The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Wednesday, 05 January 2022 12:15

Claws out: Sevier County is a center of raptor rehab

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Sevier County raptor center will be largest in North America

Project Eagle has landed.

The American Eagle Foundation broke ground Sept. 21 near Kodak, Tennessee on the largest raptor education and rehabilitation facility in North America.

Scheduled to open fall 2022, Project Eagle will be the new home of Challenger, the famous bald eagle seen swooping across football fields as the proud national symbol of the United States of America.

Sick, injured and orphaned bald and golden eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls will be nursed back to health, with the hope of being released back to the wild.

Birds unable to survive in the wild won’t be released. Instead, they will live in aviaries built to closely resemble their natural habitats, yet accessible to public view. There, with the oversight of experienced handlers, they will become educators.

The 57-acre campus near Kodak (the exact location is “under wraps” to limit human influence) will be equipped with state-of-the-art veterinary equipment for the day-to-day care of birds. Birds found with trauma will be given first aid at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville before being taken to Project Eagle.

AEF is keeping its current home, Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, at Dollywood. “It will continue operating normally,” Curator of Ornithology Katelyn Jennings said, adding that Project Eagle is on track to open fall of this year. Another thing that won’t change are the international sensation and wildly popular eagle cams.

AEF rehabilitated and released back to the wild 10 to 50 birds a year at its current facility, and have been since 1985. In 2021 they returned 60 birds to the wild and expect to increase that number with the addition of a rehab manager and a vet tech, Jennings said.

Along with the rehabilitation hospital, there will be an education center with classrooms, a quarantine area, a video-production studio, and both large and small aviaries where birds can practice flying again and regain their strength. A pollinator garden, walking trails, play areas and interactive exhibits will round out the visitor experience.

The biggest draw, however, will be the 75 or so non-releasable raptors residing in spacious aviaries resembling native habitats where visitors can see raptors being raptors.

There are over 200 known active bald eagle nesting sites statewide, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Bird Conservation Coordinator David Hanni said.  “We’re interested in public reports of bald eagle nesting sites, we’re always looking for that kind of info.”

Wild raptors play an important role in nature, Hanni said. “Especially when it comes to keeping rodent, snake and other small animal populations in check.”

With the bald eagle removed from the Endangered Species List, the foundation is phasing out what has been one of its more unique programs, propagating bald eagles by breeding pairs in hacking towers. The young bald eagles mature without introduction to humans, even to the point of being fed without knowing it came from human hands. These towers are located on secluded, private land with no public access.

“In the past,” Jennings said, “our focus has been on bald eagles because they were endangered. Now that they’re not, we will no longer breed eagles for release to the wild, but increase our rehabilitation and education programs for all our bird species.”

Instead of bald eagle propagation, attention will turn to breeding and releasing barn owls because they are struggling in East Tennessee, Jennings said. “We don't know why, but we suspect habitat destruction to be a cause.”

Jennings said Project Eagle will house both raptors and corvids, such as crows, in spacious aviaries. Jennings explained the difference between raptors and corvids: “They are both birds of prey, meaning they eat meat, but raptors have sharp talons and sharp beaks and strong legs and feet to lift prey off the ground or out of the water, whereas corvids, like turkey vultures and crows, don’t.”  

Among the many raptors released along the foothills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there were 180 bald eagles. Handlers release the birds near their original nesting sites if they are known.

Project Eagle will host field trips, workshops, conferences and a summer camp all centered on a STEM-based and research-backed curriculum, with the goal of giving students transferable skills they can use toward community action conservation.

The foundation will honor the bald eagle, symbolized on the Great Seal of the United States of America, June 20, American Eagle Day. On that day in 1782, the U.S. Congress named the bald eagle the national symbol.

Congress also established the Endangered Species Act in 1973, listing the bald eagle. Nearly extinct, the bald eagle recovered, and now thrives throughout North America, a conservation success story. Still, it remains a federal crime to purposely harm a bald eagle, or disturb its nesting site.

Currently, rodenticides present a danger to raptors. Rodents eat the poison, the birds eat the rodents, and the birds become gravely ill from the anti-coagulants. The cruel irony: Raptors are skilled rodent hunters, and a robust raptor population is a very effective means of rodent control.

It’s the same with lead. Fish ingest lead fishing tackle and land animals are shot using lead bullets. Raptors eat the fish or wildlife and get lead poisoning, causing severe nerve damage leading to death.  Even if rescued, the lead takes a long time to leave the bird’s system. For this reason, many states, including Tennessee, ban the use of lead when fishing or hunting.

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