Fly like an eagle

It’s not an everyday sight, but it’s also not terribly uncommon.

Working here on Petit Jean Mountain, we have our fair share of bald eagles that occasionally take a peek at our corner of the broad plateau that rises above the Arkansas River Valley.

What IS uncommon is seeing an eagle on our front lawn, tethered to a human handler. Don Higgins, who first began working with large birds in 1972 and now lives on the mountain, has spent the past few mornings working with Verna, a female bald eagle who showed up in someone’s driveway a few weeks ago.

The person who found Verna outside their home in Mount Vernon (Pope County) had the presence of mind to call Lynne Slater, who runs the HAWK (Helping Arkansas Wild Kritters) Center near Russellville. Don has worked with Lynne to rehabilitate raptors since 2011, so she immediately gave him a call.

“She took the eagle to a local veterinarian,” Don said. “She checked her over, and there were no serious physical injuries, but she was full of parasites.”

The parasites were both internal and external, Don said, which affected both her ability to eat and her ability to fly. Once Verna – so named because she was found in Mount Vernon, and Don said he wasn’t going to call a female eagle “Vern” – got past the need for medical attention, it was time for her to learn to fly again. That’s where Don stepped in.

Since he began working with the HAWK Center in 2011, Don has rehabilitated about 30 raptors, everything from screech owls to several types of hawks and falcons. But Verna is his first eagle.

“With most of the other birds I’ve worked with, they were smaller, and I didn’t need as much space to work with them,” Don said. “With an eagle, she can cover 100 yards in no time, so I needed a much bigger space.”

It was also important to have space with short grass, he said, because when Verna began her rehab, she could only fly very low to the ground due to a tether, called a creance, and he worried that if he took her out to a pasture, she could get her wings snared on a bush or tall grass.

Among the many features of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s 188-acre campus is several open fields that we keep well-manicured. Don, having gotten to know our executive director, Dr. Marta Loyd, over the past few years, rang her up and asked if he could use our front lawn for some flying lessons. Marta agreed, on the condition that she could come take some photos.

“I’m really grateful to Marta and the Institute for letting us come out there and take advantage of the wonderful grounds,” Don said.

While Don was working with Verna today, two bald eagles soared overhead, making sure their cousin was in good hands.

“That was pretty neat to see,” Marta said.

Verna is close to being back to full strength and seems to be responding well to her training. The rehab techniques that Don uses are all based in falconry, he said. He got his start training the mascots for the Air Force Academy when he was a cadet there in the early 1970s.

The last test for Verna before she can be released back into the wild is called live-prey testing, and it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. A small mammal that would be a typical part of an eagle’s diet will be released in a controlled setting and Verna will have to hunt her own supper successfully.

Once she’s cleared for release, various wildlife agencies will be notified and will assist in delivering her back to the wild, possibly at Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge.

Don said he and his wife, Janie, find this type of volunteer work to be very rewarding, and he urged me to encourage people to consider supporting the HAWK Center, which helps care for and rehabilitate all kinds of animals, not just birds of prey.