Tom Cardamone: ACES’ golden ambassador from the wild
Aspen, CO Colorado
Her 26 years of isolation from other eagles has certainly been punctuated with glimpses of wild eagles from her protected perch at Hallam Lake. Now, after all those years alone, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ resident golden eagle has developed an intense relationship with a truly wild male golden eagle.
In February, the wild male arrived. He kept a cautious distance given all the human activity, yet he immediately initiated an ardent conversation with ACES’ female, who had grown accustomed to human companionship over two and a half decades.
A former Aspen school teacher and falconer, along with a string of interns he taught, had fed, groomed, exercised and even brought nesting material to the female each spring. She responded to her human companions with animated focus, in a way that showed unmistakable familiarity. Yet with the February arrival of the real deal, the male eagle, her response to her human companions seemed to recede to the vanishing point.
Her suitor called to her from atop the tall spruces near her outside perch; he would soar over her, and swoop down close over her head. Then one day they locked talons with each other on her perch-mound just outside the Learning Center.
Vigilant ACES naturalists interrupted the encounter that involved flying feathers and a bit of blood. They were concerned her unbalanced flightlessness and his intensity could lead to her being injured. After this episode and during his frequent subsequent visits, she was often confined to her spacious cage (initially constructed to protect her from wild predators at night).
Now in June it has become commonplace to see him perched atop her cage any time of day, carrying on animated conversations with her. Even as I write, she’s breaking into a series of high-pitched calls, which means her guy is in the neighborhood and she’s seen or heard him.
This unusual level of vigilance and protection for ACES’ 26-year resident eagle has led to lots of speculation among ACES staff as we’ve watched the spirited couple from a discrete distance. “Should we let them get together? Could they nest successfully and raise young? Is their interaction healthy, or stressful or both?”
We’ve generally arrived at the conclusion that her inability to fly precludes the successful rearing of young, in the relatively unlikely event they could actually produce and incubate fertile eggs. Yet the male’s attentions must add to the quality of her life, so at worst, allowing the chaperoned courting to continue takes the likely young and inexperienced male out of the gene pool only temporarily. Eventually, he’ll move on to a wild female who is fit for rearing young. ACES’ eagle will then have a new focus in life, watching for other male eagles coursing over Hallam Lake and then doing her best to call them out of thin air to strike up another courtship conversation.
It’s so easy to anthropomorphize and worry that the eagle is frustrated, or pining away. My view is that eagles are the epitome of patience, spending most of their lives soaring and looking. Not even hoping for a meal, just looking. Their looking is intense and focused, so when a grouse or a marmot is momentarily inattentive the eagle is there to catch its meal. Later, after a lengthy period of digestion, the eagle again endlessly soars with the patience and equanimity of a wild hunter.
The Hallam Lake female eagle fills her days with looking, very much in the present, not worrying that she hasn’t caught anything to eat recently or that it may be a long time before she catches her own meal again. She’s not counting minutes, just showing us how to be in the moment. As her caretakers, we regard her as an ambassador for her species and all wild creatures. Her service has been remarkable these past 26 years and records of other similar eagles suggest she is likely to be with us another 10 or 20 years.
Our intervention 26 years ago certainly saved her life. She suffered a high-speed crash while pursuing a meal on Richmond Ridge; the accident resulted in multiple injuries and ended her flying career. Caring for her then and now sets a standard for ACES’ approach, which involves thoughtful and informed interactions with wild species and habitats for the sake of effective education and competent environmental stewardship.
This remarkable eagle’s unusual life is not about progeny, but about communicating with thousands of people of all ages every year with her wild beauty and spirit. Knowing her, it’s understandable that Native Americans have always regarded eagles as messengers between themselves and creation, in a realm beyond their mortal experience, which eagles could apparently access by soaring high enough to disappear from view.
There is no doubt that many an ACES visitor has stared into the sharp eyes of our resident golden eagle, and experienced some level of transcendence. Without soaring at all, she transports them into the rarefied place occupied by all wild creatures, and they feel the connection of kinship.