Pinhoti: Golden Eagle Capture and Release

Pinhoti: Golden Eagle Capture and Release

This article was submitted by Renee Morrison and written by Mimi Gentry and published in the Times- Georgian newspaper on February 20, 2014. A portion of the article is reproduced here with permission from Mimi Gentry.

Why would a bunch of folks be standing around in a parking lot in the Talladega National Forest in the early morning cold? We were there to attend the release of a Golden Eagle back into the wild.

The biologists there are studying the eagle population to see how Alabama humans and migrating eagles are getting along with each other. This particular eagle had been tested and found to have high lead levels in her blood (probably because of feeding on gun-shot deer carcasses). She’d been to rehab at the vet school in Auburn where they kept her until her lead levels dropped.

She was caught at a bait station in the Talladega National Forest, where she had become part of a long term study of golden eagles to find out where they travel, where they nest, where they live and how they die. To do this, biologists from the West Virginia University who specialize in large birds of prey, Trish Miller and Mike Lanzone, were going to put a radio transmitter on her, to track her throughout her lifetime.

The eagle’s name was “Pinhoti”- it’s a Creek word that means, “where the turkey roosts, or “Turkey foot” depending on who you ask. She was named after the Pinhoti Trial that runs through that part of the country.

Pinhoti was the color of the forest- dark woody brown, like a bear. Her head and wings were frosted with golden highlights. Her feet were as big as a child’s hand, covered in scales. Her talons were like polished steel, as big as one of my fingers, perfect for grasping a fox, or a rabbit, or a faun. The biologist told us that her grip was 10 times as strong as that of a human man.

Her eyes were what amazed me. They were globes of gold, staring and unblinking – without emotion. She scanned the crowd and took in everything with one long glance – the parking lot, the cars, the people. One of the biologists said her view of the world was broken into two categories – “meat” and “not meat.”

She seemed strangely calm. Mike told us that golden eagles are pretty subdued, as long as you have control of their talons. He showed us her down undercoat. It was soft and thick and white, like the snow of the Arctic where she summers.

They invited us to come and feel it. I slipped my fingers deep under her feathers. It was warm under there – warmer; even, than my own human blood.

I was drawn to her eyes again. Her eyelids slipped down with mechanical precision, like the shutter of a camera. She regarded all of us with passive disregard, until a small child dashed out of the crowd and toward the parking lot. I saw in her eyes, she registered, “Meat.”

They posed Pinhoti for photos. The cameras popped like paparazzi shooting a red-carpet gala. The biologists stretched her wings out to their full span, almost 7 feet wide, tip to tip – they shone like opals in the sun. Her tail moved like a rudder- made for navigating high cold winds. They folded her wings back in and she rested quietly, like a baby, in the Trish’s arms.

Finally, it was time to put on the tracking device. They hooded her gently, to keep her calm and put booties on her feet, to prevent her from tearing anybody’s skin. Then they attached the device to her back – like a backpack. The unit was lightweight, only 2% of the bird’s body weight. Mike sewed the Teflon ribbons together and checked it for a perfect fit. From now on, he’d be able to track her with his cell phone. Once the transmitter was put on her, they wrapped her carefully in an ABA (a bird jacket that holds her wings) and off we went to the release site.

It was a high, lonesome spot. Hardwood trees were bare as bones. Lightning struck stumps. The air smelled strongly of pine – the needles still bruised from the ice storm last week.

They got her out of the SUV. She was un-hooded, un-jacketed. She looked around at her stomping grounds, still without emotion. Not struggling for release. Patiently waiting. The biologists fed her raw venison to give her a couple of days to get her bearing before she had to hunt again.

Then it was time for her release. They unbound her talons. An old man held her- he had been chosen for the honor of the release because of his dedicated volunteer work with the program. He was more nervous than she. He counted to three and gently lofted her skyward. Pinhoti took it from there. She flew to a tall pine, about 100 yards away, where she perched for several minutes, getting her bearing with the strange apparatus on her back.

We watched her as she sat and preened. Then she took off again, swooping low over the valley. With each mighty beat of her wings, she rose higher and higher, until she finally caught a thermal and rode it up into the sky. Higher and higher she floated, until she was so high we could hardly see her- a black fleck against an impossibly blue sky.