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Science and the Environment

Dickerson Park Zoo's Bald Eagle, Phoenix, Educates The Public About Her Species

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Dickerson Park Zoo
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Many people in Springfield have seen Phoenix, a bald eagle at Dickerson Park Zoo, at the zoo or during a program she was part of.  And if they haven’t, they’ve probably heard of her.  But they might not know her story, and how she came to live at the zoo. 

To give you some background:  America’s national symbol, the bald eagle, was once almost gone from the U.S.  When Americans chose the majestic bird for their national symbol in 1782, there were approximately 100,000 nesting bald eagles in the country, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Farmers and ranchers shot the birds, fearing they were killing livestock.  That, combined with a loss of nesting habitat, caused the bald eagles’ decline.  In 1940, the U.S. Congress, noting that the bird was threatened with extinction, passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act. 

The widespread use of DDT in the middle of the 20th Century further decimated the population.   By 1963, it’s estimated there were only 463 nesting pairs of bald eagles that remained.

The Missouri Department of Conservation started hosting Eagle Days in 1978 to educate the public about eagles and how they could help with a planned restoration effort.

And in the early 80s, a project to bring nesting bald eagles back to Missouri began.  Over a period of 11 years, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Dickerson Park Zoo obtained 74 eaglets from captive breeding facilities or healthy wild populations and set them up in artificial nests at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge and Schell-Osage Conservation Area.

"In the last group that was brought in in 1989, there were nine eaglets," said Pam Price, conservation education director at Dickerson Park Zoo.  "Phoenix was one of those eaglets."

She said biologists put transmitters on the eagles to track them, and, in 1989, they noticed that Phoenix’s hadn’t moved.  A search by a conservation agent led to the transmitter still connected to Phoenix.

"She was on the ground.  She was dehydrated.  She hadn't eaten," said Price, "and, since we had a raptor rehab and had been working with them, they brought Phoenix here to the zoo to be rehabilitated and save her life."

No one knew why she hadn’t been eating.  She might not have had a hunting instinct needed for survival or she had found food, but it was taken by another eagle. 

Price said, as far as she knows, the other eight eaglets in Phoenix’s group survived and did well. 

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Credit Dickerson Park Zoo
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Phoenix, a Bald Eagle at Dickerson Park Zoo

The sick eagle was brought to Dickerson Park Zoo for rehabilitation.  During a time of intensive health treatment, according to Price, the bird became imprinted on humans and couldn’t be released back into the wild.  She was named Phoenix because she took the place of the beloved bald eagle, Omega, who had died a few months before Phoenix arrived at the zoo.  Omega had suffered lead poisoning—possibly from eating waterfowl that had ingested lead or fish with lead sinkers (you can treat lead poisoning, but you can’t cure it, according to Price).  And Phoenix was trained to step in and continue Omega’s mission.

"It was a hard decision because she was a healthy female now and could be released back into the wild," Price said, "but with her intensive care did not know how safe that would be for the bird or for people."

Phoenix is 30-years-old now.  Bald eagles, if they make it past their first year of life, have an average life span of 25 years.  They have been known to double their life span in captivity, and Price hopes that will happen to Phoenix.  Price has grown attached to her over the years, and when she speaks, Phoenix responds.

(Phoenix makes noises in response to Price's voice)

Price and trained docents at the zoo take Phoenix to a variety of programs each year:  to Eagle Scout ceremonies, nursing homes, schools and more, and she’s part of programs at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center during Eagle Days each January.

"She educates a lot of people," said Price.  "We figure that around 10,000 people see her on a yearly basis."

Her message, according to Price, is that even though humans caused lots of problems for eagles, they can now be part of the solution. 

Janet Haslerig, resource scientist at the Missouri Department of Conservation, said nesting eagles were pretty much gone from Missouri at one point.  But, because of the restoration effort in the late 20th century, the numbers have risen considerably.

"This was an estimate I got last year.  We did an aerial survey to monitor nests, said Haslerig, "and it was about 440, and I caution people and say, 'well, let's just say over 400 because a few of those nests, you know, haven't been observed in several years, and the last time they were observed they were active."

They’re working to update those numbers, according to Haslerig.  For comparison, there were approximately 123 active bald eagle nests in Missouri in 2006.

They’ve started Eagle Watch, a citizen-science program that lets members of the public get involved in reporting and monitoring eagle nests.  And Haselrig expects numbers to be even higher this year.

"Because we've got more eyes on the ground and people reporting," said Haslerig. 

Meanwhile, you might see Phoenix around town continuing to give programs and share her message of conservation.