Cody museum opens new exhibit on golden eagles

By LEW FREEDMAN -
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Cody Enterprise CODY, Wyo. (AP) - 

The two golden eagles flew at each other with ferocity, doing aerial battle 300 feet above where Dr. Charles Preston stood in the Big Horn Basin.

Preston was spellbound as the birds grappled with their talons, battling over territorial rights for nesting.



Locked together in anger they plummeted to within 80 feet of the rocky ground before separating.

In 10 years of golden eagle field research throughout this 250,000-acre region supporting approximately 100 nesting pairs, this was a one-time sighting for the man who may have witnessed everything else revolving around the predator’s lifestyle and habits.

“Wow!” was Preston’s response.

The results of years of research on golden eagles, which allowed Preston to see little-known aspects of the eagles’ behavior, are now permanently on display.

In a series of events over the last few days, the Draper Museum of Natural History at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West culminated the decade of research by Preston, staff, and contributions from a coterie of golden eagle specialists in the West. “Monarch of the Skies: The Golden Eagle in Greater Yellowstone and the American West,” was unveiled as a permanent exhibit.

The display is a tribute to one of North America’s best-known, most easily recognized, and most-admired birds. With its distinctive brown coloration and a wing span that can stretch to more than seven feet, the golden eagle makes for a dramatic presence against the backdrop of a blue sky.

If Preston, who has shepherded the Draper since its infancy in 1998, considers the museum his baby, this eagle project is his grandchild, a kind of career-capping achievement and his legacy.

“It’s very exciting for me,” Preston said. “It’s the piËce de rÈsistance of the Draper.”

EXHIBIT FULL OF INFO

As raptors run, the golden eagle is large, two-and-a-half to three-plus feet in size and perhaps weighing 12 pounds.

The eagles are very efficient hunters and killers, a trait that fascinates Preston.

“I’ve always been attracted to the science of predation, the predator-prey balance,” Preston said. “Maybe because I was a hunter. The eagles are the ultimate raptor. They’re charismatic. They’re the apex predator.”

The new exhibit includes a glass case housing field-study tools, such as radio collars affixed to the backs of young eagles, leg bands, binoculars, utensils for sedation and a field diary.

Another case contains a Native American headdress with eagle feathers and a graduation cap with an eagle feather attached to the top, in part representing the spiritual connection between indigenous people and eagles.

Panels hanging on a wall explain the types of threats the eagle may face for long-term survival, including climate change, vehicle collisions, poisoning and poaching.

An interactive electronic display allows visitors to learn about golden eagles in eight areas of the West.

A regular appearing elsewhere in the museum as part of the raptor program, Kateri, a resident golden eagle, made a special guest appearance for the kickoff events.


Kateri made the life-altering decision one day to munch on a deer carcass along the interstate near Gillette and was hit by a semi-truck, breaking a leg. While the bone healed, torn ligaments did not recover for her to fly again.

Rather than foraging for food, Kateri lives more of a show-business existence, meeting the public regularly as a representative of her species.

Taking in the scene at the eagle display, Kateri did not squawk about her role.

“She’s speechless right now,” said Brandon Lewis, raptor program assistant manager.

Kateri is not a bird to be petted, or approach too closely, without risk of injury.

“She has a bubble,” Lewis said of her comfort zone. “She’s still a wild animal.”

Kateri could readily rip apart a person. The power that courses through those talons is almost mind-boggling.

“They can exert 750 to 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch,” Lewis said. “In a human it is 100-120. In Mongolia, people use them to hunt foxes and wolves.”

Members of Preston’s team watched a golden eagle lift off a pronghorn antelope.

Called the “queen of the show” when the raptors are viewed in the museum, Lewis said “she’s not a morning bird.” No wake-up calls. “She’s above that.”

One interactive exhibit allows visitors to push buttons and call up facts and figures and people doing similar work. The exhibit is specific, highlighting the Bighorn Basin, but universal.

CONSERVATION TALK

“This is really the core of the golden eagle’s range in the United States,” said Brian Woodbridge.

In conjunction with the Monarch of the Skies opening, Woodbridge spoke at the Draper’s Lunchtime Expedition Series. His talk was titled, “From Sagebrush Sea to Pacific Ocean, Golden Eagle Conservation in the Big Picture.”

Woodbridge, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is coordinator of the Western Golden Eagle Team.

He keeps tabs on study groups through the region, though his specialty area is along the California-Oregon border.

Nests in the Bighorn Basin are typically found on rock cliffs, hillsides, or foothills, but Woodbridge has encountered them elsewhere in juniper trees.

Threats to golden eagles stem from manmade structures, and a bane of golden eagles is wind turbines. Eagles, who prefer wide-open spaces, are sucked into the blades as they scour the ground for prey.

“Golden eagles have it pretty good here,” Woodbridge said of this part of Wyoming.

Preston said his team discovered the proliferation of the slow-reproducing golden eagle is tied to the rabbit population. The situation resembles the black-footed ferret’s reliance on prairie dogs as a food source. If there are plenty of rabbits, eagles reproduce at a higher rate.



ADVENTURES WITH EAGLES

Preston and museum staffers had some research adventures.

“Not everybody gets to feed a golden eagle beef heart,” said Bonnie Lawrence Smith, Draper curatorial assistant and Monarch exhibit co-curator.

She also ran across a rattlesnake at one site.

Preston said when assistants Nate Horton and Pat Rodgers breathlessly reported a tale, he enjoyed the awe in their voices. They witnessed a golden eagle swooping from the sky to take a pronghorn fawn.

Preston said the eagle is a predator with thousands of years of history. Native-Americans are a big part of that history and the exhibit pays homage to the importance of the eagle in native culture.

The headdress and the graduation cap, each adorned with eagle feathers, are symbols of past and present achievement.

“To have a golden eagle feather was an earned right,” Smith said.

Rebecca West, curator of Plains Indian Cultures and the Plains Indian Museum, said eagles are valued in Native culture as “something bigger, spiritually,” not merely part of nature.

“They have ceremonies that are meant to honor the raptor,” West said, “to transfer some of its power to the user. There is tradition, honor. It’s a respect.”

Tradition, honor and respect are all words that could describe the Monarch of the Skies exhibit, too.

 

 

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