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National Eagle Center welcomes newest resident

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Angel, a bald eagle found with a broken wing in northwestern Wisconsin in 1999, is one of the National Eagle Center’s first ambassadors. The center houses permanently injured birds unable to survive in the wild. Behind her is Columbia, named in honor of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. (Republican Eagle photo by Michael Brun) 2 / 3
Jennifer Drayna, an avian care specialist and naturalist educator, gives a live eagle presentation Jan. 14. The center holds three programs daily featuring one of its eagle ambassadors. (Republican Eagle photo by Michael Brun) 3 / 3

WABASHA — He’s not ready for prime time yet, but the National Eagle Center’s newest resident will one day greet visitors as an eagle ambassador.

Exactly when that will be is up to him.

“It’s different every time,” said Jennifer Drayna about the training process to prepare wild birds for use in an educational setting.

Drayna, an avian care specialist and naturalist educator, is taking the lead to train the male bald eagle that arrived in Wabasha recently from a rehabilitation center in Washington.

The approximately 8-month-old eagle was found over the summer hanging around a beach near Puget Sound. An examination of the bird identified an eye socket malformation that makes it prone to infections. Specialists determined it would not be able to survive without human care.

Over the coming months, Drayna will work with the bird — referred to for now as “Little Boy” — through a series of gradually escalating exercises. He is being kept out of the public eye until the training is complete.

“We start out with very basic stuff, like eating in front of me,” she said, “and then slowly build on that.”

Similar to training family pets with different personalities, Drayna said the process will depend on how the bird responds along the way.

“For me it’s exciting,” Drayna said, adding it is the first time she has trained a raptor from start to finish. “It’s an interesting process to be a part of and to watch.”

The National Eagle Center is taking suggestions to give Little Boy a proper name at www.nationaleaglecenter.org. The website has more than 200 suggestions submitted by visitors.

The naming criteria include picking something with educational value or significance, and that is “consistent with the strength, dignity and freedom that the bald eagle represents.”

Eagle ambassadors

Little Boy is the sixth eagle to reside at the National Eagle Center. The birds are all permanently injured and unable to be released into the wild.

“So we call them ambassadors, meaning they’re ambassadors for their wild cousins,” Public Relations Director Eileen Hanson said. “They can’t live out there anymore, but they can help inspire people to care for, protect and conserve eagles and eagle habitats.”

Eagles from northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and Canada come to the Upper Mississippi River Valley for food during the winter months, Hanson said. The National Eagle Center grew out of the 1970s and 80s when people came to view the birds at a time when eagle sightings were uncommon.

Local volunteers would provide spotting scopes and give presentations, eventually leading to the formation of EagleWatch Inc. and a small storefront downtown. In 2007, the nonprofit organization partnered with the city of Wabasha to open a 15,000-sqare-foot interpretive center.

“It’s beautiful,” said Philip Wyld of Zumbrota, one of several visitors exploring the center on a weekday earlier this month. “It’s very interesting, that’s for sure.”

Attendance tends to drop off in the winter, but the center can get several hundred to more than a thousand people each day in the summer, Hanson said.

The building features information on eagles and the local environment, eagle viewing field trips and live programs three times a day.

“People get a chance to meet (eagles) up close, learn more about them and probably see them eat their lunch,” Hanson said. “That’s always a big hit.”

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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