Visiting with the birds at the American Eagle Foundation
It’s an interesting group that hangs out at the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge.
Scimitar, a peregrine falcon, can predict rain better than a weatherman.
Sammy, at age 19, is considered the oldest kestrel on record.
Victory, a golden eagle looks very intimidating, especially when he flexes talons strong enough to crush rock (almost). She has a wingspan of six feet.
The huge yellow eyes of Owltilla, a great horned owl, are mesmerizing and its head can swivel 280 degrees.
Sundance, a Harris hawk with shiny brown feathers, has a way of screeching in a whisper.
Even Osceola, a bald eagle with only one wing, has a regal presence. Wildlife program coordinator Christian Knatt places the giant in an outdoor compound with all the respect shown to royalty. He tells me Osceola likes to go hang gliding with a buddy, so this huge bird does fly.
Challenger, the star of flock, has visited with presidents, football players and movie stars. This bald eagle appears before crowds of 100,000 and has been just about everywhere.
The American Eagle Foundation, home to birds big and small, was established in 1985. It is a not-for-profit organization with ties to Dollywood. Every year, thousands of park visitors watch the birds at the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary aviary and at the Wings of America birds of prey show. Eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and vultures show off their flying skills in an open-air theater.
The birds are a highlight of my visits to Dollywood, but I had the opportunity recently to tour the off-park center in Pigeon Forge. Groups can take tours to the center by calling in advance to make reservations.
In its long brown buildings I met the cast of characters: Scimitar, Victory, Owltilla, Sundance, Osceola, Challenger and others.
Caregivers provide a safe haven for birds of prey that are non-releasable because of physical disabilities or past experiences with humans, known as imprinting.
The raptor barn is a busy place with volunteers and workers in constant motion weighing and feeding birds, taking them outside for sunlight and socialization, and giving them exercise and training. The birds are inspected daily to make sure they stay healthy and happy.
“They all have different personalities,” says Brittany Barajas, explaining how birds let workers know their mood of the day. Brittany possesses a wealth of knowledge that she is eager to share. She can always tell when rain is about to roll in because Scimitar will jump into a bird bath.
Brittany, a poised 16-year-old who has volunteered at the center for four years, introduces me to Owltilla. I feel very lucky to be up close so I can examine this incredibly beautiful great horned owl.
Janine Orlando works outdoors with Scimitar, who is trying to gain strength after coming here with a wing injury. “She gets excited because she knows if she’s going to fly, she is going to eat,” explains Janine as Scimitar flaps her wings in anticipation. Janine walks 20 to 30 yards and then blows a whistle. Scimitar flies from the perch to Janine’s glove, receives pieces of lean quail breast, and then flies back again to the perch.
American Eagle Foundation founder and president Al Louis Cecere and wildlife program coordinator Robert West perform a similar flying exercise with Challenger. Al stands at one end of a long hall and Robert at the other. On Al’s whistle command, Challenger leaves Robert’s glove and flies to Al’s. It’s back and forth five or six times. Challenger is a very fast eagle, so only a white and brown swoosh is visible.
“Challenger has been to five presidential inaugurations,” Robert says, in running down a long list of places the eagle has been and the people he’s met. “He bit President Bill Clinton. The president was warned ‘You can’t touch the bird,’ and when he did, the president learned not to do it again.”
Other buildings at the center are devoted to breeding, exercising, quarantine and rehabilitation; they are not open to the public to ensure minimal disruption. The breeding program has hatched and released dozens of eaglets into the wild. One eaglet hatched the morning of my visit. Al takes pride in the six eaglets hatched this season and he expects at least two more are on the way.
The process is intriguing. The eggs are hatched in an incubator. Once hatched, the eaglets are fed with a puppet resembling an adult bird so the little ones remain unaware of humans.
Parent couples live in a separate protected compound. They receive a wooden egg in their nest. A short time after an eaglet is hatched, Al will go to the nest and replace the wooden egg with some broken egg shells and the baby. “It seems kind of weird that they wouldn’t know the difference, but when we take the wooden egg out and put the baby in, they just go right to it.”
Have you visited the American Eagle Foundation? Let us know about your trip in the comments!