“His tail is really nice,” declared Dennis Wiist, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specialist. He held the bird in two gloved hands, briskly considering the huge dark wings folded across its trunk, the talons locked in a final clinch, the beak slightly ajar.
“And a really good head,” Wiist said as he laid the bird on the stainless steel table and began probing with practiced fingers. “That’s good; we are desperate for good heads.”
It was that unmistakable white head — spotted by a Metro Blue Line commuter during rush hour — that launched this bird on its strange journey from a train track in Alexandria to the U.S. Eagle Repository on the outskirts of Denver, the only legal supplier of bald eagle parts used in Native American religious ceremonies.
There are few animals in the United States more shielded by law than bald eagles, a revered national symbol but a species that was nearly wiped out four decades ago. At least two acts of Congress make it a potential crime to possess even a single unauthorized feather. Which leaves, effectively, one source for the bald and golden eagle parts that American Indians consider a sacred link between the human and spiritual realms: this room.
“This is definitely very, very important to Native people,” said Bernadette Atencio, supervisor of the repository, who stood between the lab bench and two walk-in freezers where racks of eagle bodies hung, waiting to be shipped. There are more than 6,000 licensed members of federally enrolled tribes on the waiting list; some have lingered almost five years.
“I had no idea it was so involved,” said Robin Johnson, 60, the bird-loving commuter who first sighted the female eagle in Northern Virginia. “I’m glad to think of her being used like that, rather than just dying out by the tracks. It’s very spiritual.”
An eagle in distress
The final chapter of the Alexandria eagle’s life began one evening last month on Johnson’s regular Blue Line run from her job at a downtown law firm to her home in Fairfax Station. Somewhere between the Van Dorn Street and Braddock Road stations, a dark blur caught her eye. A glimpse of white-feathered head confirmed it: a bald eagle, not eight feet from the train window, flapping against a fence.
“I thought it might have been eating something,” she said. “I was so excited. I told everybody at work, ‘Oh my gosh, I saw a bald eagle.’ ”
She was less excited the next day when the bird was still in the same spot. Healthy eagles don’t hang out by train tracks. She got in touch with the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, a rescue group, and then she and her husband got in the car. Driving along back streets near the tracks, they finally found the eagle next to a high chain-link fence. Its left wing clearly was damaged.