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Freedom’s leg band confirmed that he is the eaglet rescued in Chaska 14 years ago.

Jon Smithers, Special to the Star Tribune

Freedom’s leg band confirmed that he is the eaglet rescued in Chaska 14 years ago.

Jon Smithers, Special to the Star Tribune

Freedom and his mate, Liberty, shown in 2006, nest near St. Peter.

Jon Smithers, Special to the Star Tribune

To see Smithers' videos of chicks this spring at the St. Peter eagle's nest, go to: tinyurl.com/74tghmf

Eagle-eye photographer solves mystery of missing Chaska bird

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN
  • Star Tribune
  • June 14, 2012 - 9:55 PM

Fourteen years ago, straight-line winds blasted through the Chaska area, downing trees and power lines and damaging roofs.

On the Gedney Pickle factory's property, a huge eagle nest with two eaglets crashed 60 feet to the ground. One of the six-week-old eaglets died but volunteers quickly created a makeshift nest out of a massive fan screen, hauled it up the tree and returned the surviving eaglet to the manmade nest.

Until last month, the rescue team didn't know what ultimately became of the eaglet.

But that mystery has been solved, thanks to a curious wildlife photographer in St. Peter, Minn.

Jon Smithers became "hooked" as a photographer in late 2003 after seeing a pair of eagles perched high above the Minnesota River. When he spotted them again a month later, he noticed a metal band around the male's lower leg.

"Ever since I saw that band, I really wanted to know the story behind the eagle," he said.

It took more than eight years to find out.

As Smithers developed his career and acquired more powerful long-range lenses, he was able to distinguish numbers on the band of his favorite eagle.

He identified the first four numbers in 2008, and a photo in 2010 showed the next several digits. Finally, a photo last April revealed the final number.

Smithers took the information to the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, which confirmed that the nine numbers matched those of the Chaska eaglet it had rescued and banded in 1998.

"It's highly unusual to have a situation where someone can actually read the band number on a bird that's still an active member of the population," said Lori Arent, Raptor Center clinic manager.

Usually the only time biologists hear about the birds is after they die or are injured, she said, and someone reports the numbers.

Jim Cook, Gedney Foods Co.'s vice president of technical services, was pleased to hear that the eaglet that survived has been nesting in St. Peter. He was part of the May 1998 rescue team.

"That storm hit, and the next day the nest was gone and the parents were flying around in circles," Cook said.

He called the Raptor Center and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who each sent experts to the scene.

Nest rest deemed best

The injured eaglet had a broken pelvis, and Arent said its best chance for survival was nest rest: returning it to the care of its parents in the same tree as soon as possible.

Cook and others scrambled to assemble a makeshift nest. They found an industrial fan, removed its 5-foot-diameter protective screen, and wove willow branches through the mesh to form the base of a new stick nest.

Arent's husband, John, a Raptor Center volunteer and professional tree climber, hauled the nest up the tree, wired it to the branches, and hoisted the eaglet in a small dog kennel back to the nest.

Everyone watched to see whether the parent eagles would return.

"It was agonizing for two days," said Cook. "Then here came one of the eagles with a snake in its claws, and dropped the snake into the nest. That was great, because we knew they were back to feeding the eaglet."

Arent said it was gratifying to learn that the rescued eagle has been alive and healthy all these years in St. Peter.

Last year the center saw 121 eagles, she said, most injured or sick with lead poisoning, and about two dozen of them nestlings or young birds unable to fly well.

Breeding success

Eagles weren't that common 14 years ago, and Arent said little was known about rescuing chicks and returning them to their nests. Saving the Chaska eaglet used techniques that have since helped keep other chicks alive when trouble strikes, she said, "either to be raised by their own parents, or we can even foster them with other eagle families."

As for the bird's broken pelvis? It probably took about two weeks to heal, she said.

Smithers has taken thousands of pictures of eagles and other wildlife and sells his work at art fairs and on the Internet. He nicknamed the banded eagle "Freedom" and its mate "Liberty." Smithers does not know when the pair began nesting in St. Peter, but he estimates that they have raised 20 eaglets since he began observing them in 2003.

Arent said that eagles can live as long as 30 years in the wild.

As more of them nest in urban areas, she said, it has become more common for people to notice eaglets. They learn to fly at 12 weeks, and many of them are now about 9 weeks old, she said. At this stage they're standing up in the nest or on the nest edge, said Arent, and soon they'll be moving in and out of the nest and jumping from branch to branch until their feathers are fully developed.

Arent said people who see eaglets out of the nest or even on the ground should not assume they've been abandoned or try to rescue them. "We encourage people to call us first if they have any concerns about eagles," she said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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