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The unlikely journey of an eagle feather

When an eagle dies in America, it may end up at one of our eagle repositories—unique institutions working to protect both birds of prey and Native American traditions.

ByAlissa GreenbergNOVA NextNOVA Next

A bald eagle in flight over Colorado. Image Credit: Matt Dirksen, iStock

When one of his eagles dies, Waha Thuweeka starts by painting the top of its head with a traditional dry ochre paint often used in Comanche ceremony, then traces the paths of its major arteries and the pads of its feet in red. Next, he removes the bones that form the crux of its powerful wings, to be used for eagle bone whistles. He positions the feet as if the bird were at rest, its head tucked on its breast, then binds it in red fabric and buckskin. 

All the while, Waha Thuweeka (who also uses the English name William Voelker) burns aromatic juniper and pinyon pine resin over hot coals. The resin is meant to symbolize tears, he says; “When we put it on hot coals, we let the tree cry for us.” After the ceremony is done, he leaves the eagle’s wrapped body in a high crevasse specially chosen by his community for that purpose.

Waha Thuweeka and his co-director, Kweeni Mahquetsoi Okweetuni (who also goes simply by Troy) care for 144 adult eagles and their offspring at a sprawling compound outside of Oklahoma City known as Sia, which means “feather” in the Comanche language. His love of the birds runs deep. He began helping his grandmother, who practiced traditional Comanche eagle medicine, at age 8. His father, who worked in the West back when golden eagles were being slaughtered by ranchers, collected eagle feathers and parts from the dead creatures he found—some 2,200 in all.

In the Comanche tradition he follows, the eagle is “holy beyond words,” Waha Thuweeka says, a “connector between we earthbound creatures and the almighty.” Rituals may require feathers in key parts of prayer, and some traditional medicine requires the energy of a live eagle. Many other American tribes honor eagles similarly. The Hopi Tribe of Arizona has for centuries sacrificed eaglets as a way to communicate with the divine. In Wisconsin, many Potawatomi people use eagle feathers in naming ceremonies. And eagle feathers have become sought-after items as parts of regalia used in ritual and at powwows.

But since the passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald Eagle Protection Act, and its subsequent golden eagle amendment during the twentieth century, that reverence has been in conflict with conservation policy—since those laws make it illegal for Americans to possess any eagle feathers, parts, eggs, or nests. “Historically, if eagle feathers were used [in ritual] they generally came from a bird that had lost its life,” Waha Thuweeka says. “In most cases a life that was deliberately taken.”

Besides being an eagle cultural center and an extensive archive for Comanche historical records, Sia is one of seven tribal-run eagle repositories in the United States. That means that enrolled members of federally recognized tribes can apply to receive molted feathers and other parts that come from Sia eagles for use in religious ceremonies, free of charge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also runs an eagle repository in Colorado, distributing feathers and parts from dead eagles found on federal lands.

Together, these repositories work to meet two often competing needs: the protection of our national bird and the right of Americans to practice their religion freely. In doing so, they showcase the unique relationship between our nation and an animal that is not just an ecologically valuable predator but also a cultural symbol. “We feel strongly that with every eagle feather request and need that we meet, it saves the life of an eagle in the wild,” Waha Thuweeka says.

Peyote tipi with four eagles outside it

A Husi Numukahni (Comanche Peyote Tipi) surrounded by four Comanche eagles placed at the four directions. The eagles often sing in accompaniment to the men singing in the tipi. Image courtesy of Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative.

Back from the brink

More than 60 eagle species take to the skies worldwide, but only two live in North America. And for most of U.S. history, those eagles have been in some kind of trouble. Until the 1800s, that trouble was mostly due to deforestation, says Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary. It was in the mid-19th century, though, with firearms increasingly available, that the problems really started.  

Fur trappers and fishermen shot bald eagles, viewing them as competitors; farmers shot them for stealing sheep and piglets and to keep them from nesting nearby. Between 1917 and 1952 Alaska ran a bounty program that paid out for the killing of 128,000 bald eagles. During that time ranchers in the West carried out large-scale killings of tens of thousands of golden eagles, even hunting them from airplanes in the 1930s. And trophy hunters also began stalking eagles, trading birds and eggs like stamps or coins. “Back in the 1920s you have catalogues with lists of bald eagle eggs on the market for about $15,” Watts says. “That was quite a bit of money.”

Then, during post-World War II industrialization, came the pollution—with the most significant damage coming from the insecticide DDT. Contaminants in the food chain ended up in eagle eggs, making them too brittle and reducing chick survival rates. (This affected bald eagles more than goldens, Watts notes, because of their differing prey.) The Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed in 1940, with an amendment added for golden eagles in 1962. But eagle populations continued to decrease.

“Here in the [Chesapeake] Bay, reproductive rates were down to frightening levels throughout the 1960s,” he says. “At that point, we as a culture faced a decision. Are we going to let this species go?”

Watts attributes the subsequent rebound of the eagle population to trends in public opinion and cultural pressure. The U.S. banned DDT in 1972. The Audubon Society, then in its infancy, rallied the public to pass the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and lobbied to get bald eagles listed as endangered. Eagles seemed too culturally valuable to lose. “We as society consider eagles to be a symbol of freedom and American virtues,” Watts says. “When you look globally, a handful of species transcend their biologies—bald eagles are one.” (Pandas and elephants are two others, he adds.)

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With bald eagle eggs returning to viability, “our population has been increasing about 8% per year and now has reached levels no one ever dreamed of,” Watts says. At the species’ nadir in 1962, Audubon counted 416 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. Today, Watts estimates there are 30,000. 

Strict restrictions on eagle trafficking helped us get to this point. The various conservation policies enacted in the 1970s made it illegal for anyone to possess eagles, either alive or dead; citizens who found dead eagles were prohibited from collecting any part of them, including feathers. But that prohibition included those tribes whose religious lives require contact with live eagles or access to their parts and feathers. 

The federal government established the National Eagle Repository in the 1970s, attempting to create a centralized destination for the country’s eagle remains and a new pipeline for those communities to receive eagle parts for ritual. The repository worked in conjunction with the so-called “Morton Policy” (named for a Secretary of the Interior), meant to reassure Native American communities that, through the repository, they could keep eagle parts and feathers "without fear of Federal prosecution, harassment, or other interference”—but that protection did not extend to killing of the birds.

Nevertheless, “law enforcement had a heyday,” Waha Thuweeka remembers. “It was a sad time.” So-called “feather busts” became commonplace on reservations in the 1970s and '80s, with federal agents raiding tribal gatherings and confiscating anything decorated with feathers, claiming they were acting on tips about birds being killed illegally. 

“Sometimes they were right, but too many times there were innocent bystanders,” he says. Even today, many elders keep their most treasured possessions hidden away for fear of feather busts. In the 1990s, Waha Thuweeka developed protocols using pet microchips to identify individual feathers as they were distributed, thus creating a mechanism for recipients to confirm their provenance if questioned by authorities. “Now we’re seeing old historic items entering back into the public realm,” he says. “The feeling of all that power is amazing.”

When an eagle dies

On especially productive days at the National Eagle Repository in Colorado, Laura Mallory and three of her colleagues might process 15 eagles each, harvesting tail plumage, talons, beaks, and individual feathers for use in ritual. The repository has evolved considerably over the last 45 years, through a number of legal battles with Native American groups. It re-formed in its present location outside Denver after an especially rocky period in the 1990s, with the aim of serving alongside seven tribal-run repositories as the federal government’s best attempt to bridge the gap between eagle conservation and culture. Its eagles now come from a mix of federal agencies, which are required to hand over eagles found dead in their jurisdictions, and state wildlife and raptor rehab representatives who send them in voluntarily. 

Bald eagle tail feathers splayed out on lab bench

A dead bald eagle is processed at the National Eagle Repository in Colorado. Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Processing an eagle in this context is both strenuous and time consuming, which means that with some 3,200 dead eagles coming into the repository per year—double bagged, frozen, shipped to the facility overnight in a cooler—there’s almost always a backlog. When Mallory begins examining an eagle, she first scrutinizes the wing bones, looking for fractures. Next, she examines the animal’s feet, checking that the talons have retained their sharpness and the scales aren’t too worn. She pays special attention to the head, because it is often the first part to decompose, and makes sure the beak isn’t cracked. She feels under the thick torso feathers for the bird’s flight muscles, which will tell her how healthy it was in life. And lastly, she checks for evidence of electrocution or potentially dangerous viruses, which could cause damage or put people at risk, excluding an eagle from subsequent use. 

As she does this, Mallory enters information from the eagle’s paperwork into a database, including its age and data about how and where it died. (“Sometimes we’ll get in a famous bird, and the paperwork will list what movies it was in,” she says.) Birds, or parts of birds, that are in good enough condition for redistribution are then stashed in one of the repository’s four deep freezers—and the rest are put into a pile for cremation.

Plumage from juvenile eagles is in especially high demand for powwow regalia, along with feathers with particularly high-quality quill for ceremony. Any enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe can apply for parts through the repository, with waiting periods ranging from as little as a few weeks for feathers from an adult bald eagle to eight years for a whole juvenile golden eagle.

It’s not an easy job. Working with so many beautiful, dead animals—acting as a “mortician for eagles” as Mallory puts it—can be both physically and emotionally draining. “These birds are big and frozen; they weigh a lot; their talons still scratch you,” she says. But even in cases where eagle rehabbers are mourning birds they raised for three decades, she feels grateful to be able to remind them: “this bird is going to live another life.” 

The system remains far from perfect. Since the repository has limited staff and only federal agencies are required to submit their eagles, a fraction of eagles that die within the U.S. are sent there—and a fraction of those reach the communities that need them. The federal government continues to tinker with eagle retention policy and, in August 2019, the Trump administration eased regulations that restricted tribes from keeping eagles found on their own land. But tension remains between federal agencies and the tribal communities relying on them for access to eagle parts and whose history of mistreatment keeps them wary.

Even so, the repository continues to work toward its dual purpose of supporting eagle conservation and sustaining tribal religious culture. Researchers at both Fish and Wildlife and the United States Geological Survey can access the repository’s eagle database, for use in research on national populations and mortality trends. And on the cultural side, Sarah Metzer, an education specialist at the repository, notes that on calls to confirm an applicant’s information before sending out requested feathers and parts, recipients are often so moved by the idea of receiving them that “you often have to pause because they’re weeping on the other end of the phone.”

Until recently, any unused remains at the National Eagle Repository—those eagle parts that were not in good enough condition to be sent out for use in ritual—were incinerated and disposed of along with the facility’s mainstream waste. That disposal method became a topic of discussion during a 2017 tribal consultation at the repository, and the Fish and Wildlife Service made efforts to find a more respectful approach. “It was a small change we could make,” Mallory says. Today, she drives the eagle ashes a short way outside the repository into the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, to a quiet stretch of restored prairie, and buries them.

Man with golden eagle in Comanche prayer

Sia Co-Director Kweeni Mahquetsoi Okweetuni (Troy) with a golden eagle during sunrise prayer following an all-night Native American Church ceremonial. Troy wears histroic 1870s garb and behind him is Jeff Indeck, formerly of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. Image courtesy of Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative

Hatching a new generation 

Even though Sia is currently closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Waha Thuweeka and Kweeni Mahquetsoi Okweetuni still start their mornings before dawn. It is, after all, hatching season, and the eaglets need care no matter what’s happening in the world. They start the day with a prayer to welcome the sunrise, a song that was “gifted” in a gesture of traditional honor to one of the beloved elder eagles, known as Pride, some 40 years ago.

Waha Thuweeka takes pride in doing work “beyond just doling out eagle feathers.” He attends academic conferences to keep up on scientific literature. Eagle researchers occasionally visit Sia, including one group that recently came to test some of the birds’ ability to hear different frequencies as part of a study on eagle hearing. And in answering an applicant’s eagle request, “we try to reconnect that person with the cultural and spiritual lifeways,” he says. That means, in part, providing eagles for use in healing and other ceremonies by the local community. “Historically a person that was ailing was taken to an eagle nesting area,” he explains. “Now we take the eagles to them. We’re on call 24 hours.”

It also means raising eagles that can tolerate that role in ceremony, with a careful eye toward everything that caring for an eagle in captivity entails. Waha Thuweeka learned much of his eagle husbandry from his grandmother and father—as well as what he jokingly calls a three-year “Comanche raid” on Cornell University’s ornithology and genetics offerings as a student—including techniques rarely practiced elsewhere. He was the first to successfully hatch artificially inseminated bald eagles and raises a portion of every new generation of chicks imprinted on him as a parent, eventually transitioning to playing the role of a bonded partner. (That allows him to let the eagles fly free, he says, without keeping them hungry to ensure they’ll come back for food, as falconers sometimes do.)

Eagle covering chick with blanket

An adult golden eagle moves to cover a bald eagle chick with a ceremonial blanket at Sia. Image courtesy of Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative

Golden eagles that have been imprinted to humans “rely on us to do everything a wild mate would do,” he says. “Low-key talking, singing, bringing nest material.” Golden eagle song changes depending on the individual, he says. Some sing in a low throaty squawk, some in a higher-pitched yodel, so he changes his voice to match his partner.

After the sunrise prayer, he and Kweeni Mahquetsoi Okweetuni go about the morning chores, refreshing water and starting eaglet feedings. After decades in the field, Sia is in the process of hatching soon-to-be fourth-generation golden eagle offspring. These are the progeny of birds that “provided feathers and energy for our ancestors going back over 60 years ago. To have the current generation of birds producing feathers for what are sometimes the great-great-grandchildren of these ancestors” is a special honor, he says, and one that also works toward a larger goal of conservation. “These poachers will go out and kill an eagle for one set of feathers. By nurturing an eagle, we can have over 50 years of feathers.”

The eaglets—little more than cheeping heaps of feathers lying in specialized dishes lined with felt—eat their first meal at 18 hours old, a mix of quail meat from breast, heart, and lung. Waha Thuweeka mixes the meat himself, feeding the eaglets up to six meals a day, served in minuscule bites using forceps. (“You don’t want them to associate your fingers with food,” he says.)

And then, there’s perhaps the most important task of the morning: collecting feathers that have been lost overnight. “Eagles are very playful,” he says. “If the feather lays on the ground too long, they’ll pounce on it and play with it,” rendering it unusable for ritual.

By May, the yearly molt is well underway. One recent day, the eagles had lost more than 20 feathers overnight. He collected them all, quickly and carefully, to be stored and sorted at a later date, then sent out to make their way into rituals across the country.

“Each time a feather is collected, it’s done so in prayer,” he says. “We’re taught to be thankful, whether it’s a feather in the wild or one that birds dropped here.

We say, ‘Nu tsutai.’ Bless us.” 

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