Harriet’s life’s work began after she lost use of her wings.
For years, the bald eagle flew freely in the Wisconsin wild, over sprawling valleys and snaking rivers. That easy existence ended abruptly in 2000, when she was struck by a passing vehicle and left injured on the side of the road, unable to move.
That could have been the end, had Harriet not been discovered by an old friend. Someone called the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to inform them of an injured eagle, and the man who responded was biologist Ron Eckstein.
Eckstein previously banded eaglets for population-tracking, as the birds were threatened by pesticides that caused them to lay eggs with shells too thin to hatch. In the spring of 1981, he climbed an 86-feet tall white pine to reach an eagles’ nest in Vilas County, Wis., attaching tiny bands around the baby eaglet’s legs. Seventeen years later, it was this band that Eckstein immediately recognized when he went out to rescue Harriet.
Back at the office, Eckstein checked his records. Sure enough, Harriet was the same bird he had banded nearly two decades earlier. And just as Eckstein had been present shortly after Harriet’s hatching, so too would he be there for her re-birth.
The vehicle collision left Harriet with a partially amputated left wing, and from then on, she could not fly.
But the injury that almost killed Harriet is also what made her special: She became an ambassador at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn., making monthly visits to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Minneapolis to greet veterans who had also suffered life-changing injuries.
She fulfilled this role for more than 15 years, until ailing health forced her into retirement last year. In recent weeks, Harriet stopped eating, an indication that she was at the natural end of her life, the National Eagle Center said.
This Wednesday, Harriet was euthanized.
“With a heavy heart, we announce that our senior eagle ambassador, Harriet, has died,” the center said in a statement on Thursday.
She lived for 35 years — an inordinately long span for an eagle.
Harriet was brought to the National Eagle Center shortly after her injury in 2000. Upon her arrival, the educational organization held an essay contest for local students to give her a name. A first-grader won for an essay about Harriet Tubman, and the eagle was so christened.
As Harriet became a mainstay at the center, her handlers proudly declared that she put them “on the map.” She traveled across the country — to New York and Los Angeles — to appear on “Today,” “The Tonight Show” and “The Colbert Report.” When eagles were removed from the Endangered Species list in 2007, she was brought to Washington to celebrate that, too.
Around Minnesota, Harriet was even a familiar face to those who never met her, as her likeness was featured on the state’s Support Our Troops license plate.
Her memory especially resides with the veterans she visited. Her injury left her with scar tissue and damaged feather follicles, creating a distinctive jagged tuft on her head. These became a marker of her resilience: a reminder that she, too, was once close to death and overcame it.
Harriet developed a particularly close relationship with Sgt. Shane Parsons, a combat veteran who lost his legs in Iraq. After a roadside bomb detonated under his Army Humvee in 2006, he suffered severe brain trauma and two cardiac arrests.
At first, Parsons’s mother, Cindy Parsons, wrote in the 2014 book “Wounded Warriors: A Soldier’s Story of Healing Through Birds,” the challenges seemed insurmountable. But then he met Robert Vallieres, a disabled Vietnam veteran and bird handler, and Vallieres introduced him to Harriet.
Shane Parsons grew up enamored with the outdoors. He loved following small animals — turtles, birds and other creatures — and learned to distinguish one bird from another. The affinity for nature remained after he was changed by war.
Cindy Parsons, who described meeting Harriet and Vallieres as her son’s “saving grace,” wrote:
All I can say is this: that eagle healed Shane in ways no human possibly could…One time Bob [Vallieres] let Shane stroke the feathers on Harriet’s back. Shane and the bird locked eyes and Shane said, ‘See, Mom, when I stare into Harriet’s eyes, she understands me, understands my pain, I can see it in her eyes.’
Others have concurred that Harriet’s piercing eyes, round and eternal, inspired strength.
“When I had some hard days trying to figure out how to get things done,” said Don Jacoby, a National Eagle Center board member, in a tribute video, “I looked that eagle in the eye and she would look back at me and say, ‘You wanna do it, you can do it.’ ”
In addition to being a source of support, Harriet was also a symbol of successful conservation. After coming dangerously close to extinction just decades before, bald eagles enjoyed a resurgence across the country thanks to efforts to reintroduce them in areas — like Wisconsin — where they had disappeared.
“What we owe Harriet is to continue that legacy of work to conserve wild places,” Eckstein said in the video.
Condolences poured into the National Eagle Center’s Facebook page on Thursday.
“Our now 11-year-old son first saw her when he was just learning to talk,” one user wrote. “It was love at first sight, and he had an unwavering love for her until the end. She was more than just a lovely bird … she fostered goodwill and good hearts in those who were lucky to encounter her.”
Someone else commented: “When my depression got bad I went to see Harriet and just like that she touched my life in a way that brought me out of sadness and into happiness.”
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