POWELL, Wyo. — After a year and a half of anticipation and preparation, Melissa Hill's goal of adding an eagle to the birds she cares for at Buffalo Bill Center of the West became a reality in January.
Kateri, a female golden eagle, came to the center as part of the Draper Museum of Natural History's raptor education program in Cody after spending five months at the Northeast Wyoming Bird Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Gillette. She was taken to the rehabilitation center after being struck by a vehicle — a semi-truck — on Interstate 90, said Hill, assistant museum curator, who manages the museum's Yellowstone Raptor Experience.
At the rehabilitation center, Kateri underwent surgery to repair a broken wing. But permanent muscle damage prevents her from flying well enough to survive in the wild, Hill said.
Kateri joined four other feathered residents in the mews (bird house) at the Center of the West (formerly the Buffalo Bill Historical Center) on Jan. 21: Teasdale the great-horned owl; Isham, the red-tailed hawk; Hyabusa, the peregrine falcon; and Suli, the turkey vulture. Due to injuries or other problems, each bird is unable to survive in the wild.
Each bird has its own roomy enclosure in the mews, large enough for a person to walk in, interact and handle the bird safely, and to accommodate the bird's wingspan, which in Kateri's case is estimated at about 7 feet.
Hill's preparation for an eagle for the Yellowstone Raptor Experience began long before Kateri's arrival.
"It's a really difficult process (to apply for a permit) for an eagle versus the others," Hill said. "It's a completely different application, and there's a lot more to it. I had to detail all of my previous eagle experience. You have to prove you have worked with them before and are capable and competent to work with one."
In addition, Hill had to provide detailed plans and dimensions for the bird's enclosure, down to the type of perch she would use, and she also was required to describe the educational program, as well as how she would integrate the eagle into the program.
Hill said she also had to have verification from other people that she was capable and qualified to handle the eagle.
Hill has worked with raptors since 1997, beginning with the Laramie Raptor Refuge when she was a student at the University of Wyoming. She later worked with raptors at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, S.D., and at HawkQuest in Parker, Colo.
Hill finally got the go-ahead for an eagle in January.
Kateri got her name from 8-year-old Chloe Hanson of Cody, who submitted the winning entry in a contest to name the eagle. The name remembers Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), who is honored as the patron saint of people who love nature, work in ecology and work to preserve the natural and human environments, according to information on the center's website.
Hill said identifying Kateri's gender was easy, since she weighs about 12.5 pounds.
"Males are much smaller, usually 8 or 9 pounds," Hill said. "Females in the wild are usually 10 to 11 (pounds). She's just a big golden."
Kateri eats 10-12 ounces of meat — generally rat or rabbit — daily. When the weather is nice, she'll eat less because she won't need extra energy to stay warm.
Preston has estimated Kateri's age at 5 to 7 years, which would make Kateri a young adult. But there's no way to be sure, Hill said.
Eagles can live 40 years or longer in captivity, she said.
Before training could begin, Hill had to put anklets and jesses (leather straps) on Kateri, and fit her with a hood.
"She did really, really well," Hill said. "She's very calm, so it made it easier for us."
Training began in incremental steps, Hill said, first just by spending time with the eagle to get her used to being with Hill. Gradually, Kateri became accustomed to taking food from Hill and standing on the leather glove she wears while handling the eagle.
Training begins by "moving slow, doing everything I can to gain her trust. Offering food, trying desperately not to sneeze and cough — those sorts of things that you always realized you need to do as soon as you don't want to do that," Hill said.
To begin with, the sessions were short — about 15 minutes.
"When she was more comfortable, we would sit for an hour or an hour and a half at a time ... until she almost forgets that I'm there."
Training a raptor sounds exciting, Hill said, but in reality, "it's very tedious. Realistically, it's 90 percent boring and 10 percent real excitement."
Kateri's training is progressing well.
"She's a smart bird, and she's a good, calm bird," Hill said.
On Feb. 21 — one month after Kateri's arrival at the center — Hill took Kateri outside the mews. Until that week, all of Kateri's excursions into the outside world with Hill had been with a hood over her head and eyes — but exposing her beak — to avoid frightening her and to keep her calm. This time, Hill took the hood off for a few minutes, allowing the eagle to get used to her new surroundings.
Initially startled, Kateri flapped her wings, a couple of times even flapping upside down briefly. Hill held the eagle high enough that there was no danger of Kateri injuring herself, then helped her back up to perch on Hill's arm. In a few moments, Kateri calmed down and focused her eagle eyes on the world around her.
Once she was calm, Hill put a perch under her arm to help her support the eagle.
Because Kateri is such a big bird, Hill said she can hold her for only about a minute without help.
While making sure Kateri is safe, Hill has to protect herself from injury as well. For instance, if the eagle were to fly backward while Hill was holding her, that could seriously injure Hill's shoulder. To prevent that, Hill makes sure she faces the wind while holding Kateri, since birds almost always fly into the wind.
Kateri is adjusting well. Hill hopes to be able to take the eagle out in public sometime this month — but Kateri won't make her public debut until she is ready, whenever that is. She'll definitely be ready for public programs before the summer, Hill said.
One of the requirements for getting permits to keep raptors is that they participate in at least seven educational programs each year.
"Last year, our birds each appeared in at least 350," Hill said.
This year, Kateri will join them. She'll be the last one Hill and her volunteers introduce and talk about during each program.
"She'll be the star of the show," Hill said.
Information from: Powell (Wyo.) Tribune, http://www.powelltribune.com