By Ben Rodgers
SUAMICO – This month’s NEW Zoo & Adventure Park Animal of the Month is the symbol of freedom.
Sierra is a 19-year-old bald eagle, who makes her home in the aviary at the zoo.
She has been at the NEW Zoo since 2000, when she came as a rehab bird from Oregon.
All bald eagles at zoos are rehab birds because the healthy ones are needed to keep the wild population growing, said Drew Dinehart, zookeeper.
“Eagles like Sierra that can’t make it in the wild, we can give them a nice home here,” Dinehart said.
All bald eagles in zoos are also on loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That’s why when people ask for feathers Dinehart can’t help them.
The feathers are collected and given the back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which distributes them to Native American tribes across the country.
Dinehart said Sierra is a wonderful example of how zoos can help bring populations of animals back from the brink of extinction.
From 1967 to 1995, the bald eagle was listed as an endangered species.
In 2007, it was delisted as endangered and threatened.
In the wild the pesticide DDT, among other factors, threatened bald eagle populations, Dinehart said.
“Once we figured out what was causing that, and we figured out how to get their populations back,” he said. “We got them moved from endangered to threatened, then off the endangered list altogether.”
Because she is a rehab bird, Sierra can’t fly, but she does have a roost, a stream to bathe in and a steady diet of small animals to keep her full.
“At the zoo she gets a mix of a couple different kinds of fish, mice, rats, chicks, and we can change that up,” Dinehart said.
When donations are made, Sierra sometimes gets an entire salmon or sheepshead to eat.
Dinehart said a common misconception about bald eagles is that they will actually scavenge food when they can, like dead deer or rabbits.
But make no doubt about it, Sierra is an apex predator. In the wild bald eagles are at the top of the food chain.
They are aided by a wingspan that can reach 7.5 feet and eyesight that allows them the ability to spot food from up to 2 miles away.
“It’s hard for me to visualize if you’re an eagle,” Dinehart said. “Two miles is a long ways.”
Even though she doesn’t have to hunt for food, zoo staff still strive for Sierra to live life like she’s in the wild as much as she can.
“We do that enrichment to think of the species and what they would do in the wild and how they perform some of that stuff here,” Dinehart said.
Sierra is also vocal for a bald eagle. She likes to squawk for a variety of reasons, one is recognizing the person who feeds her.
“She’s a talker,” Dinehart said. “I’ve really enjoyed working with her in the time I’ve been here. She can always pick me out of a crowd, even when I’m visiting and wearing street clothes, she will pick me out of a crowd.”
The other reason is that when people visit her, they are visiting her home, which she inherently wants to protect.
“I think it’s just her personality, she is very talkative,” he said. “But it is her home. There is a little bit of that with her house, she will let me know when she doesn’t want me to go in there.”
She also does like to do as much upkeep as she can on her home.
“She likes to gather these nesting material type things,” Dinehart said. “She’s not going to build a nest because she doesn’t have a mate, but she does like to gather things.”
The NEW Zoo also offers visitors a chance to learn more about Sierra and bald eagles during the Eagle Chat, a special small group opportunity that comes with the Pelican Feeding experience.
For more information about programs offered at the NEW Zoo and how to learn more about Sierra, visit newzoo.org.