The story of the Mooseheart eaglets rescued from a broken home is headed for a happy ending.
They have survived an 85-foot fall when a storm knocked their so-so nest out of a tree in late May; an attempt to give them a new, man-made nest; subsequent abandonment by their parents; and foster care at a wildlife rehabilitation center.
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Now the duo will return to the wild Saturday, Nov. 12, in a release party scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Starved Rock State Park in Utica.
"It's been smooth," Dawn Keller, director of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, said of the birds' progress since June.
Since June, the birds have been living in a flight chamber at Flint Creek's Barrington facility. There they learned some basic skills, such as how to scavenge food from a surrogate eagle parent. It's the first time Flint Creek has had eaglets, so it consulted with eagle rescue centers on the East Coast and in Iowa.
Doing so alleviated one of Keller's initial concerns: How would they teach the eaglets to hunt? They eat fish. Keller wondered how she could set up a large body of water at the center.
But she learned that unlike other raptors, it takes about five years for eaglets to finish learning to hunt. For the first two years, they survive by scavenging food from other eagles.
That's why the eaglets are being released at Starved Rock and not on the campus of Mooseheart Child City & School.
"One of the very important criteria was to have an area with a winter population so they don't go hungry," Keller said.
Bald eagles return late each fall to Starved Rock, where they can hang out on the bluffs and catch fish from the Illinois River below the Starved Rock Lock and Dam.
The eaglets, who weigh 9 pounds, were probably ready to be released a few weeks ago, Keller said. A DNA blood test revealed both are males, unlike an earlier suspicion that one might have been female.
Wednesday, they took a road trip to East Dubuque, Iowa, to have metal identification bands placed on their legs. If they are ever injured and captured, Flint Creek will be notified.
No family reunion
The brothers are not likely to stick together. "Raptors tend to be more solitary," Keller said.
However, eagle fans are rejoicing in the return of the parents to Mooseheart. In October, members of the Kane County Audubon Society spotted the mom and dad building a new nest in the same stand of trees, near Mooseheart Lake. Keller said that is a good sign that there may be new eaglets next spring.
The eaglets' recovery may have been smooth, but it has also been expensive. Keller estimates it has cost the center $20,000, and that doesn't include donations of fish from a Whole Foods Market store in Palatine. That's why they are asking release-watchers Nov. 12 for a donation of $10.
"It has been a really significant financial strain for us," she said. Flint Creek is a nonprofit agency and does not receive any government money.
The eaglets will be released on the ground, off Plum Island. Viewers will be stationed on the shoreline. Flint Creek is also bringing seven of its education birds, for visitors to learn about raptors. If there are thunderstorms or lightning, the event will be rescheduled. That will be decided by 7 a.m. that day and posted on the center's website, flintcreekwildlife.org. The center also has a Facebook page and Twitter account.
It will be quite different from when Keller rescued the eaglets from the man-made nest, riding up 65 feet in a tree-service truck bucket.
A mystery ending
Unless something unfortunate happens to the eaglets, we will likely never know if they move back to Mooseheart. The birds are not being equipped with satellite trackers, due to expense and the lack of people in Illinois with the proper federal license to track them.
"We would have liked to have done that," Keller said.