Farewell to Maine’s State Eagle|
By Mark McCollough
Not many folks can say they befriended an eagle, but I can. On a sunny June morning in 1982, Charlie Todd and I went to Bartlett Island to band an eagle chick. Barney Thompson, an arborist from Brewer, climbed the towering pine to the large, stick nest and carefully lowered a plump nestling to the ground in a bag. At the time, we didn’t realize how large this little eaglet would feature in our lives.
Like many youngsters, this eagle left Maine to wander south on autumn winds. His adventure did not last long. In December he was illegally shot by a young hunter in Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania, not far from Hawk Mountain. A veterinarian had to remove his injured wing tip, and he would never fly again. Conservation officers in Pennsylvania apprehended the young man, and Bart was sent to a wildlife rehabilitator. The national bird banding lab confirmed this eagle hatched the previous spring on a Maine island.
I was a bit of a fledgling myself, having just started a doctoral program studying bald eagles under Dr. Ray “Bucky” Owen at the University of Maine. Charlie Todd led the Maine eagle program and received the call about the banded eagle. At the time, eagles were just starting to recover from the lethal effects of the pesticide DDT. Only about 40 pairs of eagles nested in the state. Every eagle counted, and illegal shooting was a problem here and elsewhere.
Bucky, Charlie and I discussed whether we might bring this injured eagle back to Maine and train him as an “ambassador” for eagles. It could be an effective way to reduce illegal shooting. Almost no eagles had been trained for educational purposes. Since this eagle was young, we thought we would give it a try.
I drove to Pennsylvania to pick up “Bart” (named after the island), and we converted a poultry pen at the University into an eagle aerie. After 14 hours in a crate, Bart was glad to be liberated into a larger space.
How does one train and eagle…or does the eagle train you? Charlie and I fitted Bart with jesses, leather straps attached to his legs, so that we could handle him. Through the first winter, I worked every day with Bart. It took weeks for him to accept me in his room and months for him to feed from my hand. By spring, he would step on to my glove to be fed. The breakthrough came in April, when Bart allowed me to walk with him perched on my gloved hand. By summer, he enjoyed strolls around campus, and he learned to sit on a perch in the enclosed cap of my pickup.
For the next six years, Bart travelled with Charlie, Bucky, and I to visit tens of thousands of school children. The phone rang constantly in Nutting Hall with teachers requesting eagle appearances. Kids were fascinated by Bart. One visit to a fourth-grade class in Orono was particularly memorable. The students were instructed to be as quiet as church mice when Bart and I entered the classroom. Midway through our presentation, Bart fidgeted. My back was against the blackboard when Bart lifted his tail and jettisoned a long, white stream of fecal matter that hit the top of the blackboard and ran into the chalk tray. The kids, myself, and even the horrified teacher burst into hysterics.
Bart was an annual star at the Eastern Maine Sportsmen’s Show. One year during my stage presentation someone asked, “Does he ever go after you with that beak just inches from your face?” I said, “No, Bart is trained better than that!” Just then, Bart reached carefully with his massive, yellow beak, snatched the glasses off my face, and dropped them to the floor. The crowd roared. There was not much I could do as my hands were full!
Bud Leavitt, outdoor writer for the Bangor Daily News, loved to have Bart on his television show Woods and Waters. Bart endured the bright lights well. Bud would lean in to ask a question and Bart would glare back with his piercing yellow eyes. Bud so admired Bart that he put us on the trailer for his show every week. “Val-deri,Val-dera, Val-deri, Val-dera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, With a backpack on my back.” Some of you remember.
I finished my doctoral degree in 1986 and moved on to other employment with the caribou reintroduction project. By then, Bart had his own pen at the research facility where we kept the captive herd of caribou. We took on another injured adult female bald eagle, Bell, who could not be trained, but we kept the two together for company. One day I heard screeching coming from the eagle pen. Through the slatted boards I could see that Bart had Bell pinned to the ground in his talons. I didn’t have the key for the pen, so scaled the 12-foot walls, cut through the netting on the top and extracted Bart’s talons from Bell’s eye sockets. Amazingly, she recovered, but Bart was never kept with other eagles again until much later in his life.
Schoodic Chapter of Audubon sponsored Bart to visit every school in Washington County. Sid Bahrt (no relation!), a conservationist from Pembroke, Maine, accompanied us on these visits. Tom Goettel a biologist from Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge learned to work with Bart and took over the Washington County programs. Eventually Bart moved to Moosehorn NWR in 1991. Biologist Maurry Mills traveled with Bart from Presque Isle to Freeport doing programs for another 15 years.
Bart became known as “Maine’s State Eagle” and retired in 2006 to his own “eagle condo” specially-built by Avian Haven in Freedom. There Marc Payne and Diane Winn introduce Bart to dozens of eagles that were rehabilitated at the facility. In his final years, the elder statesman of eagle-dom helped calm wild eagles that were rehabilitated.
Bart passed away this spring just shy of his 32nd birthday. I imagine there are readers who may recall an eagle visiting their classroom. He was a one-of-a-kind eagle that will be missed.
Mark McCollough can be reached at email@example.com. A slide show of Bart’s star-spangled life can be viewed at http://www.avianhaven.org/barts_30th_birthday.pdf
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