SWAN ISLAND — The granddaddy, the biggest and perhaps most majestic of them all, awaits his turn out of the box. When the moment arrives, Hope Douglas, thick leather glove protecting her hand, lifts the bird out to the gasps of spectators who have come to see the birds.
The eagle, perhaps in a nod to the life it once lived in the wild, turns its gaze to the nearby Kennebec River and the trees that line it. Then its piercing eyes turn to the crowd.
“If you’ve lost a loved one or had a serious diagnosis, you know what that feels like, to be shot out of the sky,” Douglas said. “He wants to be up there, not grounded.”
The 22-year-old eagle, called Skywalker, is one of four birds of prey Douglas and her co-presenter, Sue Barker, ferried from Richmond to Swan Island for Saturday’s presentation.
Douglas, a former counselor, founded Wind Over Wings in 1988 in Connecticut. The center, which is now based in Dresden, cares for 15 birds, including two bald eagles and five owls, that have suffered permanent injuries that prevent them from returning to the wild.
Nearly a dozen people attended the presentation, which included stories of how each of Douglas’ birds was injured and advice on how to help other birds avoid similar fates. Douglas said shows such as Saturday’s not only help generate money to feed the birds, but also build awareness of society’s effect on them.
“We do about 140 shows a year,” Douglas said. “It’s our effort to empower adults and children (with) what they can do to make a difference.”
Douglas has deep affection and empathy for the birds, though she does what’s possible to maintain their wild nature. She is careful not to pet the birds as one would a dog or a cat.
“We name all the birds, but they are not pets,” she said.
Douglas does work with the birds until they are comfortable at her facility and manageable around people.
“They have to get over the anger,” Douglas said, “but they’re willing.”
Barker, a retired teacher, has always been a bird enthusiast, but that interest grew into a passion during an adult education program taught by Douglas. “I just fell in love,” she said.
Barker is one of three presenters who assist Douglas with the shows and who help describe the birds and their injuries. The program offers shows for a variety of venues, both private and public gatherings.
“It’s fun,” Douglas said. “Every audience is different. You see parts of Maine you wouldn’t normally see.”
Douglas opened Saturday’s show by reading selections of letters she has received from schoolchildren. One marveled at Douglas’ ability to hold the birds. Another was concerned about an owl injured when it hit a window.
Saturday’s presentation featured both a saw-whet owl, the smallest Maine owl, and a great horned owl, the state’s largest. Owls have 14 vertebrae in their neck, double that of humans, that allow them turn their heads 270 degrees.
Pepin, the saw-whet owl, suffered permanent wing, and possibly eye, damage when it flew into a window.
“Unfortunately, a lot of birds do fly into windows,” Douglas said. There are ways to prevent the accidents, however, such as hanging in windows a small spiderweb decal or anything that moves with the wind. Douglas held up a translucent butterfly that affixes to windows.
“Birds see ultraviolet light,” she said. “They can see a blue color.”
Saw-whets, possibly named by their call, which some believe sounds like a saw being whetted, eat small rodents and insects.
“That little bird eats about a mouse a day,” Douglas said of the 2-ounce Pepin. “They really do help with rodent population.”
Sollie, a 22-year-old great horned owl, fell out of its nest as a juvenile. A woman, seeking to rescue the bird, took it into her home and raised the bird.
“Every day it looked into the eyes of a lady and not another great horned owl,” Douglas said. “She missed all that survival training. She is human-imprinted. Her disability is not physical. She has an inability to survive.”
Great horned owls are typically aggressive, but Sollie was so relaxed during Saturday’s show that she nearly fell asleep.
“She’s completely at ease here because she’s among family,” Douglas said.
People who find baby birds that have fallen out of their nest often want to help but don’t know how, Douglas said. Many people believe if they touch the bird to return it to a nest, the human scent will cause the mother to reject it.
“It’s all a myth,” Douglas said. “The best thing to do is get it up the nest.”
Sollie demonstrated the owls’ ability to turn their heads nearly all the way around, but it takes more than that ability to make them skilled hunters. The birds also have such keen eyesight that, if they could read, they could pick up the bottom line of an eye chart from a mile away, Douglas said
“An owl’s hearing is so magnificent that they can stand on a limb of a tree and hear a mouse’s heartbeat under the snow,” Douglas said.
The owls, which weigh about 3 pounds, often eat skunks in the wild.
Crecelle, an American kestrel, or falcon, was hit by a car. A woman, seeking to help, took the bird home to nurse it back to health. Three days later, when the bird had not improved, she took it to the veterinarian, Douglas said. By then the fractured wing bone, which is designed to heal quickly, already had started to mend in a permanent disfigurement. Douglas urged anyone who finds an injured bird to contact a specialist, such as Avian Haven in Freedom.
Skywalker soared the skies of Nebraska when he was shot out of the sky intentionally. He was about 2 years old at the time, Douglas said. If a bird suffered a similar injury these days, it would be euthanized, Douglas said, but 20 years ago, a veterinarian amputated the injured wing to save the bird’s life. The bird became so unmanageable that Nebraska rescuers believed it to be a danger. The golden eagle can crush a coyote skull and bring down a 100-pound bear, Douglas said.
When the bird first arrived at Wind Over Wings, it would climb to a perch about eye level to Douglas, turn its back and hiss. Douglas’ plan for recovery included regularly reading to the bird so it would grow used to human voices.
As the eagle perched on Douglas’ hand Saturday, there was no trace of that angry bird as it called out while looking Douglas right in the eyes.
“Anger is something we all experience,” she said. “It’s not the life he expected, but he made that leap into singing.”