The American Bald Eagle Foundation Raptor Center and Natural History Museum in Haines will build a new aviary.
The Raptor Center houses three bald eagles and is a tourism attraction for the Southeast Alaska town of about 2,500.
The center is home to three American bald eagles: Arden, Vega and Bella.
Raptor program manager Stefanie Jenkinson, is in charge of the food, the husbandry and the enrichment for the birds that live there.
“Their job is to educate people,” Jenkinson said.
Against a painted backdrop of an Alaska mountain scene and through wire mesh two bald eagles, Arden and Vega, do their daily training, hopping from their perches up high onto platforms down below where handlers reward them with morsels of moose meat.
Vega, the oldest bald eagle at the center is in her mid-20s. Eagles can live a long time, into their 40s.
Vega is one of the reasons why they’re overhauling the aviary.
When Vega is kept with other eagles, handlers say she tends to out-compete and steal food from the two other younger, smaller eagles.
The eagles and their handlers have been practicing their routine for cruise ship season in Haines, which brings thousands of people to see them.
The Raptor Center is at the heart of tourism here and their building is right in the middle of town between the post office and the police station.
Passengers from cruise ships line up each summer to see the eagles and other raptors up close.
The center’s mission is the conservation of the bald eagle and its habitat.
One of the largest congregations of eagles in the world takes place about 20 miles from here, each fall along the banks of the Chilkat River, where the birds come to feast on spawned-out salmon.
The Raptor Center opened in 2010.
But Sidney Campbell, the education and development manager at the center, said the existing spaces where the largest birds live are less than ideal.
“Our three bad eagles really should not be housed together, but we only have the space now to allow us to keep one separate and two who are housed together,” Campbell said.
These birds of prey normally have large territories and they’re opportunistic feeders.
Housing the eagles together can cause problems, Campbell said.
“Our largest bald eagle, Vega, is older and wiser and definitely larger than the other two and she’s much better at competing and because bald eagles are scavengers and they like to steal food, she’s really good at stealing it from the other two,” Campbell said.
Having three separate rooms for the eagles is part of the plan for the new aviary.
Plus it also includes a weathering yard where birds can perch, sun themselves, and where outdoor training can take place as well as a walking path so guests can connect with the birds in a closer setting.
“We want them to be able to do the job to the best of their abilities. Not only are we building larger spaces, we’re building spaces that are more enriching,” Campbell said. “We are demolishing a building that is currently blocking a lot of light to some of the existing aviaries. This way rather than having the birds kind of staring at each other all day, we will have them looking at their surroundings. They’ll be able to look at the wildlife that is nearby. There’s lots of bird watching, lots of squirrel watching that is really enriching.”
The idea is to give the eagles more room and some of the stimulation they would have in a wild setting and to give visitors a better experience, Campbell said.
“Currently, we can’t open the aviaries to the public,” Campbell said. “We lead a tour through there every day in the summer, but that is capped at 15 people, so very few of our guests actually get to see all of the birds because some of them don’t come out and do glovework.”
Besides the bald eagles, the Raptor Center is also home to two red-tailed hawks, a Eurasian eagle owl, an eastern screech owl, a peregrine Falcon, a lanner-saker hybrid falcon and a merlin.
“By building the two new structures and tearing out the existing structure, we’re going to open it up and people can kind of go on their own self-guided tours,” Campbell said.
After the new aviary is complete, Campbell said, hopefully, the eagles and the people who come to see them will have a much more authentic experience at the Raptor Center.
The center has raised more than $50,000 for the new aviary, through a GoFundMe to page. But they need to raise more to reach their goal.
The groundwork for the project is scheduled to take place in April and construction is scheduled to be completed this fall.