American Bald Eagle Foundation opens aviary for unguided public visits

Zilla the hybrid Lanner Saker falcon perches during training with Sidney Campbell.

Zilla the hybrid Lanner Saker falcon perches during training with Sidney Campbell. (Photo by Henry Leasia/KHNS)

The American Bald Eagle Foundation Raptor Center and Natural History Museum recently opened its aviaries for unguided public visits. It is the first step in a renovation of the space to improve care and visitor interaction.

On a rainy Monday morning, Education and Outreach Coordinator Sidney Campbell stepped into a wood and mesh wire enclosure. She was greeted by a series of excited chirps from Zilla, a Lanner Saker hybrid falcon. Campbell had some rat meat for the bird, but she was going to have to work for it.

“Zilla is training,” Campbell said. “She does targeting, so she targets around her enclosure where I ask her to. All of the birds step on a scale when we ask so that we can get weights every day.”

Campbell directed Zilla to different points of the aviary. After each successful landing, she rewarded her with a small piece of meat. As the team ran through their training regimen, a pair of visitors approached the aviary. Campbell told them all about Zilla, explaining her species, her history, and her personality. They even performed a trick where Zilla caught a treat in midair.

This was exactly the kind of interaction with visitors that the raptor center has been trying to foster. In the past, the aviaries behind the visitors center were much more restricted.

“The space was so small and so tight that we could only lead tours of about 15 people through here once a day, which means about 90 percent of our guests were not seeing what we actually do her,” Campbell said.

The only other opportunity to see the birds was when staff brought them out of the aviaries on gloves to face the crowds. But some birds just aren’t cut out for that. To address this problem, the enclosures in the back are being reorganized to open up space for a walkway that visitors can use to observe the aviaries.

Not only will this layout improve the experience for tourists, it will also help staff with their duties.

“We’re changing the areas so that they’re more open and accessible, and therefore easier to clean,” Campbell said. “It’ll also require less staff time because we don’t have to go out and do training sessions in private between our other commitments on program days. We can now go out and do them in front of people.”

In the last year, two of the center’s owls passed away and an eagle was taken off-site temporarily. This has made it possible to relocate two emergency shelters and tear down two aviaries. With the extra space, the center has laid out a walkway for visitors and plans to build four new small enclosures.

The new walkway allows the public to observe the American Bald Eagle Foundation aviaries outside of guided tours.

The new walkway allows the public to observe the American Bald Eagle Foundation aviaries outside of guided tours. (Photo by Henry Leasia/KHNS)

The original plans for the aviary redesign included a much larger expansion. Due to funding restrictions and new Fish and Wildlife regulations on the size of raptor enclosures, the foundation had to compromise.

“Because this project was already underway the enclosures that we’re building at the size we’re building are grandfathered in essentially,” Campbell explained. “But if we were not doing this now they would have to be much bigger, and we just don’t have space on the property. So we needed to kind of compromise and make sure that we could build what we considered large and safe enough spaces for our team of ambassadors.”

The goal is to build the four new shelters by October. The cost will be roughly $50,000, of which $40,000 has already been raised. Once built, the foundation hopes to expand their team of birds, or ambassadors as they are called at the center.

The existing aviaries are now open for public viewing at no charge for Haines residents.

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