Feathers, Native Culture, and Rehabilitation

 

By Katie McInnis DVM

As wildlife rehabilitators we all know the value of feathers to birds. Thermoregulation, communication, and mobility are just a few ways birds utilize their feathers. But what about when a bird no longer needs those feathers? What purpose can they serve? For some, imping is an excellent use of feathers, as is utilizing them for research or educational purposes. While these options have great merit, most feathers that end up being saved are eagle feathers, in the US the majority of which end up at the National Eagle Repository.

Variegated eagle feather

The National Eagle Repository is a government sanctioned collection site for both bald and golden eagle carcasses and feathers. With the inception of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other wildlife protection laws, US Native Americans lost the right to possess and utilize feathers that they required for important cultural and religious purposes. For decades USFWS tried to come up with solutions, but even with the establishment of the National Eagle Repository the process of just getting a single feather was slow and laborious. In 1990 the Pueblo of Zuni made a bold but sensible proposition. Wildlife rehabilitators were often faced with the challenge of what to do with non-releasable eagles. The Zuni proposed the creation of a long term care facility where the birds could live out their lives, well cared for, while providing molted feathers to native people. With the institution of the Native American Eagle Aviary Permit, native communities were able to benefit not only from molted feathers, but from the pride and satisfaction of caring for eagles that still have a good quality of life despite having disabilities that make them unreleasable.

In Perkins, Oklahoma Megan Judkins spends many hours working with eagles and their feathers. Megan works at the Grey Snow Eagle House, a rehabilitation and long term care facility for eagles that is run by the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma. While their primary focus is caring for their eagle population, they also rehabilitate eagles from Oklahoma, provide educational programs, and are working in collaboration with Oklahoma State on genomic research of bald and golden eagles. Although these things keep them busy, their main focus is the health and well being of the eagles. Eagles are screened carefully before being allowed to enter long term care, and once in the program they are given bi-annual veterinary exams, multiple forms of enrichment and are carefully monitored to ensure they have the best quality of life possible.

Megan says that while many people think Grey Snow Eagle House (GSEH) opened specifically to provide feathers for the Iowa Nation this is actually a misconception. “The GSEH opened because while eagles play pivotal roles in all Native cultures, for the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma the eagle is viewed as the only living creature that has seen the face of the creator. The eagle also assists the tribal members by carrying their prayers to the creator. So, by rehabilitating injured eagles and releasing them back into the wild, the tribe believes that these birds will continue to help their tribal members by carrying their prayers. In addition, by providing high quality homes to the eagles that cannot be released back to the wild, the tribe is saying thank you to the species for helping the tribe through the generations. Finally, by participating in research collaborations, we are ensuring bald and golden eagles persist through future generations.”

To learn more about the Grey Snow Eagle House you can visit their website here: http://eagles.iowanation.org/ But why visit online when you can visit in person! Grey Snow Eagle House will be hosting the IWRC Basic Wildlife Rehabilitation Class December 1-2, 2017. There are still a few spots available so sign up today!