By Jeff Tome
The usual happy babble of preschool voices echoed across Audubon as a group of children and their parents came on a field trip. I happened to be outside doing something else as they walked up to see Audubon’s resident Bald Eagle, Liberty. For a moment, all was quiet, and then the “ooohs” and excitement started. Most of those children had never seen a bird that large and that close before and they were clearly excited. Many of the parents were equally excited and I had a sudden and disturbing revelation: most of those parents of preschoolers were so young when Liberty came that they could not remember a time when Audubon did not have a Bald Eagle living outside.
Liberty celebrated twenty years at Audubon on May 30, 2022. She has been a local celebrity since her arrival. Many people park in the parking lot, walk over to sit with the eagle for a few minutes, then walk back to their cars and leave. If I do a program, almost anywhere, people ask how Liberty is doing. She is the face of Audubon for many people.
It is hard to remember a time when Liberty was not at the Nature Center. She arrived just five years after I started. Most of those years were spent getting ready for her arrival. The eagle aviary was a volunteer effort championed by Ruth Lundin, new at Audubon at the time, and Hugh Wood, the volunteer leader of Audubon’s Building and Grounds committee. It took years of volunteer effort to build Liberty’s enclosure. Volunteers built walls, climbed on the roof to add fencing, created a care room that they added plumbing and electricity to and added the viewing platform and roof to the outside so visitors could see her in the rain.
Bald Eagles are highly protected birds and a lot of paperwork had to be filed and accepted before an eagle could come to Audubon. One volunteer, Ed Thomas, went out and volunteered at other facilities to get the required training hours to be the main caretaker for the eagle. And so, with years of construction and preparation, nothing happened.
There was, at the time, over 120 injured Bald Eagles in need of a home across the United States. The paperwork to give one a home was daunting and it took most of another year to accomplish.
Liberty arrived at Audubon on May 30, 2022 to no fanfare. She was picked up at the Pittsburgh Airport and quietly released in the aviary, which was covered with tarps to give her privacy as she adjusted to the new surroundings. She has been there ever since, with only a vet trip or two since then.
It is hard to say how much Liberty changed Audubon for the better. The project was ambitious and the volunteer labor that went into getting her here was impressive. The community support for her since has also been impressive. Her diet, which is mostly fish, comes from the Randolph Fish Hatchery. One volunteer cuts up around 300 pounds of fish each year into one pound bags for her daily meal. Other community members donate paper towels and freezer bags to keep her food stocked. Volunteers come to care for her daily.
It is perhaps more impressive to see what else has happened at Audubon since. Liberty inspired the first full building exhibits at the Nature Center. A building wide exhibit about eagles went up the year she arrived. The Nature Center has been full of things to do ever since. It’s hard to remember it, but there was a time when there was very little to do inside. Liberty inspired Audubon to care for more animals. Visitors can now get close to many animals in the Discovery Room that they might not see in the wild. New birds are even coming to the Nature Center to live in the Pamela A. Westrom Wildlife Habitat. Cricket, an American Kestrel, is being trained to sit on a glove and will move outside early this summer. Soren, a Red-tailed Hawk, will move in sometime in mid to late summer.
A new paved trail will be installed this July, mostly funded by the Sheldon Foundation, who also funded the original paved trail to the eagle. Unfortunately, inflation and oil prices have raised the cost of the trail significantly since it was quoted last year. Audubon will be raising money on June 9 through Give Big CHQ to raise the extra money needed to complete the trail and make the birds accessible to all.
It is truly hard to believe that Liberty has been at Audubon for 20 years. Please come down and celebrate this milestone with her. Visit with her for a little while. Have a picnic lunch. Relax. Go for a walk. Most of all, appreciate the vast effort of volunteer willpower and work that has made her journey at Audubon possible.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.