NEWARK, Del. -- Ah, Freedom!
For a bald eagle, what could be more natural? But for Freedom the Eagle, well, freedom has been elusive.
This has been one bad-luck bird. First the broken shoulder. Then the call from the White House. And then the ospreys.
In the midst of what should have been his finest moment, released while President Clinton spoke on the Fourth of July to soar majestically above the Chesapeake Bay as the living, breathing symbol of his species' return from the edge of extinction, young Freedom, as you may recall, was pecked from the sky by angry ospreys and plummeted into the bay where but for a Coast Guard rescue he would have drowned.
Stung by charges of cover-up -- no one interrupted the president's speech to inform him or the nation that the eagle had been downed -- authorities predicted that Freedom, who was carted off to the bird hospital, would soon recover and be released, once again, to freedom. But, alas, that was not to be.
Freedom lost his feathers. Without his feathers, Freedom could not fly.
Four months after Freedom flew into enemy territory over the ospreys' nest, he remains a patient at Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Inc., in Newark, Del., where veterinarian Sallie Welte and the staff are slowly -- but surely -- coaxing him back into the sky.
"He has certainly had a lot of crummy luck," says Welte.
No one knows why Freedom molted in such a big way -- whether it was humiliation, post-traumatic stress syndrome brought on by two brushes with death or simply the lot of being a bald eagle in modern times.
(Raptors rarely drop all their feathers at once because that is a severe impediment to flight.)
There have been rumors, adding insult to injury, that Freedom is depressed.
In fine feather
Welte is quick to shoot those rumors down, so to speak, noting that Freedom eats well (lab rats and fish) and that unlike birds who are truly depressed, Freedom does not hunker in a corner.
"He's perky and his attitude seems to be quite good, considering all that he's been through," Welte says.
Freedom was found last spring near the Gunpowder River outside Aberdeen, suffering from a broken shoulder.
The best guess is that he was hit by a car.
(Folks also are guessing that Freedom is a "he," but the sex of eagles is not easily determined without surgery or blood tests and everyone figures that Freedom has been through enough already.)
His broken shoulder was set at the Baltimore Zoo and after a lengthy recovery, he was sent to the Tri-State Bird Rescue center for flight training.
Freedom and dignitaries
He had been at the bird rescue center about three weeks when the call came from the president's men.
They needed an eagle for the president to release on the Fourth of July, preferably a grown eagle with a nice white cap of feathers.
Young Freedom, at 3 years old, is a mottled brown and has not achieved the snowy white head of his elders. He was, however, the only eagle available.
Pressed into the service of his country, he was flown aboard a Navy plane to Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland for the big day.
While President Clinton extolled the virtues of strong environmental laws, Freedom soared above the tree line, out across the bay and into trouble.
Had he been older or more familiar with the territory, Freedom might have reigned. But as Welte notes, he was no match for the ospreys, which although half his weight, have a large wing span and serious attitudes.
Pluck without luck
"Freedom was outgunned. It's just that simple," Welte says. "Eagles have to be able to flip and do barrel rolls to get away from ospreys and he just couldn't manage it."
At Tri-State Bird Rescue, Freedom is known simply as No. 1129, being the 1129th bird brought to the center this year.
The center receives about 3,000 birds a year, roughly 80 percent of which have been injured by people or things people have placed in their way -- power lines, windows, poison.
The center also has a team that responds around the clock to oil spills and can clean and care for as many as 400 oil-soaked birds at one time. (Occasionally, Welte says, people will bring in chickens that have fallen off trucks heading for the slaughterhouse.)
Freedom, well on his way to a full recovery, spends his days in the flight center, a screened enclosure 100 feet long by 20 feet wide by 16 feet high.
Perched on a beam near the ceiling, he thrusts his head back and forth, peering through the wire mesh into the fields beyond.
His shoulders are level, his wing carriage even, his flight quick and sure in the contained space.
Earlier this week, he began venturing outside on a 150-foot lead.
If his progress continues, Welte says they hope to release him soon, possibly into the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore, far from people and ospreys.
"Believe me," Welte says, "I want him to fly perfectly this time."
Pub Date: 11/19/96