The place where dead eagles are given a new life (2023)

  • Published

By Dhruti Shah

BBC News, Colorado

The eagle is America's national bird but when these revered creatures die, who takes care to ensure they end up in the right hands?

Warning: This story contains images of dead and dissected eagles

Few symbols are as potent as the American eagle.

This magnificent bird of prey is the country's national bird, and a powerful emblem of freedom found on everything from military flags to the dollar bill.

As such, it's illegal for anyone in the US to possess or disturb Golden Eagles or Bald Eagles - dead or alive - unless there is a special exemption in place.

Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, it is against the law to even pick up a discarded feather.

But for many Native Americans and Alaska natives, the eagle is a sacred creature and there is a strong cultural tradition requiring bird parts for ceremonies and rituals.

That's where the National Eagle Repository in Colorado comes in.

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Every day around 30 to 40 eagle carcasses arrive at the centre, which is run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, to be checked over and prepared for the next stage in their journey.

The four-member team takes in birds from all US states except Hawaii, and helps distribute them to the country's 573 federally recognised tribes.

Liza Roman has worked at the repository for six years. Her role is to process all of the applications that come in and ensure that relations with the tribal members run smoothly.

"We take in about 500 orders a month," she told the BBC.

Applicants have to show proof they are a member of a federally recognised tribe and that they are over 18 years old, otherwise they are not eligible.

"The national eagle programme was established specifically for Native American religious use and ceremonial purposes,"

"They can also ask for a whole bird or individual feathers and have to specify from what sort of bird they need and the age of the bird."

Roman says some eagles are harder to come by than others.

"Our repository runs off of supply and demand," she says.

"The highest demand right now is for our immature golden eagle with the wait time for that running at seven and a half years. The quicker the tribes put an application in, the faster they get on that waitlist. It's first come, first served."

Bald eagles, however, have just about a two month turnaround.

Image source, Ed Stege/USFWS

For Native Americans, the eagle is a creature to be revered.

Hanley Frost Sr is the cultural co-ordinator for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Colorado. He is one of many tribal leaders responsible for ceremonies.

Mr Frost Sr, who is a Mouache Caputa tribal member, explains that the feathers are sacred and have spiritual significance.

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"The eagles are a symbol of great spiritual healing power. The eagle carries our prayers as it's the only animal that can go much further into the sky - towards the heavens and so carry these prayers with it. Its eyes can see a great distance, while the wings and the feathers are able to carry this creature in any direction it wants to go."

He said that fans made from the feathers are used for healing and blessing purposes while eagle bones can be shaped into whistles for sun dance ceremonies and other rituals.

"This bird was able to travel great distance and great height and see the things we can't. The feathers in my possession represent one of the greatest honours anyone can ever receive as a native," he adds.

Back at the repository in Commerce City, Colorado all of the staff say that they love their jobs because it helps them protect America's national bird and understand more about the cultural significance of the bird for indigenous people.

"I love the exposure to the culture - the Native Americans and Alaska Natives all have different traditional ceremonies - all with a purpose," Ms Roman says.

"Working with them and the eagles gives you a different perspective for the species as a whole."

The repository was first created in the 1970s to recognise the significance of eagle feathers to Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

Its current form emerged in 1994, after then-President Bill Clinton signed a memorandum requiring dead eagles to be sent to the repository.

The repository moved from Oregon to Colorado in 1995, where it has been ever since.

While the US has seen a decline in bird numbers over the past half a century, the Bald Eagle, with its white head and white tail feathers, is viewed as a conservation success story. In 2007 it was removed from the US Endangered Species Act.

Golden Eagles however, which nest on cliffs or high trees, remain protected under several acts.

Scientist Laura Mallory says that every time she picks up one of the birds, she has three things in mind - how the creature died; is the person receiving the bird actually going to be able to use it; and thirdly, what condition is it in?

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She asks questions such as: "Is it covered in larvae from insects; it is covered in seaweed; does it have any nutritional deficiencies that have caused it to have any deformities?"

The staff have had to adapt their techniques of evaluating the birds over the years. More recently they have started experimenting with a flesh eating beetle colony which is a more natural way of treating the feathers.

When Mallory began at the repository just over a year ago, it would take her up to 15 minutes to check each bird - now it just takes five minutes.

Her job has also meant she's had to become an expert at feather identification.

"I have to be able to weed out any random bird feathers that come in - even if they look like eagle feathers. A lot of people mistake turkey or vulture feathers for an eagle's but when you flip it over, it's the sheen that makes it a different type of feather."

With demand so high and supply limited, there have been several programmes put into place to try to help the situation and also hinder the black market that exists for eagle parts.

"There are those who will sell parts for money but we try to make sure we know the people who have the parts and keep documentary records," Mr Frost Sr says.

"So if someone shows up with an eagle feather but is a non-native, we know where they got it from."

Over the last decade certain Native American tribes have been given permits allowing them to keep live eagles and use feathers that have been naturally discarded. These include rescue birds, whom because of sickness or injury are unable to be rehabilitated and returned to the wild.

And in August this year, the US and Fish and Wildlife Service loosened some of its restrictions around bald and eagle remains following consultation with recognised tribes.

Now those tribes with a special permit are able to keep feathers and parts found on certain lands. There are still many caveats in play but the government described this as a "monumental decision".

Although the repository currently only caters for requests from federally recognised tribes, there is heated debated around access rights.

Image source, Gene D'Andrea

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently examining the responses to a formal petition submitted by Robert Soto, pastor of McAllen Grace Brethren Church in Texas and The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The petition seeks access to feathers for non-federally recognised tribes and those - Native American or not - who are "sincere religious believers".

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There is opposition from many tribes who say it's already difficult to get hold of feathers.

Back in her lab surrounded by talons, feathers, whole birds and more, Laura Mallory carefully holds a feather up high.

She says: "It just really changes your perspectives when looking at these eagles - they may come in dead but they have this magnificence around them in terms of knowing that when they leave here - just what they are going on to do."

Photography and accompanying cinematography by Hannah Long-Higgins

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What is the spiritual meaning of eagles? ›

Eagles symbolize spirit, freedom, and self-expression. Eagles also have a solid connection to the element of air. This connection reminds us that we are more than just physical beings; we have a spiritual side as well. Our thoughts and intentions create who we become.

Where do dead eagles go? ›

Anyone who finds a dead eagle is asked to call state or federal wildlife officials, who will come and pick it up. The carcass is then examined to determine the cause of death. It's then shipped out to the National Eagle and Wildlife Property Repository in Commerce City, Colo., just outside of Denver.

What do you call the place where eagles live? ›

An eagle's nest is called an eyrie. The big raptors choose large, sturdy trees with good views of their surroundings. Nest sites are near lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and seashores.

What happens when one eagle dies? ›

Although they spend winters and migrations alone, bald eagles maintain the same breeding pair year after year. A mated eagle pair finds a nesting site and produces offspring each year. If one of the pair dies, the surviving bald eagle will look for a new mate in the next breeding season.

What do eagles represent biblically? ›

In Exodus 19:4 and Deuteronomy 32:11 the eagle represents God and his loving care towards Israel. In both descriptions we read about God bringing his people out of Egypt and into Canaan as if on the wings of an eagle.

What God is represented by an eagle? ›

The Eagle of Zeus (Ancient Greek: ἀετός Διός, romanized: aetos Dios) was one of the chief attributes and personifications of Zeus, the head of the Olympian pantheon.

Are eagles committed for life? ›

Bald eagles, which can live up to 30 years in the wild, are extremely territorial. In general, they mate for life. Many eagles are, in human terms, good spouses and parents—loyal to their mates and good providers for their young.

Why do eagles sit in dead trees? ›

Communal roosts are usually in large living or dead trees that are relatively sheltered from wind and generally near sources of food. Many roost sites are used year after year and are thought to serve a social purpose for pair bonding and communication among eagles.

Do eagles go after humans? ›

Bald eagles have been known to attack humans, but the injuries inflicted are hardly lethal. During mating seasons, bald eagles become much more territorial. As with any other bird of prey, it best to keep a safe distance from a bald eagle and to respect the bird's space.

What makes eagles so special? ›

For centuries, people have seen eagles as a symbol of beauty, bravery, courage, honour, pride, determination, and grace. This bird is important and symbolic to humanity because of its characteristics.

What are 3 interesting facts about eagles? ›

The female is larger than the male. The distinctive white head and tail feathers appear when the eagles mature at 4 or 5 years old. Bald eagles are believed to live 30 years or longer in the wild. They mate for life, building huge nests in the tops of large trees near rivers, lakes, and other wetlands.

What is the strength of eagle? ›

According to scientists at HawkQuest, an environmental education nonprofit in Colorado, a Bald Eagles gripping strength is ten times stronger than the average grip of an adult human hand. A Bald Eagle can exert upwards of 400 pounds per square inch (psi).

Do eagles go after human babies? ›

While eagles, hawks, and other raptors can attack small children, there are only a handful of stories where they do—and they date back over two hundred years. But while it's still rare that a bird will attack or carry away a child, the National Audubon Society does concede that bird attacks in general are on the rise.

What happens when an eagle loses a feather? ›

Bald eagles use their feathers to balance. When they lose a feather on one wing, they will also lose a matching feather on the other side. Bald eagles earned their name from the Old English word "balde," meaning white, referring to the distinctive white feathers covering their heads and tails.

What happens if an eagle falls in the water? ›

Once in the water, they're unable to take off until they reach dry land and their feathers are dry. In the water, these birds have no means of defending themselves and their talons are unable to propel them forward.

Is the eagle a symbol of Jesus? ›

John's gospel, as the one most occupied with Jesus's divinity, is represented by the eagle and is as it is believed to be directly addressed to the church, has a special significance in Christian art. The eagle also came to represent the inspiration of the gospels.

What we can learn from eagles? ›

We learned some excellent lessons from the eagle- have a strong vision, move with speed, be in the present, rise above the problems, find opportunities in problems, get out of your comfort zone, fly high, be courageous, and embrace the pain.

What is the Hebrew meaning of eagle? ›

נֶשֶׁר Meaning: Eagle. Translit: Né•sher.

What is the bird of God? ›

The ivory-billed woodpecker is sometimes called the Lord God bird, a nickname it earned because that's what people cried out the first time they ever saw one: “Lord God, what a bird.” Even though the last confirmed sighting was in the 1930s, birders have been claiming they have seen the Lord God bird throughout the ...

Why is the eagle a symbol of freedom? ›

The Founding Fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation. The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America.

How good is an eagle's vision? ›

An eagle's vision is exceptionally sharp because each eye has two foveae - areas of acute vision - as compared with the human eye which only has one. The cones in the eagle's fovea are very small and tightly grouped, allowing the eagle to see small details from extreme distances.

Do eagles return to where they were born? ›

BREEDING: Bald eagles sexually mature at four or five years and often return to the area where they were born to find a mate and nest. Nests can be as large as eight feet across and weigh up to a ton.

Can you keep a dead eagle? ›

As such, it's illegal for anyone in the US to possess or disturb Golden Eagles or Bald Eagles - dead or alive - unless there is a special exemption in place. Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, it is against the law to even pick up a discarded feather.

Do eagles eat animals that are already dead? ›

Though bald eagles have a reputation for being impressive predators, they often scavenge dead animal matter or steal kill from other predators.

What do eagles do when a baby dies in the nest? ›

The bird's body will be left in the nest. “Typically when a chick dies in the nest, it gets moved off to the side or buried by new nesting material.

Do eagles find another mate if one dies? ›

Bald Eagle

These birds, the symbol of the United States, mate for life unless one of the two dies. Their spectacular courtship rituals are a sight to see, with the birds locking talons, then flipping, spinning, and twirling through the air in a maneuver called a Cartwheel Display.

Are eagles stronger than humans? ›

Is an Eagle Stronger Than a Human? While an eagle could not lift a human, these birds are remarkably strong. A bald eagle's gripping strength is, on average, ten times stronger than the grip of an adult human hand. A bald eagle can exert a force of upwards of 400 pounds per square inch (psi).

Can eagles pick up dogs? ›

Eagles are not very strong, and although they may initially pick up a small dog in their talons, they won't be able to carry the pup too far. Trauma from being dropped on the ground may be a sign that your missing dog has been grabbed and moved by an eagle.

Why is eagle the king of birds? ›

The lion is considered to be the king of beasts and likewise the eagle is the king of birds. It is the favourite of kings and sardars, and flies high. The eagle is obviously different from other birds because of its strong and powerful body and sharp beak.

What does the Bible say about flying like an eagle? ›

They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

What is the biggest threat to eagles? ›

Humans are the biggest threat to bald eagles. Much of the bald eagles' habitat was lost, many of the birds were shot, and they were exposed to widespread contaminants. Between 1917 and 1952, for example, a bounty was placed on bald eagles in Alaska.

Do eagles have a heart? ›

A bald eagle's body is mostly covered with skin and feathers. Important things are happening underneath! The heart and lungs are so efficient that eagles can get enough oxygen to fly even at high altitudes.

Is seeing eagle good or bad? ›

A Eagle come into my house is it good or bad. Hi Sophia, yes its really very good that eagle is comming to your home. accordingly to hindu's its considered as one of the god. and more over its one of the oldest bird veriety in india.

What does eagles Wings mean biblically? ›

The figure of eagles' wings was also used in the Old Testament to represent the strength and loving-kindness of the Lord in delivering His covenant people (see Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11).

What is the superstition associated with eagles? ›

Eagles are said to go into seclusion, pluck out all of their feathers, and shed their beak and talons to live longer. While not specifically Christian, this myth (it isn't true) is usually accompanied with Christian symbolism.

Are eagles a symbol of peace? ›

Eagle feathers and down are sacred. They have healing powers, and are symbols of peace and friendship. During welcome dances and other ceremonial occasions, they are used to honour respected guests.


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