Finding the right raptors for the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center is one of the most challenging aspects of managing the High Desert Museum’s wildlife education program.
One priority for the limited space at the Museum is conserving species of special concern, species that depend on public support for their survival. In many ways, the golden eagle is the epitome of this strategy. It is an apex predator of the High Desert and its survival is essential to sustaining a healthy ecosystem well into the future.
But there are many things to consider when assessing a new bird of prey for the Museum. First of all, these birds are not captives; they are wild raptors that have been deemed non-releasable due to severe injury or poisoning. As such, a facility must have highly-trained staff that understand the wild raptors and have the skills to interact with them and manage their health and safety.
Many non-releasable eagles have wing amputations due to car strikes or electrocution. At the Birds of Prey Center, the strategy is to acquire birds that appear normal as opposed to birds with conspicuous injuries. Wildlife curators feel strongly that exhibiting intact, vibrant individuals helps visitors connect to the majesty and beauty of species in the wild as opposed to the pity and sadness that often accompanies seeing a conspicuous amputee. It is a hard choice to pass on birds that need homes, but it is important to keep focused on the mission at hand – to educate visitors about High Desert wildlife.
The ideal candidate is a golden eagle that has experienced independence in the wild, having learned survival skills and is able to hunt, but has not developed an extreme resentment of humans due to the rehabilitation process.
Think about it from the raptor’s point of view. It is injured or poisoned as a result of human activity; it is captured, restricted, and subjected to repeated and extensive medical treatments. If it survives, the golden eagle, a very intelligent animal with a strong memory, often remembers the involvement of humans and can harbor deep resentment, but hopefully not too much because a rehabilitated golden eagle suitable for an education program must eventually bond with its trainers in its new home if it is to be successfully integrated into the facility.
This is often possible because wild golden eagles with hunting experience, even if injured or recovering from poisoning, bond more quickly with a trainer and learn faster given food motivations, creating an opportunity to truly spotlight the behaviors one would see in the wild.
At the High Desert Museum, golden eagles are flown and trained every day, including feeding from the glove. However, if they chose not to fly or train, food is never withheld.
The High Desert Museum currently has three golden eagles in residence. Phillip is an education raptor, especially telling the story of lead poisoning in the wild; Nicholas is on exhibit; and Walter is currently being trained for education talks and free flying. They can be viewed at the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center.