eagle House on Facebook.) The birds have all been rescued from something or other—a few have flown into electric wires, a couple have broken bones that have then fused together improperly, one was injured by a wind turbine. A few will recover enough to be released back into the wild, but for most, Grey Snow will be their home for life. In case you’re wondering, eagles in captivity can live for over fifty years.
The bald eagle, of course, is the symbol of the United States, but for many of the Indian tribes that were conquered and subjugated to make way for the new nation, the eagle is a symbol of a very different kind—a religious figure, a god perhaps, or an intermediary between man and the gods. Many Native Americans use eagle feathers in religious ceremonies and rituals. Under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, however, it is illegal to possess a bald or golden eagle or any part of one under federal law. Fortunately, however, the Fish and Wildlife Service has taken advantage of an exception in the statute to grant permits to a small number of tribes allowing them to run aviaries and distribute molted feathers to tribal members.
My guide Amy—a recent zoology grad from Oklahoma State who had been working this quirky job for two years—gave me some background. The tribe opened the aviary in 2006 with only four birds. The place’s main purpose is to help the injured eagles, with the provision of feathers to members of the tribe being a side benefit. The staff also educates the public about eagles and Iowa culture by offering public tours on the weekend and inviting school groups to visit during the week.
I asked Amy how the tribe collected the feathers and learned some interesting things. Eagles apparently molt exactly half their feathers each year, in a precisely symmetrical fashion. If an eagle molts her third wing feather on her left side, she will also molt the mirror image third wing feather on the right. Having even sets of feathers, it turns out, is critical when you are an eagle diving at 200 miles per hour toward your prey. I also learned that in Iowa culture, women are not allowed to touch a feather unless it is given to them; for that reason, if Amy touches a feather, she always does so wearing gloves (even though she herself, unlike the others who work at the aviary, is not a member of the tribe).
In addition to a large boomerang-shaped rehabilitation cage and the small (and pretty stinky) building where Amy raised the rats and bunnies that the eagles feed on, the aviary, when I visited it, consisted primarily of a main office building that contained the Intensive Care Unit (the ICU has since gotten its own home) and two large structures—the “flying cage” and the “handicapped cage.” The day I was there, the ICU’s sole resident was Newman, a female bird who had been named somewhat prematurely and was now suffering from a “bumble” on her toe. I bent down and introduced myself. Newman was pretty sedate, which Amy explained was a new state of affairs that had started when the staff put some dark blue padding around the cage to stop her from slamming herself against the wood frame. Whether her change in attitude could be chalked up to the padding itself or the dark blue color, however, remains a mystery.
The flying cage is an enormous structure where nine bald eagles were relaxing and frolicking and squawking up a storm. The cage is made from wooden slats which leave narrow openings to the outside for fresh air and other elements to enter. Amy introduced me to Scrapper, another car crash victim who had been brought back from the “brink of death” by the aviary’s veterinarian in Tulsa (who donates all his time to Grey Snow for free) and was now sitting quietly on an up high perch, as well as Sally, who had lived through a complicated bone surgery which apparently enjoys a mere twenty percent survival rate.
At the handicapped cage, things are much like the flying cage, except that the residents cannot fly or, if they can fly, they can only fly a little. Here the perches are much lower, and many are connected to ramps so the hobbled eagles can hop up more easily. A lot of the birds here have amputations, like Nubby, who has an amputated wrist. Then there’s poor Banana, who came to the aviary with a leg deficiency that made it almost impossible for him to walk, much less fly. Some veterinarians suggested that Banana be euthanized, but the aviary’s vet engineered some kind of device that helped him recover to the point where the staff was able to train him to walk at least short distances.
The stories of these birds—of Gracie and Banana and Newman and all the rest—may not be the happiest stories in the bird world, but they are surely a lot happier than they would have been without someplace like the Iowa Tribe’s aviary.
Jay Wexler, Professor of Law at Boston University, is the author of three books including Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battleground of the Church/State Wars. He is currently writing a book on the relationship between religious practice and environmental protection.